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Chapter Two 

Of the plan to conceal the body



Mr. Moses Mendoza, the main benefactor of our house, came before the grates had been cleaned and new fires lain for the day. Covent Garden had shaken itself awake and I could hear the clatter of business below. Mr. Mendoza was a merchant and had a house close by St. Paul’s, on the other side of the square. Some years earlier, his insurance company accused him of a fraud. Cargo was taken from the hold of a ship and the very same sunk and a claim made on the loss of the goods. For his sins Mr. Mendoza received naught but a fine. It is well known that those convicted of lesser offences, such as the theft of bread, swing from the gallows. Surely, the world is topsy-turvy in this respect?

It must be said, Mr. Mendoza was not a good-looking man. He had a bulbous nose and a squint that made him look as if he was perpetually winking. His periwig was always askew and he wrung his fingers, continually. Albeit his wife disapproved of his interest in our Abbess’s nunnery, he continued to prey on Mother Shadbolt’s fortunes. I have often wondered at their relationship. They seemed more like brother and sister than man and mistress. As I knew nothing of Mother Shadbolt’s life, other than that she was our keeper, it could have been possible that she was a member of Mr. Mendoza’s family.

In any event, the gentleman in question indicated his wish for a private conversation with our bawd. She told me to remain with the body and, once Sprue had finished with it, go out and watch for those who might seek Westman. It was, of course, impossible to staunch the flow of gossip, but we could, at least, all be in accord as to the circumstances of the poor man’s death and we could salt our conversations appropriately, when the time came.

“You do not know anything,” Mother Shadbolt said. “Should you come upon one of Fielding's Bow Street Runners, or a Constable, you have not seen nor heard of this man and that is all there is to it. If and when his body is found, it did not happen here. Do you understand me? And clean yourself up girl.”

Daisy and I nodded in accord. Sir John Fielding’s Bow Street Runners were considered to be the foremost detective agency in the land. They gathered information, infiltrated the vilest of gangs, and hunted highwaymen and murderers alike. Agents scoured the stews for intelligence, all of which was fed to Sir John, such that neither arch-criminal nor petty jade alike would escape justice. He was indefatigable in his pronouncements on the nature of crime and punishment, yet he allowed bawdy houses like ours to continue their existence unmolested. 

The other girls would follow our lead. We knew that to go against Mother Shadbolt would mean we would be on the street. None of us wanted that. We were a cut above those who found their business in the courts and alleys of our fair city. We lived in a discreet house. We were not gutter tripe. We danced attendance on aristocracy. Every one of Mother Shadbolt’s girls could be relied on to do her bidding and maintain the reputation of the house. Mindful that I might be discovered eavesdropping, I remained in the hall and listened to the conversation between Mother Shadbolt and Mr. Mendoza, which they conducted in the privacy of the small parlour. 

“He was a man of means?” said Mr. Mendoza.

“He was. At least, I assume so. He paid well,” replied Mother Shadbolt. 

I imagined her hand going to her purse as she calculated the profit.

“You must get rid of the girl Kitty Ives,” said Mr. Mendoza. “She is a liability.”

“But she is my best. I cannot just send her away.”

“It is your choice of course, but keeping her might mean I take my patronage elsewhere. You would not want that would you?”

“No, but…”

“Send her away or suffer the consequences.”

“Thomas Partington might take her on for his Islington bagnio,” mused Mother Shadbolt. “Though it pains me to let her go.”

I gasped. They fell silent. Full of fear, I shrank back into the shadows. It was not long before they continued, albeit in lower tones.

“You know what to do,” said Mendoza. “Get the body out of here as soon as you can and we will say no more of it. Do you have any idea of the circumstances of his death?” 

“No, none, other than he was ripped from ear to ear. A fine mess I might say and one which will cost dear to clean up.”

“It is more than likely that the girl killed him… and she expects us to believe he died by another’s hand.” 

“No. I don’t believe so. She has never given cause… No, that’s not true,” said Mother Shadbolt. 

At this point I almost burst forth upon them, but I remembered my precarious situation and instead, held my breath and listened even more intently.

“Ah, would that these times were long past. The earth, air and sea are ever peopled with grotesque spirits. Get her out of here this very day.”

“I’ve made arrangements with Sprue to take the body from us,” said Mother Shadbolt. “He’s up there now.”

“That villain?”

“He will do my bidding and if he knows what is good for him, he’ll keep his mouth shut.”

“He had better my dear. He had better, or it will be the worse for you.” 

Shaking, I backed away and bumped into Priss, hiding in the darkness. 

“They’re going to send you to Islington,” she hissed. 

I had never warmed to Priss. She was small, with curly dark hair, upturned nose, and piercing eyes that ever burned for a fight.

“Not if I can help it,” I replied. I intended to remain in Covent Garden. No one would send me away. 

Priss matched my stare. For a moment it seemed possible that we would come to blows, but I slid past her and went upstairs. My head was full of confusion and fear. but then what of Westman? Who had killed him? And how had they done it without my knowledge? How could I have slept through it? How? 

No, I would do all I could to remain. Though my freedom be in jeopardy, I could not let this matter rest. If needs be, I would throw myself on the mercy of the Church. The Reverend Bullock was a kind man. He would know what to do for the best. That said, before I pleaded my innocence before God, I would find out what I could about this man William Westman and the circumstances of his murder, for if I did not… well then surely I would be accused? The thought of it pulled me up sharp. I bit my lip and drew blood. I was all a quiver and yet somehow, I must remain calm. I must go about my business as if all was well. 

I pushed my door open and found Jack Sprue measuring the corpse. Sprue had a shifty look about him. He was pot-bellied and pock-faced. His hands were the size of dinner plates, his eyes protruded, and he wore no wig atop his greasy pate. I gripped my cloak tight around my frailty (I wore only the bloody chemise beneath it) and vowed to live an altogether more wholesome life from that point on. It was a promise I broke within the day, but no matter; that is the way of it in my profession.

“Someone had it in for him and no mistake,” said Sprue.

“You think ‘tis so?” I replied, not without much sarcasm, though I still shook inside. I was no one. It would be an easy thing to blame me, a whore. Though I pretended to airs and graces such as those I have spoken about earlier, others still saw me as a dirty, penniless, drunken whore. I gave out a pained cry at the realisation.

Sprue squinted at me and sniffed the air. The corpse had not yet begun to fester. Had I identified an aroma of death, I would have opened the window, though the air outside was less than fresh, being redolent with rotting vegetables and manure.

“You been plucked this night gone, ‘ave you?” he said. “He had his way with you before he died? What did he do to you that you should meet such a violent end to him? Are you not paid to keep your mouth shut while they goes at you?” 

Sprue prodded Westman in the belly and the flesh gave under his touch. I winced. It was one thing for me to think of myself in a derogatory fashion, but quite another to hear it from Sprue. 

“I don’t know what happened to him,” I replied, defensively. “I was asleep. A great sadness has been meted out. I would thank you to remain silent. You understand?”

“I understand that he has had his throat cut. Not a pretty sight and you are tryin’ to tell me that you slept through it? I do not believe you.” 

Truly, neither did I, but I did not say as much to our bully here.

Sprue grabbed a handful of Westman’s hair and pulled his head up. The foul and gaping wound was clear to see. I turned my face away and tasted bile, yet curiosity got the better of me and I squinted with one eye at the corpse. His throat was cut? Once again, I wondered as to how this had happened without my knowledge. How could I be so innocent of this deed?  Surely, I would have heard someone enter the room? Surely, I could not have been that deeply asleep? I peered through the curtains at the grocers and florists, drunks and vagabonds, harlots and harridans, platter maids and gentry mort. There… there was Mr. Mendoza and Mother Shadbolt. Mr. Mendoza crossed from our door and disappeared down Russell Street. Mother Shadbolt nodded to the link-boy and pointed back at the house. She glanced up at my window. I stepped back, out of sight, fear writ large in my heart. They came for me. I might have but hours, nay minutes, of freedom left.

“He do somethin’ you did not like?” muttered Sprue.

“I told you to remain silent,” I replied through gritted teeth. I must think. I must find a way out of this situation. I cast around the room. No one could have gained entrance by the window and I was sure I had closed the door tight before we retired. I turned my attention to the fire, which had burned brightly when Westman first toyed with me. It was now naught but ash. My stays and petticoats were strewn across the floor... and there… I clutched up my bodice - was that a bloody footprint? I hopped on first my left and then my right foot, examining each sole for telltale signs of blood, but saw none. I lunged at Sprue.

“Show me your feet,” I hissed.

"You are a menace, woman,” he replied. “Show you my feet? I’ll do nothin’ of the sort!”

I grabbed his leg and hung on. “Show me your feet or I will make sure they take you too.” 

Sprue danced, with me at his leg, until he fell backwards into the chair with a great “hrump”.

“There, you stupid bitch. There! I do not know what’s you want my feet for, but there, ‘ave them.” 

He raised his legs wide. I could clearly see the soles of his boots. They were clean. Perhaps it had been one of the other girls? Or Mother Shadbolt… and if not then… then the killer? I stood back from Sprue.

“Well you best get on with it,” I said. I wanted him and the corpse gone. 

Sprue shook his head. “They will put you away, they will,” he said. “They will take you to Newgate and the next we will hear they will be singing of your deeds in Carpenter’s coffee house. What is it you call’s it? The Finish, that’s it. A dirty hole for a dirty mort. You mark my words.” He pointed his finger at me. I slapped it away. No one points at me.

“I have told you, if they take me, then they will take you too.” 

I turned from him, just in time to prevent him from seeing a fresh set of tears on my cheeks. I wiped them away with the back of my hand and made a play of inspecting the remainder of the room. The bed was in disarray. Perhaps when the corpse was removed I could examine the linen more closely. The chair poor Westman had occupied contained his periwig and his jacket. His breeches were at the foot of the bed. Nothing seemed particularly out of place, given the nature of our sport. There was something though… the gin, on the table by the fire. Where once there had been a bottle and two glasses, now only the glasses remained. I searched under the table and in the grate. I peered beneath the bed but found nothing.

“Have you taken it?” I asked. 

“Taken what?” said Sprue.

“The gin,” I replied.

Sprue cleared his throat with much ceremony and spat out a great gob of spittle.

“I have not. I am as honest a man as any you will find hereabouts. I do not partake of any drink before noon.” 

He seemed mortally offended, though for all his distaste of our whores’ hovel, I have seen him in The Finish on many occasions and also drunk before the cock crows, but that was when I was new in London and made trade at all times of the day and night.

I leapt at Sprue and my hands ran amok through his garments. He attempted to ward me off with flailing arms, but I caught him unawares. He did not know how to respond to this second attack. Perhaps he thought I was a mad woman. I felt so embattled and dispirited that madness was a distinct possibility. 

“What of this?” he shouted. “Leave me be. I have not taken your damned gin. If you are so partial to the bottle, perhaps you had better be off downstairs and let me do my duty here in peace.” 

Thinking perhaps he had hidden the bottle in the winding sheet, I overcame my distaste for the corpse and felt down its length. Stiffness was setting in and it would soon be difficult to remove the remains without breaking the limbs and folding the corpse into a box, or some such similar receptacle. I wondered if this was what Sprue had in mind. It would be less obvious to take this course of action than to carry Westman out wrapped in his winding sheet, or in a coffin.

“Oy! Enough o’ that!” shouted Sprue. “Be off with you woman.”

I spun on the evil little man and scowled at him, before examining each glass in turn. No dregs remained to taste and perhaps determine if I had been given a sleeping draught, all the better to slaughter Westman without my knowledge. I sniffed each receptacle in turn. Perhaps there was lingering odour but I could not fathom it. 

“I can’t do nothing now,” muttered Sprue.

“What?” I was distracted.

“Daylight is come. He will have to wait until tonight.”

“No. He cannot stay here. I have work to do. There is the dinner trade. I must have the room cleared before then. Can you not fold him into the box? At least he would be out of the way.” I winced at how callous I must sound. It is easy for those with regular income and a good property to judge those in my situation and call us cold-hearted. It is not the case at all, for if it were so, we would not indulge the many and various needs of the poor souls who find comfort at our breast. We would simply take the money and be done with them. Of course, there are those who do just that. I am not one of them. I swallowed my tears and drew in a deep breath. 

Sprue chuckled to himself. “I have wound him up tight. He will not ooze. You may have to do something about the smell, of course, in time. Burn something. Whatever you ladies do to cleanse the atmosphere. He waved his hands in such a way that I wondered if he had not attended a molly-house of late. Whether he was given to such practices was of no concern to me.

“You must take him this instant,” I hissed.

“Not now.” Sprue stuck out his chin and ground his gums. “Keep them lovelies out of here and I will see you later.” He chucked me under the chin. I slapped his hand away. He shrugged. The door closed quietly behind him.

I sat in the chair and watched the corpse, full expecting Westman’s spirit to fly up into the air like a demented demon. If it did then what would I do? Could the dead rise? If he sat up right now and pointed a finger at me, would I fall on my knees before him and admit to his murder? I bit my lip. How could I admit to something I had not done? Though I be drunk or out of my mind when the deed occurred, it was not I who did it. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for William Westman. 

The door opened.

“Make yourself respectable,” Mother Shadbolt said. 

“Sprue said he would not remove him until the evening,” I replied.

“I know all that and he is right. If we can bear it, it will be best to wait, though I am loathe to keep his body in plain sight.”

“Then you must tell Sprue to find a hiding place now.”

“In good time dear, in good time. I will persuade Bradley to part with a barrel, all the better to roll our problem out of here without suspicion.”

“Mother, I did not kill him. You must believe me,” I implored. A fresh prayer came to mind: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

“What’s done is done and there’s naught can put it right, save to pray for forgiveness. While we wait on God’s judgement, go and find out more about our William Westman here. Listen out for gossip on the street. See if he is missed. Has he a wife? A mother? Who is it will come after him? Who knew he was here? Will they send the Bow Street Runners after him? Look sharp girl.”

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