A set of hurried footsteps brought my attention up as Thomas practically leapt into the room. He hadn’t bothered with a jacket, and his white shirt was rumpled and mostly untucked as if he’d fallen asleep in his clothes. Even when we’d been investigating the secret tunnels below Bran Castle, I hadn’t seen him so disheveled. From the look of him, it didn’t appear that he’d been in bed for too long before being roused. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what had kept him preoccupied.
A muscle in his jaw ticked as his eyes lifted from the covered corpse and met mine across the room. We’d known it was only a matter of time before another body turned up, but it didn’t make it easier to deal with. I offered him an encouraging nod, hoping he’d read the sadness in my own expression. Our chosen field of study showed the dark side of life; it was difficult to not be pulled into its void. The day death became easy to accept was the day I needed to set down my blades. Judging from the expression on his face, Thomas felt the same.
“I apologize for the delay, Professor.” He produced a notebook and pen, situating himself near the examining table. “Miss Wadsworth.” He tipped his chin in formal greeting. “What have I missed?”
“We’re just getting started,” Uncle replied, moving to stand over the cadaver. “They found the body in the cargo hold approximately thirty-five minutes ago. It had been stuffed into a wooden crate.” He removed his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. “The smell drew the attention of a crew member, and he alerted the chief officer. This one is a bit different from the others. Prepare yourselves.”
I swallowed the bile searing up my throat.
Uncle had been taking meticulous notes for more years than I’d been alive, adding to theories and scientific findings of other doctors, such as Dr. Rudolf Virchow, who’d developed standardized postmortem protocols. Both men had found putrefaction in the air occurring two or three days after death. Intense odors, such as that from the corpse in this room, would be present by the fifth day. Meaning Miss Crenshaw might not have been the first to die after all.
“Let’s begin.” Uncle pulled the shroud down, revealing a discolored female body, naked except where he’d covered her with strips of cloth. It was one of the last decencies she’d been shown; her murderer certainly hadn’t been kind or careful with her person.
My gaze swiftly traveled down in assessment, then froze. Slashes were apparent on her throat, and her torso had been split open. More precisely, she’d been ripped open. I held in a gasp at the brutal state of the victim. Uncle was right—this murder was unlike the others. The previous victims, while horrid in their own right, had been slain quickly. Their bodies sustained the most damage post mortem. This woman had been stabbed and slashed while she was still breathing. It almost seemed as if an entirely different person had attacked her. Which couldn’t be.
Everything in the warm room suddenly became too hot to bear. I took a few breaths, hoping to steady the erratic beat of my heart. Jack the Ripper was dead. There was no way this crime was done by his hand, yet the similarity of the wounds was striking. Part of me wished to toss the medical tools on the table and run. Run far away from this corpse and these violent murders that never seemed to end.
But on this ship, in the middle of the great Atlantic Ocean, there was nowhere to escape.
Death didn’t disturb me; memories of the Ripper case were a different matter altogether, though. Thomas bent near. “It’s an equation, Wadsworth. Find the clues and add them together.”
I jerked my head in response, emotions cooling. I set the tray back on the table and gave my uncle the measuring tape. Outside I was as sturdy as the ship, while inside I churned with emotion like the waters we sailed through. I wasn’t sure the Ripper case would ever leave me in peace.
Uncle measured the body from foot to crown with efficiency, then reported to Thomas. “Deceased is approximately one hundred and sixty-two-and-a-half centimeters. Shoulder-length brown hair. Caucasian. Estimated weight is between eight and eight-and-one-half stone.” I wiped down the scalpel and handed it to my uncle before he asked for it, then prepared the toothed forceps. “Greenish discoloration is present in the middle of the abdomen.”
He gently prodded the closed eye, checking to see if it yielded, and I tried not to wince as he pried the lids open. For some reason, the examination of the eyes was my least favorite part.
“Eyes are milky and slightly protruded,” he said. “Conditions in the cargo hold are moderately warm to cool. From outward examination, I’d place the death between seventy-two and ninety-six hours.”
Our external examination was complete. Now it was time to unearth clues left by the murderer. Uncle pulled the skin taut on the collarbone, pressing his scalpel until the skin split in its wake. He repeated the movement on the opposite side before dragging the blade down the center, completing the Y incision. Though with the torso ripped open, he didn’t have much to slice into below the ribs.
Once Uncle cracked the sternum, I clamped the rib cage open without being asked. He grunted approval, high praise considering his attention never wavered once the postmortem began. Up this close the odor was strong enough to cause a few stray tears to slide down my face. I rubbed my cheek against my shoulder, then collected a specimen jar in case Uncle needed it.
“Lacerations are present over the intestines. Both large and small.” He leaned closer, until his nose was a mere hand space away from the exposed cavity. He took the scalpel and carefully moved the muscles away. “Ribs show marks from knife blades. Victim was stabbed repeatedly before being partially eviscerated.”
A strong indication that whoever had committed this murder had been enraged. This was no random crime—there was too much passion and anger involved.
Uncle drew back, dabbing at the sweat on his brow. “The nicks in the bone are similar in appearance to those found in the severed limb. Though closer inspection with a microscope will be needed to be conclusive. They’re also reminiscent of wounds left by Jack the Ripper. Strikingly so.” We all paused for a moment, not wanting to utter the impossibility of that aloud. “Thomas, is there a problem?”
“Apologies, Professor.” Thomas’s pen rushed across the journal, capturing each word and detail with the same precision Uncle used to carve the dead. I forced myself to focus on his quick, sure movements.
I came back into the procedure as Uncle sliced into the stomach, revealing more clues as to time of death. “Contents are mostly digested.” He removed his rust-colored hands and peered at me over his spectacles. “What might that mean, Audrey Rose?”
“Time of death would have occurred between meals.” I leaned over the cavity to get a better look. Uncle stepped aside, ever the professor of forensic medicine. “If I had to guess, I’d say it indicated she’d been murdered very late at night, or in the early morning hours before her first meal.”
“Good.” Uncle poked around the empty stomach, making sure we’d missed nothing. “Now we’ll just need to find out who else has been reported missing to the captain. Her clothing is folded up there. Someone ought to recognize it.”
I followed his gaze to a pile of tattered and worn garments. Judging from the tears and patches, she wasn’t a first-class passenger. Her life had likely been hard and she did not deserve to have it ended in such a callous manner. Dread pulled my shoulders down. Dissecting a cadaver on a slab of cool metal was hard, but not impossible. Attaching names and a life to a victim, however, was impossible not to feel.
“Shall I say what we’re all thinking?” Thomas asked. “Or does this crime not seem disconnected from the others to you?”
Uncle glanced back at the body, expression shuttered. “We will treat this as we treat all cases and make no assumptions either way. What else have you deduced?”
“Since this corpse is female and is in possession of all her limbs, we have another problem.” Thomas closed his notebook, then stood beside me. “There is still another body out there. Have all the crates been searched in the cargo hold?”
Uncle shook his head. “Captain Norwood felt uncomfortable with that.”
I rubbed my temples, doing my best to ignore the pulsing anger. “So our captain would rather wait until the next victim’s stench coats the corridors of the ship? It’s bad enough that he refuses to ask Lord Crenshaw to comply with our investigation and he is very sensitive to Dr. Arden’s need to remain locked up in his rooms, but when will he worry about the victims? Unless he doesn’t want these crimes to be solved. Perhaps he’s the man we’re searching for.”
Thomas paced the perimeter of the small room, tugging at his collar. I’d been so consumed with the postmortem, I’d forgotten how warm it was down here. He moved one way, then the other, constantly in motion, much like his thoughts.
“His arrogance is an ugly quality, though I don’t believe he’ll hang for that.” He stilled. “The ringmaster is charming, brash. Utterly full of himself and has excessive taste in dramatics.”
“Those traits, while annoying, don’t mean Mephistopheles is our murderer,” I said. “If not the captain, or ringmaster, then who else?”
Thomas stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I’d say Jian is too obvious, though still a decent suspect. And the Amazing Andreas is quiet enough to be terrifying. His type is the one that taxidermies animals and secretes them away in hidey-holes. Though maybe we’ve been focused on men when we should consider our murderer might be a murderess.”
“A Knight of Swords, a Fool, a Hierophant, an escape artist, a ringmaster, and now either an Empress or an Ace of Wands,” I said, prattling off each of the performers’ stage names. It was truly remarkable that we could all maintain straight faces while naming potential murderers. “Out of those, you believe a woman is our killer?”
Thomas pulled his pocket watch out. “Whoever is responsible, we need to figure it out quickly. Once we reach American shores, our murderer—or murderers—will slip from our grasp.”