Chapter 1 of APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Frontispiece for APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark

Chapter 1

Rivals

Saturday, September 1, 1888

“You pay for Eliza’s bed too,” Annie said to Eddie, careful not to sound angry.

They sat together in the early evening at the Britannia Public House, known locally as the Ringers.

He gazed across the stained and worn table at her, expressionless, his eyes cold and his mouth, hidden beneath his great mustache, offering no clue as to his feelings. Something about his look, a certain darkness around the eyes, echoed the frightful visage of Mr. Stewart, the cat’s meat man Annie had feared when she’d been little. Whenever Annie had heard Mr. Stewart’s song or seen him selling his tainted meat to pet owners about her childhood neighborhood, she’d fled and hidden from him.

What a pitiless master Eddie has become, Annie thought. Too bad I can’t say what I think of him.

The day before, Francis Booth had told her of Eddie’s two-timing with Eliza Cooper, and Annie had been trying to think of a way to talk to him about his deception.

Both Annie and Eliza lived at Crossingham’s Lodging House in Dorset Street. Although an illegal practice, the lodging house deputy, Timothy Donovan, allowed Eddie to sleep with women on the premises. No doubt, whatever arrangement the two men had involved money.

Eddie was a brick layer’s mate and pensioner with a curious surplus of funds. He currently had Annie over a barrel. She couldn’t afford a room of her own without help. As he had done for the past few months, he’d paid half her lodging fee for the week at Crossingham’s in exchange for sexual favors. Annie’s room was held as long as she paid the rest, four pence, due each night. Failing to pay, she’d lose a night on the back end. If she missed paying three nights in a row, she’d lose the room.

Likely, he had the same arrangement with Eliza because, apparently, he spent other nights with her. He had been able to get away with his cheating because the women lodged in rooms on different floors, Annie in 29 on the second floor, and Eliza in 36 on the third floor.

Number 29 was small and drafty. The loose glass in the rotten window sash rattled when anyone mounted the lodging house stairs, and the floor creaked loudly beneath one’s tread. The only heat available came through the open fanlight above the locked door to the adjoining room, number 28, which held the coal grate. Because the fanlight remained open, occupants in each room could hear what went on in the other.

On the good side, number 29 had a bed large enough for two. On the nights Eddie didn’t spend with her, she had the straw mattress all to herself—quite a luxury.

At present, she had no other prospects for lodging without going to a doss house and sleeping with strangers.

With his silence, Eddie clearly indicated he didn’t want to discuss the matter. In the midst of the busy pub, the hubbub of the patrons—the murmur of conversation, the laughter, the periodic shouting, the occasional insults hurled, both playful and serious—allowed him to turn away easily and ignore her as if he hadn’t heard. To repeat herself would seem like harping.

“Drink your stout and I’ll buy you another,” Eddie said seductively.

Annie struggled to finish her drink without appearing to do so in a hurry. The stout felt warm and comfortable in her belly.

She picked up the copy of the Evening News Eddie had discarded on the table. In it, she found an article about the murder that had taken place two nights earlier. The story had been all over the streets since yesterday. A woman named Nichols had been brutally assaulted and murdered, her body left on the street less than a mile away.

“Did you read about the murder in Buck’s-Row?” Annie asked Eddie. “Says her throat were cut, her bowel ripped open.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m certain they’ve made it out to be much worse than it was.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Another whore went against her minder.”

Annie could easily believe that the newspapers, always in heavy competition with one another, exaggerated to make their stories more sensational and improve sales. What she’d heard on the street about the murder, coming through the rumor mill, was much the same. She set aside the paper.

“Although I paid on your room,” Eddie said, “by chance, I may be gone much of the week. If so, you will give me extra satisfaction next week.”

I hope you are gone this week, she thought, disgusted that he brought up their transaction in a public place. Becoming angry would do her no good. She tried to look relaxed, even as Eliza Cooper and Harry the Hawker came into the pub and approached the table.

“Sit,” Eddie said, gesturing to empty seats, “and I’ll buy you a drink.”

The women merely nodded to one another.

“Dark Annie,” Harry the Hawker said in greeting. He called her that, as many in the neighborhood did, because her dark hair helped distinguish her from Annie Platt, a woman with fair hair who also stayed at Crossingham’s from time to time. Harry wore a brightly colored, green and coral-colored neckerchief, a ratty old maroon doublet, and a brown tricorn hat. His beard had grown exceedingly long and was held in an elaborate braid. “Anything to stand out in a crowd,” he’d said to Annie one day. “That is the way to make a sale in a crowded market.”

Eliza, a book seller, set down a heavy sack before taking her seat. She had a look of resentment about her as she looked at Annie. Possibly Francis had told Eliza about Eddie’s two timing. Then again, she could be angry simply because Annie hadn’t returned the soap she’d borrowed that morning.

Annie tried to relax and quiet her own resentment toward the woman while Eddie fetched drinks for everyone.

“Odd weather,” Harry said. “Got cold early. Were a brutal chill in August too. Hard on my knees.”

“Brutal, is it?”Eliza asked, chuckling. “Getting old, Harry?”

Harry merely huffed at her.

Annie could not determine Eliza’s age. Her body seemed younger, more powerful than Annie’s, but her round face had a weathered look. Her dark, curly hair had little gray.

Eddie returned, placed drinks before his guests and sat. He set a coin on the table, perhaps absentmindedly. Annie recognized the silver disk as a florin.

Eliza bent as if reaching for her sack, placing her right hand on the table for support, right atop the two shilling coin. When she straightened, holding a book, and lifted her hand, Annie saw that the two-shilling piece had become a penny.

“I’ve a new book to sell,” Eliza said, holding up the volume, “Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille, what come all the way from New York City.”

Seeing the theft, Annie thought she had an opportunity to turn Eddie against Eliza and have him all to herself.

Annie interrupted the woman’s sales pitch, addressing Eddie. “She took your florin.”

Eliza turned hateful eyes on her, as Eddie looked to the tabletop. He then looked at Eliza.

“Your sleeve might’ve thrown the coin to the floor,” she said, her eyes wide, “so I moved it.”

“You put a penny in its place,” Annie said with disgust.

Eliza glared again, rose up, and swung a fist from across the table. The blow connected with the right side of Annie’s face and bowled her over backwards out of her seat.

Harry the Hawker grabbed Eliza’s shoulders and pulled her back. Nearby patrons of the pub paused to turned and watch the rough goings-on. Eliza got free, picked up her sack, and left the pub.

The slight lull in movement and sound within the establishment ended as Annie got up, righted her chair, and sat. She stared back at curious onlookers until most became uncomfortable and looked away.

She glanced at Eddie, hoping to see some evidence that he was displeased with Eliza. Instead, he gave Annie a stern look. He and Harry drank their stout, and said nothing about what had happened.

Exploring the tenderness around her right eye with her fingers, she winced in pain. The blow would leave a bruise.

Annie wanted to condemn Eliza’s actions further, but couldn’t afford to get on Eddie’s bad side. Although ashamed of her opportunism, she couldn’t help thinking bitterly, That were an easy two shillings for Eliza.

I must find a way to be done with Eddie. Once this week is past, I’ll work harder to fully earn my nethers, so I don’t depend on him.

 

(Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is available from online booksellers)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN