Henry slung off the down comforter and swung his well-muscled legs over the edge of the four-poster. “Screw it” he muttered. “Nothing for it.” He padded over to the dresser and began pulling out some clothes for late night walking.
As usual, he made no attempt to direct his thoughts but watched to see where they would flow on their own. While his dextrous hands dressed himself, he listened attentively to the voices vying for attention in the theater of his brain.
Tick, tick, tick. I hate clocks, Henry’s relentless flow began. Tick. Tick. Tick. They’re everywhere. Why? All they do is remind people that they’re going to die. So what’s the point? There must be somewhere in this God-forsaken city that a guy can go and get some peace from their incessant — and even worse than their damned tickery — that clanging gonging earsplitting racket! It drives me to — but more of that later. I need to exit this rat-trap of a hotel and walk the river, no matter how late it is or how foggy the night. Head ready to explode and all this place offers me is noise. Did you ever notice how the tick tick tick of clocks is like the sounds those insect — what do they call them — mandibles I think — yeah, like their jaws only sideways. That’s the sound. Only magnified. Louder. Sharper. More painful.
He snatched his Macintosh, and crammed himself into the elevator thinking as he slammed the grate shut, here I am again in this absurdly teeny cage of an elevator. All these European hotels are the same. Can’t spring for a real elevator. Just these little metal cages. Not even enough room for two people. Especially if one of them blobs on the floor uselessly. Damn. It would be so much nicer if I could take them up to my room after. Dragging dead weight up three flights of stairs though? No way.
Maybe I’ll buy myself a small cottage instead. Secluded. If I can save the money. I’ll get there. Or my own damned hotel. Why not? Think big. Not teeny like this damned elevator. And, why does this lift — as they call it — take so blasted long? Like everything here. Too ancient. Like they never got over losing their favorite colony. Not sure why so many people swoon over London. Everything’s old or broken or most likely both. Although, that torture museum on the south bank. I have to say, that is pretty cool. For the first time in a long while, Henry’s eyes sparkled and the right corner of his mouth even turned up. “Even the frigging elevator goes tick tick tick,” he muttered.
Charles, the night clerk pretended to be shuffling important papers on the well-polished mahogany counter he considered his rightful domain.
“Good evening, Mr. Holmes. I trust all is well with you? Out for another evening stroll, are we?”
Henry’s inner voices continued, Good God, the Brits are annoying. I’ve got to get back to city of big shoulders. Do they learn this crap at their homo boarding schools? Suspicion drips like black blood from his pupils. And that voice. Almost worse than the ticking. He acts like he’s in the Globe, playing Hamlet. Fine. I can join this little charade.
Aloud, Henry intoned his lines like Maurice Barrymore: “Indeed, my good chap. You surmise correctly. And, if you can hold the key till my return, that would be capital.”
Henry half placed, half slammed the key with its heavy awkward metal tag down on the wooden counter. Not so hard that he expected Claude to raise a fuss, which he calculated he wouldn’t have the rocks to do anyway. But not so soft that he isn’t going to wonder what’s going on. Let him wonder, the prig, thought Henry, noticing with pleasure the slight wince that flickered across Claude’s stoic face.
“Yes, I should return around twenty-two hundred latest. A pint of bitters should do me nicely. And, kidney pie of course.”
“Yes, sir. I will still be on duty when you return.”
In an aside to his audience of one, Henry silently added, Of course you will, you little prick. What else is there to do in your pathetic little life? Kidney pie! Lord. Does he think I’ve sunk so low I’d eat the garbage they do? Tastes like pee. No pub for me. No siree…I have other plans.
“Cheerio then, Clyde.” Or whatever your real name is. They can’t even be bothered to wear name tags like they do in modern countries like the states.
Even the frigging front door isn’t like a real hotel door. Doesn’t open automagically. You have to turn the little faux crystal handle like you’re about to visit His Majesty in Buckingham Palace. When I get my own hotel, there will be an entirely different set of amenities. Oh, yes.
Henry slid out into the damp London fog thinking: And bloody good I brought this bloody armored raincoat. Chilly and damp. Is there any other kind of London weather? Is it too cold for other Londoners to be out and about? No way. If they wait for decent weather, they’d never get out of the house. Or, bed. They’ll be someone. I just have to be patient. Tower Bridge, Tooly Street. Some lonely heart American there maybe. Or, just someone too jet-lagged to turn in early. They’ll be happy to hear my midwestern accent in this sea of ‘raaaaathaaa good.’ Or the scarier: ‘Eh goo lay-ee, needin’ spot a compny, are we?’ Morceau de gateau as the frogs would say.
Well, there’s one good thing about London at night, Henry told himself. All these lights, each wearing its own halo. One good thing about the fog. Yeah. I love the halos. I admit it. So what?That doesn’t make me a fag. But these people. Acting like they’re all pristine and godly. Have these Londoners even visited their own Torture Museum? Get the truth you want. Yeah, no matter what. No matter who. I learned that on both sides. Toes still can’t really work right. Especially in this endless cold damp weather.
Henry began sizing up possible targets. Too many. And walking too fast. Nope. Don’t like three on one — though I could no doubt take all three. But it might get messy. They’re young. Better to bide my time. Maybe this couple? Not far enough away from the others. I’ll just go hang out on the bridge. Stare at the Thames like I’m lost in thought. Wait for the right one. Stare into the murky dark of the river. I can barely see that relentless tidal flow. It carries everything with it. Everything. Every year, some dozen idiots think they can out swim the power of the tide. Not to mention the cold. What fools. But aren’t we all fools. Crap it’s cold up here as well. Hey, now, here’s a cutie. What’s she doing out alone? Decent clothes. Some kind of glinty choker around her neck. Be cool, Henry. Be cool. I’ll start by complaining about the weather.
But to his surprise, she spoke first.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you happen to know if there’s a pub around here? I’m freezing.”
Jackpot. American. At least I’m pretty sure. Maybe a touch of accent. “I sure do. I can’t even begin to tell you how nice it is to hear another American ‘accent’ as they call it. Am I right? Anyway, I do know a pub, well, two actually, just down there maybe 200 yards. I’m done staring into the black water and asking myself why I came to London in January. I’m headed there myself. I can show you.” Play it cool. Play it cool, Henry. Nothing pushy. “I’d be happy to buy you a drink, but no obligation. You pick your pub and if you don’t want company, I’ll take the one across the street.”
The woman smiled, “Oh, sure. A drink together sounds great. But you needn’t pay. Let me treat you.”
Like shooting fish in a barrel, smirked Henry. “By the way, I’m Henry. Henry Howard Holmes. From Chicago.”
“Pleased to meet you! I’m Belle. Belle Gunness from Indiana.”
She stuck out her gloved hand.
Henry could see the bumps of two substantial rings beneath the tight white silk. “Nice to meet you Miss Gunness. Or, shall I say, ‘Mrs. Gunness’?”
What’s that? I see a flash of — regret — then she smiles warmly? What — Henry’s mind still searched wordlessly as Belle supplied the answer.
“Well, I’m sorry to say my poor husband is dead,” she said matter-of-factly. I still go by Mrs. Gunness though, out of respect. He was a very proud man. You know. Handsome and strong like you.”
Henry intentionally slowed his breathing as he thought: This is shooting fish in a barrel after they swim into the barrel on their own! “I’m so sorry about your loss, Mrs. Gunness.”
“Oh, it was awhile ago. I thought that leaving our farm for a time, taking a trip abroad, would cure my loneliness, but it really hasn’t. No, not at all.” Here she sighed and looked full into Henry’s eyes.
“Well, Mrs. Gunness, I am sorry to say I have some idea of how you feel. My poor wife Agatha died a few months ago. I too thought a change of scenery would do me well. Chicago can be brutally cold in the winter. Alas, perhaps we should have chosen Nice instead?”
“Mr. Holmes, I am equally sorry to hear of your loss. Life is often merely the fruit for the seeds of death, isn’t it? Ah, well, anyway, the pub it is! A warmer place and then on to a happier topic of conversation. Shall we?”
“All right, Mrs. Gunness, let’s go arm in arm like comrades facing this lonely world together.”
Out of the cold night and into the surprisingly bright and crowded tavern they walked, locating a booth that looked a little less noisy that most, probably empty due to its proximity to the flight path of a spirited dart game. Henry didn’t mind a little danger, nor apparently did Belle.
“So,” began Henry, “What shall it be then? A pint of bitters, Mrs. Gunness?”
“That sounds lovely. And, please call me Belle.”
“Okay, Belle. And, please call me Henry. That’s what my friends back in the states call me.” Henry chuckled inwardly. Friends? Bah. As unreal as my made-up wife Agatha. But Henry had long ago learned to lie much more convincingly than most people can utter the truth. “And, remember, I’m paying.” Henry trudged up to the bar to score a couple pints and skirted the lurching and somewhat over-intoxicated patrons. He set the pints back down on the small table between them along with a small ramekin of salted cashews.
“Thanks, Henry, that’s very generous of you. And, by the way, just out of curiosity, if you’ll excuse my question, what brings you to London? Is it only to escape sad memories or do you do business here as well?”
Henry eyed her carefully as she removed her coat and gloves revealing a number of interesting pieces of jewelry which his practiced eye judged to be quite real and quite dear. A bit dangerous to wear all this late on a London eve, especially in this part of town. Basically, Henry thought, not for the first time, these people get what they deserve.
Henry chuckled again inwardly but let no humor reflect on his practiced mask, “As a matter of fact, I do manage to earn my keep when I travel to London. Belle,” he added. “How about you?”
Belle smiled her full-lipped and open-eyed smile. “Me too. But what is it you do here? Isn’t it hard for an American to go into business here?”
Henry took a nice long suck on his pint as he considered this question. “You know, Belle…you’re sure it’s okay to call you that? Well, it’s very difficult to reveal — I mean explain. There is no one source of income. My sources are extremely diversified and even somewhat random. Yet, somehow, I succeed each time. It is really as though wealth seeks me out rather than the other way around. Just lucky I guess.”
Belle laughed, “Oh, Henry, you’re so mysterious. I saw you eyeing my rings. You aren’t a thief are you?”
Henry let his face betray nothing, half hiding it behind another long sip. “Oh, no, don’t worry. I’m not a thief, at least no more than any other businessman, and I’m certainly not out to steal your jewelry, which by the way, I did notice. You’re quite right about that. Very beautiful. Especially the star sapphire ring. But don’t worry. You won’t be calling the Bobbies to complain about me stealing it. That I can promise you.” Henry looked into her eyes quite openly now because he was telling the truth. He had no plans whatsoever for her to be complaining to the Bobbies or anyone else about his actions for the night.
“And how does a lovely widow such as yourself manage business here?”Henry asked with unfeigned interest. He really was curious.
“Well, Henry, tit for tat. Tit for tat. Although you didn’t give me a very clear answer. Anyway, my husbands happily did provide for me after death. I’m fine for now. But it won’t last forever, so I’m spending his fortune over here finding what might be the basis of an import business. Buy things here inexpensively and then back stateside, charge a premium. How does that sound?”
“That could work. Yes. By the way, did you say ‘husbands’? Did you lose more than one?”
“Oh, no. Just the one. Well, I mean, it is a bit loud in here, isn’t it? People do tend to get louder in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol they consume.”
As though on cue, the sharp clatter of a heavily laden tray declared its undying love for the third law of thermodynamics.
Henry snorted. “I see what you mean, Belle. It is loud. Perhaps I should have suggested a quieter place for a quieter meal and conversation.”
“Oh, Henry. This is fine. I’ve already suppered in any case. Just a pint or two and I’ll be off to bed. I just wasn’t ready to face sleep alone. Not yet.”
“Okay. Well, pardon me for saying so, but it does seem a shame that one so charming and intelligent as yourself should have to travel London unaccompanied. What sorts of items are you looking for? Jewelry? Antiques? Handbags, perhaps? I notice yours is rather unique.”
“Oh, this old thing. Yes, I suppose. It is a Hermes. But I’m more into what is inside. Can I show you?” With practiced skill, she glanced to see that they remained as unobserved as possible in such a public place and unclasped the bag. She drew out a small pearl-handled dagger, presenting it to Henry much as a Michelin three star chef might present the piece de resistance. She placed it toward him but not where he could reach without effort.
Henry found himself admiring this woman. Of course, that was exactly how they all worked. Draw you in one way or another so they can sting. Just like a black widow. He was sure she had said “husbands.” But the dagger — that really is beautiful. Henry moved his hands toward hers. “May, I, Belle?”
Henry laid the blade carefully in his hand admiring the workmanship as well as the sharpness. “It is indeed a beautiful blade. But don’t they make such daggers in the US?”
Belle laughed. “Well, Henry, yes, you can get a right nice dagger in America, but not one like this. This you see, has history. This dagger was supposedly owned by Mary, Queen of Scots. That’s what I’m after. Artifacts with history attached. That’s what some will pay top dollar for back in the states. Of course, I will have to move to a larger city for that kind of market. New York would be ideal. Or, perhaps Chicago.”
“Hey, Belle. Move to Chicago! We could be neighbors. I want to open up a hotel there, in time to catch people for the Columbian exposition. Which by the way, would also be a fine opportunity to let people know about your line of — are they all daggers?”
Belle smiled. “No, not at all. Here. Give me back the dagger and I’ll show you another fine item.” She gently took back the dagger and placed it carefully back into the depths of her handbag and then placed another item on the table. “Do you know what this is, Henry?”
“Well, bless my heart. I do believe that’s a thumbscrew. Of all things! So, they are all … weapons of some sort?” Be cool, Henry, he told himself. Don’t fall for this dame.
“Not exactly. I haven’t really decided on the exact scope. They are all — they all claim to be — of some historical significance. I think you might like this one.” She scooped up the thumbscrews and replaced it with an awkward assemblage on the table but kept it half-covered by her hands. “Do you recognize this, Henry?”
“It’s…a…chastity belt? Are you serious? I mean … whose?”
“Well, it’s not mine! I’ve been married. Not clear whose, but from the 1500’s. Imagine this may have prevented the birth of a King or a maniac or another De Vinci. Anyway, that’s why people like these artifacts to have a history. And, they will pay good money for them. They were common among the nobility in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t only jealousy. That was obviously one thing. But they were also for protection. And to prevent uprisings over claims to royal blood. Anyway, I suspect it will raise a good price back in the states. I’d never wear one. Or, I mean, is that the sort of thing that would…?”
“Oh, Belle, believe me, you have all the equipment any man would desire.”
“Henry, desire is not a word I have thought much about lately. But now that you mention it, the nights are lonely here. And cold. I don’t mean to seem forward, but I do have a very nice room. Perhaps you would be kind enough and brave enough to accompany me home to insure my safe arrival? Or, are you hungry? We haven’t had anything to eat and now I see our bitters are out.”
Just then a waiter appeared to pick up the empty glasses. “So, would you two fancy something to eat? Or, another pint?”
Henry glanced at Belle but he had not yet learned to read her and she gave no hint of what she wanted, at least not in terms of food and drink.
“All right. No dinner. I think for us tonight, how about just desserts? Anything good?”
“Well, I’d recommend the blackberry trifle myself.”
“Okay,” said Henry, “We’ll take two. And two brandies as well, please.” He glanced again at Belle, waiting for her to assent or object or something. But she just stared at him pleasantly, Madonna like.
She smiled and yet seemed strangely distant as they awaited their desserts. However, when the trifles arrived, she once again became animated, tasting both the brandy and her trifle with obvious, if somewhat salacious, relish. She kept flicking her tongue over her lips.
Despite his best intentions to keep cool, Henry found himself aroused and drawn to this mysterious woman. He wanted to get a conversation going. He needed now, more than ever to keep his wits about him. “Have you heard about the Electric Chair? Do you think it will replace hanging?”
As soon as these words slipped out, he regretted it. Damned alcohol! Woman’s making me stupid.
But Belle seemed completely unperturbed. “Oh, yes. I know about the Electric Chair. Yes, I suspect it will replace hanging. So long as they have a large enough place for the gallery. I do think it very important for people to be able to see the price of crime up close and personal. Otherwise, we’d all be doing the most sinful things, wouldn’t we? And vengeance of course, is not to be denied, is it? If I kill someone’s wife, the husband wants revenge doesn’t he? If he doesn’t get it, then he’s likely to kill me and my whole family. And, when that happens, the next thing is my village attacks that man and kills his whole village. And it escalates. Hang the person who did it. Have everyone watch. They feel their revenge. And, all the other bystanders? It makes them refrain from crime.”
“Indeed. Or do a damned good job of covering it up.”
Belle laughed. “Oh, Henry, you are too much! Yes, I guess another good outcome of hanging — or the electric chair — is that it makes people just that much cleverer. Speaking of clever, this trifle is delicious! Thank you so much. I see you’re finished as well. Shall we?”
“Indeed, we shall, my lady. Indeed we shall.” He laid down the proper coinage on the bill and helped her on with her coat, ever the perfect gentleman. Then, he donned his own. Out into the cold night air they went. He offered his elbow once again, ever the perfect gentleman. He spoke in his Barrymore voice again, “All right, Mrs. Gunness, let’s go arm in arm like comrades facing this lonely world together.”
They walked back to Tower Bridge which was now considerably more deserted than it had been on their initial encounter. Henry’s heart raced. He briefly considered going back to her hotel room with her for a pleasurable encounter beforehand. But now, that makes for complications. Someone could easily spot him coming in. Better here on this now deserted bridge. With his free hand, Henry surreptitiously worked his knife into his hand.
“I know it’s cold, but can we just take one look at the Thames? Just for a moment?”
“Certainly, Henry. I’m no longer cold with you beside me.” Henry tried to make out her expression but to no avail.
“Actually, let’s duck down here for a moment, Belle. We can get a bit closer to the water.”
Off they went on a side path to an even more deserted path. Yes. Here. Henry’s heart raced like a whipped horse now. So close. Revenge at last. Revenge for all those women who…
Henry heard a blood curdling scream and wondered where on earth it was coming from. Me, thought Henry in panic. It’s me! What? He realized that sweet Belle had stabbed him and badly. Over the initial shock, he tore free and stabbed her with his own knife. She crumbled, mortally wounded, so he thought.
Damn! Thought Henry, I’m losing consciousness. He grabbed her to throw her into the black water and with his last strength hurled her into the Thames. She held tight however and they both plunged into the water. Don’t gasp! he told himself, but he did and they fell apart both struggling uselessly in the icy water, laden as they were with soaked heavy clothes. But my beautiful hotel, Henry thought. It would have been so delicious. The Exposition. Belle, he thought. Belle. Blood. Cold. Oh, God, I really am dying. Supposed to take her life, not have her take mine. Damn you, Belle. And why kill me? What did I…?
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