A Matter of Grave Concern

BOOK: A Matter of Grave Concern
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ALSO BY BRENDA NOVAK

H
ISTORICAL
R
OMANCE

Of Noble Birth

Honor Bound
(originally available as
The Bastard
)

Through the Smoke

C
ONTEMPORARY
R
OMANCE

Whiskey Creek Series: The Heart of Gold Country

When We Touch
(prequel novella)

When Lightning Strikes

When Snow Falls

When Summer Comes

Home to Whiskey Creek

Take Me Home for Christmas

Come Home to Me

The Heart of Christmas

Dundee, Idaho Series

A Baby of Her Own

A Husband of Her Own

A Family of Her Own

A Home of Her Own

Stranger in Town

Big Girls Don’t Cry

The Other Woman

Coulda Been a Cowboy

Sanctuary

Shooting the Moon

We Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus

Dear Maggie

Baby Business

Snow Baby

Expectations

R
OMANTIC
S
USPENSE

The Bulletproof Series

Inside

In Seconds

In Close

The Hired Gun Series

White Heat

Killer Heat

Body Heat

The Last Stand Series

Trust Me

Stop Me

Watch Me

The Perfect Couple

The Perfect Liar

The Perfect Murder

The Stillwater Trilogy

Dead Silence

Dead Giveaway

Dead Right

Every Waking Moment

Cold Feet

Taking the Heat

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2014 Brenda Novak

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Montlake Romance, Seattle

 

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Montlake Romance are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781477824528

ISBN-10: 1477824529

 

Cover design by Laura Klynstra

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014903995

To Kelli, my editor for this novel. When you told me that editing is one of the great loves of your life, it pulled me out of the “business as usual” mode (easy to fall into after 50 books) and reminded me of how passionately I feel about writing. What a gift that we both get to do what we love for a living. Thank you for that reminder and for all the hard work you put in on this story. Your unbridled enthusiasm made the process such a pleasure.

Chapter 1

Aldersgate School of Medicine

London, October 1830

It was a perfect specimen. Almost.

Abigail Hale took a steadying breath and stooped into the cool, dark alley to examine the bloodless gash on the cadaver’s high forehead. The injury was a minor flaw, really. Nothing to worry about, although she intended to use that imperfection to best advantage when haggling over price.

Straightening, she opened the door wide and motioned the five figures surrounding the body inside. “Quickly!”

Three men followed as two, their features distorted by the flickering light of her lamp, hefted the sack containing the corpse into her father’s office and dropped it with a thud as solid as though it contained nothing more than so many rocks.

Nervous about what she was going to do, and the risk she was taking in order to do it, Abigail squared her shoulders and crossed to the desk adjacent to her father’s. Although she had dealt with resurrection men during the last school year, thrice, she had never done business with this particular gang. The sheer number of them took her off guard. Usually a couple of gravediggers or sextons showed up, regular men who didn’t look nearly so unsavory.

Hoping to keep the “sack ’em up” men from seeing how badly her hands were shaking, she clasped them behind her back.

A behemoth of a man, marked with the smallpox and dressed all in black, stepped forward. “When I saw the name on your letter, I assumed we were dealin’ with the good surgeon himself,” he said with a thick Cockney accent. “So who the bloody hell are you?”


Who
I am doesn’t matter so long as you get paid. Am I correct, Mr. . . . Hurtsill?” She was guessing at his name. This was the first time she had ever met him, but he had to be the man she had written. He seemed in charge and had referenced her letter.

“This is some risky business we’ve got going here, little lady. I have to trust you and you have to trust me. And that means who you are matters more than you might think.”

Since he didn’t correct her, she assumed she had accurately identified him. “Fine.” She gestured as if to say she would agree to almost anything if it would expedite their meeting. “I am steward of the household accounts here, if you must know.” She was also a would-be student and would one day become a great anatomist, like her father—if only she could overcome the bias against her gender. Her father kept telling her she should marry instead. But she could never be content to live the mundane life other women did.

He picked a piece of food out of his teeth. “The surgeon’s daughter, eh?”

Apparently, he knew more about the school than she had expected.

“Does your father know you’re doin’ this?” he asked.

If they didn’t get on with it, he would find out. And she couldn’t have that. “Time is money, Mr. Hurtsill. How—”

“Big Jack,” he interrupted. “But you can call my brother, here, Mr. Hurtsill, if you like. I wager it’ll make him feel quite important.”

She didn’t care to meet his brother or any of the other men who were lounging around her father’s office. “I’m sorry?”

“Call me Big Jack.”

Eager to get down to business, she focused strictly on him. He was intimidating enough. “Fine. Mr. . . . er . . . Jack, then. How much do you want for . . . um . . . ?” Abigail nodded toward the sack.

“The stiff?” A low, guttural laugh shook his belly, which rolled well over his belt. “No more’n our due, that’s for sure. It ain’t easy workin’ the supply end these days, what with the number of friends and family posting watchmen to guard the graves of their dearly departed.”

She grimaced at the sad picture
that
created. Just last January those appointed to protect the corpse of a man interred in a churchyard in Ireland were fired upon by the resurrection men they had been trying to ward off. “It’s a miracle you manage it.”

They had to be doing more than loitering about a likely graveyard. The resurrection men she had previously dealt with hadn’t been able to get near a corpse in weeks. For the first time in its twenty-five-year history, the school had been forced to open without an anatomy specimen and enrollment was suffering because of it. Every student needed two full courses of anatomy, with dissection, to apply for a license from the Royal College of Surgeons.

Big Jack grinned, seemingly indifferent to her sarcasm. “We have our ways. And this is a damn fine stiff. Big, too. Ain’t that so, boys?”

His men—some folding their arms as they looked on, others leaning against the furniture—grunted in agreement, but Abigail continued to anchor her attention on their leader. She didn’t want to see the others standing around with dirt from their recent dig still clinging to their shoes and pant legs, didn’t want to acknowledge how easily she could be overpowered. She had paid the other resurrection men nine or ten guineas, a few shillings more if the corpse was large and in good condition. Then she’d had them carry the deceased to the cellar on their way out, and that was that.

She hoped this transaction would go as smoothly, but . . . something didn’t feel quite so routine. Thank heavens she’d had the good sense to secure Bransby, the college porter, behind the door with a firearm. She had taken the same precaution before, of course. Resurrection men were, generally speaking, a rather desperate and unpleasant lot—but, fortunately, she had never had to call out to Bran.

She prayed she would be able to say the same about tonight . . .

“Your price, sir?” She lifted her chin to suggest they get on with their business.

“Don’t you want to see the rest of
’im before we start talkin’ money?” he asked.

See the rest of the corpse? Absolutely not! It had been difficult enough peeking at the head. Viewing cadavers when they were properly laid out in a clinical atmosphere was somehow different. She could tolerate that. Anyone who wanted to be an anatomist couldn’t faint at the sight of a dead body. But she couldn’t face that sight now. What the sack contained was far too fresh. Someone’s son, uncle or brother had died, and these men had stolen his corpse from what should have been its final resting place . . .

A necessary evil, she reminded herself, one of those rare instances where the end justified the means. The bodies of those condemned to execution and dissection, which was about the only legal way for a college to gain a specimen, could no longer fill the burgeoning demand, not with only fifty or so hanged in a year. The medical profession required several thousand.

“A more experienced buyer would want to see what he’s gettin’ for his money.” Big Jack spread his hands. “But it’s up to you, of course. I’m merely tryin’ to be helpful.”

Whatever he was doing, trying to be helpful played no part in it. Of that Abigail felt sure. She suspected he was having a bit of fun at her expense, taunting her in front of his men.

But he was right. She
should
take a closer look at what she was buying. Although she’d had great success with the three corpses she had purchased in the past, she’d heard stories about resurrection men selling bodies not quite dead or delivering cadavers too decomposed to do a college any good. She would be a fool to let Big Jack and his “London Supply Company” cheat her so easily.

Clearing her throat, she said, “All right. Show it to me.”

He motioned to two others, who opened the sack. Then a swath of pale, white chest covered with dark hair caught the lamplight and Abigail’s eye at the same time, and she couldn’t go through with it. She didn’t want to see the shriveled private parts of the deceased with an all-male audience eagerly awaiting her reaction. Having never been with a man, she generally tried to look away from that area as it was.

“Wait!” She shouldn’t have let Jack goad her into this. She knew the body would be naked. Stealing a corpse was a misdemeanor for which a resurrectionist might receive a public whipping. Technically, a corpse didn’t belong to anyone. But taking so much as a sock defrauded the deceased’s heirs, and
that
was punishable by hanging.

“I . . . er . . . on second thought, never mind. That won’t be necessary.” She pulled the mouth of the sack closed lest they ignore her. “You already informed me that it’s a fine specimen, did you not? Is there any reason I should doubt your word?”

Big Jack nudged his neighbor, and they both chortled. “A might squeamish to be dealin’ in such commodities, wouldn’t you say, Miss Hale? But I’m good as my word. This bugger’s got all his parts, even those what might interest a young woman like yourself.”

“He’s got his bloody roger, all right,” one of the others called out with an appalling, hoot-like laugh. “You could fondle that if you want. But if it’s a kiss you’re after, you should know he’s not got his teeth!”

Abigail’s face burned with embarrassment as Jack winked at her. “Aye. My brother’s right. He has everythin’ ’cept his teeth. We sold those to a dentist not far away.”

This was getting out of control. Abigail couldn’t let it continue. “Fine, that’s fine.”

She didn’t want to think about the forceful removal of the cadaver’s teeth, the shroud that had been stripped from the body and shoved back into the grave, or her role in supporting a business that filled so many with anger and disgust. She wasn’t any more pleased with the way the system worked than anyone else. They needed reform. Despite the public’s abhorrence of the idea of allowing surgeons access to all the bodies that went unclaimed from the prisons and the workhouses, the government needed to make these bodies available. That would provide the specimens necessary to advance medical science and do away with this nasty black market. But even with Henry Warburton’s Select Committee on Anatomy, formed in parliament two years ago to study the problem and suggest oversight and other regulation, change didn’t seem to be coming—at least not very fast.

“Enough games,” she said. “I am not amused. And my father won’t be gone much longer.”

Jack sobered but his expression grew smug. “So he doesn’t know what you’re up to, eh? I thought that might be the way of it.” He dropped his voice, obviously intrigued. “Why are you meddlin’ in his affairs?”

“This college cannot go on without subjects. I won’t have my father’s career ruined, the school closed simply because England cannot keep up with France and Italy and provide a proper supply of bodies for dissection. In case you haven’t heard, my father is currently collaborating with Sir Astley Cooper!”

At this, Jack whistled. “He is, is he?”

She wasn’t sure he was properly impressed, but she knew he should be. “Yes. They are writing a treatise on the thymus gland.”

He scraped dirt out from under one of his fingernails. “Your father runs in high circles, all right. Must feel good, given that surgeons aren’t considered much better than resurrection men.”

“Not everyone feels that way,” she snapped.

“Plenty of those who matter. It’s not like you’d ever be considered on par with the bloody aristocracy. Anyway, hobnobbin’ with the likes of Astley also makes it a bit messy to run afoul of the law. Is that why you’re doin’ your father’s dirty work for him?”

Of course. Although her father wouldn’t want
her
to be the one arranging for the specimens he so desperately needed,
someone
had to do it. So far, no one else had stepped up.

“The dead are dead, sir. Why let their bodies rot, to the betterment of no one?” She came off much stronger than she felt in her heart. She was as sensitive to the humanity of the dead as anyone, but it wasn’t as if her father could continue to learn by dissecting dogs and other animals, as anatomists of centuries past had. He’d said himself that doing so was almost useless. And if she wanted to follow in his footsteps, she needed to push for progress, overcome the obstacles in her path.

“Well, your secret’s safe with us, luv.” Jack advanced on her. “A pretty thing like you could ask just about anythin’ from Old Jack. For a quarter hour of your time, I’d even be willin’ to give you a deep discount on our latest prize here.” He reached out to finger the fabric of her sleeve while indicating the cadaver with a jerk of his head. “We could make it a weekly trade, if you like.”

When Abigail stepped away, his companions snickered. These men were definitely worse than any resurrectionists she’d met before. Although none of those previous examples had been exemplary citizens, they hadn’t dared show her such disrespect.

“What’s wrong?” Big Jack’s meaty face creased into a dark scowl. “You too high and mighty for the likes of a workin’ man like me? And you, nothing better than a surgeon’s daughter?”

Maybe she was only a surgeon’s daughter, and therefore denigrated along with the rest of the medical community. But her father was head surgeon here at the college and had prospects many of the others didn’t.

Regardless, she wasn’t willing to let Big Jack paw her in order to get the college the specimens it needed. Cooking the books would be bad enough.

Eager to consummate the deal and dispense with the whole distasteful transaction, she didn’t bother responding to the question. “I will give you six guineas.”

The mention of money seemed to mollify him, at least a little. “We’ll not settle for less than ten—”

“Make that fifteen.” A deep voice interrupted, and for the first time, Abigail looked directly at the man standing to the side and slightly behind Big Jack. His clothes bore as much dirt and his face as much beard growth as the rest of the group, but he was different. Not only was he significantly taller, he carried himself with a certain . . . authority.

How had she not noticed him before?

She’d been doing her best to block him and the others from her consciousness, she reminded herself.

Her gaze locked with an intense pair of sea-green eyes. “Why, that’s highway robbery! My father has never paid a resurrectionist more than nine guineas, six shillings. I’ve got it all in a book, right here.” She tapped the top of the desk to convince him.

When he smiled, his teeth looked clean and mostly straight, another detail that set him apart from his companions. “Evidently, you’re not a pupil of economics, or not a very good one, Miss Hale. Short supply, high demand, prices go up. Sometimes significantly. Fifteen guineas. No less.”

BOOK: A Matter of Grave Concern
11.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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