Helena sighed, and resisted the urge to pace the length of the drawing room yet again. It would do nothing to resolve any of her current dilemmas, nor to move her latest story forward; still, she felt entirely too restless to sit idly by and wait for Bess to call, as she’d promised she would.
Helena refused to believe in writer’s block as a matter of course; if one wanted to write badly enough, one would write, and worry about the quality of the piece once something was on paper. But for all of that, she’d been having a truly horrific time of it for the last week. She suspected her latest attempt to publish something in her own right was to blame; it was hardly her fault she’d been born with a pair of breasts as well as an unbridled imagination, but the printing houses seemed to look upon her efforts as quaint when she presented them.
And yet, she thought, I could send Charles in with the same thing next month and they’d sing praises to its brilliance. It makes no bloody sense.
She was in no mood to write of a visitor to a better future - or perhaps a worse one; she hadn’t made up her mind as to how her fictional adventurer’s visit was to go, just yet. Her frustrations with the present were winning out, and she couldn’t think of any other way to give them voice. She had half a mind to build something, but it wouldn’t do to be immersed in that sort of work when Bess arrived. Bess had seen her tinkering before, of course, but depending on the tenor of her call--
Helena jolted from her reverie, splashing a trail of ink across her paper.
“Beggin’ your pardon for startling you, Miss Helena,” the maid said, “but Miss Elizabeth’s arrived. Shall I show her in?”
“By all means, Colleen, and you really needn’t apologise. I was far too lost in thought for my own good.” Helena tried to give the poor girl a reassuring smile, but Colleen only bobbed a curtsy and returned to the front of the house, leaving her with little idea of how well she was disguising her mood.
It hardly mattered; Bess was shown into the drawing room a few moments later, and Helena could always find genuine cheer for Bess.
“Colleen, be a dear and get us some tea, would you?” she said, and moved in to hug Bess as soon as Colleen left the room. “It has simply been too long, darling, we oughtn’t wait for months before your next call.”
“I... that’s part of why I came to talk to you.” Bess pulled back from the hug, eyes on something behind Helena’s left shoulder. “I’ve accepted a proposal.”
Helena felt her heart drop into her stomach. “Bess, no.”
“I can’t wait any longer, Helena, I’m very nearly whispered about as it is. He’ll provide for me, I’ll be happy, and it’s not as though I’ll never be able to see you again.”
“But you expect the shape of our friendship to change overnight?”
Bess reached out and tucked a lock of Helena’s hair behind her ear, and for a moment, Helena almost thought she’d imagined the beginning of their conversation. “It’s hardly overnight. The wedding’s not for another year. Besides, we both knew this could never stand indefinitely, and it’s not as though you’ve been without your own... I don’t want to call them indiscretions, but that may be the best word for them.”
Helena fought back a pang of guilt, despite the fact that they had talked about her encounters with men - and the occasional woman, though that felt more like a betrayal of Bess, aside from being harder to procure - before she’d had any of them. “That’s not the same, Bess, I’ve always come back to you--”
Bess closed her eyes, and Helena barely noticed Colleen setting the tea service on the table and leaving again. “I’ve never been as - adventurous as you are. I need a kind of stability we’d never have, if we struck out on our own. You would love every second of it, I’ve no doubt, but I’d be miserable, even with you there. I do love you, Helena, and I always will, but I couldn’t bear the sort of life you’re seeking.”
Helena sighed, and wished for a moment her novel’s time machine were real enough that she could return to when they were sixteen and this was the simplest thing in the world - and then, perhaps, on to a future where they might be able to have something for themselves.
“The tea is getting cold,” she finally said. “I - can you... at least stay for the afternoon?”
Bess smiled, as warmly as though she hadn’t just turned Helena’s world upside down. “Of course, darling. You didn’t think I wouldn’t make a proper call of the day, did you?”
Bess stayed all afternoon, and the tea wasn’t without hope, but Helena could barely hold back her tears when it came time for Bess to leave. In an effort to stave off the worst of the hysterics she was sure would come, she found the newspaper, after Bess left, and began reading.
She read the front page, then set the newspaper down and went to her work room.
“Helena Gretchen Wells, where on earth do you think you’re going?”
Helena sighed, and turned to face her brother - who had, of course, chosen the only chair in the drawing room to face the hall. “Charles Everett Wells, what on earth ever gave you the idea you could be as intimidating as our father?”
“You’re changing the subject, Helena. Where are you going at this hour?”
“Whitechapel. I’m conducting an experiment.”
Charles rose to his feet, which would have made him a far more imposing figure if he hadn’t become so sedentary in recent years. “You certainly are not going to Whitechapel, especially not in the middle of the night! They’re saying that habitual murderer’s struck again--”
“Which is precisely why it has to be now, I’ve a theory about how he--”
“--and that’s no part of town for a lady such as yourself, and - are those my trousers?”
Helena rolled her eyes. “No, Charles, they’re my trousers. I would fit into yours thrice over, what sort of fool do you take me for?”
“Fool enough to go to Whitechapel, of all places, during the night, when someone’s been murdering whores and unfortunates, dressed in such a way that he might take you for one of them.”
“His victims’ class is no reason for their deaths to remain a mystery, Charles. I’ve had this theory since the double event, and I intend to put it to the test whether you’d like me to or not. More to the point, I would have done sooner, but I only got half the work done before the killings stopped.”
Charles sighed, picked up his brandy, and began making his way to the drawing room’s doorway. “I hardly know what to do with you anymore. I agreed to turn a blind eye to your dalliances if it meant you would stay at home, I agreed to provide a public face to your writing--”
“I never should have let you name that public face, either. ‘Herbert’? Really? I told you I would have much preferred ‘Horatio.’”
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with Herbert. Perfectly respectable name, that one. You ought to consider yourself lucky I didn’t name you after Great-Grandfather Hoban.”
Helena shuddered, and made what she was sure was a wholly undignified face. “Well, ‘George’ is rather better than ‘Gretchen,’ I’ll grant you that.”
“You changed the subject again, Helena. I can find it in myself to live with your refusal to take a husband and your wild ideas, but this - hare-brained quest of yours is simply too much. You’re truly chasing after windmills if you think you can solve the Whitechapel murders where no proper authority has succeeded. I have every investment in your happiness, but I cannot allow you to go tearing after criminals every night.”
“Funny, how you say you cannot allow me as though you have any real hope of stopping me.” Helena knew at least five ways out of the house that Charles either wouldn’t consider or could no longer fit through; while this would be far easier if she could leave by the front door, she would have no trouble getting out of the house tonight.
Charles sighed again. “I’m well aware of that. And since I cannot block your exit, I wash my hands of the affair. If you get yourself killed, you’re on your own.”
Helena laughed. “I rather expected I would be no matter what,” she called over her shoulder, as she made her way to the front door.
She had arrived at her theory regarding how the Whitechapel killer kept his victims still for so long after the double event got her reading the reports. In each of the first four attacks, as well as the ones that had followed last year, residents near the scene mentioned a queer yellow light in the vicinity during the night. How a light could have such an effect on people was even beyond Helena’s imagination - she would have to see the mechanics of the thing, if she were right - but she had begun building a possible countermeasure at the time, and the newspaper from the day of Bess’s call had reminded her of the project.
She had tested the goggles as best as she could, under laboratory conditions; she could only hope that would prove to be enough, if she did have an encounter with the Whitechapel killer.
Unfortunately, if the Whitechapel killer was at work again, he was taking his own sweet time in choosing another victim. Helena found nothing that night, nor any night for the next week; after that, she decided to scale back for a bit, the better to get something like a constant amount of sleep.
Charles continued to protest every time he saw her going to Whitechapel to conduct her experiments; Bess, when she learned of Helena’s plan, was quite worried for her safety, which almost caused Helena to let the matter drop entirely.
Perhaps she would have, were Bess not now engaged; but as things stood, she thought that Bess would at least have someone to console her, should the worst come of the experiment.
She quickly grew accustomed to spending her nights surrounded by women with little choice but to offer themselves to any buyer, be it to provide food or the next bottle of gin. It greatly pained her that she could do little to ease their suffering, or to end the social ills that drove them to such desperation - but if her work amounted to something, she might at least be able to remove one terror from their lives.
In September, two months after Helena began her search in earnest, she got her chance to test her goggles in the world.
She found that chance quite by accident, happening to catch an eerie yellowish glow that did not match any of the street lights from the corner of her eye. She slipped her goggles on, allowed herself a few moments to adjust to the colored filter, and followed the odd light into an alley.
Unfortunately, by the time she reached the alley’s mouth, the killer, face obscured by a dark hood, had finished the bulk of his work. Helena sighed, and did her best not to look at the poor woman’s remains - and got a full view of the killer’s lantern for her trouble.
She froze, hoped the lantern hadn’t made its way past her goggles after all, and cursed herself for making a sound and attracting the killer’s attention. After a tense few moments, the killer moved toward her, knife raised; as he brought it down toward her, Helena raised her arm to block the blow.
The killer hadn’t been expecting a fight; his hood, combined with the element of surprise, gave Helena the upper hand for long enough to knock the knife from his grip. However, she had only been able to train herself a little, so her advantage didn’t last for very long. The killer grabbed for her goggles several times, and Helena soon had to focus most of her attention toward keeping them on her face; she had no desire to find out what that lantern would do without her protective gear.
She was beginning to feel that the fight was taking a turn for the worse when she heard footsteps from behind; she braced herself for more trouble, but the new arrival kicked the killer in the groin rather than attack Helena in any way. The killer fell to the ground and dropped the lantern, which Helena and the new arrival reached for as one. Only then did they pause to assess each other.
Her rescuer was a tiny Indian woman, wearing a tunic, loose trousers, and a highly suspicious expression. “What are you doing here?” she said, far more of London in her voice than Bombay.
Helena took her hand off the lantern, not without a pang of disappointment that she was likely surrendering her chance to examine it more closely. “Same as you, so it would seem. I had a theory and decided to test it.”
“You could have been killed. You nearly were.” The woman turned the lantern toward the deserted alley, muttering something about civilians taking an interest, and pressed a button on the back; as the alley went dark, Helena lifted her goggles.
“How is it that you weren’t at all slowed down by that thing?” she asked. “Judging from his reaction when I blocked him, he was quite used to its help in his... work.”
“We have precautions of our own,” a man’s voice said; its owner approached a few moments later. He had something in his hands, but the light was so dim that Helena couldn’t tell what it was.
“For goodness’ sake, Edwin, put that away,” the woman said. “This woman is perhaps fatally stupid, but she’s no threat.”
“It’s not for her, it’s for him.” The man waved his occupied hand at the killer’s prone form. “Unless you wanted him to follow us back to--”
The woman waved him off with her free hand. “Very well, then, I suppose kicking him once will have to do. Since you couldn’t be bothered to assist in the fight, were you at least useful enough to bring the containment with you?”
“Naturally, Priya. Now, if you will allow me to see to our unwelcome guest?”
Helena watched with interest as the man began fiddling with the object in his hand. “Does that mean I’m a welcome guest?”
“It means...” The woman hesitated for a moment. “It means you are a person of interest,” she finally said. “Whether that makes you a welcome guest is for people other than us to determine. Do hurry, Edwin, I’ve no desire to be out here all night.”
The man raised the object in his hands to his mouth and blew; something smacked into the killer, and Helena raised an eyebrow, though she had her doubts that the others could see it. “Blow darts?”
“Of a sort,” the man replied, handing a canister of some sort to the woman. “A particularly useful piece from Cambodia. Would you care for some company on your walk home? I would be more than glad to be of assistance.”
“I’m sure you would,” the woman muttered, as she opened the lid on the canister and dropped the lantern into it; Helena had to shield her eyes against a flurry of sparks.
“Thank you, but no,” she said, once her eyes had readjusted to the darkness. “I got myself here in one piece; I dare say I should be able to get myself home again as well.”
They parted ways at the mouth of the alley, and Helena kept herself quite occupied with the events of the night during her walk home, and for several hours after she ought to have gone to bed.
Bess called three days after Helena’s successful outing in Whitechapel; she was quite relieved to learn that Helena would not be going forth again, and the call felt far more like old times than many of their visits had since Bess announced her engagement. Yet before they had finished their tea, Colleen came to the door of the drawing room.
“Miss Helena, there... are some people at the door,” she said. “They say they met you the other night?”
“Oh! Oh, show them in, do.” Colleen bobbed a curtsy and left the room, and Helena turned to Bess with an apologetic smile. “I hope you don’t mind, darling. It’s only that I had a few more questions, after the way things went in Whitechapel, and I wasn’t expecting them to call today--”
“It’s all right, Helena, it’s...” Bess dropped Helena’s gaze, and smiled a little herself. “I was here to see Charles, actually. We’ve some planning to do.”
Helena tried to speak, but rather felt like she had swallowed her own tongue. “You... Charles. You’re marrying Charles.”
Bess nodded, without meeting Helena’s eyes again. “I thought that way, we could at least be close.”
“It would never be the same.” Helena sighed; this was what she got for not reading the newspaper or talking to her brother during the course of her experiment. “Should he hurt you, I will make quite sure he lives to regret it.”
“I’ve no doubt you will.” Bess stepped forward and hugged her briefly. “I’ll go and talk to Charles, and you can discuss things with your new friends, and - I suspect it’ll be all right, in the end.”
“I hope so.” Helena wanted to say more, but Colleen returned with the man and woman she had met in Whitechapel, and Bess made her excuses to go to Charles’ study. She took a deep breath, the better to attempt to regain her composure, and said, “Good afternoon. What brings the two of you here?”
The woman smiled a little. “It would seem,” she said, “that you are a welcome guest after all, if you would be interested in an apprenticeship.”
“An apprenticeship... doing what, exactly? Chasing habitual murderers into seedy parts of town?”
“Oh, there’s rather more to it than that,” the man said. “And it’s very dangerous, but given the circumstances of our meeting, our employers think that you can rise to the challenge.”
Helena grinned. “I think I would very much like to learn more.”