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Catch Me When You Can

Chapter Text

August 30, 1888

 

The telegram was a welcome weight in Nicole’s pocket. It had been read and re-read to the point that it was barely legible, but she liked the feel of it, especially as her journey drew to a close.

 

London Metropolitan Police. STOP. Presence requested. STOP. Xavier Dolls. STOP.

 

There had been other telegrams following giving her a location and a date and little background information, but the first had set her on a journey across the ocean and into London’s Waterloo Station.

 

She had been on the ship for nearly three weeks, sleeping in her woolen greatcoat amongst the snoring, stinking masses that boarded the ship in Montreal. The telegram had offered a reminder of why she’d stepped away from land, why she’d willingly left the comforts of a warm bunk and a hot meal from the pub down the block.

 

Weeks at sea and hours by train had left Nicole weary and sore. Her back ached and she wanted nothing more than a bath and a bed, but judging from Dolls’ telegrams, all comforts would need to wait. Because there was work to do and Nicole loved nothing so much as she loved her work.

 

The train platform bustled in a way that Nicole had never quite known before. Toronto’s Union Station was busy to be sure, but she’d heard tales of London since childhood and despite the discomfort of her boots and the endless ache of her shoulders, she smiled to herself. Dolls had offered no instructions for transferring from the Station to the Met Headquarters. All she had was an address and a map. It would do.

 

Whitehall Place was a quick jaunt across Waterloo Bridge and Nicole needed the walk. She hunched over in her coat, pulling her cap down over her eyes, and settled into a steady pace, grinning at the sights and sounds around her. London was loud and it smelled of rotting meat and piss, but it was alive. So incredibly alive.

 

Nicole walked by flower stands and newspaper boys and butchers hawking their wears in the streets. She saw gentleman in fine, beaver-fur hats and ladies dipping in and out of hansoms. And everywhere children. Running. Yelling. Chasing each other over the cobblestones as London’s factories churned out black smoke overhead.

 

The walk was brief, but as Nicole entered 4 Whitehall Place, the sky opened and she narrowly avoided the rain. The building was blessedly dry inside, but no less busy and Nicole briefly wondered if all of London bustled so. There were bobbies walking about, chatting with each other or guiding haggard looking men and the odd woman towards other doors in the building. Nicole approached what appeared to be a service desk and cleared her throat, trying to catch the attention of the bobby reading the daily newspaper.

 

“Pardon me?” She began. Her voice was dry, the result of days of silence on the ship and the smoky London air, but it nonetheless gave her away. The bobby looked up and did a double take, as so many did. Her coat and cap hid most of her features, but her voice was too high to belong to a man.

 

“Ma’am?” The bobby asked.

 

“I’m here to see Inspector Xavier Dolls.”

 

“Xavier Dolls? Never heard of him.” The bobby went back to his paper.

 

“Sir, please, I have strict instructions to meet Inspector Dolls here. It is most imperative that you…”

 

“Did you say Inspector Dolls?” Another voice interrupted the exchange and the bobby’s eyes widened so suddenly that Nicole turned around, expecting to see the Queen herself parade in.

 

It was not the Queen, not even the crown prince, but instead a portly man with a handlebar mustache and look on his face that could only be described as exasperation.

 

“Superintendent Nedley, I did not expect you here,” the bobby said.

 

“Pay it no mind. You,” the Superintendent took Nicole by the elbow, “follow me.”

 

It was only belatedly that Nicole realized that she was being dragged instead of led. Nedley did not look back at her as he pulled her through a crowd of constables. He did not warn her of the upcoming staircase nor did he off her entrance into his office first. Instead, he stormed through the building with the confidence of a man who owned it and when Nicole finally did find herself in the privacy of his office, she had to take a moment to catch her breath.

 

“In the future, I would ask you to refrain from mentioning that name in public spaces,” Nedley said, circling his desk to take a seat.

 

“Xavier Dolls?” Nicole was still trying to gain her bearings. Nedley had not offered her a chair and she was not certain it was permissible to make such presumptions.

 

“Precisely. Inspector Dolls is…let us say he is best kept in the shadows.”

 

Nicole frowned.

 

“Superintendent, may I ask wh…”

 

“Kindly remove your cap, sir.”

 

It was an order not a request.

 

Nicole slowly removed her hat, wincing as she felt the long, auburn braid fall down her back. Nedley looked at her with barely veiled suspicion. He was not surprised, but rather vindicated, as if she had just proven his theory true.

 

“When Dolls said he was bringing in a ‘N.R. Haught,’ I certainly did not expect you,” he said, reaching for a blank piece of paper on his desk and a quill. Nicole chose to stay silent.

 

“Regardless, Dolls is rarely wrong, much to my chagrin. He has been moved to Spitalfields, you’ll find the station on Commercial Street. Do be mindful of the time, Miss Haught, despite your attire, Whitechapel is no place for a woman of your breeding after dark.” Nedley handed Nicole a slip of paper with an address and the words “RN T3E7V3” scrawled across the page.

 

“Pardon me, Superintendent, but…my breeding?”

 

“Something tells me that your father was not in the mines, or a factory…that your mother never sold all that God gave her.”

 

The mention of her parents made Nicole feel faint. She’d barely eaten since arriving in Southampton and decided this was likely the source of her illness.

 

“Ah, I see,” was all she could think to say. Nedley’s demeanor and the confusion around Dolls had put her on edge.

 

“Best of luck to you, Miss Haught.” Nedley did not rise from his desk, nor did he look up when Nicole set her cap back on her head and turned for the door.

 

It was still raining when she left the station. It would not stop for another hour still.

 

~*~

 

Nicole huddled in her coat at the back of the omnibus, wearily eyeing the darkening streets outside the bus’s windows. The broad walkways gave way to tall buildings and winding alleys. Men shadowed by their coats and hats trod across muddy sidewalks and there seemed to be more and more people the closer she got to Commercial Street.

 

Perhaps Nedley had been correct. Perhaps she should have waited until morning. The streetlamps flickered above, as Nicole found herself in front of yet another police station. The white bricks looked grey and dirty before her, but once again she rushed beyond the doors, hoping to find somewhere dry and warm to leave her rucksack and coat.

 

This time when she approached the bobby on duty, she did not speak, but rather handed Nedley’s note to the man and waited. He stood immediately, though his countenance betrayed his annoyance with the task, and then disappeared through a door behind him. Nicole glanced at her pocket watch, trying to ignore how tired she felt when a familiar voice caught her attention.

 

“Nicole?”

 

Xavier Dolls had appeared behind the bobby, his smile uncharacteristically large. He seemed taller than Nicole remembered and his beard had grown in substantially, but the grin was unmistakable.

 

“Xavier!” Nicole was so pleased to see someone she knew, she was so relieved to hear an accent like her own, that she launched forward, striding behind the front desk and directly into Xavier’s open arms. The bobby cleared his throat, but Nicole didn’t care, pressing her cheek against the scratchy wool of Xavier’s vest.

 

“You must be exhausted,” Xavier said, an arm around Nicole’s back. She could have collapsed into it.

 

“Some, but I am here now so you really must explain yourself, Xavier.”

 

“All in due time, come this way.” With his arm still supporting Nicole, he allowed her to enter the doorway first, nodding gently to the confused bobby who took his seat at the front desk once more.

 

“Not the friendliest company,” Nicole said as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Xavier grunted, but Nicole was unable to question the man further because she was suddenly descending into a subterranean room. The stairs beneath her foot were made of rotting, moulded wood and she found herself holding her breath with each step, praying the beams would not give way.

 

The room was lit by lanterns, in some places, naked torches hung in cracks in the natural stone walls. They were underneath the police station, the smell of rot and time strong in the room. There was something else too, running water – a small creek – echoed off the walls and Nicole held a hand to her nose.

 

“Ah, yes, do not drink the water,” Xavier explained as Nicole paused as the foot of the staircase before stepping onto the earthen floor.

 

“What is this?” Nicole took in the small cavern. There was a large table in the centre of the room and a chalk board, the type she’d only seen in school classrooms. Otherwise, with the exception of a few chairs, the room was empty.

 

“This is my office.”

 

This?” With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Nicole pondered if she should have questioned her friend more thoroughly before accepting his request.

 

“The London Metropolitan Police find my methods best kept in the dark.”

 

“To be sure!” As her eyes adjusted, Nicole realized that the table was covered in documents and photographs. She looked down, frowning at the sight before her.

 

“I ask questions that Inspector Abberline cannot ask. I go places Inspector Abberline is not welcome,” Xavier shrugged, standing next to Nicole at the table.

 

The photograph in her hand was gruesome.

 

A woman’s body lay in the street, her garments strewn about her as if she’d simply laid down and gone to rest. The image was blurry and the light poor, but Nicole could see the unspeakable horrors committed to her abdomen, the dark stains around her not clothing as Nicole first assumed, but blood on the stones. It was hard to make out her face, her features were blurred by the shaky hand of the photographer, but Nicole could tell that she was young and that her death had been painful.

 

She looked up to find Xavier’s eyes cast far from the table.

 

“You knew her,” Nicole said. Xavier offered a tight smile.

 

“Your powers of deduction are still impressive,” he answered, but his eyes never drifted to the photograph.

 

“Still, Xavier, who was she?”

 

“Willa Earp. No more than thirty years old. Found in July like that. There has not been one like it since, but Abberline insists on adding an earlier death to his Whitechapel file.”

 

Xavier handed Nicole another photograph, this time of a woman lying in an infirmary bed. Her face was bruised, but there were no other signs of injury.

 

“Emma Smith, beaten by a gang at Osborne Street. She died in hospital the fourth of April,” Xavier said.

 

“These were not committed by the same hand.” Nicole held up both images.

 

“This is the most recent,” Xavier handed Nicole yet another photograph. The woman was heavy-set, her mouth open and slack-jawed in death.

 

“Seventh August,” Xavier said, “Martha Tabram.”

 

“Tell me, Xavier, was she wounded elsewhere?”

 

“Multiple stab wounds.”

 

“But was she…open…like the Earp woman?”

 

“No.”

 

Nicole did not notice Xavier’s affectionate grin in her direction. She set the three images down before her and removed her coat. It felt lighter to be free of it and Nicole rolled up her sleeves and tossed her cap onto the chair behind her.

 

“I will need to see the files in more detail. And speak to witnesses.”

 

“Of course,” Xavier took a seat next to Nicole.

 

“Prostitutes?” Nicole finally raised her eyes from the files to look at Xavier. He nodded.

 

“And Willa Earp, do we know much of her?” Willa Earp’s murder stuck out to her like gold dust in a heap of coal. The ferocity of the attack, the brutalization of the body, it was not the work of a street gang or crazed drunkard with a knife. Nicole found the autopsy report in the files and blanched. Slit throat. Removal of uterus, ovaries…all done with surgical precision.

 

“I know her sisters. And you will too.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“I’ve found you room and board at Gibson’s. Nedley has agreed to provide for your lodgings and the lady of the house will insure that you are fed and bathed regularly.”

 

Nicole laughed.

 

“Did you find me a room in a whore house, Xavier Dolls?”

 

“A reputable house of entertainments, shall we say?”

 

Nicole laughed again. And then stopped. Because she held horrors in her hands and her laughter felt like dancing on a grave.