The boatswain Brunton convulsed three more times and exhaled his last breath shortly after midnight.
The ship's doctor closed the sailor's eyelids, saying a silent prayer for the man who'd suffered so terribly in his last weeks.
"Haven't been able to work out the cause of death, John? Not much help are you then."
John Watson looked up at the captain, a man he'd called friend for a year but still didn't truly understand.
"Piss off," he said amiably. "I was a military surgeon. I can fix bones, I can save your life which I have done- twice, by the way. This is a little out of my expertise. I have tried, but…we need to get a proper post-mortem done since we're in port."
"And if we don't, the illness could spread after we've set sail. Dammit." Sherlock Holmes paced around the dead man, ruffling his hair in frustration.
"You could ask your brother for help, couldn't you? Surely the bloody Earl of Warwick can find someone." John raised his eyebrows, hoping the captain would set aside his dislike of Mycroft in an emergency.
"Suggest that again and you'll be secured to the mast when everyone else gets shore leave in Jamaica," Sherlock hissed. He came to a stop and looked out the tiny window, toward the London skyline. He was calmer when he spoke again.
"Do you know where we can find someone who does that sort of work? Someone who can be trusted to come to a ship declared pirate by the Royal Navy, to cut up a body and then go on their way and trust they'll keep shut up?"
"Well," John reflected, weariness showing in his warm face. "I wouldn't trust anyone that much. So we may as well get the best anatomist I've read about in London. Specializes in human autopsies, there's been loads about them in the 'sheets every time I come back to London, the last seven or eight years. I don't know where they live though."
"Give me a name, I'll shake out the address soon enough."
John Watson nodded. He'd learned to roll with the captain's improvised schemes right after signing onto the Hudson. Sherlock's genius mind worked best under pressure.
"According to the journals and the 'sheets, the very best is a doctor named Hooper." He frowned, trying to remember more. "Doctor…M. Hooper, I think. Just the initial."
Sherlock steepled his hands together, touching his lips that were curling into a smile.
"Well then. Welcome to the Hudson, Dr. M. Hooper."
"Dr. Hooper, is it? Diana tells me that your analysis of her son's person was nothing short of a miracle. Science is really something!" The matron in lavender silk leaned in as though sharing a confidence with the seated physician. "Pray tell. Is it true that the boy was actually…murdered?"
Dr. Matthias Hooper inclined his silver head graciously, the picture of dignity and service. He was the hero of the hour for determining that the death of Lady Diana Haverhill's eldest child was not a suicide. Though the post-mortem had been performed last year, the case had only just hit the broadsheets with the scandalous trial of the young man's business partner. The older ladies who clustered around the distinguished widower were willing to overlook the small splash of red wine on his neckcloth, and the slightly glazed look in his brown eyes.
"It was a simple matter, madames. Happy to be of service to Lady Haverhill, tremen- tremendously honored to be invited tonight. The constables did a superlative job, tracking down the dastardly fellow." Dr. Hooper shifted in his seat, and affectionately patted the knee of the young woman sitting next to him. "Couldn't have done it without my Molly. She's the best assistant a father could ask for."
The matrons' razor sharp eyes fell now on the quiet, brown-haired young woman whom they'd ignored the entire evening.
Molly Hooper winced. She cared nothing for society, but she had complied with her father's wishes and worn her best dancing gown for the party, the gauzy white muslin dress that made her look like a porcelain doll.
That her best dress was two years' out of date did not escape the assessing gazes of the ton.
Molly defensively smoothed her hand over the dress. It may not be new but it was still lovely, and it had been altered to meet the current style, the very high waist resting just below her breasts.
They claim to hate Napoleon but they cannot get enough of these French fashions. And the necklines have gotten so low, Molly thought, trying not to glance down at the rounded pale tops of her breasts. She considered herself a practical rather than modest woman. She rather liked the way her bosom looked, but she couldn't tuck a nub of pencil or a handkerchief in a dress cut so low.
Growing aware of the cool stares of the ladies, Molly smiled at her father.
"You are too kind, Papa. If my small chores help you in your work in any way, I am grateful." The trace of bitterness in her tone went unnoticed by her audience, who were already zeroing back in on her father.
Matthias Hooper might be getting on in years, and was wholly unsuitable as a husband for a noblewoman, but that never stopped certain widows from pursuing a fling with the handsome older man. The drink had softened his features a bit, but he was still warm and charming.
"Papa, madams, I believe I need to step outside for a moment. Forgive me…The warmth of the salon," Molly trailed off as she hurried away from them.
Are these things ever not tedious? Molly wondered as she worked her way through the elegantly dressed crowd. Papa insisted she come in case he needed her support in certain matters, but she always wound up bored and uncomfortable while he grew progressively drunker. He would end up in a gaming salon with the other gentlemen, losing any money that she hadn't hidden from him.
Molly had become very good at disappearing into the background at society events. There were always gardens full of lovers at summer parties held outside of London, such as this one.
She was headed now toward the portico. She would find a bench there, and watch inebriated couples search for a private place among the gardens and statues to kiss and…do other things that Molly had read about.
She'd read rather a lot about it, actually. A helpful bookseller had acquired a number of banned books about bodies for her collection. Some of them were rare anatomy texts and some of them were more…recreational in nature.
A rare book of erotic woodblock prints had been especially intriguing.
As she wrapped her arms around herself in the cool air, Molly thought about this frantic act, this copulation and wondered why it was so easy for these couples to reach out to someone and so impossible for her. The books didn't explain that very well. They were full of mysterious euphemisms. It seemed much simpler to the pair of lovers whispering against the shed wall, the man's hand moving rhythmically beneath the woman's lifted skirt.
Molly often woke up feeling hungry for touch and needing to be…fuller somehow. She would have dreams of lurid touching, kissing, and writhing and the desire to feel someone pressing down on her heavily. She'd wake up sweating and moaning, with the heel of her palm pressed between her legs and the hunger still unfulfilled.
Molly wasn't a fool, she understood how pregnancy occurred. She knew that there must be pleasure in the act, despite what some women and priests said. She wasn't sure she wanted a husband, but Molly knew that she wanted a lover.
Her father had been determined to keep her at home and off the marriage market and he'd succeeded. Now she was considered on the shelf, too old and awkward and unable to make friendly conversation as a pleasant woman should. There were shadows under her soft brown eyes, and she rarely bothered to do anything with her hair other than pinning it up simply, sometimes with a ribbon. Curls were an elaborate effort she rarely found worth the time.
That didn't matter to Molly. Her father needed her, and their work was rewarding. In a city like London, there was never a lack of bodies. Through quiet persistence, she had created an unthrilling but satisfying life. She wished there were more freedom to travel and to learn, but she realized how lucky she was every day when the bodies of battered women from the slums rolled by her in the morgues.
The only thing missing from Molly Hooper's life was someone to help her explore the yearning in her belly. The want rose in her belly, and lower now as she watched long, thorough kisses exchanged against trees. She crossed her ankles and flexed her toes, pressing her thighs together. The stone bench was cool under her bottom, but her chest and face felt flushed.
I feel so strange this evening, she thought. I should go inside. But I don't want to.
Instead she waited and watched the lovers.
Matthias Hooper was enjoying the flirty attentions of two attractive widowed sisters, when their widening eyes were suddenly pulled toward the left entryway.
What the devil is happening? Matthias wondered as he twisted around.
Ah. Well, I can't compete with a young buck, can I, he thought ruefully and resumed sipping the potent wine punch as the widowed sisters drifted off toward the door. I don't even know how the young blokes get into their tight trousers these days. Or get out of them.
Sherlock Holmes entered the grand room and immediately located Hooper in the crush of people. The two women he was speaking with (sisters, widows- one abuses whiskey, the other abuses her maid) looked up at Sherlock himself, and Hooper followed suit.
Sherlock looked away quickly and crossed the room to engage an elderly stranger in conversation as though they were old acquaintances. The awkward chatter pained him after thirty seconds, and so Sherlock walked away while the elderly man was still speaking.
He'd forgotten how bloody uncomfortable society clothes could be. He hadn't worn a cravat in at least a year. He wore knee britches often on the ship simply because they were cooler and the more unfettered by clothing Sherlock was, the better he felt. Catching a glimpse of himself in an ornate gilt-framed mirror as he crossed the floor again, he knew he cut a dashing figure in the party clothes he'd purchased last minute.
Tucked into polished knee-high black boots, the smooth tan trousers were so tight, he'd already noted several ladies (and a few gentlemen) taking note of his groin. He wore an ivory-colored shirt under the slim-fitting blue coat, the front of the jacket ending at his waist, the back of it falling almost to his knees. A short double row of gold buttons led up to his cravat, tied in the Mathematical fashion. His dark curls weren't managed but running wild, drifting over his brow and sideburns.
He didn't bother with a hat. It was too much trouble to keep track of one in the middle of a kidnapping.
His eyes found Matthias Hooper again, skimming over the physician briefly. Sherlock frowned. He stopped dead in the middle of the room, ignoring those who bumped into him.
He gave Hooper's appearance more thought, compared it to the facts he'd acquired about Dr. M. Hooper through research, and came to an inevitable conclusion. Sherlock's furrowed brow cleared and he half-smiled to himself.
When he eliminated the impossible, all that remained was her.
Molly watched the lovers come and go from the gardens and wondered if Papa had made his way into the gambling rooms yet. Perhaps I ought to go and check…but I don't feel ready yet.
The wind stirred loose tendrils of hair, tickling Molly's neck. She shivered, feeling gooseflesh rise all over her body.
A drunken man stumbled onto the portico, laughing back toward the entryway as though expecting a companion to follow him. He looked around blinking for a moment and then shrugged, staggering over to the bench where Molly sat. For a man undoubtedly soaked with wine, he smelled like soap and and lemons and fresh mint.
He sat down beside her and smiled charmingly, his wicked blue eyes gleaming in the dark. They were so strange, almost almond-shaped. She'd never seen anything like them. Just beneath them were impossibly high cheekbones.
She was so startled by his face that it took her almost too long to register that his hand had come to rest on her wrist. She felt his fingers curl around, and begin to tighten.
She'd been in situations like this countless times at these awful parties.
Molly stood up and gave him her haughtiest stare copied from the ton socialites.
"You are not welcome to me, sir," she announced before marching down the stairs into the grass.
She looked behind her several times to reassure herself he was not following.
If these men are the upper crust, why do they behave more rudely than any butcher or urchin? I want to believe that all people can be good, but they're just so rotten here! I just want to be at home in my chair with my books.
Molly walked quickly around the wall, intending to reenter the grand room of the party from the other portico entrance. She clenched her fists, nervous in the dark, and lifted the edge of her delicate dress out of the grass. She looked back again, certain he was not behind her, and picked up her pace.
She realized her mistake when her face and chest collided with a warm hard body much taller than her.
As she looked up, an arm locked around her like a band of steel. A narrow piece of fabric slipped over her head, and it wasn't until it settled against her mouth that she realized she was being gagged firmly. Then the man bent and scooped Molly up.
Shock falling away, Molly panicked and her adrenaline kicked in. She thrashed in the man's arms but he held her as he hurried her across the darkened back lawn. Here, outside of London, it was pitch black as soon as the sun went down.
A carriage materialized in front of them out of the darkness. The door swung open and she was shoved onto the floor. The man hopped in after her.
A lantern flared, and at last Molly could see the two men inside the carriage with her. The horses began to move.
The light illuminated the shocked face of a thirtysomething man with ash blond hair. His eyes sought out the other man.
"What the hell is this? You've got the wrong person, you arse! This poor girl! Miss, I am so sor-"
"I've got the right person," a deep voice emanated from the man who'd taken her. He turned his face toward the lamp, and Molly saw that it was him. He of the beautiful eyes and drunken demeanor. Only now his eyes were glacially cool and clear as they peered into hers.
How on earth did he get ahead of me? She wondered.
"Don't panic- they call you Molly, yes? We're not going to hurt you. But we do need your assistance urgently. I'm afraid our circumstances wouldn't allow for a time-consuming and legal negotiation process." He reached out and untied the gag from around her head. He rubbed her cheeks with his thumbs briskly, his fingers brushing softly over her parted lips.
Molly was utterly confused. What kind of kidnapping was this?
"There've been two deaths on my ship. I haven't been able to solve the mystery- yet. I need more information. I need an autopsy specialist's assistance at once."
Hope bloomed in Molly's chest. "Oh but that's my father, not me! Look, bring me back and I will get him, I promise-"
"I've seen your father, Molly," the dark-haired man said. "And he is not the person we need."
He took the lantern from his blond friend and lifted it so Molly could see his face. His eyes shone pale blue in the close light.
"You're the best at what you do. I need you, the celebrated Dr. M. Hooper."