A chilly Sunday morning whisked deep into the dreams of one Sweeney Todd, gooseflesh erupting upon his bare arms and legs, the limbs covered in sweat and the blanket tossed haphazardly in the floor beside his stained shirt and black pants. He lay on his back with his face to the ceiling wearing only his knickers. His eyelids twitched in his dreams. By the window, thick flakes of snow fell, and his fire only smoldered, as he hadn’t awoken to feed it since the wee hours of the morning when he had finally retired.
Ordinarily his dreams were tormented enough to dissuade him from sleep. But not this morning. This morning he saw the first Christmas he had spent with Johanna—the last he had spent with his family. They swirled in front of a small green tree and opened meager gifts and laughed, and then Lucy sang to the crying baby until she fell asleep. He took the infant from his wife, and Johanna promptly burst into tears again. Lucy began to croon softly a lyrical lullaby he had never heard before: “May there always be angels to watch over you, to guide you each step of the way, to guard you and keep you safe from all harm, loo-li loo-li lai-lay…”
His reverie fell away as a sing-song voice echoed up the stairwell, and the newly awakened barber sprang out of bed to fumble for his pants. “Good morning, Mr. Todd! I made us some breakfast!” Mrs. Lovett rapped three times upon his door, but before he had the chance to call out that he needed one more moment, she barged in on him. “My, oh my, you must be freezing!” She dropped her platter of steaming food onto the desk, and then she whirled to stoke the fire. “I keep telling you, there’s no shame in having a rest downstairs with me sometime. It certainly never gets this cold.” He bent over to pick up the bloody shirt from yesterday, but she swiped it from his grasp. “Ah-Ah! This is over a week worn. Smells like you’ve got a body mouldering away inside it. It gets washed today, Mr. Todd.”
He frowned. He supposed many men didn’t have their widowed neighbor doing their laundry, but then again, he didn’t care to do it himself—and the way his clothes often turned out after a day’s work, he wouldn’t know where to start. Before he dared to broach an argument, Mrs. Lovett spun around and stared at herself in the cracked mirror to adjust her dark hair. “Now, hurry up with breakfast. I need you to go with me to the grocer, let you pick out something to eat. Trouble with you married men, none of you know how to cook a lick. My ole Al couldn’t have warmed a pot of water if he tried. Now, some bachelor comes in the shop, he tells me how to roll my crust.”
Tongue darting tentatively over his lips, Sweeney found himself at a loss for words; the presence of Mrs. Lovett often left him speechless. She was so simple yet so enigmatic. In the years of his absence he hadn’t thought once of her nor of her fat pig of a husband, yet now she was his closest friend and arguably the wittier one of them. So regularly she reflected upon Albert, but she didn’t mourn him, not the way he mourned for Lucy. It seemed she relished in his absence, or at least had a new sense of freedom without him there. He could never fathom an appropriate response to her when she mentioned the late bloke.
Any mention of their old lives, save for the necessary discussions of the judge and the beadle, made Sweeney Todd incredibly uncomfortable. “What about business?”
“It’s a Sunday in December, Mr. Todd.” Hair now pulled down to frame her face, she lifted a finger to the window. “Nobody be wanting a shave today, I don’t suppose, unless he’s in the mood for an awfully cold face.” The shopkeeper smoothed down the hem of her dress. “Besides, we’ll have two or three days of meat anyway from that bloke you offed yesterday. Fat fellow, he was. Don’t suppose anyone will miss him?”
Shaking his head, he replied, “Cab drivers are a dime a dozen.” He eyed the steaming plate and scratched awkwardly at his bare chest, one eyebrow quirked upward and the other hovering low over his eye. The mixed feelings of exposure and embarrassment and hunger stimulated him.
She met his eye in the mirror. “Nah, sir. Not that breakfast. I’m losing the taste for it, myself, you know.” Her hand held her hair in place and twirled it around once, twice, thrice, and then it held in place. “Figured you were too. Many butchers are vegetarians, is that what they say? Now, can’t understand that myself, but, well, maybe it’s the knowing. Toby sure doesn’t have a problem downing them.” She spun delicately on her heel with a grace like a dancer and rapped her fist on his chest like she had the door. His face quirked up, and his hand glided smoothly upward to cover the place that she had touched. “Eat your breakfast. Need you for the grocer. Half an hour good?”
A hesitant nod.
“Perfect.” She clipped back out of the door. The snow muffled the sounds of her boots on the stairs.
In her wake, he stared at the cloud of snow that wafted into the small room. He scratched at the thin wad of hair where she had touched his chest with an absent look on his face. Then, walking on the balls of his feet like a cat, he approached the steaming bowl of noodles and sat down to nibble at them. Buttery. Wholesome. Ought to run a noodle shop. They’d sell better. The bowl vanished before his very eyes, and like a little boy, he ogled at the bowl like he wished it would refill itself. Don’t suppose you could chop up a corpse into noodles.
“Mr. Todd, are you coming?” shouted the infernal cook from downstairs. “Come along, you tortoise!”
In a flash, he secured a clean shirt around his chest and buttoned up a coat over it, then he started searching for a hat, but no sooner than he opened his wardrobe, she barged in yet again with a hat in hand. “Here you are, I’ve been meaning to give it this to you. Done stuffed the brim with tissue for you. Suppose I found something you’ll eat, then—” She plopped the hat onto his head, and he pulled it down so he could see just the rim of the brim at the top of his eyes. “Now, that’s just fine on you.” There she went again, hands patting his shoulders. He didn’t push her away. “Can we go, or are you waiting for a customer to materialize to avoid my company?”
“You do like a rush, ma’am.”
“Make the most of your time. Never know when you’ll just drop dead, and then some ole barber may be chewing on my old bones.” The bell on the door tinkered as she took his arm and started down the stairs. “Toby, love!” The boy stuck his head out of the door of the pie shop. “Stay off the gin until we’re back. Tend the fire. Have yourself a toffee or two!” She blew him a kiss, and the boy echoed, “Yes, ma’am,” down the quiet, snowy street.
Sweeney glanced back at him as he retreated into the shop. “You’ll rot all the teeth out of the boy’s head at this rate.” He pressed his hands into his pockets to warm them. “I wasn’t trained to pull teeth, you know.”
She chuckled and squeezed the inside of his elbow. “No? I thought that was an old skill of the barber-surgeon.” She elbowed him pointedly in the ribs, not enough to hurt, but more like a nudge for his attention. It took no genius to see that she swooned under his watchful eye. “You’re jealous that I don’t offer you toffees.” He glanced down at her mischievous dark eyes and smiled as they trod down the street. She winked playfully. The quiet December snow muffled their muted conversations and blurred their vision. “I do hope the grocer is open. I’m going to need flour before tomorrow’s dinner. Nothing on the person quite substitutes for that, I’m afraid.”
“Grind the bones.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works, love.” Mrs. Lovett shushed abruptly when she eyed two beggar men watching them. They had curled side by side on the sidewalk with their backs to the building. The older man’s hands trembled as he struggled to lift a mug to his lips. “Let’s hurry,” she urged, and she tugged at his elbow to rush him to the grocer. The door swung open easily as he held the door open for her, and they both stomped off their boots at the front mat.
Behind the counter, a fat, tan man rested on a stool. “Oye! Customer! Martin, boy, wait on the dear Mrs. Lovett!” The man stood and stumped around the counter. He had a badly built peg leg and bent at the pelvis. One blue eye fixed onto Sweeney before it slid back to Mrs. Lovett. “The usual, my dear? Still don’t know what you do without Martin delivering. No matter, can’t have him delivering on a day like today. Visibility too low for the horses, you know. Must hurt your knees and feet.” Fingers tapping, the crippled man stumped around with the boy. “Anyhow, give us a few minutes. We’ll have it rounded up. You want enough for a couple weeks, I’m supposing? The papers say this blizzard is going to flood us in for awhile, you know.” His peg leg slammed onto the wooden floor loudly as he bagged the butter and flour and other assorted items.
“Is it? We don’t get the paper.” Mrs. Lovett exchanged a glance with Sweeney. He pressed his lips into a thin line before he forced a smile onto his countenance.
The shopkeeper kept his gaze fixed on the woman. “Is he slow?” he asked after a moment, gesturing to Sweeney with a flick of his finger.
Mrs. Lovett snorted. Sweeney’s eyes narrowed, eyebrows drooping in a harrowing threat. “Slow? No. My second cousin, Sweeney Todd, just moved here above my shop. He’s got a barber shop above my meat pie store.”
“Oh? Well, that’s fine, isn’t it? I think there used to be a barber up there some years ago, too, you know. Never met the bloke myself. All the men getting shipped off nowadays over petty things, suppose it’s better than hanging by the neck. I’ve never afforded a barber, sir, but Mrs. Lovett is quite the lady—you know, I may just drop in once the weather’s a little better.”
The smile returned, this time with more ease and a glint to the eye. “I’d wager a close shave would do you some good, sir, with the ladies, I mean.” He held the grocer’s gaze until Mrs. Lovett clinked several coins onto the counter and the boy laden them with bags.
The door clinked behind them, and they started down the street. Mrs. Lovett shuffled close beside him, though she couldn’t take his arm for the bags. “Is he...up for grabs?” ventured the barber, eyes to the side of the streets. The beggar men had vanished or been buried in the snow, which now reached over his ankles. The bitter cold ate into his hands and face. How he had missed English winters!
“Afraid not. His oldest sons are officers, and the beadle is his wife’s cousin. Takes great pride in that, too. Got nothing else to be proud of, I suppose.” She rolled her eyes. “Rather silly, I think, but I’ve never had nothing to be proud of. I’d probably take great pride in it, as well.”
Eyes fixed forward, Sweeney only hummed in agreement and slammed into her when he didn’t see her halt in front of another shop. “Aye! What’re you doing?” She swatted the snowflakes off of his coat. “Let’s go in here. I’ve been wanting to grab some flowers for the shop, you know, and it mightn’t kill you to brighten your place up a little, too.”
“It’s winter,” complained the barber. “All the flowers are dead.” She ignored him as she barged into the small floral shop—surprisingly open. He followed her with a grumble under his breath. The dimly lit shop smelled of flowers and had dead petals on the floor all around, little trinkets decorating the walls and shelves with price tags. The counter was unoccupied. Mrs. Lovett made to start between the shelves, but he seized her by the side of the neck with his cold hand, wet nearly to the skin from the snow. “Wait.” She gasped at the frigidness of the cloth against her bare skin. “There’s someone else here.” He licked his pale lips, then, settling one hand over the razors in his pants pocket, he called out, “Is there anyone here?”
From the back room, a stout old woman waddled forth. She may have been a beggar, but she had kind, sane eyes. “Oye, Mrs. Lovett and her new man-friend, what’s-the-name, Dodd? Sodd? Oh, bother. Fancy seeing you all here. Grab anything you like. Beadle Bamford’s around looking at the flowers, too—what’s left of them. This time of year, it’s just what I can manage to keep alive, not much, think I’ve got one living bouquet left, but I’ve got a couple imitations if you need, plus the odd trinket.”
Sweeney tightened like she had plunged a dagger into his gut. Mrs. Lovett patted his shoulder, mouthing, “Settle,” as she made to head to the back aisle. He started after her, but she pushed him away by the chest, and he ducked into the next aisle over to look at the small picture frames and delicate hanging pictures, ears attune for any sound coming around from Mrs. Lovett or the beadle.
“Why, hello, Mrs. Lovett.” His throat pinched up, teeth digging into his tongue. It bled. “I thought I saw you on your way to the grocer. Now, I was just looking at these flowers for a dear woman friend of mine.” Say nothing, say nothing, don’t move. His tongue wouldn’t do. He bit his hand. “Unless you need them for your shop? I would never scorn a lady in need of a bouquet, especially in this rather bleak, flower-less season of the year.” He could hear the sneering smile in the beadle’s voice.
Mrs. Lovett’s girlish voice sang back at him like a fresh lass skipping home from church. “You take your flowers for your lady friend, Beadle Bamford.” He heard her pat his shoulder. Rage boiled within him. He snatched a snow globe from the shelf and rushed to the counter to purchase it. Then, with a quick duck out of the shop, he hurled it against the side of the building. The flash of glass in the faint light filled him with satisfaction. It tinkered, but the snow muffled the sound. He approached and crunched the glass with his boot.
A moment later, Mrs. Lovett and the beadle emerged from the shop together. The greasy man held his bouquet just under his chin as if to smell the flowers. The beady black eyes gleamed soullessly out at the world like a rat’s. “Now, to give these to my lady friend.” He turned to face Mrs. Lovett. Sweeney shrank back into the brick wall. Narrow eyes watched the woman’s careful countenance as the beadle offered the bouquet. “Mrs. Lovett, I would be flattered if you would accompany to dinner sometime this week.” A greasy dark lock fell into the man’s face, and he blew it away.
The widow crinkled her nose as the breath touched her face, and with some indulgence, he grinned as she replied, “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Bamford, but I’m afraid I’m already occupied for most of the week. I do have my own business to run, you know. Mr. Todd, come along. We’ve got to get lunch in the oven.”
He held the smile as he approached from behind, and she slipped her arm delicately into his. Their hands folded together neatly. With her other hand, she accepted the bouquet. “But I’m sure I’ll put this as a centerpiece in the shop.” The shocked beady eyes glinted back at them. She winked playfully. He couldn’t wipe the smug smirk from his face much as he tried to erase it, to indicate less of his intentions at heart. The poker face wouldn’t return to him.
“Right, right…” The beadle tapped his fingers together. Fury colored the bulging vein in his flabby neck. He chewed a bit harder on his tobacco, and then he spat it. It stained Sweeney’s boots. “I suppose I’ll see the two of you around, then, won’t I?” He nodded with feigned politeness to the both of them and started down the street, vanishing quickly into the blizzard.
Mrs. Lovett shuddered and pulled her hand from his. “My lord, I think that’s the most awkward thing I’ve endured in months. Ick!” She spun her hand through her hair and then lifted her groceries. “Let’s hurry home. Toby’s apt to come looking for us. Say, are you alright? I thought you would burst an eyeball before I got rid of him. Don’t I keep telling you to wait, love? It won’t do to spill blood in the middle of the street.”
“It would flow away with the snowmelt,” he muttered in response. He trudged after her, the snow thickening faster than ever. “I didn’t know you were smart enough to save yourself.” He shot her a half-teasing look out of the corner of his eye. But half-not teasing, as well. The thought of that slimy vulture laying a hand upon Mrs. Lovett made his heart quiver in hate and rage.
She cackled. “Would you think me daft, Mr. Todd? I’m not as fickle as I seem.”
“True? Fickle to me.”
“Fickle only to you.” She sauntered like a cat ahead of him in the street, a sultry sway to her hips like he’d dropped a few coins into the pockets of a dollymop. “I’m not daft, Mr. Todd. That man’s a hyena. Dark cully if I’ve ever seen one. Most of them are, anyway. Never met a grown man pure in the heart.” She winked back at him. He could scarcely see it in the snow blown into his face. The flakes arranged a crown in her hair and brimmed around his hat.
Toby had lit a lantern outside the shop to illuminate the sign to great fortune, as Sweeney supposed he would have trudged right past it while fixing his eyes upon her. The door creaked at their entrance, and they each stamped off their boots on the front mat. Mrs. Lovett tramed to the counter and dropped the flowers in a vase. “Now, don’t these look just lovely,” she hummed. Shedding her coat, she said, “Thanks a mite for your company, Mr T. Toby! Come here and help me fill the pantry, boy!” Around the corner the boy rushed with a big grin on his face. “Do you remember where everything goes?”
“That’s a good lad. Now you just ask if you’ve any questions, you hear? And stay away from the cellar. Remember what I tell you about the cellar, son?”
“Never, ever go near it unless you or Mr. Todd tells me directly to go inside,” parroted the child. He wiped his face with his sleeve. Since Mrs. Lovett had taken him in, he appeared more cleanly and well-kept, not so ragged with less soot around his face and a more genuine expression. Sweeney watched the boy empty their bags and fill the nearly empty pantries while, almost in rhythm with him, Mrs. Lovett set out pans to cook.
They had no need for any of his skills; they operated perfectly without him. And his razors needed cleaning and sharpening. He licked his chapped, cold lips and peered out at the merciless weather. He started toward the door to head back upstairs, but Mrs. Lovett called after him. “Mr. Todd?” He paused. “I’ll bring lunch up to you when it’s done, so keep your damn clothes on.” His neck colored in embarrassment, and his jaw shifted. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay down here, love? It’s much warmer.”
The yearning in her voice festered upon his skin like an itchy sore, both attracting him and repelling him somehow in the same way. “I’ve got to clean my razors and neaten up.” Some of those stains in the floor needed a mop taken to them, but he’d done his best to keep everything looking relatively tidy. Perhaps in a few years the wood would warp from the constant exposure to the moisture, but by then, he would probably be long gone. By the sea, where Mrs. Lovett wanted to go—he would follow her, once the judge and the beadle were finished and Johanna was free, once they had enough money to support themselves and stay under the radar of any local governing. He’d no reason not to follow her.
“Well, alright. Don’t get too cold up there.” The disappointment upon her face shrank as the flour filled the wrinkles that it left behind. He purchased the illusion and stomped back up to his shop.
The next morning, Sweeney Todd arose bright and early to finish scrubbing down his floor, a venture he had undertaken only in a bout of extreme loneliness when he dared not call upon Mrs. Lovett for fear of her laughing in his face. Most of the reddish marks on the floor had vanished in the soapy water. He stoked the fire and glanced out of his window to look at Fleet Street below. Few people littered the snow-covered sidewalks, and those who walked by did so in a hurry, hunkered over in coats and hands buried into their pockets, faces covered by scarves and scraggly beards. He traced the tip of his razor with his forefinger, deep in thought, when a particular face caught his eye.
The beadle sauntered about the street like some shadow unwilling to be caught. “Ah!” He whirled about to prepare his chair, dusting the last fine bits of hair from it, and he shook out his cape. Then, chest filling with disappointment, he listened to the door bang open downstairs. The voices echoed, but he couldn’t make out the words. Mrs. Lovett didn’t typically have customers until lunch or dinner time; he doubted if she had a single fresh pie to give the beadle, if the greasy man would even dare touch such food prepared by a peasant woman. But what is he doing there?
Swallowing the emotions in his throat, he strode to the door but opened it slowly so the bells wouldn’t jingle, and then he started down the stairs. The voices became clearer there; he heard Mrs. Lovett’s first: “I am truly flattered, Beadle Bamford, to have caught the attention of a high-standing man such as yourself, one upholding all rule of law—however, my answer remains the same.” He could see their outlines through the dirty glass. “I have no business running about with you or any man outside of my business arrangements. My ole Al would roll in his grave at the thought.” She spun another flower, this one a single rose. “Can I settle you with some ale? Our pies aren’t done for lunch yet.”
Lunging forward, the beadle grabbed her by the elbow. The gasp that caught in throat choked halfway at the physical imposement, and Sweeney barged into the shop with his eyes flashing and his mouth drawn into a snarl. The beadle released her before he said a word. Those beady eyes flicked down to the ground. Breathless, Mrs. Lovett settled one hand over her chest. The rose lay discarded upon the floor. “Mr. Todd,” she greeted, but the tightness in her voice couldn’t eliminate her mixture of surprise and relief. Her face relaxed all about. “Can I get you some tea?”
A curt nod passed from him, eyes on the ground, and he sat at one of the broken tables. Trembling, Toby stepped inside with a snow-covered broom. “I swept the stoop and sidewalk, ma’am, but it’s starting to come down again.” The beadle slid past the boy and out the front door without another word to either of them. “Gee, he looked upset,” remarked the boy with a scratch at his reddened nose. “Suppose there was a spider in his pants?”
“Maybe so, sweetie. Go warm yourself by the fire.” Obedient as always, the child scurried out of sight into the living area. Mrs. Lovett came to the table with her kettle and poured him a cup of tea. For a moment, he thought she would say nothing on the account of the beadle or his opportune arrival at all, but after she returned the kettle to the stove, she approached again and sat across from him on one of the broken chairs. “Thank you,” she said. His blank eyes rose to meet hers, earnest and genuine and surprisingly open. The openness he saw there he didn’t think he had witnessed from her before. Then, she tucked back into herself. “I didn’t expect him to come at me like that. More foolish of me.”
“Would you have screamed?”
“If I hadn’t come in. Would you have screamed?” He lifted his head and blinked a few times to clear the blur from his vision.
She hesitated. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his dirty glove. How many times had their positions reversed, her proposing an uncomfortable question and him struggling to fathom an answer? “Yes,” she said.
“Are you lying?”
“Perhaps.” His eyebrow twitched, and she plucked at the hem of her dress. A stray string needed snipped off. “I’m no stranger to being manhandled, Mr. Todd. I was merely surprised by his forwardness at the matter.”
He drank from the tea and regretted that he refused to take gin so early in the workday. “It’s important to me,” he said in slow tone, his index finger tracing the chipped rim of the cup, “that if someone comes in here with impure intentions, you’ll scream. For me, or for Toby, or for someone.” In his mind’s eye, he pictured Toby leaping like a cat from the rafters onto the beadle’s head and slashing with his dirty fingernails. It made an almost tender smile appear onto his pale lips.
“Are you implying that I can’t care for myself?” He quirked an eyebrow at her over the table, but he didn’t grace her question with an answer. Either way, she would come out feigning offense to change the subject. And when he didn’t answer her, she sighed patiently and leaned forward. She patted his hand twice. “I promise I’ll make enough noise for all of the heavens to split open and your army of soldiers to come rescue this damsel in distress.” She fanned herself and tossed her head back. “Oh, Mr. Todd, you must come save me!” snarked the shopkeeper, and she stood and stomped back behind the counter.
A grin curled onto his lips. “You’ve got the idea, then.” He downed the rest of his tea and glanced from the corner of his eye to see a gentleman starting up the stairs to his barbershop. Standing, he asked, “Do we need one today?”
“Wouldn’t hurt. Cab driver will only last another two days at the most.”
“Right. I’ll get on it.” He stretched, and his back popped, and he headed out of the shop back up the stairs. But even in the moments following after a quick interview during the shave—no wife, no kids, parents recently deceased, a lawyer with no clients spending his last cents on a good shave in the hopes of finding a new job—when he dumped the fresh body down the hatch into the cellar for later disposal, he couldn’t shake the fear of the beadle returning and hearing Mrs. Lovett scream. If the beadle came again, he could only hope that she would scream.
After a day’s work, coins jangled in his pocket. He’d had six customers, not counting the one that Mrs. Lovett would soon butcher and cook; she always emptied the pockets of those blokes, but he supposed from the story the man had told him that they wouldn’t find much money on his person. Downstairs, he listened to the diner chime with people. He vaguely missed the days when he could go downstairs after an early close and enjoy some gin with Mrs. Lovett in front of the fire with a book in his lap, not actually reading it but just enjoying the freedom and warmth of company once again. Of course, she had assured him he was always welcome to have a seat in her shop and drink some ale or have a pie if he wanted, but he couldn’t possibly divert her focus from the paying customers. And the noise would likely aggravate him, anyway.
Eyes down on the dimly lit street, he saw Toby sweeping off the stoop again as the snow continued to shower down upon the street. The customers filtered in and out; as the hour grew later, they headed out faster than in, until the sound had quieted enough for him to start down the stairs. His fire had once again fallen to a smolder of embers, and the room was chilled, but he didn’t stoke it before he headed back down the wooden stairs and into the shop’s side door. Mrs. Lovett rested behind the counter. Only two people, a young couple, remained, with Toby hovering over and occasionally refilling their glasses. Sweeney ducked his head away from them to disguise his grin as the man took a hearty bite of the meat pie at his lips. “Oye, Mr. Todd. Haven’t seen you in a few hours. Come for a tot of gin?”
“If you don’t mind.” He spun onto the stool around the counter, and she filled a shot glass for him. He downed it in a solid gulp, and she filled it again no sooner than the glass had clinked onto the counter. “It’s a race, is it?” His eyebrow quirked, and she chuckled, shaking her head.
“Anything else I can get for you folks tonight?” she asked as she rounded the counter, wiping her hands off on her apron. It had brownish stains on it. He couldn’t recall seeing her in a different apron as long as he could remember. Even in the picture of his memory from all those years ago, it was the same apron with the little purple flower pattern on the bottom corner. It felt familiar somehow, significant.
“I think we should buy Mrs. Lovett an apron for Christmas,” Lucy remarked. The snow muffled any sounds happening on the streets below, stacked up to the knees of any passerby. He had just fallen asleep, her head on his chest and finger delicately tracing his nipple. Goosebumps erupted around it. Grunting into wakefulness, he peered at her through half-closed eyes. As little sleep as the baby gave them, and she woke him up to talk about giving their landlord an apron. “She always wears the same ugly black one, and I heard her asking Albert for one the other day, and he cuffed her upside the head. Oh, Ben, can’t we get her a new apron? I know you’ve saved up the coins to buy Johanna a new doll, and she’s just a baby. She won’t really appreciate it until she’s older.”
“Sure, sure,” he grumbled, tossing an arm up over his eyes. “We’ll go down to the market in the morning, and you can pick out the one you like best for her.” She had cut off circulation to his arm, and he pulled out from under her and began to massage the feeling back into it, eyes still drooping in tiredness.
Lucy grumbled and fought to keep her arm around his waist. “Doesn’t it bother you, though?”
“The way he treats her.”
“Ah, no, ma’am, I think we’ve had quite our fill, yeah, dear?” The man exchanged a look with his young maid, and she nodded aptly. “You’re quite the cook, madam. Never had a meat pie quite like that one. I’d say we’ll be back, yeah, dear?” The woman nodded again. “Thanks for waiting on us.” He dropped a few coins into her hand. “Keep the change. Definitely worth it for the price, I’d say.” Sweeney’s grin widened, but he had to smear it away quickly when the man addressed him, “And you, sir, you’ve a barbershop?”
The young man grinned ear to ear, a less ironic and more genuine expression. “I think I’ll come by later in the week. It is so hard to find a good barber these days. Seems many are more anxious to pull teeth than trim cheeks, and I’d prefer all my teeth in my head.” Once again he faced his partner and asked, “How does the twenty-third sound? Do you like the twenty-third?”
“The twenty-third is fine, dear.”
“Consider it made,” Sweeney said, and he downed the second shot as the couple left. Mrs. Lovett turned the sign to read closed and locked the front door. “Anxious young lad, wasn’t he?” remarked the barber with a dull, distracted look on his face. Her words from earlier now rang in his mind again: “I’m no stranger to being manhandled.”
She chuckled. “Well, I thought he was rather cute. Toby, dear, that’s all I need for the night. You can go lie down.” The boy, still in his snow-sodden clothes, headed off to his makeshift cot. Mrs. Lovett sat down beside him at the counter. “Oye, a long day.” She massaged one of her calves absently. He poured himself a third shot and then stared at it with a blank look. “I think we both made a pretty penny, though, eh? Running this nice, respectable business like. I can almost smell the salt from the sea, it’s getting so near.” A derisive snort passed between them, and she leaned her head against his shoulder. “Christmas is just around the corner,” she said in a soft voice.
He drank the shot. It burned less with each gulp. “Yes.”
“Never was one for the holidays myself. But I suppose I ought to get something for Toby. Boy probably never received a Christmas gift before in his life. That’s something that every child deserves, I think.” Chocolate eyes slanted up to his slightly stubbled cheek. “What do you want for Christmas, Mr. Todd?”
Blank eyes fixed on the empty glass, and he wondered if it would do to get drunk off his ass on a night before a work day. He didn’t fancy handling a hangover. He also didn’t fancy talking about Christmas with woman who baked his murder victims into meat pies, but here he sat. Pushing himself back from the counter, he lifted his head, opting against the fourth shot. Three was enough. Three would go straight to his head. “Other than the obvious?”
“Well, of course.”
“I’d like a new watch, I suppose. The old one doesn’t keep time very well and has a couple cracks in the glass.” Absently, he picked at his fingernails, staring at the dirt beneath. He liked to clean underneath them with his razor, but as he reached for it in his pocket, he realized that he had left it upstairs. The fluttering of terror in his chest forced him to swallow hard. How unguarded he felt without it heavy in his pocket. “I, uh. And you?” He had to struggle to refocus his attention onto her. To his surprise, her eyes flashed in confusion, like she didn’t understand the question at all. “What do you want for Christmas, Mrs. Lovett?
“Oye!” She blinked, feeling the effects of the long laboring day upon her wearied mind. “I’ve everything I need. Respectable business and nice lad to help me out when my knees don’t rightly cooperate with me, plenty of coins in my pocket, and no one dangling over my head determined to rule me like a slave. My life’s a lot better than I ever supposed it’d get, this season.”
Sweeney’s eyebrows creased in the middle, sealing a pleasant look of curiosity upon his countenance without probing her. “You made me answer,” he quipped to her in return. “Come now, Mrs. Lovett. Courtesy.”
Her nut brown eyes found his, and she sighed wistfully. “Well, I’ve always wanted to go see a show at the theater, I suppose. A play, naturally. But they perform on the weekends, and that’s our busy hours—not much in the wintertime, anyway. Make a soddy Christmas present.” She smudged the small soot spots on her cheeks with the sleeve of her dress, then she lifted her head from his shoulder. “I suppose I’d best prepare for bed. Long nights don’t do me well, you know—well, I don’t suppose anything does me well anymore—even the powder accentuates the wrinkles.” She giggled, but his look still brooded upon one of the portraits above the oven. “Mr. Todd?” He blinked to her from his reverie. “Would you like to stay here tonight? I don’t mind grabbing the blankets from the closet. You can rest fine in front of the fire. Would you like that?”
The expectation proposed at his feet didn’t have the chance to process thoroughly—otherwise he would have denied her fancy with a flick of his wrist and no second thought upon the matter. But his preoccupied mind, not now bent on revenge but rather on Christmas, hardly heard her at all, and his head nodded. Christmas, Christmas. What would he get for her? She was right on the plays; they never performed in the wintertime. He could always take her to one for her birthday in the summer, if the money continued flowing well. A new apron or two wouldn’t harm her. But reluctance burbled in him at the thought of replacing the apron that Lucy herself had chosen for Mrs. Lovett, much as the shopkeeper desperately needed a new one. Perhaps some new pots.
“I’ll get you a pillow and some covers, yeah?”
Shaking himself once more, he felt his tired mind churn against him, unwilling to listen beyond its own musings. The gin had begun to take effect and muddled her every word. “Thank you.” He stood from the stool and managed to hold himself steady. “I need to kill my fire, lest it kill all of us.” I need to grab my razors. Slipping peacefully out into the snow-covered city, he found himself repeating under his breath, “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit…”
From his window, he looked upon the white streets. The smoldering embers of his fire died easily. Fleet Street rested. A harlot guided a man into an alley, and he saw no more of anyone, only the bright halo of the moon gleaming silvery upon the snow and fat falling flakes. He had stared up at that same moon, a bit fuller, over sixteen years ago on the night that Johanna was born. He would never forget that night. A shooting star rocketed by the full, bright moon, and then the babe shrieked, and the midwife announced, “It’s a girl!”
A strong, wracking shudder passed through him. He did not wish to relive such memories. The joy that he had once cherished now arrived with an equally insurmountable pain that he could not face. Retreating from the window, he quickly shed his day-clothes and replaced them with lighter garments, and then he scurried back onto the steps and locked the door behind him, his razors heavy in his back pocket. Through the dark shop into the parlor, which roared with firelight, he saw Mrs. Lovett stacking blankets onto the oversized arm chair. It was wide enough to hold at least two of him, three if they stacked knee-to-knee. “There you are. I’d worried you’d changed your mind.” She patted the arm of the chair. “You can sleep wherever you like. Toby’s a restless sleeper, so he usually keeps the fire, but if you’re cold, you can always feed it.” He sat. The chair consumed him like a gaping mouth. She chuckled. “This was my ole Al’s chair. Only one in the whole city that could fit his fat ass. Fortunate that you’re no porker, Mr. Todd.”
“Thank you,” he said idiotically, wondering if she meant to compliment him or simply filled the room with her voice. He had learned that she loved the sound of her own voice, or of anyone’s voice in a conversation. The years strapped silently to her husband—that bastard, thought Sweeney—had left her yearning always to utilize her new freedom of speech. Exhaustion swamped him like a heavy cloud of smoke, settling upon his shoulders.
Her light hands smoothed over the fabric of his dirty sleeping shirt. “You let me know if you need anything, dear.”
“Mrs. Lovett?” he interrupted. She paused, and her ghosting hands rested with more strength upon his shoulders. They chilled into his skin through the thin fabric of his sleeping shirt. “Will you...Can you stay a moment?” The gin had reached his mind and muddled it with uncertain confidence. But she sat beside him anyway, wedging carefully in the big chair, earnest eye brown and warm. He imagined that she felt very warm and soft all over. He imagined she would come to life and flush very pink if he touched her, and he imagined her voice would color with vibrance.
He imagined he would do the same. “What is it, love?” she pressed gently. Those frigid fingers tickled the side of his neck as they eased their grip and brushed his skin.
Lifting his hand, he squeezed the stiff fingers. “I’m not sure I want to be alone right now,” he mumbled. The words made him feel exposed and stupid, a wounded fox in front of a skilled trapper, lying in wait for his death to sweep upon him from the mouth of a muzzleloader.
She sank down beside him deep into the worn cushion of the long chair. The broken springs buckled in the middle to bring them together, thighs touching. “Mr. Sweeney Todd, exposing his vulnerabilities,” she quipped, but he sensed an intimacy in her words, private and reserved. Her breath, much warmer than her fingers, brushed across his neck. “To what do I owe this fantastic occasion?” Her fingers traced the scars on the back of the one hand she cradled, thin white lines by razor accidents in his youth, mistakes that he hoped to never make again.
“Gin,” he answered bluntly. She chuckled. The quiet sound chimed to him like a much younger, more carefree woman; he could see in the mirror above the fireplace their reflections, picturing them as much younger and happier. Was she pretty in her youth, a perfect young doll? He couldn’t recall. Naivete guided him to Lucy and pinned him, hopelessly in love, to the front of her gown. But he thought Mrs. Lovett was perfectly pretty now. The wrinkles she sometimes mocked were mere laugh-lines and crinkles from smiling or frowning too firmly, not inflicted by age. Perhaps they had deepened since her childhood, but he thought she had carried them most of her life, the dimples and creases. Her face and hands still had the dainty shapes of youth, and her earnest eyes hardly looked a day over thirty.
Why do you think of her like that? The thought occurred abruptly after the internal monologue swept him away, defending her beauty to himself. Mrs. Lovett was no elder, much as she complained about her looks; he suspected her a few years younger than himself. “Mm.” The woman leaned her head on his shoulder once again. Tiredness crept under her soot-smudged eyes. Her brown curls bounced against his neck and swept against the skin, and he found a drawing urge to run his fingers through it, or stroke the top of it. “Gin will do it.” He pulled his face away to gaze upon the crackling orange fire. “Gin will,” she repeated, slurring slightly, and guilt pricked from his chest at keeping her from her bed; he wasn’t the only one to open a shop in the morning, and his troubles weren’t meant to be hers at all.
With a delicate firmness, he squeezed her hand. The chilled fingers had warmed to the temperature of his palms, and her face now flushed a bit. From their proximity to the fire or her proximity to him, he didn’t know. “You don’t have to stay with me,” he said, trying not to sound too guilty. He could slit the throat of a man and waste no time wiping the blood from his face, but the idea of restraining Mrs. Lovett bothered him like an itch he couldn’t scratch. He didn’t want to inconvenience her.
“Oye.” A yawn heaved upward, and her chest heaved with it. “This is fairly comfy, if I do say so myself.” Her eyes, sensing his upon her breasts, flashed up to his face. “‘Ey, me eyes is up here, Mr. Todd.” She swatted the back of his hand. Up his neck a blush crawled and burned, though she had no heat behind her admonishment. She meant no harm in teasing him.
“Sorry,” he grunted. He averted his face to the wooden floor which reflected the flashes of the flames.
Purring, she wriggled a little nearer to him. His breath hitched in his throat as her lips grazed his cheek in a gentle peck. “You’re a kind man, Mr. Todd. Excluding the killin’ people and occasional burst of madness, that is.”
In the orange light, he turned to her, and the light and shadows colored his eyes nearly red. “You’re not afraid of me, then?”
“Afraid? I’ve no reason to.” She lowered her voice, husky and throaty. “You said it yourself, didn’t you? Death—that’s a relief for the rest of us.” He smiled, and his eyes gradually descended into his lap, watching one hand clasp and unclasp at the empty air. “Freer than I’ve ever felt before in my life with you around, and safer, too.” She put her hand inside of his again, and they both stared at the fingers, hers thin and womanly, his thicker and rounder and larger.
A shriek split the air, and Sweeney leapt forward from the chair and flashed out the blade of his razor; it reflected a spot onto the wall. Toby’s voice wailed, “Get him off of me! Get him off of me!” Blade procured, he made to run into the other room, but Mrs. Lovett snagged his arm. “‘Ey, ey, he’s having a dream! Calm yourself, you ole blighter. Toby has his nightmares, you let me deal with him. Put that there away!” He tried to shake her off, hardly understanding her words, but she persisted. “You charge in there with that like that, you’ll scare the dickens out of him. Sit down. There’s nobody else in here—you know there’s only the two ways in. Sit, sit you down!”
She pushed him, and he sat. She doesn’t mind getting awfully handsy with a man who likes to slit throats. He stared at the blade of his razor, looking at his reflection in it. Unexplained displeasure filled him. He had hoped to slit a throat.
From the other room, he heard Mrs. Lovett’s voice float around the corner to Toby. “Love, love, it’s alright,” soothed the woman. Another broken, wailing sob shook the walls. “Nobody’s gonna hurt you here. Remember what I say? You’re safe as long as you’re with me. Never goin’ back to that old spike, I promise. Nah, we never send you back—them ghosts is in your past, dear.” Her voice became more clear as the boy’s cries softened. “There you are, sweetie. You’re safe. I’m here. Now, do you want me to sing you a little song, eh?”
“Yes, mum,” whispered the boy. His voice cracked in distress.
“Right, right, son.” Sweeney turned his head to watch their shadows on the wall. The dark figures mingled where she clutched the child against her chest. “Listen to me, and you try to get some sleep. Listen now: May there always be angels to watch over you, to guide you each step of the way, to guard you and keep you safe from all harm. Loo-li-loo-li-lai-lay…”
Sweeney stood again at the familiar sound of the lullaby, his tongue anxious in his mouth. He had heard that song before! Where had he heard it? Surely it had to come from before—no one sang in Australia. It was too hot to sing in Australia, and everyone wept always and no one provided any comfort. Before, before… “The dream,” he said aloud. Lucy had sung it in his dream to the baby. How did Mrs. Lovett know Lucy’s lullaby?
An irrational panic filled him, a fear, like he had mixed things around. His memories had faded so quickly. He fought to sink back into the past, but it muddled. Christmas with his family, how had that happened? The baby crying and them laughing, opening the presents they had each gotten one another, but what had Lucy gotten him? He couldn’t recall, nor what he’d gotten for her. But he remembered the excitement on her face as she said, “Let’s go give Mrs. Lovett her new apron. She’s going to be so surprised!” And her remembered following downstairs and knocking—back in the old days, when he knocked on the door before he barged into her shop—and having the shopkeeper usher them in from the snow while Albert dozed drunkenly in his armchair.
“Oye, I’m so glad you came by! I made the little Johanna something!” Her dialogue remained clear in his memory, sharper even than Lucy’s face. She procured a little yarn-spun doll from the pocket of her apron. It was ugly but hand-crafted and genuine, and Johanna giggled when she took it from the downstairs neighbor with flour on her face and hands. “Now aren’t you just a precious little treasure!” Then Al hollered something in a slurred voice, Nellie, you old church bell, don’t you know Al needs more gin, and her smile fell away into exhausted eyes so quickly that he feared she would faint there at his feet, and she said to the baby, “And a mite more grateful than some people,” and excused herself to wait on her husband’s needs.
“Mr. Todd?” He hovered there a few feet away from the doorway, his blade still held out in his hand. “Mr. Todd, are you alright?” The boy had stopped crying; his level breathing sounded around the corner. “He’s alright. You don’t need to worry about him none.” She wiped her dirty hands on the skirt of her dress. “There was a man awful bad to him back at the spike, the workhouse, but ain’t nobody bad around here now. Didn’t I tell you to put that thing away?”
“Where did you hear that song?”
“The one you just sang to him.”
She shrugged and went into the dark shop to fidget around. She returned with a bottle of gin. “My mother, I suppose. Now, do you want some of this to get to sleep? It’s awfully late.” Biting his lip, he shook his head. “Well, suit yourself, then.” She cracked it open and took a big swig. “If you don’t need anything else from me, Mr. Todd, I’ll be off to bed, then?”
With one delicate finger, he folded the blade of his razor away. “Yes.” He couldn’t shake the disoriented feeling from his chest nor the look from his face. “Goodnight, Nellie.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Todd.” Her eyes, brown like hazelnuts, warmed at the sound of her name, and a small, teasing smile eased onto her lips, but she ducked into her bedroom and closed the door after her.
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The tinkering of the shop door awoke Sweeney, and he flinched in his chair as his sleep-drunken mind struggled to remember his whereabouts and how he had acquired them. Mrs. Lovett’s chiming voice greeted someone. “Morning, sir. How can I treat you this morning? Awful blustery day, isn’t it? What tickles your fancy? I’m afraid the pies aren’t cooked yet, but a drop of ale or tea might treat you, eh?” He cracked his painfully stiff neck and then turned in his chair to watch the shadows moving on the floor of the shop.
“Aye, madam, I’m afraid I’m here on, say, unofficial business? Uh, rather…” The young man cleared his throat, probably not over twenty, and Sweeney could sense his awkwardness at the whole situation. “Rather, Beadle Bamford gave me five shillings to come in here and deliver this here rose and invite you to a Christmas ball at Judge Turpin’s house, Christmas night. Here’s a copy of the invitation—but, really, if you don’t mind, I wouldn’t mind some tea, miss.”
Mrs. Lovett sighed patiently—better than Sweeney would have done, as his jaw grinded. “Sure, son. Thank you for your delivery.” She tried to keep her tone level, but the exasperation seeped into it nonetheless. “Sugar or cream, dear?”
“Neither, ma’am.” The stool scraped the ground as he pulled it out. His fingers tapped on the table rhythmically as he awaited the tea. “So, there’s a barbershop up there, now? My ma always told me that place was haunted.” He laughed a little nervously.
Mrs. Lovett joined him in laughter and poured the cup of tea. “Haunted, eh? Which version of the story did you hear?”
“My ma? Well, she told me that there was a barber-surgeon up there who hacked people up and sold their hearts and livers on the black market, and when his wife found out, he hacked her up, too. But I’m sure that’s—well, that’s gotta be at least a little exaggerated, I suppose. I don’t really believe in ghosts, anyway.”
She laughed again frivolously. “Mr. Todd don’t believe in no ghosts neither, and he’s just a barber, no surgeon to that title. Doesn’t even know how to pull a tooth. Tried to arrange it for my little spike boy, but no, no tooth-pulling there. Fine shaves, from what I hear, though.” She beat off her dirty apron and returned to the counter. “So did the dear Beadle Bamford even invite you to this ball himself, or did he just pay you off to deliver to me?”
“No, ma’am, I’d never be invited to something like that. But these shillings, I needed ‘em if I’m to get my mother anything for Christmas at all. Wish I knew where he got that rose. My ma would love something pretty like that, and in the dead of winter, at that, even!” His fingers drummed a little faster. “I tell you, miss, some of these wealthy folks got so much in their pockets that they can keep Mother Nature from killing their flowers, and I think that’s just unfair, me personally.”
“Well, young man, I tell you, you can have this here one if you want it. This is the third time this week that Beadle Bamford has reached out to me for his company, and I find his persistence rude at best.” Sweeney’s gut trembled when he remembered the way the beadle had lunged across the counter at her with entitlement, gratification, on his face. “He’s one of those men that thinks it insulting if anyone turns him away, holding grudges and all that, and I’ve no patience for it at all. Do you want this, dear?”
The young man hesitated. “I’ll—I mean, I’ll take it, if you’re certain you don’t want it, miss.”
“Oh, thank you!” He sprang up from his stool. “I know it won’t live til Christmas, so I’ll run it home to Ma right now. How much for the tea, ma’am?”
“No charge for you, lad. Run home and show your mother. A boy who cares for his mother is the best thing in the world, you know.” She turned to see Sweeney hovering in the doorway, and a genuine smile broke her lips. The blushing young lad, even younger than he had estimated, nodded politely to her and then ducked out of the shop with a yelp of joy. Mrs. Lovett fixed both eyes on Sweeney. “Some tea for you, too, then? Haven’t seen any men needing a shave yet. But it’s a good thing, you late sleeping plonker.”
A soft derisive snort left his nose, and he strode across the floor. “I suppose tea is something. Do we need another today?” He glanced around to ensure Toby wasn’t within earshot, and then he continued, “I’m in the mood for a little—aye, you know.”
“I know.” She slashed the air over her own throat and made a quick, “Wch,” noise across. He rolled his eyes, raising his eyebrows. Clearing her throat, she poured the tea. “Well, we used the rest of the cabbie and part of the other gentleman last night. Butchering them, though, that’s a lot of work. Been mixing ‘em with rats ‘cause it’s easier to throw them in the grinder whole. Human bones, they too thick for the grinder to get all the pieces, gotta pick out all the nasty and throw it down the sewer—really, I think you’ve gotten the good end of this deal, Mr. Todd. One thing I can’t ask Toby to help me with, you know.”
Sweeney had both eyes fixed on the blade of his razor, only half-listening. He traced the sharp edge with his forefinger, and his smile grew when a rosebud of blood blossomed onto the pad of his finger and swelled. Then the single drop fell into his tea. “I’ll help you with these,” he said, perhaps a little too late, as she tugged the razor away from him. “Oye, that’s mine!”
“Drink your tea and stop poking yourself with it, then. You need your fingers strong if you’re to keep your reputation as the best barber in the city—and you know that’s what they’re saying.” She swiped the blade with her apron to clean it from the blood droplet. “It’s hard work, I tell you, and a bit nastier than anticipated.”
“Wrong of me not to help in the first place. Some of those maggots are twice your size. Prefer you not breaking down in the middle of work if we’ve got bodies mouldering away down there, you know.” The barber paused a moment, and then he popped the wounded finger into his mouth to suck on it. How many years had passed since he had last nicked himself with the razor? More than twenty, probably. He had started learning the craft at twelve, when his parents considered him literate enough to get by without more schooling; they could no longer afford the fees to send him, anyway, and needed his aid about the house with his father’s shop. The years of apprenticeship under his father, shaving others before he needed to shave himself, bleeding lips and customers leaving without paying, then the improvement, then… Lucy.
“You’ve got this little habit of implying that I’m weak,” teased Mrs. Lovett, and she prodded the back of his hand with the dull blade of a knife.
He arched an eyebrow. “Then I’ll leave you to butchering by yourself?”
“Oh, you are a hoot, Mr. Todd.” She flicked her eyes to two men watching the barbershop. “You ought to head upstairs if you’re to send anyone to their maker today, oughtn’t you? I will need another for tomorrow’s dinner. You know the drill, Mr. T, we’re the assembly line. Go, you trick pony!”
Never would have gotten away with talking to Albert like that. Somehow, he didn’t mind one bit that she felt more comfortable with him than she had with her late husband. From his few vague memories of Albert, he felt that few people had endured his presence with any sort of comfort at all. He only remembered the portly man who ate pies like candies, three or five at a time, and drank gin like clean water all day long, then sweated and flushed with drunkenness and slapped his young wife around in the wee hours of the morning when Lucy, then pregnant and anxious, was trying to sleep. And he remembered staring out at the sky and wondering if it was proper to go fetch the beadle to have their antics shut down or if that would lead to an eviction. “Fine, fine.” Under his breath, he muttered, “Slave driver,” too softly for her to hear, and he left the shop to step onto the wooden steps leading up to his door. “Good morning, gentlemen,” he said. “You two looking for a shave?”
He couldn’t do two at once. It carried too much risk. If one escaped, he and Mrs. Lovett could both face death or transportation, and he certainly knew which of those two options he preferred, but he would have Mrs. Lovett dragged into neither of them for her proneness to keep herself alive in the cruel streets of a city that would sooner have a peasant woman working as a dirty puzzle in a brothel for any wandering corinthian. “Yes, sir,” replied the older man. “It’s my son, here, it’s his first time, and rumor has you’re the best around, Mr. Todd?”
The younger man, just a boy of about fifteen, unwound his scarf and revealed a spindly growth of hair around his cheeks and chin. “Rumor may be a bit generous. Come on upstairs with me, and I’ll put some cream on your face and walk you through it, son.” He wouldn’t have these two at all, but they still were paying customers, and something stale warmed inside of him at the prospect of a father escorting his son to his first shave. Something Sweeney would certainly never experience, but a charming notion nonetheless. He started up the stairs and unlocked the door to his shop, the other two at his heels. “Go ahead and sit in the chair, lad. What’s the name, sir?”
“Donald Bamford, and this here is Billy.”
“Relative of the beadle?”
“He’s our second or third cousin, I’d suppose.” The father coughed into his kerchief and sat in the corner. “We’ve only just moved to London last year. Was my wife’s wish always to come to the big city and experience the wonders. She died not knowing how slovenly it is. But we sold our farmhouse, so we’re making room for ourselves here, I suppose. Don’t suppose you’re much looking for an apprentice, sir? Or a meddling lad to sweep up the hair?” A hope colored the gentlemen’s expression.
Sweeney shook his head. “I got one on the burner downstairs. He’s helping out the neighbor until he’s old enough to have a steady hand,” he lied. Apprentice? Hell no. He had enough problems as it was. The compulsion to slit throats would only grow stronger if he suppressed it and distracted it. “She’s a widow, not much cut out for the work anymore, but we all must live.”
The gentleman laughed. The boy remained very still and stiff in the chair as Sweeney painted his face white with the shaving cream. “Yes, we all must live. We ought to go see her for dinner some night this week. Serves meat pies, yeah? That sounds wonderful. We haven’t have a good meat pie in ages. Mrs. Mooney we thought had the best in town, but then, well, I suppose everyone’s heard of that scandal by now, all in the papers, sir.”
“I don’t get the paper, sir. What with Mrs. Mooney?” He squashed the alarm that burbled into his chest. If Mrs. Mooney had been found out, what would happen if they discovered the contents of Mrs. Lovett’s pies? Not traceable to his knowledge, but something could always arise, a stray witness on the street who happened to glance into a window, or a peeper glancing down into the bakehouse, a beggar seeking shelter and seeing something he didn’t mean to see at all. Smoothly, he glided his razor over the boy’s face, and the hair fell away with ease. “Relax, lad, nothing to be afraid of,” he whispered, hoping to assuage the teen’s anxieties.
The father took no notice of his son’s distress. “She was caught trapping cats!” he said, smacking his own thigh like a bug had landed upon it. “Butchering them herself down in her cellar and then baking them into her pies. We went there once a week or so and thought they was the best pies in town, but that’s certainly no option anymore. They still haven’t tried her, but some people are calling for her to hang. Now, personally, I think that’s an overreaction, but I wouldn’t ever trust her to cook for me again, that’s for sure.”
Probably better she dies. She’ll become a dollymop or a shivering jemmy otherwise. “Well, I don’t think Mrs. Lovett’s packing cats into her pies. Spends too much of her time looking after the shop, though her business has gotten a little louder lately.” He continued to glide the blade over the young man’s neck, periodically wiping off his razor. Pulling back, he smoothed the last of the extra lather off of the boy’s face. “There you are, son.”
“I bet it’s noisy, over a restaurant, a little shop like this.” The gentleman stood. “Now that was fast, and smooth as a baby’s ass, I’d say! You’ve quite the talent, Mr. Todd. How much will it be?”
“Three shillings,” answered Sweeney with a curt nod.
“Three shillings! For work like yours? I know a man up the street who charges a whole pound and would’ve bled half his face and left the other half fuzzy. Now that’s impressive.” He offered to shake his hand, and Sweeney accepted it, attempting to smile.
“I’ve taken to account that all people should be able to receive a shave, not just those with higher order concerns,” he purred in response.
The man tipped his hat. “We very well will both recommend you to our friends, yes, Billy?” The adolescent still smoothed his hand over his face like he was trying to figure it out, having no facial hair. Then, after a moment, he nodded. He handed over the three coins and then started back down the stairs. “Thank you much, Mr. Todd, thank you!” The two men hurried out of the door with an adamant chatter still coming from the older man ( Would fit in well with Mrs. Lovett, thought Sweeney wryly), and he meant to start after them to hurry downstairs for another cup of tea, but another gentleman blustered inside guiding his young daughter by the hand, and after him, a husband and wife pair.
Just when he thought he would never catch a break, a solitary man wandered in, very old. He tapped with a cane in front of himself and hunched over at the waist. “Hello?” he called. Blind eyes scanned hopelessly. “I was told this is a barbershop—was told, I was, is there anyone here?”
“Right here, sir.” Sweeney went to his aid and placed one hand on his elbow. I want this one. He held a smile in spite of the man’s blindness. “And this is a barbershop. My name is Mr. Sweeney Todd. What can I do for you today, sir?” He accepted the man’s snow-covered coat. Coins jangled in the pockets. Mrs. Lovett would have quite a treat if he emptied the pockets of such a man after offing him.
“Just a shave, lad, just a shave. Mm...If you think my hair looks fine, that is.” The old man didn’t relinquish his cane and rapped it upon the floor. “My wife always made good on keeping me in shape, but she’s gone now. Shame. Poor ole Margaret. It’s only been a few weeks, sir, forgive me my misty eyes—quite a woman, but no children from her womb—I now look for work—what work is there for an old, blind man? No, sir, but I must try.”
The old man had begun to weep as Sweeney smeared the lather over his face. Out of your misery in a moment, I swear. “No need to apologize, sir. I see widowers all the time in this store. Seems London’s packing with them, and the widows, too.” The tears rolled the lather away, and he pinched his face a little to come up with a new solution. He wanted to start the shave. “Now, sir, I have been looking for an apprentice myself. That certainly wouldn’t happen from you, but a gentleman willing to sweep up hair would earn a third of my earnings.” He didn’t want the old man to be afraid when he plunged the razor into his neck.
“That’s—that’s very generous of you, sir.” The victim in the chair quieted as Sweeney began to smooth the razor up his neck and the specks of hair fell away. “I’m afraid I’m not very able…”
Sweeney did not hear the rest of his words as he lifted the blade far above his head and measured with his eyes the proper place to slice the blade. He could not find one for all the wrinkles. Oh, bother. He brought his hand down. The bells on the door tinkered as it swung open, and a jet of blood sprayed Mrs. Lovett across the face. She squealed in surprise. The platter of lunch dropped at her feet and shattered with noodles and apple slices scattering, and she leapt back to slam the door behind herself so that no one else would happen a glance inside. In the chair, the dying man writhed and choked as Sweeney hesitated at finishing him off, shocked by the intrusion and the surprising appeal of blood on Mrs. Lovett’s face. “Kill him, then, if you’ve started it!” snapped the shopkeeper, and he shook himself and finished the clean slice of the throat. The gristle in his neck tore and ripped audibly. Then, stomping on the pedal, he sent the dead man down the hatch into the cellar.
The barber lifted his head from the bloody chair to look at her. “Sorry about that.” She held one bloodied hand over her beating heart. Swallowing hard, he moved across the room to her and turned the sign to read closed, locking the door so that no one could enter. One hand touched her wrist. “Mrs. Lovett?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “It—It was a rather rude greeting, is all.” She coughed. “Oh, my. All over my face. Didn’t know it worked quite like that—” He used his sleeve to wipe the droplets from her face. “Well, then. You’ve a mess to clean up before your next customer. There’s practically a line. We’ve got to mop this up.”
“There’s blood in my hair. You suppose that’s particularly attractive to customers?” She cleared her throat again. “Very well. I’ll empty his pockets and throw out the food, and then we’ll mop up this bloody mess.” She used her shoe to push the broken remnants of the plates and noodles onto the hatch and dumped them down herself while he went for a mop and started on the blood, toweling it up from the chair. Someone knocked on the door, and he flinched as Mrs. Lovett called, “Just a minute!” She dropped the dirty towels down the hatch, too, and went for the door.
Sweeney jumped to stop her. “Wait!” He pulled the gentleman’s coat onto his arms to hide the bloodstains on his sleeves, and then he toweled off her hair and face. “You look like the children of bedlam were eating at your face,” he growled to himself. “We can’t let anyone see this.” He loomed closer into her eyes and tried to smudge away another streak, but it smeared across her forehead.
She shook her head. “There’s no time.” She unlocked the door. “Hit me.”
“Slap me good across the face, then call me an old biddy and throw me out!” Flipping the sign around, a man knocked again and then started inside. Mrs. Lovett’s face instantly transformed from her adamant look to one slightly broken, mellow brown eyes not meeting his. He swallowed the bile in his throat as the man exchanged a look between them.
“Is something going on here, Mr. Todd?” A frequent customer. One he could not murder. One whose reviews and recommendations he needed if he desired the successful business.
He backhanded Mrs. Lovett across the face. She staggered, but she didn’t leave, one squinting eye daring him to strike her again. With a firm fist, he split her lip. “Get out of here, you daft cow!” His heart tumbling into the pit of his gut, he averted his eyes from hers and shoved her out the door of his shop. “Piss off, you ole slag. We’ve none of that business here!” She hid her face as she fled down the stairs. God, forgive me. He clutched his fists against his chest and sucked in a deep breath through his nose. “Bright ideas just pop into me head, you know.” What idea was that? Preserving nothing but their darkest secrets. “Sorry, Mr. Elkins, for the interruption. Sometimes I think that minger has gone completely barmy. Renting from her for the cheap rates and little more.”
Elkins removed his hat and coat and put them on the rack. “Well, as I always say, Mr. Todd, any woman of any worth has a man to keep her in line. Doesn’t necessarily mean her husband.” He cleared his throat. “I trust she won’t be bothering you anymore, though. Surprising she’s loosened up so much. That old Albert kept a tight rein on her, especially after gout got his leg. Used to eat there every Tuesday night, I did, until Al passed away. Then there was the decline, and then Mrs. Mooney came about—much more polite, anyway.” He ground his teeth and wished he could slit the throat of the nasty man. “Then there’s the cat scandal. People saying her pies has been good again, lately. Do you have them?”
“Every evening,” purred Sweeney. “She is quite the cook. Now, the usual for you, Mr. Elkins?”
At the end of the day with two more bodies in the cellar, Sweeney reluctantly headed downstairs. The dinner crowd petered out early for some event at the church, and the store had turned its sign to closed by seven-thirty when he stepped inside. Woe trembled in his insides when he saw Mrs. Lovett rolling out a crust on the countertop. She sucked absently at her split lip. “Let me finish this, and I’ll pour you some gin before we start on the cellar work.” Her eyes darted to Toby sitting inside the parlor with a book on his lap, turning the pages rapidly to look at all the pictures.
He sat on the broken stool and waited. She brought him a shot glass and filled it. “I’m sorry,” he grunted.
“Was a good way out. Tell you, Mr. Todd, I’m no stranger to a good manhandling. You hit like a wee little boy.” She sank down across from him. “This talk bothers you an awful lot more than it bothers me.” She had washed her hair and face, both now clean of both flour and blood.
“I never thought it well to keep my wife in hand.”
“I’m not your wife.” She arched her eyebrow at him.
He arched his in return. “Worse for it, then, that I’d strike you.”
“Well, it’s what the people expect. I asked you to do it, didn’t I? Got us right out of that bad situation.” She ducked lower to his ear and whispered in that sultry voice, “Suppose it was a different man few weeks ago who held that blade against my throat, yeah?”
Recoiling, he whispered in return, “I would never hurt you.” He grabbed the shot glass and downed it in two fast gulps. It burned in his throat. Then, abruptly, he stood from the table. “Are we going about our business or aren’t we?” Discomfort prickled within him. Why did it bother him so to lay his hands on her? He slit throats almost daily, but when asked to backhand the upstairs neighbor to protect them from discovery, he couldn’t do it without extreme moral rebuke from his quivering intestines and sinking heart. Mrs. Lovett was his only friend. When returning to London, he thought he would never have another friend; he refused Anthony’s handshake because he had no need for such a companion in his new world stricken by a need for revenge.
A grim smile, genuine and mysterious, teased her lips. “Let’s go now.” She sighed and averted her eyes from him. “Toby!” she called. “Mr. Todd and I are going downstairs to repair the meat grinder. Stay up here, and don’t let anyone inside. Are we clear, son?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Toby was completely preoccupied by the story book. She wiped her hands off on her apron and then turned to head down the stairs. Blinking against the sharp change in light, Sweeney followed her and closed the door after them so that Toby wouldn’t happen to wander by the open door and see something compromising. “It smells like shit because of the sewers under the grates,” she remarked. “Did you collect much from their coats?”
“Maybe a whole pound between the lot.”
“That’s something. Let’s start on the blind one.” She grabbed the elderly corpse under the arms and heaved him upward. “Get his legs and we’ll put him on the table.” Slopping through the pool of blood, they plopped him onto the rickety wooden table. “Now, first, I start on the head. Scalp him, no hair in the meat. Throw out the eyeballs, throw in the skin and the fat and the tongue, especially. Leave out the parts of the ears and nose. Not soft enough. Then I throw the bones in the bottom of the oven. After a few cooks, they’re roasted to disintegration.” With a smooth swing of the cleaver, she severed the man’s head clear from his shoulders, a job almost done already from the slitting of his throat. She puffed and set to work on his face. “Then I pop him open. Throw in the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, stomach, bladder, all that. Pick it down to the bones like a vulture. Make sure you squeeze out the bowels good, otherwise the shit splatters into the meat and ruins the whole batch.”
His nose scrunched up a bit, and he became acutely aware of the fact that he had very much taken the easy part of the job thus far. With his razor, he slit the man from the sternum down to the navel and peeled back the flaps of skin to the oozing innards. “Ick.” Eating one of her pies became all the less appealing, but he swallowed his disgust anyway and stuck his hand down into the cavity. One by one, he plucked out the organs; as she instructed, he squeezed out the lower bowels and kicked the resulting pile into the sewer grates.
“What was this one’s story?” Mrs. Lovett asked as she worked. She split his tongue directly out of his mouth.
Sighing, Sweeney said, “Wife died and no children. Looking for a job. He started blubbering halfway through the shave. Knew then I had to end it. Suffering, poor bloke.”
“Unfortunate blighter he was. You get a lot of those, don’t you?”
“Men almost homeless looking for a job—yeah, we cook a lot of them.” He went to the meat grinder and dumped it all inside. “With or without his whore-pipe?” he ventured as he thrust his hand back into the cavity to feel around if he had left any large bits of organ.
“If it looks clean, with. If not, without. Always throw out the hairy lobcocks, and if it’s not circumcised, toss it. We don’t want any nasty bits in there.” She went to the bake oven and threw in the peeled skull. The eyeballs rested on the table, and Sweeney carefully didn’t look move his eyes from the crotch of the old man’s pants until she threw them out. “I expected you’d lose your nerve down here,” she teased.
“It’s not very womanly work,” he admitted.
“Not much about me is all that womanly, unfortunately. To think I could be spinning a wheel in some factory right now, pricking my fingers and what. Making a nice gown for some wealthy woman to buy up and making a third what I make now—ah, to be a woman, Mr. Todd!” She slapped her bloody cloth against the table, and the fluid spattered onto both of their faces so that she giggled. “Slice his pants for me, if you will. I get the arms and legs last. Tend to be the best parts. But this one’s already pretty weathered and weak, so I don’t know what he’ll have for us around there—just have to see, won’t we?”
Sweeney nodded. “Of course.” The cloth ripped smoothly under his razor.
Within the hour, they had made quick work of the elderly man and put his remains into the meat grinder, his bones into the bottom of the oven. Mrs. Lovett ground out some meat for the next day, and with blood on both their clothes, they headed back upstairs. “Are you looking to stay around tonight, Mr. Todd?”
He shook his head. “Not tonight.” He glanced out at the quiet winter night. Toby had dozed off in front of the fire. “I think tonight’s a good night to be alone and clean the razors. I’ll go through the coats again and make sure I didn’t miss anything from the pockets. Then we can drop them off at the spike sometime before Christmas. They’d make good gifts for some little orphans, chimney sweeps, out in this weather.”
She grabbed his hand and squeezed it gently. Both of their hands were warm and still slightly damp and stained from the work down in the cellar below. In the dim firelight, she grinned, and it cast her coffee-brown eyes amber, her smile a little more ferocious than normal. “Goodnight, Mr. Todd,” she whispered.
“Goodnight, Mrs. Lovett,” he replied in a soft voice. With his other hand, he swept one brown curl out of her face and tucked it behind her ear. “I’ll see you in the morning.” A sharp nod passed between them, and he whirled on his heel and started up the stairs to his room before he could look into her eyes another moment. Before those eyes could pull him in any deeper.
Lucy’s face drew near to him. “Good morning, my sweet,” purred the pretty blonde, her flaxen hair falling over his face and tickling his cheeks. Sweet minted breath wafted into his mouth and nose as she exhaled through luscious pink lips. “Did you sleep well, Ben?” Her nude body cradled against his, her curves falling into his muscles. His breath hitched. “Ah, there’s no need for that. You know we’re married now, love—not to worry.” One seductive long finger traced his face down his cheekbone. “What stubble for such a barber. What’ll the customers say, eh?” She giggled. “Anyway, the sign’s turned and everyone knows we’re closed. I thought maybe we could go out for breakfast, then…”
Her skin tone began to shift from fair to slightly darker with a dusting of soot under the eyes, laugh lines deepening around her mouth, lips shifting from pink to sheer red and azure eyes darkening to milky chocolate. The blonde hair kinked upward and changed to brown, and Mrs. Lovett kissed his cheek. “Then we’ll move down to the seaside, won’t we, Sweeney? If the business stays this good, respectable business we got here, Mr. Todd, just got to get the judge out of the way, that nasty bugger, then we’ll all be free—”
She shrank down into a baby with its jaws parted and it wailed, and he wrapped his arms around dear little Johanna, and she grew again back into Lucy with her mouth wide in an O unable to breathe. Her neck split open and blood poured against him and around him, eyes peeled to the ceiling. The O of her mouth extended. Popping and crackling met his ears as her jaws broke, and then silence resounded. Her lower jaw touched her chest. The gaping hole of her mouth bled around the stretched lips. Silence, complete silence that filled his chest as he scrambled back across the bed away from her. Where was his razor?
A shriek pierced the air of his sleep budding from Lucy’s mouth, and he shook upward from his sleep with a gasp and chilled sweat all over his torso. The scream didn’t cease into his wakefulness. “Ah!” He covered his head with his hands a moment and shrank into himself. Terror clutched his insides for the moment that the paralyzing thought passed through—that his nightmares had come alive to haunt him.
Then the shriek ceased, and after a pause long enough for a hearty breath, it began again, and he froze in his bed at a more horrifying realization. “Mrs. Lovett.” He started up from his bed, clothed in his thin sleeping shirt and yesterday’s bloody black pants, a razor still in the pocket. He grabbed another razor from the desk and lashed down the stairs, barrelling without a glance into the pie shop. “Mrs. Lovett!” he shouted. The snow flurried in a cloud kicked up by his bare feet.
“Mr. Todd! Help!” wailed Toby. His hands and feet were bound and he sat in the parlor floor with a failed gag wrapped around his neck.
Swinging around the corner, a young man, no older than twenty, stood sentry outside Mrs. Lovett’s door. “It’s the barber!” he cried, and Sweeney rushed at him, and he ducked into the open bedroom door, narrowly missing the back of the youth’s neck with the swipe of his razor. “Get off it and let’s go!”
A masked man rolled from on top of the bed, from on top of Mrs. Lovett. She shrieked again. The man’s bare ass gleamed in the window as he struggled to pull up his knickers. Sweeney watched his dick flop in the air. Consumed in rage, Sweeney pounced, ready to seize the man by the hair and slit his throat, but the fat man shoved the youth at him. The teen fell forward onto the razor and slammed into Sweeney so that they both tumbled unceremoniously onto the bed, bounced off of the loose mattress, and rolled onto the floor. Blood poured out of the kid’s mouth. He struggled to stand, to speak, when Sweeney shoved him off and snatched the gleaming blade free of the gaping wound, but he collapsed again. Droplets scattered crimson off of the sharp edge of the razor and onto the floor.
Paying the wounded man no heed, he sprinted again through the parlor and after the perpetrator. “Get back here, you scum!” The blimp of a man stumbled over the door jamb, and Sweeney seized him by the hair, this time not missing his mark. From the mask, darting, beady eyes glinted. He raised his razor again, but the man kicked off from the wall. The door latch broke, and they plummeted together onto the snow. The enemy grabbed Sweeney by the back of his shirt and threw him down the stairs. His head slammed onto the concrete, and everything darkened for just a moment, but a moment enough for the attacker to be out of the reach of his hand and his blade.
His eyes blinked blearily up at the moonlight. A shadow passed over him, and fast footsteps followed. “Toby,” he whispered.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Todd!” bellowed the boy. “I’ll get him!” His bare feet sprayed up a fine dusting of snow, a meat cleaver in his right hand.
“Toby, don’t—” The boy was already long out of sight, vanishing into the December night. “Oh, god above, guide my path.” Pushing himself up onto his knees, the world spun, but he persevered. “Mrs. Lovett!” he called, voice broken while he reached for his razor. “I’m coming!”
Another scream. He tried to rush, but he kept tripping and staggering. “Get off me! Get off me, you nasty little ratbag!”
The youth crawled onto the bed. “Please,” he whispered, blood draining from his pale face. “Help me, missus. Please, help me.”
Sweeney grabbed him from behind and slit him ear to ear. The blood sprayed over the bed and the walls and Mrs. Lovett’s frightened face and Sweeney’s arms and face. Then, tossing the writhing body onto the ground, he kicked it and stomped on its face until blood ran out of the ears and all movement ceased from it. He shook all over, his hands and his toes. He reached for the wall to lean on for support. A long silence passed between them, him afraid to look at her at all. Then, his hoarse voice managed, “You screamed,” but it quivered so badly he was hardly articulate. He willed his lips and tongue to still. “Like I asked you. Good girl.”
She buckled at the neck and buried her face in her hands, hair tumbling around her head. A strong shudder passed through her, and then she sniffled. He fumbled for her in the darkness and found her shoulder with one firm hand. With surprising force, she snatched him by the front of his wet shirt and pulled him to her. “Mrs. Lovett,” he tried to coax. She wracked harder and burrowed her face into his chest. A wail muffled into him. “Mrs. Lovett…” He didn’t know how to comfort her, what he could even begin to offer her. “Are you hurt?” She clutched his shirt and didn’t answer, breath heaving. Then she sobbed again. He lowered his voice, and sang softly to her, “Mrs. Lovett, what a charming notion, eminently practical and yet appropriate as always. Mrs. Lovett, how I’ve lived without you all these years I’ll never know.”
She sniffled and snorted and squirmed, and he loosened his hold on her to give her plenty of space to move. He continued, “Nellie,” in a soft tone, and using his hand, he tucked one curl behind her ear. “Tell me something.”
Lifting her hand, she wiped snot and tears from her own cheek and left a bloody smear in its wake. “I’m alright,” she choked. A few more tears fell. “I’m alright, he didn’t—’e didn’t get to his business, just scared the—” She paused and swallowed hard. “Scared the devil outta me.” She pinched her fist tighter around his shirt like a baby clasping a pretty trinket, reluctant to have it taken away.
With his thumb, he dashed another tear away and left another red smudge on her face. Her gown hung from her shoulders, the buttons broken and the corset underneath ripped open in the back. She had teeth marks on the side of her neck, and her lips were swollen. “It’s alright now,” he whispered, and he hoped the words meant something to her.
She wiped off her mouth. “He tasted like lard and dirt,” she spat. Another shudder passed through her, and he realized dimly that she was cold—that he, too, was cold, drenched to the skin from his roll about in the snow, his feet burning from plunging into the icy hell completely bare. “Did you see his eyes?” she whispered after a moment.
“What do they look like, to you?” Goosebumps erupted over her neck and shoulders, and she massaged the darkening bruise where he’d bitten her.
“What they look like to you?” he asked in turn.
“Looked like that slimy beadle’s to me.” She swallowed hard. “Looked a lot like that slimy beadle’s to me, if that ain’t too bold an accusation to make against a man.”
Sweeney was silent for a long moment. Then, he sighed. “I thought so, too.” The harrowing expression on his face darkened as his vengeful eyes brightened. “I’ll be ready to off the porker if he shows his greasy rolls of neck fat around here again. Lop off his pecker if I get the opportunity while he’s still there, squirming.”
“Oye, can we not talk about peckers right now, Mr. T?” She arched an eyebrow at him distastefully. Then, she loosened her hand from the front of his shirt. Her limbs quivered, but she didn’t shed another tear. Nerves of steel, he thought. Then her words repeated in his mind: “I’m no stranger to being manhandled.” He swallowed hard and averted his eyes from hers. His hands also quivered, and she patted the back of his hand and gave the thumb a slight squeeze. “The body,” she said after a moment.
He looked back to her. “What about it?”
“We gotta get it downstairs, what before Toby sees and finds out what we been doin’ with them.” She struggled away from him, swaying on her feet. He fumbled after her, both bumping into each other dizzy with panic and sleepiness, Sweeney struggling to squint through his bleary eyes. The scraped side of his face burned in the cold air.
Voice gruff, he said to her, “Get the cellar door and I’ll throw him down the stairs.” He plucked the thin frame of the youth up by the arms and dragged it backwards. A bloody streak followed it on the floor. Several times, Sweeney paused and staggered, and once at the door frame, he almost plunged after the body. Mrs. Lovett grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back.
The faint firelight allowed her to examine him after they closed and locked the cellar door. “He knocked you one good, didn’t he?” she whispered, tracing the scraped part of his face with her forefinger. He winced. “Let’s sit in front of the fire and warm our bones. You’re all wet.” She strummed at his soaking shirt as he placed his hand on the small of her back, and together they lurched into the armchair, nestled in front of the shrinking flares of embers like spoons. Her dress kept slipping down, and she kept pulling it back up. He tried to pull the strings of her corset taut for her, but they were ripped irreparably. “Don’t bother. Gonna have to pitch the whole lot in the morning anyway.” She dragged it back up over her bosom.
For Christmas, he would buy her a new gown. She had such limited clothing, anyway, and then this? It wasn’t fair.
Limping footsteps struggled into the shop with puffing breaths. “Mr. Todd? Mrs. Lovett?” Toby’s voice quaked. “I—I caught him, he threw me right good, he threw me by my hair.” He slogged into the parlor and paused at the sight of them in the armchair. “Mrs. Lovett?”
“Come here, Toby, love,” cooed the shopkeeper. One of her cold hands squeezed Sweeney’s to keep him quiet and his expression soft. The child hobbled into the room, his feet blue from the snow. “Sit in front of the fire and warm your little feet, son,” she soothed. “Nothing’s gonna harm us now.” She glanced out of the corner of her eye to Sweeney and tried to smile in reassurance, but it looked like more of a grimace. Her head lolled over to rest on his shoulder, and a long sigh passed through her lips, eyes drifting closed.
After a few minutes of rubbing his feet, Toby lowered his head, and Sweeney sensed the boy would start to cry, so he interrupted, “Toby, will you warm some water so that Mrs. Lovett can wash her face?” before the boy could snivel and embarrass himself. The lad hopped to his duties with a slight limp on his frigid feet, and Nellie didn’t stir, either asleep or too preoccupied to care. He smoothed her hair behind her ear again. Kiss her. The urge arrested his insides so he had to avert his eyes to keep from following it.
She shifted and curled closer to him, her delicate, delicious body pressing closer to his. “I’m fine,” she whispered, parting sleepy brown eyes. “I tell you, a good manhandling never hurt me in the past—never will in the future, I don’t suppose.” She puckered her split lip at him. He couldn’t tell if it was smeared red with blood or still swollen from the other mouth forced upon it.
“That was more than a little manhandling,” he said slowly.
He worked hard to hold her smooth brown gaze, but she deterred their interlocked gazes and instead mumbled, “Not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me under this roof,” while staring hard into the fire.
When she stared into the flames, it cast her brown eyes amber with the blaze, giving her all the more alluring aura, but ambivalence twisted inside of her so that he wasn’t sure what to touch to comfort her. “What do you mean?” he murmured, trailing his index finger over the back of her hand.
One hand busied itself with a dangling string of her dress. She didn’t try to snip it off; she fiddled with it, uncertain. Her eyes cast away from him, she spoke softly, and he listened with rapt attention. “Well…” She cleared her throat. “Albert and I married when I was seventeen, but he was much older than me—I suppose you knew that—by twenty-five years. My father’s second cousin, married out of convenience more than anything else.” She exhaled in a reluctant puff, like she didn’t really want to speak at all. But he didn’t offer her to stop, nor did he encourage her to continue. She did so without his prompting.
“Al knew what he wanted from me. A housewife and a mother for his children. I would have played the part, I suppose. Fit half of it, anyway. But,” another wistful gust left her parted lips, “my womb was as barren as the Sahara Desert.” She quivered at the hands, and he squeezed her fingers to try to soothe them with warmth.
“Al wouldn’t have any of it. Couldn’t believe he’d been so shorted. But he couldn’t divorce me. Neither of us had the money, and he didn’t dare cross my father. Blamed himself, he did, for the plight. Sure, blamed me, too, but he didn’t believe in a such thing as a girl who couldn’t carry a child. And—well, let’s just say he sometimes had problems getting it up.”
Sweeney fought very hard with himself not to snort derisively at that remark. The portly Albert Lovett, unable to get a rise from his own wife. It fit well with the story, he thought.
“So he paid off two of his friends to take care of the problem. If he couldn’t knock me up, some other man could.” She picked at her fingernails. “So they came around while I was baking pies one morning, while Al was at work. I didn’t know nothing of it. Would’ve run away if I had—wasn’t daft, even as a child. I knew better than to bother with men who have that demon in their minds. Dragged me back to the bedroom kicking and screaming like all of hell. But if anybody heard, they sure didn’t give no indication of it.”
She looked away from the fire back up to Sweeney’s face. “I decided that night that I wouldn’t scream no more. Doesn’t matter how a peasant woman screams because there’s no one there to listen. Law only protects the rich and offs the poor. Any fool knows that. Not worth sacrificing my pride if it will save me nothing at all. Better to bear the burden silently.”
Jaws tight, he lifted her chilled hand to his lips and pressed his lips to the back of it. They left a damp imprint with pink tinging where he’d scraped them on the ground outside. “You screamed now. That’s what matters,” he whispered.
Slow, she nodded, leaning closer to rest her head on his shoulder once again. “You came for me.” She settled there beside him, eyes still slanted open and her hand loosely squeezing his. “I wasn’t sure that you would,” she admitted. She moved her dark eyes up to his, lips puckered slightly until they brushed his stubbled cheek just at the corner of his mouth, testing him. He didn’t move away from her.
Toby hobbled back into the room. “I’ve warmed some water and put it in the basin for you, ma’am.”
They split. Sweeney stood and pulled his hand from hers. “Come along, boy. Let’s give Mrs. Lovett some privacy.” He made eye contact with her once, and she nodded with a grim smile on her face, probably hoping to assuage the boy’s fears and worries. She mouthed to him, “Gin,” and he rolled his eyes, though he nodded anyway.
He led Toby into the dark wood-floored shop. Their bare feet didn’t clomp onto the wood the way the sound echoed when they wore shoes. No sooner than he began to rifle through the cabinets in search of a gin bottle, he regretted leaving her—he regretted putting himself in this compromising position with the boy. He didn’t like children. He had never liked children. He didn’t get along well with them. True, he had had Johanna as a baby, but babies were different than children. A baby demanded few things. Children required socialization and playtime and adequate food and shelter and physical touch, and any lacking of those things could make a child grow into a barmy adult.
Clearing his throat, he found the gin and two shot glasses. “You alright, kid?”
“Yessir.” Toby’s pouty face stared at the wall for a long, tired moment, one hand running through his short, coarse hair. “I jumped on him. He threw me. Could’ve held on, but I was trying to get the cleaver in him. It didn’t work.” He paused a moment to drink from the glass that Sweeney pushed his way. “I thought I knew his eyes, sir,” he whispered after a moment. “Them eyes, I think I’ve seen them before somewhere. Can’t place it. They was real mean eyes.” The child didn’t down it all at once. He sipped the way some men would tea or coffee, like the burning taste didn’t distract him at all, like he savored it. “Mr. Todd, sir?”
“I thought you comin’ down here was real brave-like. Like Odysseus from that story they told us at the spike. There’s a big ole cyclops in here and you don’t even care if it’s between you ‘nd Mrs. Lovett. Going on a quest to get your way back. Odysseus, he’s a real hero. I wanna be a hero like him one day. Like you.”
Child, if you only knew. A smirk cracked his lips, and he swallowed his shot of gin to disguise it. He gulped it hard and loud. “I’m glad you think so highly of me,” he replied instead, tone dry and sardonic. Toby didn’t appear to notice. He traced the rim of the glass with his forefinger. All the problems stacked themselves in his head. Cleaning up the shop and the clothes, hiding the mess from Toby, his bloody face and dirty razors, Mrs. Lovett’s torn clothing. He wanted to sleep. But after his nightmare, he feared returning to his bed as well.
The boy interrupted his reverie. “It ain’t just me. Mrs. Lovett looks at you like you’re the whole wide moon, or Jesus, or something, no blasphemy intended.” Sweeney poured him another shot, but his eyes had brightened with interest, and he didn’t impede the boy’s speech. “Sorta like she touches gold whenever she looks at you, like she gets this idea she’s touching something precious. Kinda greedy-like but also real soft-like. She thinks you’re the best stuff on earth, she does. Like she cares an awful lot for you.” Toby paused to gulp from his gin, then he continued, “I thought you was real scary when I first saw you, but then, Signor Pirelli scared the devil outta me, and I thought anybody willing to cross him had to be barmy. Awful glad he run off, I am. But then Mrs. Lovett didn’t chase me off, and she likes you, and I figure any friend of Mrs. Lovett’s can’t be no enemy of mine, and it turns out you’re a real hero-like.”
Toby’s voice slurred off at the end as his speech became a little less coherent, and Sweeney closed the lid on the bottle, lest he poison the boy with the gin flooding his system. A real hero-like. He sighed. An unsettling fondness stirred within him, not one that he cared to examine while he was exhausted and battered. “Then I’m glad you’re not afraid of me,” he said. Might be better for you if you were. But as long as Toby wasn’t afraid, he wouldn’t grow suspicious. As long as Toby trusted them—both him and Mrs. Lovett—he could remain ignorant. But what would happen as years passed? Toby would grow into a teenager, and then a man, and eventually, he would catch on.
If the pattern continued, Toby would certainly need to die. Sweeney ground his teeth. He’d never in his life hurt a child, and he didn’t intend on starting now. The oblivious lad jarred him once again from his muddled worries, this time probing, “Why would someone want to do that to Mrs. Lovett?” Big eyes peered upward at him, nervous and a little ashamed. “Why would a man want to hurt her?”
Sweeney wanted another shot. He didn’t take it. “Some men feel entitled to the world around them. The women, the good jobs, the nice clothes, the best food. They think they can take what they want and leave the mess at the curb for the rest of us to clean up.” He glowered at the empty glass. “Once you’re so rich, you can afford to be careless and retreat back into your money without a worry.”
“I don’t ever want anyone to hurt Mrs. Lovett.” Toby’s brow fuddled in the middle. “I don’t want anyone to hurt anybody just because they think they can, or they ought to.”
“Me neither, boy.” I don’t want anyone to hurt Mrs. Lovett. For the last part, he could not attest. How many lives could he claim in a day? It varied on how many wandered into his shop.
Toby started speaking again, something almost unhinged, that he hoped one day a woman would look at him that way, and then he slumped over with his face on the counter, dropped asleep. When his body swooned, Sweeney tried to prop him back up, and when that failed, he awkwardly gathered the child into his arms and stumbled to Toby’s cot, depositing him on top of it. The sleeper didn’t stir, so he pulled a blanket over him and left him there.
For a moment, he stood, directionless, and then Mrs. Lovett’s voice chimed, “Sweeney!” and he flinched at the usage of his first name, the name he’d given himself but had seldom heard. He returned to her in the parlor, where she stoked the fire. “Did he fall asleep?”
“That’s good.” She sighed and stepped back from the heat of the dancing flames. “I was worried he would fight it. Be afraid to go back to sleep. But I suppose he’s probably faced worse things in the dark. I suppose we all have.” Once again her face and hair were clean, but her face carried a tormented look of mixed fear and exhaustion. “Come here by the basin. I’ll wash your face for you.” She took his arm and pulled him, and his wearied feet followed her lead to one of the wooden chairs. “There.” She continued to tug her gown up over her chest, and it continued to slip back down, the strings and buttons broken beyond all repair. He watched with a drained fascination.
She sponged the water up out of the lavabo and washed his face. The water already was discolored and tasted like blood. He knew the taste well. It entered his mouth often. “There’s my handsome barber. A little worse for wear, perhaps, but—well, I guess we’ll have shop closed tomorrow, anyway.” He hardly heard the last part. Handsome. A warm sigh floated to her lips, and she hovered behind him, hands on his shoulders, for a moment before she requested, voice particularly girlish and weak, “Will you stay down here for the rest of the night?”
He put one of his hands over hers. “Of course.” Standing, they moved back into the warm parlor with the cheery wallpaper. He eyed the armchair, Albert’s armchair. “You’ll let me know if you need anything?”
She hesitated. “I’ll stay out here with you, if you don’t mind.”
Hand extending, he brushed his thumb against her lower lip, hand cradling her cheekbone. “Absolutely.” She leaned into his touch, bay eyes cast low. “Are you sure you’re alright?” he probed, and she nodded too quickly, fear still hazed upon her expression with a low fog.
She twined her arm in his and sat in the armchair where they both fit easily. “I’m fine,” she whispered. “I just… I don’t want to sleep. I’m afraid of what I’ll see behind my eyelids.” She curled up with her legs tucked under her body, leaning against him. He lifted his arm around her shoulders, maintaining eye contact with those smooth, dark brown eyes that glowed so in the firelight. That glowed with the particular insanity he now found so wildly attractive, so undomesticated and free.
Lucy would never have looked so feral. Lucy was a tame bird. You love Lucy. The slew of thoughts plagued him, and his belly twisted, but he didn’t reject Mrs. Lovett on her account. He did love Lucy. He loved her as wide as the world. But Lucy was gone. And if she saw him today, she would shrink away in fear. Like a songbird with clipped wings and blinded eyes, she would nurse the seeds out of his hand, but if she tasted the blood that had seeped into his skin, she would panic and flap her pretty broken wings. If Lucy saw him now, she would hate him, the gentle girl who shied if Albert sounded too ferocious at the downstairs wife they hardly knew.
His own voice surprised him. “There’s no need to be afraid,” he whispered to her. She leaned closer into him. Her breath wafted across his cheeks. It smelled of a baking pie—not a meat pie, but a fruit pie, like an apple pie, with a sweet crust. “I’ll stay as long as you need me.” He tasted his own blood in his mouth, felt his own heartbeat in his tongue of all places.
She felt it, too, through his chest, where she rested one hand flat. Her lips curled into a smirk. “It feels like you are also afraid,” she teased, daring him to admit otherwise.
Intending on coming to his own defense, he parted his lips, but she smashed into him. Her swollen, hot lips landed on his, her deliciously plump body smoothing into all of his firm parts and melting there. She tasted like an apple tart. So pleasant and wonderful and—Not Lucy. His gut rejected him again, and he wrenched their faces apart. “Nellie,” he said, yearning but reluctant, face conflicted. “I can’t—” He shook his head. “I can’t do this.”
With surprising composure, she held her expression, her face still inches from his. The disappointment filled her eyes but nowhere else. “I understand,” she said. One warm hand pressed to the side of his face. “Two broken plates won’t hold gravy any better than one by itself.” He didn’t understand the analogy, lost in her eyes, lost in his own quandary. “I’ll never be her. I know that.”
“I know—” His face wrenched up. He wanted to pull away. If she weren’t touching him, he could collect his thoughts, and he would decide he didn’t want her. If she would leave him, he could pretend she wasn’t soft and pink and hazed in the firelight with such lovely curled hair. “I know you’re not her, and I don’t want you to be. I don’t want anyone to be her, ever. No one can be.”
“You can’t be disloyal to a memory, Sweeney. She’s gone.” She averted her eyes from him, but she traced a pattern on the back of his hand. The wise words elicited no response from him, the eyes hollow and hurt and itching for some comfort she could not provide. “We could have a life together, you and I. Maybe not how you remember. Maybe not how I dreamed. But… We could get by.” She studied his face. The jaw tightened, and he still did not respond. “I’ll leave if you like,” she offered after a moment, no longer pushing the subject upon him. She would never amount to enough for him, even now.
He clutched her wrist. “Stay.” He didn’t look at her. But the single word touched her insides. She stiffened for a moment at the abrupt motion, like she braced herself for a strike, and then his tender almost-black eyes saw deep into her soul. “Please.” He loosened his grasp upon her. “Stay, Mrs. Lovett.”
She was Mrs. Lovett again, and he was Mr. Todd. But he wanted her to stay, and he would stay. “For you, my dear,” she whispered, and resting against his supple form once again, she felt she could remain in the armchair with him forever. Even as Mrs. Lovett.
Upon awakening from his fitful, dreamless sleep, Sweeney noted that the dawn had just begun to stream into the parlor. Mrs. Lovett sprawled across his lap with her legs hitched up over the armrest and her head in the crook of his elbow. She pinned both of his arms underneath her so that he couldn’t move at all. In the middle of the floor lay Toby, who had apparently abandoned his cot to curl up in the safe presence of the adults. He twitched occasionally like a sleeping cat on the rug. “Ugh…” He didn’t mean to growl, but his stiff neck and back ached, and his damp clothing clung to him and chilled him. The sound didn’t disturb either of the other inhabitants of the room, nonetheless, and in the morning light, he examined Mrs. Lovett’s face.
The bruise and bite wound on her neck had darkened, and the place where he had split her lip the day before still was puckered. She had grabbing bruises on her arms in the shape of a man’s hand; Sweeney found himself tracing the print of each separate finger on her bare shoulder where her torn gown had slipped. He could see the crease that led down to her breasts, the flesh milky pale. How easily he could pluck the fabric up and peek. She would never know.
No. He shifted enough to free one of his hands and rested it on the side of her neck, warm but numb from resting under all the weight. For a moment, he caressed the smooth curvature of her neck, and then he shook her. “Mrs. Lovett,” he whispered. “Mrs. Lovett, wake up. Mrs. Lovett.”
The third time he said her name, her face twitched, and she peered upward through one squinted brown eye. “Oh, dear,” she whispered, and she pushed herself up from his lap. “I’m terribly sorry.” He wrested his other hand free and rubbed some feeling back into it. “What time is it?”
“Barely dawn.” He glanced down to Toby. “But we’ve got things to take care of.” Her room was a bloody mess, the store was in complete disarray, and they both needed a change of clothes before they could set to work at all—disregarding the three decaying bodies that needed butchered and cooked before they rotted. A large case of food poisoning could lead to investigation, and they couldn’t risk an investigation.
She sighed and rolled from his lap to land on her feet on the floor. “Yes. Things to do. Do you want some tea?”
Blinking the grit out of his eyes, a shivering sensation crawled up Sweeney’s chest and spine. The cold ate at him as soon as he separated her warm soft body from his own. “I think we should both redress first.” The adrenaline from his chase no longer heated him, long gone from the few hours of dozing, and around the floor he noted the two sets of bloody footprints, one small and one large, where he and Toby had tracked all over the shop with their bleeding, cut feet. He lifted one of his soles to examine it and found scratches, some still oozing, caused by the sharp stones and broken glass and splinters under the snow. You fool, he cursed himself. “Sorry about your rug,” he muttered as an afterthought, voice soft when he studied the stained cloth. He pushed up to stand beside her and winced.
“No bother, was an ugly thing anyway.” Her chipper voice caught his attention; she addressed him like a customer and avoided eye contact. “Do you need any help getting upstairs?” She plucked at the flopping top of her gown before, frustrated, she let it sag.
He found an uninjured spot on the ball of his right foot and pivoted on it, seeking out the contact of her warm eyes, but she refused to give it, and he wondered what he had done to aggravate her. It took no genius to guess that she was a little miffed from the night before; Mrs. Lovett saw things in him he preferred no one to see. Even Toby, the oblivious little mite, could tell that Nellie treated him as something more than a friend. “Sorta like she touches gold whenever she looks at you.” He silently sucked his teeth. “No, I’ll manage.” You can’t be disloyal to a memory. Her words rang inside of him again, and he ground his jaw as he spun and, clumsy with headache and heartache, he started outside and onto the snowy staircase.
Once upstairs, he bandaged his feet. A man knocked on his door, but he called, “We’re closed today!” and the gust left without argument or complaint. He was glad. He didn’t feel like talking to anyone. He didn’t feel like putting on the facade, like smiling subtly at anyone whether the appointment ended in a slashed throat or three shillings clinking in his pocket. The mood didn’t tickle him.
Brooding, he meandered to the window, feet a little less pained after he washed and padded them. Toby darted onto the slushy gray street and quickly disappeared from view in the direction of the shop street. Like she’s touching something real precious when she looks at you. His fire had died, and the chill gnawed upon his limbs worse than it had downstairs, but he hardly noticed it. With Mrs. Lovett beside him and only near her did he feel even remotely human. But whether or not he appreciated her ability to nurse those feelings in him, he wasn’t sure. Humanity was a distant memory to thing other than utter disgust.
“But not when I look at her.” His own hoarse voice disturbed him. He could not suppress or deny what his lungs put to the air. When he looked at Mrs. Lovett, the hate did not surge inside of him like when he saw others. At worst, he felt ambivalence, usually when he worked beside her. Sometimes, like last night, she made such volatile grief curl in his gut that he wanted to vomit and weep and rage. But sometimes, rarely, when he dropped his guard to examine her in earnest, something else stirred inside of him, arousal long vanished, yearning, needing. An urge to hold her, yes, but also something more than holding. An urge to press his lips to her lips, to her face and hands, to her ample breasts, sometimes enough that he had to move away to keep from acting on his compulsions—these things overwhelmed him.
Tearing his gaze from the window, he pivoted and pulled free his dirty razor. With his fingernail, he picked off the dried blood. “My friend,” he whispered. Footsteps started up the stairs, and he called outside again, “Closed today!” with his voice heating in aggravation.
The infernal woman had distracted from his purpse, the revenge he sought. He would have Judge Turpin’s throat !
“By the sea, with the fishies splashing!” The voice in his head, hers, danced upon the melodic notes, and he seethed. “By the sea, wouldn’t that be smashing?” She wouldn’t shut up. The mental voice increased in volume until he swung and bashed the cracked mirror with his fist. The glass shattered and spat onto the floor. When he pulled his hand back, the broken knuckles gave satisfactory drips of blood. Though his lips scowled, the voice was silent. He had achieved his purpose. No more mental antics , he promised himself. “I love Lucy! ” he growled.
But the doubt that burbled inside also unsettled him. He wasn’t sure that he loved anyone anymore. Not even Johanna. His human propensities such as love had abandoned him, or maybe he had never known them at all, only infatuation disguised as such. His urges to the judge dissipated because he could offer his daughter nothing. She would not know him. She would not rejoice and run to him shouting, “Father!” and he would not cradle her with the judge’s blood still upon his face and hands. She would shrink away from him; likely, she would scream. If she escaped, she would turn him in. She would have no loyalty to him. What life could he, then, provide for her?
The tinkering sound of the bells on Mrs. Lovett’s door drew his attention, and he went to the window to look out, hoping to shake his twisted innards out of their funk. She stood outside in a clean gown with an open neck; from above, he could clearly see the dark bruises on her neck. Then, she sank down and buried her head in her hands, and her curls toppled down about her face. He strained his ears, but he couldn’t tell if she spoke to herself or not, the way she often did when she cooked.
He dressed quickly then and wrapped his bloody hand in an old shirt. It quickly leaked through. He didn’t care. Armed with his razors and adequate clothing, he headed back downstairs and met her out front. “Spying on me, was you?” she said, a half-hearted smirk on her lips. She didn’t look at his face. He set his jaw, noting how carefully she used her hand to cover the bruised mark on her neck. “I’m sorry ‘bout last night.” Again he remained silent, so she lifted her eyes to him, honest and brown but tired and sad. “What’d you do to your hand?”
Flexing his hand, he said, “Punched the mirror.”
“Oughta stick to things that ain’t glass.”
“Glass shatters. Makes it satisfying.”
“Right, right.” She stood and dusted off her skirt. “Let’s go back inside and I’ll have a look at it. I’ve gotten rid of Toby for the day, or should’ve. He’s got several stores to run on to.” He held the door open for her, and after he closed it, she continued, “So we have plenty of time to get about mopping up all the blood and butchering those bodies before they mold—do hope I’ve enough flour—business has been going well…” She moved past him to close the curtains, but a knock at the door surprised her into jumping.
Sweeney flinched, also startled by the noise, and retreated back into corner behind the door, as she trotted to answer it. He kept both eyes fixed upon her when she opened the door, and in the gray December light, she paled, face bleaching white. Then, when she spoke, he understood. “Good morning, Beadle Bamford.” The cheer drained from her voice. “I’m sorry, but we’re closed today—”
The beadle jutted his foot into the door. “A moment, please, Mrs. Lovett?” She stepped backward from the door, and he pushed into the shop. Sweeney reached for his razor with his lips drawn, ready to brandish it, but she made eye contact with him and shook her head. He paused, quizzical. This man had death coming faster than most, a particularly slow and painful death that Sweeney anticipated drawing out. “I just overheard rumor on the street that you suffered a, shall I say, break in overnight?”
“I’ve told no one about that at all,” she replied coldly. She took another hesitant step backward away from him.
“But you did send your spike boy out this morning, and you know how those children from the workhouse like to talk, m’dear.” Sweeney vomited in his mouth. She is not yours. He bit his tongue, hand still on the handle of his razor. “Anyway, Mrs. Lovett, that’s not why I’m here. I actually was concerned that you had not received my invitation to the ball that Judge Turpin is hosting on Christmas night. I sent a young man in here yesterday with it, but you never can trust those peasants.” He gave her another slip of paper. “I would be most flattered if you would accompany me.”
Voice tight and emotionless, she said, “I think I’ve plans on Christmas. Time for family, you know.”
The beadle smiled and snaked his arm around her waist; she tried to back away from him and bumped the counter. “Yes, but surely without Albert, you’ve grown lonely in here—no children to call your own. There’s no harm in going to a dance. Or do you not know how to dance? I can teach you.”
He pinched her arse, and Sweeney, no longer having the self-restraint to watch, stepped out. “That’s all very well,” he growled, “but as the lady said, we already have plans.” His eyes glinted ferociously, and the beadle immediately unhanded her. And I would rather stab out my own eyes than let Mrs. Lovett go to a dance with you. “We’re traveling out of town to the coast.”
The beady eyes darted back to his desired, and he purred in that greasy voice, “Then, if you change your mind… Feel free to show up on the night of the ball. And in the meantime, I won’t bother you until then. Farewell, Mrs. Lovett.” The fat face hardened in distaste as he added, “Mr. Todd,” and left the shop.
Mrs. Lovett lunged forward after him to lock the door in his wake, and then she sank back against it with a sigh. Her pulse twitched rapidly in her throat; Sweeney could watch it flit up and down. He waited for her to speak, and after a moment, she shuddered as if to shake the feeling of his hands from her body and said, “I’ll finish mopping, if you don’t mind heading downstairs and butchering.”
His eyes darkened. He didn’t want to leave her. “I wanted to get him.”
“Can’t risk it. He’s traceable. We have to have a plan, a way out, before we go for somebody like him.” Her hands quivered, and she placed them on the counter to steady them on top of the second invitation he had brought her. As the paper skimmed under her fingers, she replied, “A plan.” She took a deep breath and lifted up the invitation to the light so she could squint at the print. “A plan, that’s what we need…. And where better to hatch it than at the judge’s house.” Her mouth quirked into an expression somewhere between a grimace and a smile, something inexplicable that made his innards twist. “We can use this.”
He snarled, “Absolutely not!” with such venom that she blinked to him in a mild confusion. “You can’t attend. It’s too dangerous.”
“Who’s to say I can’t? I’ve been invited.” Her lip jutted out petulantly.
His face flushed. “That’s where they got Lucy.” He balled his fists. “They’ve done it for years, they must have, for any woman they want. You can’t go in thinking that you’re smarter than them, or that you’re going to come out in one piece—”
“Stop treating me like I’m daft,” she growled in return, eyes narrowed. “I know how to handle myself, Mr. Todd. I won’t drink, I’ll go in, ask a few questions about Johanna, and then I’ll be out. Once we know where she is, you can work your magic with Anthony, and all of the pieces will fall into place. Tell the boy that you’ve found her, he’ll owe us the escape with them back to the shipyard. Or hell, bust her out yourself and leave the boy out entirely. I can find that for you, and then—”
Fuming, Sweeney snapped, “I said no! ” He hit the counter with his sore hand and cursed vehemently in pain. Out of reflex, she reached for his wounded hand and cradled it, unwrapping the mangled skin from the makeshift bandage, as he grumbled, “I won’t let you run off endangering yourself like that. Things are bad enough without him having unreasonable thoughts, I know his eyes, you know it was him, I won’t let that happen.”
“Shush,” she quieted. She cleaned the cuts on his hand with a few dabs of water and then bandaged it carefully. His blood dripped onto the floor, and she noted it landing on another piece of paper from the day before. The invitation the boy had delivered with the rose. She stooped over and picked it up. “Lookie here, Mr. T.” At the sight of the invitation, he set his jaw, but when she held it beside the other and said, “We can both go,” his twitching eye calmed.
He sucked his teeth, thoughtful, thinking, brooding. She placed her hand on the inside of his elbow. “No need to overthink it, love. I’m sure it’s a masquerade ball. I’ll head in and serve as the proper diversion, pretend to get real drunk. While the people stir around me, you can take your time and ambush the people who’ll know. Once I see you’ve got the judge, pretending to be some other blueblood in order to get what you need, I’ll excuse myself, and then we’ll meet up behind the judge’s house and head home. Then we bide our time and hatch a plan to free the girl and make off to wherever it is we decide we wanna go, isn’t that just spectacular?”
The silence still resounded. I’m not sure. He didn’t say the words aloud as his dark eyes sought out her chestnut orbs. Surely Johanna would thank him if he saved her, and they would make off with her, and she would never know him a killer. But that left the judge alive. And he would never rest until he exacted his revenge. What if they made off with Johanna and Turpin tracked them down? Too risky. Too many plot holes. “We’ve two more weeks to think on it,” he decided after another hushed moment of her eyes on him. “I’ll start hacking up the bodies, then.” He left her staring after him as he split down the stairs and into the bakehouse, the door closed behind him, but he felt her eyes on his back long after the brick door had separated him. Those infernal eyes tempted him away from his purpose. Her shaking hands invited him to squeeze them. Her shoulders laden with gooseflesh attracted a warm touch. His confusion would not abate outside of her presence, yet it only bloomed near her. “What a broken soul I am.”
Sorry it took me so long to update! Please leave a comment with your thoughts! :)
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
When all three of the bodies had been cleaned and dumped into the meat grinder, Sweeney ground out some meat and then started back upstairs. The morning quickly gave way to afternoon, and his freshly bloodied clothes glowed in the late light. “Mrs. Lovett?” he called when he didn’t see her in the shop.
“I’m gettin’ the blood off the wall, love, give me a minute!” She had made it into her room. He looked around the room to inspect, but she had found the proper place for everything once again, all the blood mopped up from the floor. Gradually following her voice, he watched her scrub at the wall, sprawled out with the low-necked dress, her bosom straining against it. She scrubbed too intently, at first, to notice, but then she glanced up at him. “M’ eyes is up here,” she mumbled, hardly looking at him until the stain on the wall had dissipated enough for her to consider satisfactory. “Good lord, I’m starving. You look rough. I’ll put on some potatoes. You’ve gotta change your shirt before somebody comes by—gonna try to open for dinner—gonna have to roll out some more crusts—gonna have to get the pies a’bakin’.” She ran her hands through her tousled amber hair.
He wanted to put his hands in it, too. “Of course.” He was not hungry. He did not often feel hunger. He did not often feel anything except what he felt for her.
And he felt many things for her, especially with her pressure to attend the ball. But with what had become of Lucy, he didn’t want to let her go, even if he was with her. He didn’t consider himself perfect protection. If it came to a brawl, he would certainly fork the beadle on his razor, and then he’d be hanged; murder was not a transportable crime. And then Mrs. Lovett would have to fend for herself in a cruel world that had, before his arrival, left her hardly able to provide for herself. “I’ll change my shirt, then.”
“Bring this one back down. I need to wash clothes soon, after I get the pies in the oven.” She toyed with the lock of hair that kept springing from behind her ear. “Oye, so many things to do.” One hand rubbed at the bruise on her neck, and she grimaced when she touched it. “Not enough time.” Her eyes moved to his, and he gravitated closer to her. “I’m glad that, in your lying world, you’d take me to the coast for Christmas.”
He snorted. “Always takes a fantasy to satisfy a lady.” He desperately wanted to tuck the lock behind her ear, but he strode past her up the stairs to his closed shop like a blitz so that no one would see his stained shirt, and he changed it and balled the dirty one up. His nipples pricked at the chill of the room against him for the moment he was bare, but the second one quickly warmed him.
Then he examined his razors. Mrs. Lovett needed to learn to defend herself. Perhaps he could teach her. Not to slit throats, no. But how to use a weapon, and how to keep one near her at all times so she had something more than a woman’s feeble strength and her vocal cords to protect herself from the vile hearts of man. “And throat slitting wouldn’t harm her,” he thought aloud, this time so consumed in his wondering that it didn’t bother him that he spoke the words in his head.
But his lonely shop did not speak to him, so he started back down the stairs and into her shop to find her rolling out dough. “Do you want something to drink?” He shook his head, and she went back to rolling. “We need to get something about the cockroaches and the rats. Wish I could afford traps. Haven’t much liked poisons recently.” Since Lucy, he mentally substituted as he watched her face contort, skimming over the situation she knew he preferred to avoid. “But these roaches, they’ll be the death of me, provided the rats don’t give us the damn plague—”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Yes, dear?” She paused in her rolling as he took out one of his razors. When she looked at his razors, her eyes always gleamed with some greed and admiration and a hint of excited fear, like the prospect of the blade against her neck both astounded and tormented her. “Don’t you be cutting your fingers with that, now,” she whispered, voice smooth on the light air.
He lifted the razor and pointed it sharply at her. “I want you to put this under your mattress.” She blinked, lips slightly parted in an O of perplexion, like she could not grasp that he had spoken at all, that he had offered her one of his most precious possessions. “So if anything like last night happens again, you don’t have to wait for me to be a hero .” He spat the last word, face tightening up as he recalled how blatantly Toby had applied it to him. “You stick that blade in any bugger who tries to climb in bed with you, he won’t want no part of it anymore.”
“But don’t you need them for your work?” Work , of course, referred to both throat slitting and shaving.
“I can manage without this one.” He leaned forward on the counter, and his intense dark eyes met hers like they sometimes did when he drank and found himself acting a bit too honestly with her. “You spent years protecting them. I think it’s time for them to return to favor.” The years sitting upon them, knowing their worth—he would never begin to thank her enough for that, and yet he had never tried to thank her at all for rescuing his silver friends.
Mrs. Lovett’s red tongue darted across her lips to wet them, and then tentatively she said, “I thank you, Mr. Todd.” Her hand quivered a bit as she accepted the razor. The metal warmed in her palm, and he watched the power spread across her face as she brandished it. Then, she folded the blade away and tucked it into the pocket of her dress.
He attempted to smile to her in return, but his preoccupied mind wandered—the judge, the beadle, Johanna, the ball, Christmas just around the corner. What a tangled web they had devised, the two of them, companions, allies, collaborators. Through scheming, they would wriggle out of London with their freedom and their allies free alongside them, the plot complete and satisfying. “I hope you use it.”
“I hope I don’t need to.” But power glinted in her eyes; it possessed her with a flush of confidence. If he made her safer, he would sleep easier. Lord knew he wouldn’t otherside, with worries of Mrs. Lovett downstairs undergoing some crime while he snoozed, or worse yet, while he stared sleeplessly and obliviously at his own ceiling, hearing nothing of the activity below.
From outside, a group of boys jeered incoherently. “What on earth—” A thrown rock smashed into the window pane with enough force that the pane cracked and Mrs. Lovett flinched, and they both rushed to the dirty window to gaze outside at the cluster of young men, some younger than twelve but none older than fifteen. They surrounded a crumpled lump on the slushy gray street, one that Sweeney did not immediately recognize, but Mrs. Lovett exclaimed, “Toby!” in a shocked horror. The workhouse boy, face soot-stained, struggled to protect a heaping bag of groceries. “Oye, that’s my week’s earnings there!” Mrs. Lovett clambered out of the shop, and Sweeney followed her. “Hey! Hey, you little sods! Get off of him! Put down them stones. Toby, love, it’s alright—”
Another boy hurled a stone, and it bounced harmlessly off of her shoulder, though she put her hand over the impact zone. “What did I just say?” she growled to the offender, a scrappy boy younger and smaller than Toby with a clean face and tall stockings, school books tucked under his arm.
But the mob saw the opportunity, the weakness of the impoverished peasant shopkeeper. “Ragg, just like what you wear!” one child jeered, and another remarked, “Can’t get a nanny to save you, gotta run to your slave holder instead—”
Mrs. Lovett’s face stained a furious red, and she sputtered at the mouth, so thoroughly enraged that her tongue failed to cooperate with her brain. Then, from a boy in the crowd, the call came, “At least Ragg rhymes with hag, so it’s almost the same!”
The boy, one of the oldest of the group, didn’t have the opportunity to continue his slur, as Sweeney seized him by the hair and dragged him through the boys to the front of the group, having sneaked behind them while their untrained eyes focused on Mrs. Lovett at Toby. The teen cried out in pain, but he didn’t relent. “Don’t struggle or you’ll earn yourself a shave,” Sweeney thundered. The group shrank away. “Now I’m just going to take a little off the top—little baldness might teach a boy to mind those around him!” The thin body writhed, but his razor glided over the top of his head anyway, not in the least bit impeded.
“Sir, please, my mum and dad!”
“You can explain to them why and how you came by this, then. Explain how you harass shopkeepers and their boys in the street—” He desperately wanted to slit a throat, but he grasped at his self-control by the reins. He couldn’t do it in front of the watchful eyes. If the boy ever came to him for a shave (though he was certain this incident when ensure that never happened), he would make good on him and throw him down the hatch. The razor glided and another uneven lump of hair fell from the teen’s scalp, and Sweeney grinned. “One more and you ought to be patchy enough for everyone to think you belong to the spike!” He tossed the boy by the ear when he finished and prowled nearer to the other children. “Who’s next? Free of charge!”
“Mr. T,” whispered Mrs. Lovett like she meant to calm him. “They’re just children.” The freshly bald lad burst into tears. “Don’t you think this is a little much for them? They’ve caused no real harm—”
He ground his teeth, cursing Nellie and her heart fit to welcome any soul, however wayward. “Boys who are bullies grow into men who are bullies,” he spat. Vehement black eyes scanned the group. “You there? Are you the one who cracked the window pane?”
The scrap trembled and shook his head with adamance, pointing to the younger boy beside him. Sweeney snatched him by the shoulder, and he pissed himself in terror. The stench of urine swirled up around them, nothing unusual in the streets of London. Surprisingly, none of the others laughed, most sporting the bleach-white countenance of fear, avoiding eye contact with the black-eyed demon barber. He smoothed two wide rows of hair off of the second boy’s head and then discarded him like the first. “So any of the rest of you want a little smoothness up top? No?” He circled with his shirt sailing behind him like wings, like a vulture having found something delicious delectable. “You stay away from here. Leave Toby alone, you leave Fleet Street.” This is my territory. “If I see any of you around, I’ll shave you balder than an egg and sign my name on your scalp. Do I make myself clear?” He leaned in front of another older boy, this one with stronger nerves as he stiffened and his pulse quickened but he didn’t shrink. “Now scram, the lot of you! Else I’ll find more of you looking for a dispute with my razor!”
They fled, some guiding or dragging others. The ones who had partly bald heads retreated like injured deer limping off with snivels. The one with wet pants sent a dejected glance back before he pursued the others. “Could’ve just asked his family to replace the pane, yeah?” muttered the baker. “Toby, love, are you alright? They didn’t hurt you, son?”
She smoothed his hair back, and he shook his head, though a thin trickle of blood ran down his temple where a stone had struck him. “Fine, ma’am—I’ve learned to run faster than the lot of those cronies, I was just a little weighed down by all the groceries.” He sheepishly rubbed his head. “Thanks for coming to save me. I was worried they’d try to throw the eggs or something.”
“Run inside and fill the pantry for us, dear, then wash your face and hands, and you can help me roll out some pie crusts for tonight’s dinner. After dinner, I’ll read you a little story before bed, yeah?” The boy agreed with a grin and bolted off, but when Sweeney looked at Nellie, her lips were pursed with displeasure. “That was cruel.”
He blew the stray hairs from the blade of his razor. “They were little arseholes. They need to learn. Anklebiters ought to know better than to treat anyone like that.”
When he looked up at her, he was surprised at the intensity of her eyes, and she said, “And shaving their heads is really teaching them anything.” She shook her head. “Naw, and now we’re going to have problems with some aristocrats. Don’t you ever use your head rather than your bloodthirsty soul?” She crossed her arms, and they pushed her breasts upward. “They don’t know better than what their parents show them, and the best you can do is tell them that violence fixes all their problems and they can push their way into things. You can talk what you like about bullies, but I saw a couple of misguided young boys and one very, very big bully.” She huffed and looked away. He found himself taking a step closer to her, but she either didn’t see him or didn’t notice at all as she turned and retreated back into the pie shop. “We’re going to make some pies before customers turn up. Help us if you want, or don’t if you don’t.” She slammed the door hard, like she didn’t want him to follow her at all.
Black eyes transfixed on his razor blade, he stared at his own haggard expression. Perhaps the day had drawn too long for him after a sleepless night, but when she rebuked him, the disappointment in himself pool at the base of his chest like he had let her down, as if he needed to care about anyone’s opinion of him. “Maybe it was a little much,” he mumbled under his breath when he saw one of his own fatigued eyes. “Christ, I need a drink.” He sat on the old rocking chair outside her shop, and it cracked like it wanted to collapse beneath his weight.
From inside, he could hear Toby and Mrs. Lovett talking. Their words were indistinct, but he strained to make out the words. “Did you know those boys, Toby?”
“Yes, ma’am. They’re from the grammar school. I used to sweep some of their families’ chimneys back before Signor Pirelli got me and apprenticed me.”
“Have they messed with you before?”
“Not bad, ma’am. Just the average. Everybody knows I’m from the spike by now. Usually they don’t live that long.” A silence fell between the two of them for a moment; he could hear them gnashing the dough. “Mrs. Lovett?” The boy hesitated. “Do you think that I’ll ever amount to anything? When I’m older?”
“Wot’cha mean, love?”
Sweeney sucked his teeth, telling himself the lie that he didn’t care and wishing it was true. “I mean… Well, the other boys, they all literate, they been to school. They gonna have an easy time coming by a job when they’re older. What if nobody wants me at all?”
She patted his shoulder. “That’s nonsense. All sorts of illiterate people go to work every day. My father couldn’t write his own name until he married my mother. And even if you never learn, working in a factory doesn’t require you knowing much at all. We could probably even find you another master if you wanted to be an apprentice again.” Toby didn’t reply, and Sweeney listened closer to them. “Come on, fill up that crust. We need three dozen for me to run downstairs.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The silence resumed. After a few more minutes, he stomped up to his store and turned the sign.
Once the dinner clamor had ended, he headed downstairs. Five drunken men had come upstairs looking for shaves after partaking in those wonderful pies downstairs and Mrs. Lovett’s ale. Five drunken men returned. For all of his hankering for the blood of his enemies, his dispute with her had distracted him from even fueling their business. Customers still scattered the place with pies and talk, and he ignored most of them as he entered the side door. Toby tended the customers. “We’re almost out of pies!” he called to Mrs. Lovett.
“We’ll close when they’re gone!” It took him a moment to pinpoint her at the piano, and then she banged out a few chords. “What song was it, sir?”
“Woodman, Spare That Tree!” howled some drunk man.
She wiped her brow. “Right, sir. I’m rather out of practice, forgive me…” She danced out a few arpeggios before she opened her mouth and sang, “Woodman, spare that tree, touch not a single bough. In youth it sheltered me, and I’ll protect it now. T’was my forefather’s hand that placed it near his cot. There, woodman, let it stand. Thy axe shall harm it not…”
He halted there in the floor and stared at her back, mesmerized by her. “Scuse me, Mr. T,” mumbled Toby as he ducked around with platters. He only took a few steps to get out of the way, eyes transfixed upon her. Her clumsy fingers fumbled over several keys in struggle, and he wondered how long it had been since she played at all, since any music had lit her life. At some points, her voice quieted from not knowing the words, but the drunk men howled them out at her anyway. They didn’t care. They had no appreciation for her beauty. They deserved to die.
Beauty? he questioned himself. Yes, Mrs. Lovett was beautiful. She finished the song in a crescendo, and then she stood. When he saw her face, ashen and exhausted, he knew that she felt the weight of no sleep upon her shoulders as heavily as he, perhaps more so. He, after all, made no attempt to keep himself human and let emotion guide his legs. She had to maintain the face. She was his last shred of sanity tying him to the world of London.
Before she played, he hadn’t appreciated music in years, but it could crack some of the most callous hearts. And she had cracked his.
You’re lying to yourself. You’re tired. He sat at the bar and traced one of the long marks in the wood with his forefinger while he waited for the buzz to quiet down, and soon enough, Toby announced that they were out of pies. The few stragglers finished their drinks and then left, and Mrs. Lovett was a good bit richer. “Mr. Todd,” she greeted, and he couldn’t tell if she was still aggravated with him or simply bushed. “Gin?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Never do and never will.” When she smiled, he saw the genuineness there, no facade for the customers. “Toby, wash your hands and then we’ll pick out which book you want me to read to you.” She returned her attention to him and poured him a shot, and he downed it, and she poured another, and he downed a second, and she poured a third. “You’re feeling it tonight, eh?”
He squinted there at the liquid in hesitation. It burned his throat. It let him forget. It let him touch his insides and bring forth the emotions. He wanted many emotions with him tonight, as many as he could muster. This new man—Sweeney Todd—did not have emotions like Benjamin Barker did, and usually he was glad of that, but tonight he wanted to have his feelings. “I want to.”
She moved her head to make eye contact with him, leaning forward on the bar. She pursed her lips like she struggled with something inside, figuring him out like a puzzle. Her scrutiny made him suck in a deep breath and hold it. “Well, if you’re in here feeling things, I’m going to read to Toby like I promised. Don’t drink too much. I’m going to need more meat tomorrow if we’re to open.” She combed her hand across his messy hair before she headed past him and into the parlor. “Coming, Toby—now, which one did you pick out? Paradise Lost, a difficult one.” She whistled, and he pitied her. “Alright. Just until one of us falls asleep.”
He drank the third shot in two quick gulps and pretended not to hear them at all. When that didn’t work, he pretended instead that the voice was Lucy’s, and the quiet child in her lap was Johanna. It worked more easily. In his memory, her face had smeared, a vague thing with yellow hair. Perhaps blue eyes? In his dreams, she had blue eyes, so he hoped that was the case. But who could tell? His heart sank in guilt, reaching to pour himself another shot of gin.
Mrs. Lovett’s voice fanned back into his ears, and he remembered sitting beside her in the oversized chair, cradling her in his arms, awakening to her rumpled hair just that morning. She isn’t Lucy. But those moments he cherished. I’m not Benjamin. How many changes had he undergone since he last lay eyes upon his late wife? When they took him away and the baby began to scream, and in his last glimpse, he saw the daisy fall to the floor—those days had passed, and now he claimed souls like Australia had claimed his.
By the fourth shot, he could feel the euphoria gaining on him. “Toby, love, you’re falling asleep. Go on to your cot. Try to sleep tonight, lad. I know last night was hard, but there’s nothing to worry on. We’re going to be fine.”
“Is Mr. Todd going to stay tonight?”
“If he likes. Go on, off with you.” The boy scampered off, and Nellie pushed herself up to approach him with a sigh. He found himself thinking of her as Nellie more and more, perhaps not frequently, but more than before. “Well, Mr. T? Are you going to stay with us tonight?”
He traced the rim of the shot glass, the fifth shot inside of it. “I think so.” He drank unapologetically, and then he pushed the bottle away to resist the temptation. “That will be enough.”
She screwed up the bottle and put it and the glass away. “Good thing. You’re already looking flushed. I think the blankets are still out, and the fire’s roaring. Want everything comfy cozy in here tonight.” Her hands trembled in jitters like nervousness. He wondered absently what had tickled her mind to cause the little shakes. “Let’s go rest our bones a moment before bed, yeah? Unless you’d prefer to be alone.”
He dabbed at his mouth with his sleeve to remove the excess moisture. “Company is preferred,” he said. When he left the stool, she took his arm and led him to the armchair like she worried he would leave if she didn’t keep her paws on him. “Sit with me?” he requested, and she did so, both eyes on him. “Thank you.” He patted her thigh boldly and without thought.
After a moment, she probed, “Is there something you wanted, love? You’ve got something on your mind. I can see it.”
A belch tried to force itself up, and he swallowed it. “I want you to tell me about the day she died,” he blurted. She blinked in surprise. “I want you—I want you to tell me what it was like, and how she got that way. I need to know. I need to know, to be at peace, Mrs. Lovett.” To be at peace, as if he would ever know peace. He hadn’t in his lifetime, even as a child. The poor did not have a peace until death. That had not changed since his departure, and he doubted it would ever change in the future. “Please, Mrs. Lovett. I need to what it was like on the night she died.”
The baker hesitated, and he watched the deliberation on her face as she struggled with herself. He wanted to press her, but he didn’t. She would agree. She would not deny him. “Very well,” she said. She cleared her throat, and then she began.
On a warm Saturday morning before work, Nellie poured Albert his tea before work. He had cranky dark circles under his eyes, and he griped to her, “That demon child has howled since supper last night, Nell. Isn’t that woman doing anything about it?” He pinched the cup in his fat hand and downed the scalding liquid like she hadn’t warmed it at all. “No one on this block got a night’s sleep, and some of us aren’t in the midst of bereavement. Won’t you go upstairs today and get her straightened out? For my sake, at least!”
He clomped out of the shop, leaving her by her lonesome with two pies in the oven. She made two fresh every day and threw away the old. The babe continued to caterwaul. A long sigh puffed out of her lips. She didn’t care to snoop since they had taken away the barber. When he still lived, she would stop in on them periodically when Al wasn’t home just to look at the man, and she liked Lucy, too. They were two likable people. Without Al, she might have made friends with them. With Al, she served as a friendly acquaintance.
She stuck her cleaver into the counter and lifted her skirts to climb the skirts to go upstairs. She had the key in her pocket, but to her surprise, the door was unlocked. Johanna shrieked in her crib, standing up and peering over the edge. “Oh, little jewel,” Nellie cooed, and she went first to the baby and picked her up and kissed her head. The baby quieted almost instantly. “There’s a good doll. Lucy? Lucy, are you here?” She poked around the shop, but there was no hint of the barber’s wife. The baby stank awfully, and she found a clean nappy for her. “Goodness, little one, looks like you’ve not been changed in two or three days. Where’s your mummy at, then? Leaving you up here all by yourself!”
The footsteps on the stairs startled her, and she whirled around. “Mrs. Barker!” she called hesitantly.
Lucy peeked into the room. “Mrs. Lovett? W-What are you doing in here?” She shrank back from the sunlight, a bag cradled close under her arm. “Is there a problem?”
“Dear, Johanna’s been screeching since last night. The baby’ll make herself ill if you don’t take care of her. Where’ve you been?”
Emaciated and scraggy in the light, pity swirled in Nellie’s chest as the housewife closed the door after herself and cleared her throat softly. “I—I had things to do,” she said vaguely. “If this is about the rent, I’ll have it next week, I swear.” A bruise darkened under her jaw.
“Things to do? Lucy, you have a baby. The least you can do is ask me to watch her while you’re gone.” The baker moved her jaw in fretting, both eyes fixed on the bag. “Now, what was so important that you had to leave this little one all night long? You know better, Lucy, you’re a good mother.”
Sheepish, the young woman tiptoed around the room. “I—I don’t think it’s a matter of any importance. Can I have Johanna now?”
“Tell me where you were,” Nellie insisted. “What’s in the bag?”
Lucy’s whole face tightened in frustration and grief. She had worn nothing but black since the transportation, like Benjamin had died. To her, the two were the same. She was without her doting husband and left alone to try to scrape by with her baby and no profitable talents. Into the bag she reached, and she pulled forth a pint of a bottle aptly labeled, Arsenic . “We have some rats,” she lied.
Nellie didn’t believe her. “I’ll have Al take care of them when he gets home, and we’ll reimburse you for the cost.” She bounced the baby a little more before she handed her back to her mother. At the sight of Lucy, Johanna promptly shrilled and writhed, and Nellie took the arsenic bottle from the woman’s hand in a swift jerk before she stormed out of the shop, her heart still in her throat.
Much later that night after supper, she lay curled beside Al in bed. She had just dozed off when he mumbled, “Nellie, turn off that damn kettle… It’s too late for tea.”
“I’m right here, I put off all the kettles earlier.” She brushed her foot against his leg to prove that she hadn’t strayed from his side.
“Then what’s that I hear whistling in the kitchen?”
Silence stretched for a moment between them before he sat bolt upright and grabbed his shirt, trying to stay hushed as he reached for the bat he kept under the bed. “You stay right behind me and don’t say a word,” he said as he sat up and, on cat’s feet, started out of the bedroom. She followed right behind him as instructed, still in her sleeping gown.
In the faint moonlight streaming into the shop, they made out the shape of a woman cradling a baby. She casually poured herself a cup of tea, and then she poured some into a glass baby bottle. “Mrs. Barker?” Al said, taken aback. “What in god’s name are you doing in here?”
“Not to worry,” said Lucy, eyes darting and glinting. “We’ll be out of your hair in a few minutes, both of us.” The opened bottle of arsenic rested beside her on the counter, and she downed the cup quickly in broad gulps. Her hands tremored like the earth beneath her upheaved, but she didn’t stop until she put the cup down. “Now for the baby…”
Nellie charged around Al, who ogled in disbelief. “Absolutely not!” She snatched the bottle from Lucy’s hand and smashed it against the counter. The noise aggravated Johanna, and the baby shrieked. The woman before her swooned, and she seized the child and pulled her away from her mother. “What have you done, Lucy—Al, won’t you do something useful for once and go get the physician?”
“No need for a physician, Mrs. Lovett. I’ll be out of your hair soon enough. More tea, if you don’t mind. Oh, bother, I’ll do it myself.” Lucy staggered around them and poured herself another cup. “This is fantastic earl grey. Ben’s favorite, you know.” She swallowed it more like a fuming shot of alcohol than a tea to be savored. “I’ll see him soon, I think, and I would appreciate it if you’d give me my baby!”
The blonde lashed out, and Al stepped between them. “Mrs. Barker, that’s quite enough!” he said too late as her legs began to bend like rubber beneath her. “You shouldn’t do this—stop that, no more tea for you!” He tried to take the kettle away but burnt himself.
“Silly man, silly man, don’t you know that stoves are hot.”
The baby cried harder, and Nellie plead, “Lucy, stop it!”
She looked upward abruptly at something that none of them could see, and then she sank onto the floor, a guttural moan coming from her. “No need for the physician,” she repeated, and her head lolled over. “Out of your hair soon enough. Now, if my Ben comes home, you tell him, you tell him I said, I said…” She stopped talking, and every bit of her sank and shrank until she lay there on her back with her round eyes on the ceiling, unseeing and blank and dead.
Johanna quieted, and Nellie bounced her. In a weak, horrified whisper, Al said, “What the hell just happened,” in a voice that wasn’t even a question.
“That was the scaredest I ever heard Al talk in my whole life until the day he died, it freaked him out, it freaked me out, neither of us slept for weeks.” Mrs. Lovett tremored, eyes on the fire. She didn’t seek out eye contact, and neither did he, but remarkably, neither of them had begun to cry. “We were going to keep the baby. Al wouldn’t let her go off to a workhouse. But when the beadle came by a few weeks later and told us that the judge intended to take her as his own, we couldn’t do nothing about it, couldn’t argue that we could provide better for her, it wasn’t worth a losing battle…” She trailed off, and her eyes descended onto the floor, a shuddering sigh passing through her lips. “Is that all you wanted, Mr. T?”
He grasped her hand. “Stay with me, Mrs. Lovett.” She required no more invitation to flip her legs up into the chair and rest against his firm body. He folded his hand outside hers and squeezed it. “Stay with me, please.” A second time for the request in as many nights.
She rested her head against his shoulder. “I’m going nowhere fast.” His large and deft hands swallowed hers, but each of them had scars and callouses. They were not young. Did they need youth? She didn’t know. Gin permeated from his breath. She could scent it upon her palate, almost a taste, and she wondered how much he had had to drink while she read to Toby. He lowered his face, and she raised hers, and for the second time in as many nights, their lips met.
Soft, delicate, chaste, when it ended he said, “You are not Lucy.”
“I don’t want to be Lucy.”
He paused, and he tucked the auburn curl behind her ear that always sprang out and tempted him. “I don’t want you to be Lucy.”
She trailed a finger up his chest. “You’re not Benjamin.”
They kissed again in front of the blazing fire. She nuzzled into his neck, and he lifted an arm to pull around her shoulders and cradle her close to him. “Sweeney,” she whispered, eyes moving to his in the boldness of the light. He followed her every motion with rapture. “This is hardly comfortable. Let’s go lie in bed.” She could sense the discourse within him like waves of misplaced glory across his all-too-open face. “It won’t hurt a soul.”
He squeezed her hand, black eyes intent on her, and he nodded in agreement. She took him by the arm and led him into her room, dark with faint bloodstains remaining on the walls and bed sheets. “Quaint,” he said, sarcasm creeping only gingerly into his voice.
She purred in return, more alight with the fact that she had, after the months of waiting upon him, gotten him into her room. She pulled back the sheets and slipped beneath them. “C’mon, love. Dawn won’t wait for us to feel rested.”
Such dissonance on his face, then resolution. He sat on the bed and lay beside her, first on top of the covers, and as the chill permeated the room, she tugged them over him. “I won’t sleep if you’re going to stare at me like some phantom all night,” he said.
“Sorry.” She pitched over, her back to him, and blew out the candle. “Goodnight, Sweeney.”
But the dismissal didn’t work easily for either of them, and though she softened her breathing, she did not sleep. What if it was just the gin talking? What if he wakes up and he hates me? She couldn’t bear the thought. But as she strained her ears for him to relax, the mattress pitched a bit, and he rolled nearer to her. Then, uncertainly, he placed his arm on her waist and folded a little nearer beside her. She waited with bated breath until he settled with his chest against her back and his face in her hair.
The gin swept him away, but she remained much longer, feeling more alive and safe and vibrant than she had in years.
Chapter 7: Chapter Seven
“Sir, are you sure this is the one you want?” The elderly shopkeeper raised an eyebrow at him. “I usually prefer ladies to come in to get measured before I sell something quite like this. But, well, a surprise is a surprise I reckon. I always did prefer a handmade gift myself, but if she needs a gown, she needs a gown.”
She patted his shoulder, and he didn’t make eye contact with her. He had upped his slaughtering speeds to garner enough coins to buy Mrs. Lovett a gown before Christmas, but the twenty-third had rolled around, and even with bodies filling pies faster than they could run the meat grinder, he would break his pocket on the gaudy purple dress he had selected. You’re being silly, he told himself. You could buy three dresses at this rate that she would wear for work. But he liked the bejeweled bosom of the ballroom gown, and he knew with complete certainty that, otherwise, she would have nothing at all to wear to the judge’s ball.
He nodded, curt and swift. “This is to my liking.” His lips curled into a slim, deceitful smile. “Thank you for all of your assistance.” Reaching into his pocket, he counted out the ten pounds. Worth as much as my razors. He held the expression so she wouldn’t doubt him. “Is there any way I can have it bagged discretely?” A prayer burbled within him that Mrs. Lovett would appreciate the gown, that she wouldn’t reject it for the vibrance of the color.
She didn’t seem to like color much, and he couldn’t fathom why. The constant black muted her personality. But perhaps she appreciated the mystery attached with it. One of the glimmering purple jewels flashed into his eyes. No mystery there; the enigmatic woman would look positively garish in the violet piece, and he couldn’t help but picture the flare of her brown eyes amber in the firelight, the lashes of brightness glinting off of the jewels and casting reflections upon the floor, his hand trailing up her curved waist to the gem-spangled bosom, supple red lips puckering with auburn kinks of hair flaring around him.
“Yessir, I can do that for you. Now, if you change your mind, or if she don’t like it, then you run it back here to me right away, and I’ll give you this money back. I don’t care much for an unsatisfied customer, and this here is a grand sum.” The old shopkeeper didn’t notice his pinched expression as he fought the urges bolder and bolder in his mind. She bustled around the shop and folded it neatly into a bag, and then tucked another bag around it. “In case it starts snowing,” she said. “I’d hate for it to get wet. Now, sir, is there anything else I can help you with? I sure don’t mind.”
Clearing his throat, he said, “Uh, if you’ve a box of toffees, I’ll take those, as well.” He didn’t quite understand why he cared about Toby receiving a gift, and he was more than certain that Mrs. Lovett would make him something nice. Might as well empty your pockets of everything but lint, he growled to himself. If Mrs. Lovett didn’t feed him, he would have starved for affording her gown.
The elderly woman gave him the box of toffees, and he exchanged for it a single shiny penny before he slopped back out into the wintery mix of slush and slickness. He cracked his stiff neck and moved past the beggars and hookers with his eyes forward. None of them spoke to him. He had never dropped a penny to any of them, and he had no intentions of starting, even for all of Christmas’s joys. Fat flakes of snow danced upon the brim of his hat and crowned him the king of the winter. He kept his fingers curled into his palms, safe from the bitter chill that could leave him clumsy at his work.
Outside the bakery, Toby swept off the step. “Afternoon, Mr. Todd, sir,” greeted the boy. He flipped his growing hair out of his eyes and brushed off the fresh layer of snow.
“Good afternoon, Toby.” Sweeney climbed the staircase and stomped off his boots as he entered his barbershop. He hadn’t washed the reddened floorboards in several days; in fact, he had spent much of his time out of his shop, usually downstairs in the parlor with Mrs. Lovett.
They hadn’t kissed again, nor had they really spoken about it, but twice she had led him under the blankets of her bed to sleep and share the limited London winter’s warmth. Both times he slept better than he did anywhere else, dreamless and solid like a human. Both times he awoke with a deep-seated guilt and swirling internal inexplicable hate for himself and the broken world around him. The conflict she roused within him troubled him almost more than anything else, almost more than his need for revenge.
But revenge he would seek in two days’ time at the judge’s house behind the guise of a mask while Mrs. Lovett went in without. He knew they had practiced their methodology on more women than his Lucy; Lucy was not a daft woman, no fool, simply unsuspecting, and they had had more than fifteen years to perfect it even farther. Worth the risk? He hoped. If it led to Johanna’s freedom, it would be worth it.
He shed his coat and moved across the floor to the box he had prepared into which he folded the dress. He didn’t bother wrapping the box. In reflection, he realized that he didn’t have a box for Toby, so he scrawled the boy’s name on the toffee box and dropped it into the box as well, and then he secured the lid and headed downstairs. The dinnertime customers flushed into the restaurant, and Mrs. Lovett slaved over the counter rolling out pie crusts as hard as she possibly could. With a flick of her hand, she beckoned him, scrupulous eyes dancing onto the crowd to ensure that no one would overhear. “I’d owe you a mite if you could start on today’s meat.” She wiped her sweaty brow, and flour smeared across her forehead. “Toby, see to the customers! I’ve got to get these pies in the oven!”
Sweeney followed her down the stairs. “Busy today?”
“They haven’t given me a break since lunchtime! Where were you? You had a line at the door before I went in and saw you were gone! Had to disperse the crowd, and then they all expected ale…” She stumbled over a dead man and almost dropped her platter of unbaked pies before she started again, not the least bit fazed. “Open the oven, will you?” He did so, and she pushed the tray inside and exchanged it for one that was finished baking. Instead of a glove, she used a thin old rag, and he noted the swollen blisters on her hands. “I’m gonna drop dead before we get out of this damn city, I am, dead as a doornail.”
“Your hair.” He pointed to where one of the ends had ignited and begun to smolder, and she blew it out with a puff.
“Thanks for the alarm.” She stomped back up the stairs. “If you can grind out some meat, I’ll bring the empty crusts down in a few minutes and fill them and put them in to bake, and then--well, then I suppose the grinder will need filled again. Goodness, m’ life was easier before people liked eating each other.” Her thin frame puffed with every shuddering breath, and she paused at the second to the top stair to cough so forcibly he feared she would topple over backward. “I’ll be back down in a few minutes, Mr. T.”
Alone, he heard the latch on the bakehouse slam into place so that he couldn’t let himself out, and claustrophobia gnawed at the pit of his gut while he worked on the meatgrinder. He worked the grinder around once, twice, thrice. The sound of the metal grated his ears. Nothing for profit comes easily, he mused as he worked in front of the roaring oven. Above, the voices reached him, but he couldn’t quite make most of them out; most often, he heard, “pies,” “ale,” “dinner,” and “Christmas,” though once he heard, “barber,” and his chest swelled with more anxiety at the thought of his discovery. One of the unbutchered men gazed straight at him from where it had fallen, skull smashed open with gray matter leaking onto the walls and wide eyes fixed directly onto the man at the meatgrinder.
Each time he checked his watch, it seemed that time passed more slowly, that Nellie would never return for him, and he couldn’t stand those eyes. After another moment, he approached the body and sliced the eyes out of its head with his razor. “Much better,” he growled as he dropped the loosened eyeballs into the sewer. With a firm kick, he knocked the body so it didn’t face him, and then he returned to his work at the meatgrinder with a renewed sense of ease to consider his life and his future.
After the ball , he planned. If things went as expected and he learned of Johanna’s whereabouts, he would find a way to free her, naturally. He would have to find Anthony first; he hadn’t a clue what Johanna looked like. From there, he would grant them rendezvous until the judge inevitably arrived in search of Johanna, and then he would kill the judge, and then…
He ground his jaw. “I need the beadle, too.” After what that man had done to Mrs. Lovett, he had a lot more than a slit throat coming his way. Sweeney’s fists tightened around the handle of the meatgrinder, and he pumped faster. The beadle could come before or after the judge, but he would certainly notice the judge’s disappearance before anyone else. If he came with officers, though, Sweeney would be powerless, and murder was not a transportable crime; he would hang, and so would Mrs. Lovett, and they would likely find Anthony as a conspirator and hang him as well, and perhaps even Johanna and Toby.
“But assuming I get them both, assuming we’re free.” That still left Anthony between him and Johanna. He flexed his jaw. He didn’t want to kill Anthony; he owed the young man his life. But did he owe him his daughter?
The door unlocked, and Nellie stumbled down the stairs with another tray of empty pie crusts, favoring one knee. “Goodness, you work fast,” she wheezed. She coughed again like earlier so that the strength of each hack drove her to double over. “Sorry,” she said. He watched her brown eyes glisten in the firelight, and she wiped her sweaty brow again. “I think I’ve caught me a bit of a chill, but goodness.” Swaying on her feet, she clutched at the corner of the table to stay standing as she filled the empty shells.
In a voice too blunt for the subject matter, he said, “You’re sick.”
Hardly attentive, she rebuffed, “No, dear, I’m fine. Just a bit of the winter blues nipping at my nose, that’s all. This is my last business day for awhile, so I gotta--What are you doing?”
He pressed the back of his hand against her sweaty hot cheek. “You’re running a fever.” She hummed and worked at her pie crusts again. “How long have you been coughing?” He felt foolish, not paying any attention to her at all.
“Three, four days.” She patted down the top of one of the pie crusts and molded them together gently. “You’re making a big deal over nothing, Mr. T. I get sick every year, working in a restaurant with all these people running about. I’m no young goose, not exactly fit as a fiddle.” She meant to continue, but she had to cough some more. He waited. “Now can I get back to my job, or are you gonna jut your foot in the door?”
From her face he lifted his hand, and she started back toward the oven, but he touched her elbow. “No. I want you to go rest.”
She rolled her eyes. “With fifty customers in my shop, yes, I’m gonna rest real easy.” She snatched her arm away from him and slammed another tray into the oven and removed another. This one branded her hands as she had forgotten the cloth, and it clattered onto the floor. “Well, shit.” She picked up each dropped pie individually and put them back on the hot tray. “Still pretty clean--”
He loomed behind her. “Go rest. This isn’t like you. You’re ill.”
“I’m fine,” insisted the baker. She scrambled after one of her pies that dangled precariously over the grate that led down to the sewer, then she hissed when she put weight on the flat of her burned palm.
“You’ve hurt your hands, and you’re limping, not to mention you’re coughing all over everyone who’s dared enter your store.” Sweeney grabbed her by the arm and tugged lightly, but it unbalanced her, and she lurched even on her knees. “Stand up.”
With more effort than it should have taken, she persisted, “I’m fine,” and crossed her arms. He searched her facade for any cracks, but she maintained it with strength he didn’t know she possessed. “I happen to be a little more capable than you think I am, at least most of the time. Can I take these pies up to my customers?”
No. He pinched his fingers a little tighter into her arm while he debated releasing her. How long would her stubborn intellect combat his? Relenting, he relinquished his grasp. “Fine,” he grunted.
“Thank you.” She snatched up the hot platter again and cursed under her breath, looking all the more haggard than before. “I think I’ve got enough meat now, if you…” She had to pause to cough, and his grim lips pressed into a line until she continued, “If you wanna work on those other men and give ‘em a toss. Might not use them until after Christmas, but, well, we haven’t had any quality complaints yet. I don’t like to keep whole corpses down here as long as we have to worry about Toby barging on down and seein’ something he ought not to see.” She leaned on the wall to support herself for a moment before she sighed in exertion and proceeded back upstairs.
Sweeney stared after her with a twist of concern in his gut. “Frailty, thy name is woman,” he muttered under his breath with a shake of his head, and he seized the smallest gentleman, the one whose eyes he had already plucked, first and cleaved off his head as he was asked. With his razor, he scalped the man and cut out the tongue, sorting a pile of toss-bits and bits to be baked. Frailty? What frailty was Mrs. Lovett? Strong of stomach and of nerve, shying not from a forceful hand or a venomous word, persevering through fever and illness to live the life that she had always known with prosperity.
Yet again, comparisons erupted in his mind between the baker and his wife, the fickle Lucy. Lucy buckled under the pressure of any sickness; Lucy could not withstand pregnancy without panicking at every toss and bump, crying at any misheard phrase. True, emotional trauma had done her in whereas under it, Mrs. Lovett flourished and blossomed like a flowering cactus as her hardy nature drove her onward. Two different women, each of which attracting a different version of himself. Lucy, fair and beautiful and naive, captivated a young barber at the peak of his trade in search of a housewife. Mrs. Lovett enticed an older, demented man who sought revenge and satisfactory only in the blood of hypocrites. “Within the new lies the old,” he murmured as he snapped the man’s jaw and searched his mouth for any gold or silver bits. “But perhaps the new was dormant inside the old all along.”
The ceiling quaked in a sudden forceful impact, and he heard people gasp and a woman scream through the floorboards. Razor brandished, he stormed up the stairs. When he reached the top platform, the door swung open, and he ballooned himself into a wide shield with arms outstretched to protect Toby’s eyes from the horrors below. “Boy, what have we told you about staying out of this room! ” bellowed the barber with enough violence that the lad shrank back away from him in fear, eyes transfixed on Sweeney’s.
“Mr. Todd--it’s Mrs. Lovett, she’s fainted and I can’t get her up--”
Sweeney pushed him backward and slammed the door to the cellar shut and locked it, his heart in his throat. “Where is--” He didn’t have to finish his question as he caught sight of the sprawled woman in the corner of the shop with two other women fanning her off. “Toby!” he snapped to ensure he had the boy’s attention. “You give the rest of the pies to whoever’s here, and then you tell them that we’re sold out. Don’t you dare go to the bakehouse for any fresh pies, just tell them to leave.” He had blood on his shirt and hands, but he hoped any layman would assume it was from the work with the meat downstairs; all animals bled. “Do you understand me?”
“Yessir!” Toby scurried off with his slight limp and bobbing head.
“Clear the way, excuse me, folks. Let me take her to the parlor. Sir, if you would pardon me.” Sweeney seethed, wanting more than anything to throw them all out the front door and lock it up tight, but it wasn’t his shop and it wasn’t his call. These customers would pay Mrs. Lovett, and she needed to eat as much as he did. “Please, madam, excuse me.” He didn’t touch the woman’s dress to keep from leaving a red handprint behind, and she scurried from his path. “Thank you.” He knelt beside her, auburn hair spilled out behind her on the floor and groggy eyelids half-open. “Mrs. Lovett, can you hear me?”
She grunted, eyes squinting a bit. “Alright, well, I’m going to take you to the parlor. Now, people, please, excuse me. The boy will see to your needs.” Sweeney slipped one lean arm under her shoulders and the other under her knees. She folded in the middle like a dolly. “Oye, you’re hotter than an orange coal.”
A man to his left steadied him to help him stand with her added weight. “Light as a bloody feather,” he muttered as he scooped her up. “Thank ye, sir, now please excuse me.” The strain on his arms and back made him struggle, but he stumbled and staggered into the parlor and banished the young couple who had wandered inside. “These are the lady’s living quarters! What do you think you’re doing in here? Get out!”
With less gentleness than he should have used, he dropped her into the armchair. “Providence is not kind to us, m’ dear,” he mumbled.
She slumped in an effort to sit up. “Sorry,” she slurred, eyes pinching as she gained a little more consciousness. Big bloody handprints streaked the back of her gown. “Customers--”
“Are the least of your worries right now,” snapped Sweeney. “You’re sick as a bedlamite with the plague. You sit your arse there and I’ll get you some tea.” She didn’t challenge him, fighting to support her head with her hands and look into the dancing flames of the fire. He returned quickly to her with a cup of tea and steadied her hands to help her drink it. Fever flushed her cheeks bright pink, and her glossy eyes found his as she shivered from the intense chills wracking her body. “I can’t believe you would do something like this to yourself. Have you no sense?”
She shuddered again, and his face turned more cross as he sank into the armchair beside her. Like a cat she curled beside him, quivering. “Maybe…” She coughed. “Maybe a mite sicker than I thought previously.” She sipped at the tea, eyes lazing open and closed like she couldn’t decide to hold them one way or the other. “Always knew you’d come to my rescue.”
“Yes, I’m a proper hero, the real golden fulfillment of the prophecy. Christ reborn, that’s me” She rested her head on his shoulder. Her lips fluttered, and after a few moments, he lifted his arm and squeezed it over her shoulders. “You’re a fool, Nellie.” One of his hands smoothed down her curly hair as it kept springing back into place.
“I know.” She found his hand and squeezed it, eyes finally closing. “Known that a long time. Long time ‘fore you ever came back to me.” Her lungs wheezed, and she hacked again. “Obsessing o’er someone long outta reach. But whatever helps a woman sleep at night. There ain’t much.”
“What are you talking on?” Concern made him sound aggravated, and he bit his tongue.
“Don’t act like you don’t know, Mr. Todd.” She yawned. “Anyway, even Toby sees it. Told me so yesterday, said, ‘Mum, I know you fancy that Mr. Todd.’ Boy’s got more sense than I do in anything to do about you.” When she pitched forward to choke some more, he tightened his grasp on her. As she leaned back, her laugh lines pulled downward in distress and pain, and his chest pinched until he realized that he had stopped breathing in favor of hinging upon her words, but she didn’t continue speaking.
He cleared his throat, and then he pressed, “So?”
Brown eyes slanted over to him. “So I love you, and you don’t love me.” She said it in such a blunt, matter-of-fact manner than he blinked like something had struck him in the face. “It’s alright. Don’t bother me none.” She averted her eyes again.
“Who ever said I don’t?” he interrupted.
He wished she would look at him again, but she stared plaintively into the flames of the hearth, voice flat as she already knew the answer. How to answer? He didn’t know. “I’m not sure,” he confessed. He couldn’t lie to her with a certainty because he didn’t have one.
To his surprise, she lifted her tired face back to gaze at him. “That’s a better answer than the one I’ve been saying in my head.” She squeezed his warm hand, hers warmer. “I’d forgive it if you chose not to kiss me on account of my being sick.”
A smile teased the corners of his mouth, and he leaned forward to brush his lips against hers in what he intended to be a brief, chaste kiss, one hand cradling the side of her hot face and steadying her quivering movements. Not Lucy. The voice shrank, softer than before. It fizzled like he had tossed it into the oven. With fervor, he lifted his hand to cup the back of her head, and she fell forward with her hands fisting in his shirt. Her breasts mashed against his chest, and his breath pinched up at the sensation of their sheer togetherness, the unanticipated intimacy of it all. Her plush red lips parted for him; her eyelashes tickled his face. We’re in public, anyone could see!
No sooner than the thought occurred to him, she coughed into his mouth, and they severed. Her cheeks flushed bright, but he couldn’t tell if the blush came from her fever or her embarrassment. “Told you, didn’t I?” she mumbled. “Feel like the devil’s crawled into me throat and had a child.” She sipped at the cooling tea, and he secured one of her faltering hands. “Guess it’s well enough before Christmas so I may have a day off.” Her thin chest heaved before she entered another hacking fit.
“You need to get some rest,” Sweeney said to her, voice firm. “I’ll take you to bed. Come along.” She swung her buckling feet and kept a vice grip on his arm. “Then I’ll run your customers out.” He set his jaw, still infuriated that Toby had dared to enter the cellar even in the emergency. Had the dice of fate played a little differently, he could have faced losing everything he cared about, everything he had left. His razors, Mrs. Lovett. But especially Mrs. Lovett.
“Oh, don’t banish them. Bad for business. Just let Toby deal with it.”
“I don’t trust him.”
“Whyever not? I tell you, he’s a wee simple thing--”
He shut them into the darkness of her room and hoped the door would muffle any interested eavesdroppers from their conversation. “He went into the bakehouse.”
Nellie froze, squinting through the dark at his silhouette, his shape. “And?” she pressed, voice tight.
“I don’t think he saw anything, but the fact that he would go inside--”
“I understand.” She sagged onto her mattress with a sigh, rumpled hair falling about her haggard, stark face. “Thank you, Mr. Todd.” She tossed her curls about, but they didn’t adjust into an arrangement any less chaotic than before. “I don’t suppose you’d care to stay,” she ventured, both chocolate eyes lifting to his. She pursed her lower lip in an expression almost, but not quite, a petulant pout. It was the most innocent, girlish thing he thought he had ever seen her propose.
He chuckled in spite of himself. “Let me check on the boy and the shop. I’ll be back in a moment.” He detested the prospect of returning to the anxious crowd and Toby, but he had responsibilities beyond Mrs. Lovett and her whimsy, things like protecting his identity and keeping them all from discovery, from hanging by the neck for their illicit activities. “Lie down and try to rest, will you? You’re always on edge and in a hurry this time of the evening.” And how long ago had their roles reversed, when she soothed him away from his matters at hand and comforted him with patience?
Something had changed within him. It wasn’t a distinct enough change that many people would notice it. But in his thirst for revenge, he had acquired a different thirst, as well, a craving specifically for companionship, which he had thought upon his return to London that he would never again desire. But not any companionship would do; he required the company of Nellie Lovett. She was among a select few people left on the planet whose very voice didn’t make him want to tear throats open. The thought of harm coming to her disturbed him enough that he used forethought in every practiced murder to protect her. “Hurry back,” Nellie said, and he left her there.
The crowd had petered out substantially, only about twenty people left behind. “Toby,” he summoned. “Have things gone smoothly?” He tried to don a mild expression, if not entirely pleasant, for the public eye.
“Yessir.” Toby did not make eye contact. “People started to leave once I told them I was outta pies.” He hesitated, and then he asked in a meek voice, “Is Mrs. Lovett okay?” His fingers fiddled at a loose string on his shirttail, a frown decorating his face with deep thought there.
Discomfort boiled in Sweeney’s guts, and he assured, “She’s just fine, boy. Nothing a tot of gin and a good’s night rest won’t fix. Now, I believe that man over there would like some more ale.” A party of four left, and immediately after them, a young couple.
He smoothed his hand over his face with a brooding look before he went for the gin bottle, as he had said he would, and headed back through the parlor to Mrs. Lovett’s bedroom. He knocked thrice, and she called for him to come in, and he entered. “Nobody to worry about out there,” he said. He closed the door in his wake and locked it in case anyone wandered by with wayward intentions. “Thought you might like a drink.” On the other side of the bed, he perched like a nervous bird and took off his boots and his bloody outer shirt to drop on the floor. Black eyes darted around the room. “How do you feel?”
“Like shit.” She took the bottle and sipped from it like a man might have beer, swished it around her mouth before she swallowed it with a wince. “Come here. I’m freezing.” She gave him little choice in the matter as she wriggled nearer to him under the blankets, eyes glossy and lips trembling again.
Her feverish body heated the space between them, and he tucked an arm around her thin shoulders. “You’re just sick,” he soothed, but at his little invitation of touch, she grew more invested in touching as much of his skin as possible. She drove her hot face into the crook between his neck and shoulder. One arm looped across his chest, and then she tossed her leg across his legs in a hook. “Okay, this works.” His voice tightened in discomfort. Her curls bounced until she had settled completely still.
“Thank you,” she whispered again. Her every exhale tickled his neck, and he didn’t dare move underneath her even to pat her curly hair or brush it away from aggravating his nose after she fell asleep. Between them, a doubt waited, an uncertainty. He felt her bated breath until, voice as meek as Toby’s, she confided, “I love you, Sweeney.”
His tongue balked and faltered at any reply. It wet his lips, and he twisted his head to peck her lips once. “Hm…” She yawned, apparently not bothered by his dodging the reply, and within moments, she snored there in the crook of his body, eyelashes against his cheek and a slight smile on her face. But his innards twisted inside of him as he fought his own emotions, and he stared at the shadows dancing on the ceiling until they drunkenly dove into his eyes, and he joined her in sleep.
Chapter 8: Chapter Eight
“Mrs. Lovett? Mr. Todd?” Toby rapped at the wooden door. Sweeney groaned, his voice barely audible from the massive mound across his mouth. Nellie’s arm smashed across his mouth and nose. Her long hair tickled his cheeks. Her head rested beside his on the pillow, her body warmly strewn across his. “It’s nearly noon. Is everything alright?” The concern in the boy’s voice drove Sweeney to struggle upward from his position, though his lip curled in displeasure at having to move at all from the warmth of the room.
Mrs. Lovett stirred. “Huh? Love?” she mumbled, peering up at him. Her face had drained of its feverish flush, and she grinned up at him through her tousled locks of frizzy hair. “What’s wrong?”
“Toby needs us. Lie back down, I’ll brew us some tea.”
“Do you know how?”
“I’m not an idiot.” He patted her hand. “Lie back down,” he repeated, voice urgent. “You need to rest. Tomorrow’s Christmas.” His stomach knotted at the thought. The first Christmas he would spend back in London, the first he would celebrate as a free man, the first he would know without his beloved by his side. “I’ll send Toby to the grocer to get rid of him, then you can sleep as you like.” Perhaps with a different form of beloved.
Mrs. Lovett drew the covers up over her head. “Fine.”
Sweeney buttoned up his dirty shirt and found his boots as he shuffled out of the room. “Coming, Toby.” He tried not to sound too aggravated with the boy, but his face found a scowl perhaps more characteristic of his old self, and he had to work to soften the look for the boy’s eyes. Pushing out of the bedroom, he nodded curtly to Toby. “I’ll brew us some tea. Now, we need you to run to the grocer before they close. We still need to eat over the holidays.”
“Right now, sir?” asked Toby; Sweeney might have anticipated a dubious reply, but the lad looked willing and eager as ever. Any hint of fear with which he may have regarded the barber the night before had dissipated into warm brown eyes, a mellower shade than Mrs. Lovett’s but still enough for a striking resemblance to burble between them.
He shook his head, one hand moving to rub his slightly stubbled jaw line. “After you’ve eaten something.” What he would feed Toby, he wasn’t sure; Mrs. Lovett had taken to waiting on the both of them like a bloody maid. “How about I run downstairs and get you a pie?” He internalized his smirk and tried to hold a genuine kind look.
The boy brightened. “Yessir! I love Mrs. Lovett’s pies!”
“I’m sure you do,” muttered Sweeney under his breath as he headed for the door to the bakehouse. The pies had probably burnt beyond recognition, but he didn’t suppose Toby would care; the former chimney sweep had strong teeth and a stronger stomach for anything placed before him on a plate. Behind himself, he slammed the cellar door so that Toby couldn’t peek inside at the strewn bodies. Have to get to butchering later, he reminded himself in a growl. He and Nellie had both marked their establishments as closing on Christmas’ Eve in accordance with the lie he had told about them spending the holidays on the coast; he hoped that work of her sickness didn’t spread too quickly so they could take advantage of the element of surprise when they attended the ball.
The mere thought of the dance pitched his stomach into several twists of debate. It made him anxious, and he hadn’t experienced anxiety in many years--probably not since the night Johanna was born. But he couldn’t shake the foreboding sense in the pit of his chest that something would happen not according to his plan. It left him feeling powerless. He hated powerlessness.
First, he dragged the bodies out of the line of sight from the door, and then he went to the cold oven; the embers and flames hd died, but the pies didn’t look much worse than they’d been when he’d tasted them for the first time upon his return to London. Couldn’t get much worse than that, he suppose as he started back up the stairs with the platter of pies.
Back upstairs, he put the tray in front of Toby. “Have as many as you like.” His eyes wandered back to the parlor, and his mind followed them, drawn to Nellie, who rested just beyond that door.
“Mr. Todd, sir?” Sweeney looked at the boy, attempting to smother his reproachful glance. “How come you don’t ever eat Mrs. Lovett’s pies?”
“I don’t like meat,” lied the barber smoothly. “I’m going to put on some fresh clothes. Don’t budge while I’m gone.” The last thing he wanted was a goose chase after Toby in the streets of London the day before Christmas. He wanted to keep his puzzle pieces close beside him as he gathered them to set up the frame for the perfect plot; naturally, it had nothing to do with caring for Toby’s well-being. Naturally.
Up in his shop, he gazed upon Fleet Street, but the clots of ugly gray snow had few people upon them, mostly the homeless and the beggars who had no shelter to seek. They did not matter. He tossed his bloody clothes and put on fresh. The shop held no solace for him, no solace at all. Uneasiness stirred in his gut, a preoccupation from the emotions he didn’t want to face. The guilt that plagued him when he thought of Mrs. Lovett, the itching that arose when he denied her. His broken soul denied him any pleasure. But when she kissed him, he forgot Lucy’s name. He had abandoned purity.
By the time he returned to the pie shop, the tea had finished, and he poured himself and Toby each a cup. The boy was halfway done with his pie and munching with happy noises upon it. He passed him on his way to the parlor, but he collided with Mrs. Lovett on her way out of the room. “Oh!” he cried in surprise. He tightened his grasp on the mug of tea and watched the brown liquid slosh inside, not spilling out. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she waived. “I got bored lying in there and staring at the ceiling. Now, is this for me?” She didn’t wait for an answer and took the tea from him with a hearty slurp. He lifted one cool hand and pressed it to her cheek, but the skin didn’t flush until he made contact with her. “What is it you’re doing now, love?” she whispered, soft and affectionate eyes upon him with such a warmth that a fuzz brewed in the pit of his gut, an absolute fuzz; he could think of no better term to describe it.
“Your fever has gone down,” he reported.
“Oye, we’re a physician as well as a barber, now, aren’t we?” Mrs. Lovett patted his shoulder and then tiptoed around him. “Toby, love! Once you’ve finished your breakfast, I need you to run to the grocer, if that’s alright with you.”
Apt as always, the boy crowed, “Yes, ma’am.” At the counter he left an empty plate and mug, not a hint that he had had any food or drink in either of them; they were clean enough to serve another person from them. The lad grabbed his coat and laced up his boots, and he made for the door, but as he opened it, another form collided with his. “Oh--excuse me, sir, Mrs. Lovett’s closed today--sir!”
The man pushed past Toby into the shop. “Out of my way, you daft plonker boy. I’m on business with the lady.” The beadle plucked his too-small hat off of his too-fat head, and Sweeney rounded the counter to flank Mrs. Lovett, her eyes widening and fists clenching. “Now, I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, Mrs. Lovett, but I happened to hear of your sickness on the street last night, and given that no coach has come for you this morning, I couldn’t help but fear that you had had to cancel your...little trip.”
Setting her jaw, the baker replied in a stiff voice, “We had other obligations here in London. Pray, tell how you knew that no coach had come by for us, then, if you’re so charitable?” The fumes in her voice caused the greasy man to balk. “No, I suppose no answer for that’s necessary. Beadle Bamford, what is it you want?” The baker glowered needles at the greasy man with her red lips pressed into a contemptuous line.
After he tilted his head to adjust to her hostility, the beadle replied, less apt than before, “I hoped to extend my invitation to the ball a final time, if it turned out that you would, indeed, be here in town tomorrow night. The judge and I would be much obliged.”
He reached for her hand, and as she snapped back, he snapped forward, clasping it. Her pulse quickened in her neck, breathing rattling in her throat, and she replied, “No,” with just enough quiver to sound like doubt.
“If it’s the dancing you fear, my dear, we could always practice right here and now--”
“ Unhand me .” The power that she strained to insert in her tone drained away from the fear that quivered there.
“Now, my dear--”
“Do as the lady says,” growled Sweeney beside her. He rested one hand over the handle of his razor in his back pocket, and how badly he wanted to fork it out and stab the portly man in his distended gut. But Toby watched with big brown eyes, and he wouldn’t make the boy a victim to such a sight. “Release her.” At least, not without probable cause.
The greasy man obeyed, and Mrs. Lovett snatched her arm back against her body. “Then it appears I am unwelcome here.” The beady eyes darkened upon Mrs. Lovett’s form with lust. “Very well. I hope to see you both again soon, and I do hope you recover from your illness, Nellie.” The sound of her given name caused her to clench from head to toe. “Happy Christmas, and blessings on you both.”
He left, the door slamming beside him with the bells tinkling above their heads. The two adults didn’t reply to his insincere blessings. And once the bells on the door had stilled into silence, Toby burst out, “It was him! ” Both of them turned to look at him, faces blank and pale, still in shock. “It was his eyes, I know his eyes, he’s the one who broke in here--I know it was him, I seen them eyes and I know! It had to be him!” The boy quaked. “Why won’t he just leave well enough alone? Why does he have to keep coming back here?”
“Toby, love, don’t upset yourself.” With a burst of action, Nellie shook her shock away and approached him and placed both of her hands tenderly upon his shoulders. “Now, you listen to me real close. Are you listening?” He bobbed his head obediently. “That’s right. You have got to trust me and Mr. T to take care of things. Can you do that?” He kept right on bobbing like a blind bird. “Me and Mr. Todd have our own ways to work things out. You don’t worry about a thing. Go on, now, to the grocer, and don’t you tell anybody about the beadle. He’ll get his, and we’ll get ours. We’ve gotten better and better about doing that, even if you don’t realize it. Do you understand?”
She eased. “Good boy. Give me a hug.” They embraced tightly, and when they severed, Toby’s eyes darted, questioning, to Sweeney, before he bolted from the shop so that the moment of hesitance almost hadn’t happened at all. “A simple thing, I tell you, and a good lad.” Mrs. Lovett hummed and glanced back to him. “Wouldn’t kill you to listen up and give him a hug, you know.”
“I don’t hug,” Sweeney retorted. Having anyone touch him like that sounded like an absolute nightmare. But he could awaken in bed beside her without a second thought, her body cradled against his and her face pressed into his neck and her breath mingling with his, and those sensations had grown all the more pleasant as time passed.
Sighing, she didn’t argue with him. She took her mug of tea into the parlor and sat opposite him. “I’d suppose it’s going to be a quiet day, then.” She had on her knitting needles a half-made muffler, and once she finished her tea, she picked up her needles and set to work on lining the threads. “Did you even get him anything for Christmas?”
Defensively, he narrowed his eyes. “I got him a box of toffees. He’s not my apprentice.”
She chuckled. “You have a problem admitting you care for anyone, anymore.” She didn’t lift her eyes from her work, apparently seeing no argument in her words. “I got him an easy reader. Get him halfway literate so’s he can marry when he comes of age. No room in society for an illiterate man anymore, so I’ll teach him what I can and hope for the best.” He huffed, and she arched an eyebrow above her cloth. “You don’t think he’ll live that long, do you?”
“I said nothing.”
“As long as we’re careful.” She pinched her expression up, and he didn’t rebuke her. From the quarrel on her face, she knew that the odds of Toby never learning their villainy, never happening down into the cellar without permission, were extremely slim. “We’ll treat him carefully and never give him a reason to question us.”
Studying his fingernails, Sweeney couldn’t help but think, He will question regardless. He attempted to silence his cynicism for her sake and for his own sake. The thought of dragging that blade across Toby’s throat filled him with a mixture of sorrow and disgust. “Perhaps,” he allowed instead. Lifting his eyes, he watched her handle the knitting, fast and intense and focused. She occasionally wiped her nose, but her voice was clearer, and he could feel the slight pep back in her step. “Do you feel well today?”
Shrugging, she responded, “No worse for wear.” Her hands quaked. “Have you made up your mind on the ball?”
“I…” He hesitated. “I’m willing to go, if you would like to.”
“It’s an opportunity I don’t think you’ll have again. Providence isn’t kind to us very often, Sweeney. Better take advantage of it when it is.” She tied off the end of the muffler, her lip pinched between her teeth. “Now, this is quite smashing if I do say so myself,” she hummed.
He cleared his throat. “But we go in with a clear plan. No drinking, no partying. We make a signal for when one of us knows where Johanna has been put, and then we split for the trees, no lingering. I don’t want them to have any opportunities.” His fist clenched in his lap. Entering a ballroom, separating from her, and then suddenly hearing her scream too late for him to do anything at all. He would brandish his razor and defend her all the same.
She nodded, and rising from the sofa, she plopped beside him into the armchair and snaked the muffler around his neck. “Green really is your color, I think. Too bad this is for Toby. A little short on you, anyway.” A slight grin twinkled onto her face. “Loosen up a little, Mr. T. It’s Christmastime. You and your business all the time. We may be meager, but we’ve still got plenty to go around and others to share it with, and that’s something to celebrate for you and me.”
Again averting his eyes, he didn’t respond. “I know you miss her,” she whispered after another moment of silence. “But things are looking up for us for once. Opportunities all around. Perk up a little. You may well have her back before the new year, and once she’s in your arms and we make off, none of this will matter, will it?” When he still didn’t answer, she pressed, “Mr. Todd?”
Grinding his jaw left and right, he finally mumbled in a small, embarrassed voice, “I don’t think she’ll like me.”
A frivolous laugh burst forth from Mrs. Lovett, and she shook her head. “You silly man. The girl’s spent her years underneath a man we know to be a tyrant who intended on marrying her. Only the good lord knows what she’s gone through in her lifetime, never tasting freedom in the slightest. She’ll appreciate anyone who aids in her release, and we’ll never tell her of what’s gone on here.”
“I don’t want to tell her who I am,” he insisted obstinately. His fingernails dug into his palms.
“You haven’t met her yet. Thinking too far ahead. Let’s think on those things once you lay eyes on her. I’m sure she’s the fairest young maiden in all the land, just as Anthony told you. And whatever becomes of things, there’ll be more peace in the future than in the past, whether you tell her or you don’t, whether she goes with him or stays with us.” She patted his thigh. “Give us a kiss, now. All this talking hurts my throat.”
He kissed her, and things melted a little, and she didn’t cough into his mouth again. Her raspberry lips caressed his like satin. His eyes closed, and her scent wrapped around him, enticing yet plain and filled to the brim with baking crusts. She rolled into his lap, tongue reaching for his into his mouth. The taste of some fruit, maybe rhubarb, penetrated his senses. Her hot breath fanned over his forehead where a thin brim of sweat had appeared. One of her deft hands slid around back him, and he shifted before he yelped, “What are you doing?”
She forked his razor out into the firelight where she had stolen it from his back pocket. “Got it!” Mischief gleamed brightly in her eyes. The silver handle gleamed and danced a reflection onto his cheek. “I have disarmed you,” she purred, a little too satisfied with herself at the prospect of having stolen his weapon. “Now you’re at my disposal.” One forefinger trailed up his jawbone.
Setting his jaw, he fought to calm the quelling of his heart, to steady his voice. “What is the reasoning behind this silly game you play, woman?” He reached for his razor, but she held it out of his reach. “Give that back to me.”
Mrs. Lovett secured her grasp on one of his hands. “For another kiss,” she proposed. His brow thickened and dropped. “It’s a fair trade, love,” she promised, and she leaned down over him so her shadow fell across his body and her silhouette appeared black against the light of the fire. She pressed her lips to his. He reciprocated. Their open hands met, the handle of the razor clasped between them. Nellie bit his lip. Her curls descended around his face and cast them in a curtain of privacy as his belly twisted and leapt, and he sucked in a breath through his nose. She chuckled, voice low and sultry. “Wasn’t that nice?”
“Perfectly lovely,” he responded, maintaining remarkable composure, black eyes following hers. He curled his fingers around the blade of his razor and tugged it away from her. “I need to finish butchering.” The fish in his stomach wouldn’t stop their splashing. He needed away from her before she drove him crazy, because he didn’t know what a culmination of insanity inside him would cause. “Before they rot.”
She didn’t argue with him. The reservations crawled up over her face again, and with them, he returned to his safe zone. Slowly, she lowered herself off of his lap. “Go on, then. Call me if you need any help.” She patted the back of his scarred hand, a smile on her face. “Don’t break your back, and come back upstairs if you need a break. We’ve got plenty of time to get things done, love.”
The meaning in her words struck him. I don’t want you to leave. But he pretended not to grasp the concept as he once again found himself fleeing her affection. The conflict inside of him drove him away even as he gravitated to her like moths to a lamp. “I’ll come back when I’m done,” he said, vague, eyes not meeting hers. Then, with an extra soft touch on his voice, he finished, “Nellie.” She visibly softened, her shoulders and ribs and stomach all sinking in like butter before the fire. Her swollen lips pursed, and he exhaled slowly through his nose as he started toward the door of the cellar, keeping that picture of her stark in his mind, soft and warm before the blazing hearth.
Once the remaining bodies were dismembered beyond recognition and tucked carefully away in the meatgrinder, Sweeney headed back upstairs. Toby had returned, and he and Nellie sat on the sofa in front of the fireplace. She read aloud to him, the finished muffler wrapped around his neck. “Many years ago, there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of new clothes that he spent all of his money on being well-dressed,” she read. Sweeney washed off his hands and his face and flicked a few bits off of his shirt, which he had managed to keep relatively clean. The bodies had rested for so long that the blood no longer flowed freely but had settled into dark bruises on the flesh.
A few evening birds chattered, too stupid to have traveled southward for the winter, and he watched one of them at the window. A greenfinch. It tweeted and flapped its wings onto the breeze, which carried it away on light drifts of newly falling snow. “Hm,” he grunted under his breath as Mrs. Lovett continued the fairytale of the emperor who so adored his clothing that he believed a couple swindlers who claimed to spin fabric so fair that it was invisible to the inept and the stupid. He sought out the bottle of gin and found a lump of bread, which he smeared with lard and nibbled upon, resting on one of the bar stools.
“Mr. Todd!” called the woman, and he upstarted. “Come in here where it’s warm. We don’t bite.” She and Toby both laughed brightly, and obedient, he followed her voice into the parlor where he sank into the armchair opposite them. “There you are. Have you got the meatgrinder working yet?”
The lie curled so smoothly off of her tongue that for a moment, he blinked at her, wondering what drug she had taken to crack her in the head, but her eyes pointed to Toby, and licking his lips, he answered, “Not yet. May have to have someone from the factory look at it. Someone with more experience with moving parts.”
Her hand smoothed absently over Toby’s hair, and the boy’s eyes drifted closed. She patted his shoulder. “Toby, son. Why don’t you go lie down? You’ve been working hard. Santa Claus won’t come for the children who try to stay awake looking for him, you know,” she teased.
The soot-faced boy rubbed his eyes with his fists. “I don’t believe in those kinds of fairy tales, Mrs. Lovett,” he mumbled, voice sleepy. He roused and stretched. “Santa Claus has never come for me before. He doesn’t come for the really poor and the orphans, only for the rich children. That’s what they always told us at the workhouse. Then Signor Pirelli told me he doesn’t exist at all. Dunno which account I like better.” Mrs. Lovett wrapped his muffler tighter around his neck as he spoke and brushed the dust off of his shirt. “Thank you, mum, for the muffler. You’re always so kind to me.”
“Only because you’re such a good boy, lad. C’mon, give Auntie Nellie a hug.” They embraced, and she kissed his forehead. “Goodnight, Toby. Sleep well.”
“Goodnight, Mrs. Lovett. Goodnight, Mr. Todd.” The boy nodded politely to the barber before he left the room for his cot, and Sweeney drank from the bottle of gin as he stared into the fire, acknowledging neither Toby nor Nellie until he felt that he had consumed a live ember, that it burned down his throat and into his chest and gut.
She waited for him to address her, and after a moment, he did. “Be a pleasant surprise for him in the morning, I suppose.” His tone was empty and stark like his blank eyes and poker face. “That’s good. He deserves something.”
“Yes, he does.” For a moment, he thought that she wouldn’t say anything else, but then she probed, “Are you alright, dear? You look like the worries have given you the brain fever, you know. It’s the holidays. You ought to lighten up, don’t I keep telling you?”
He lifted his eyes to her, and he drank another long swallow from the bottle of gin. “I don’t care for the memories that accompany this time of year.” He tried to remain blank and neutral, but his face tangled, and he drank more until it softened. “I don’t care to remember anything right now at all.” In his hand, a crack in the glass gleamed and cast a reflection of light onto his cheek. He stared at it. “I’d like to forget everything tonight.”
“Keep on that gin, then, and you’ve a good path to forgetfulness,” remarked the baker in return, and she offered a halfhearted smile to him, as if she expected to cheer him up. A soft sigh floated to her lips, and she started to her feet where she went behind his chair to massage his shoulders. “Relax a bit, won’t you. You’re so tense. Now, give me that bottle. You don’t want a hangover on Christmas morning.” He protested. “Give it!” She took it from him and tightened the cap. “Good.”
She circled the chair and sat beside him, a heavy puff from her lungs. “Tell me your troubles, then.” He shot her a pouty look and remained obstinately silent. Her lips pursed, and she patted his thigh. “Mr. T, you lingering on the past isn’t helping nobody. Tomorrow, we may well make the first steps to getting Johanna back to you, and you’re up here moping on woes. Suppose that’s normal, then, but, well.” She shook her head. “My best Christmas was the one with you and your family, you know.”
“Was it?” he grunted.
“Sure. I got me a brand new apron then. Last time I ever got a new apron. I could afford them now, but, well, I happen to like my old one.”
“Lucy picked it out, didn’t she?”
He arched an eyebrow. “How’d you know?”
“The purple flowers. Her favorites were gillies. She always put those in the windowsill.” Nellie chuckled. “And you were indifferent to my existence,” she teased in addition, and he tried to rebuke, but the gin had reached his tongue, and he found nothing coherent to say in return, which made her laugh harder. “Much better than my worst Christmas, anyhow.”
He probed, “Worst Christmas?” His black eyes sought hers; she had succeeded in rupturing his dedication to silent brooding with her stories, and when the realization hit him, he could not retract the words nor withdraw his arm from where it had caressed her shoulders.
She snorted in derision. “That was the morning I found Al.” One forefinger traced the back of his hand until he clasped her dainty, small hand inside of his. “He woke me up sometime in the wee hours, chest hurting something terrible. I got him some gin and sent him back to sleep. Woke up again at dawn for Christmas breakfast, and he was already gray and cold. Finding people was something awful, a minister and a gravedigger, then having to wear all the mourning materials through the new year. Awful inconvenient. Awful lonely. Bloody awful.” She picked at the hem of her dress. “Can’t say I ever loved him. But that first month alone was a bloody nightmare.”
Their hands warmed each other, slightly damp but not enough to dissuade the contact. “This is the first Christmas I haven’t spent alone in years,” she whispered, both eyes on him. “And I’m glad you’re here now.”
A moment’s silence passed, and then he replied, “I’m glad I’m here, too, on your account.” Each of them squeezed the other’s hand. “Would it be forward of me to presuppose an invitation to your bed?”
“Forward, but not inaccurate.” Nellie pecked him once on the lips, chaste and sweet. “Let’s get some rest, love.” She linked her arm through his and pulled him up, but he seized her by the waist and tugged her against him for another deeper kiss. A shocked gasp filled the air around them, and she mollified into his firm form. Upon severing, she tossed her head back to look at him, and he placed one large, warm hand on the side of her neck. “You are an enigma, Sweeney Todd,” she uttered.
Leaning forward, his hot, gin-laced breath wafted between the both of them. “Isn’t it more fun like that, my dear?” His nose almost touched hers, the proximity so great, their eyes so near. “Hm?”
She found where one hand still rested on her waist, and she said, “As always.” She snaked her arm through his again, and this time he followed her to the bedroom, where they slept in the most innocent of senses, tangled under sheets with intimate words of warmth.
Sweeney awoke sometime after dawn grayed the black sky when Nellie stirred from the bed beside him. He grabbed her elbow as she rolled to leave him, and she flinched in surprise. “Where are you going?” he asked, squinting up to her in the faint light. A chill had penetrated the room, and he wanted to retreat with her under the covers.
She pecked him on the forehead. “Happy Christmas, love. I’m going to bake us a pie, a proper one, to eat on today.” Peeling his hand off of her, she put on her shoes and coat. “You can stay behind if you like. Toby won’t be up for another hour or so. But I always make a big pie on Christmas day.”
His expression pinched in displeasure, but he didn’t rebuke, instead sitting up and holding his head through the ache that pierced him right through the temples like a steel spike had drilled there. “I’ll come with you,” he said. Massaging his temples, he swallowed hard to chase the taste of stale gin from his mouth, and then he looked back to her with a grimacing smile. “Happy Christmas,” he replied as an afterthought. Christmas, the ball, the beadle, the judge. It all felt so overwhelming as it sank onto him like a drift of heavy snow.
Patting his cheek, she replied, “I’ll put on some tea,” and her eyes gleamed with a genuine cheer that they didn’t often bear.
He headed upstairs to change into some more presentable clothes, and when he returned, he brought with him the box that he’d compiled for the baker and her apprentice. She slaved over a pie crust, already almost done, and filled it with beef. “Well, won’tcha look at that. The demon tenant who never pays his rent has gotten me a Christmas gift. How precious,” she mocked, mischief still bright upon her face.
The tantalizing emotion, delight, caught fire from him to her and sent him back to her, and she gave him a cup of tea. “You might act a little more grateful,” he needled in return. As he drank from the warm mug, his insides settled into a true human emotion. Then, wiping from his upper lip the ring of brown liquid, he added, “Won’t you open it?”
A burst of laughter came from her, and she retorted, “Patience! Once we’ve got the pie in the oven and Toby’s awake. Honestly, are you a child?” She settled the crust on top of the pie and meshed them together. “That’s just perfect.” A long exhale passed from her, and with more seriousness, she proposed, “So you’ve decided to go to the ball tonight, then?”
“Yes,” he answered with no hesitance. He knew that if he hesitated, he would talk himself out of it. Nellie and the beadle standing close together in his mind’s eye, the greasy man raising a hand, she couldn’t escape, the people circling about. He set his jaw. “Yes. But let frivolity dominate the morning, Mrs. Lovett.”
She paused to lean over the counter at him. “I never thought you a frivolous man, Mr. Todd.” She kissed him. “Now, let me put this in the oven, and we can have some bread and butter for breakfast, and then I’ll wake Toby up. I’m letting him sleep in, on account of Christmas and all.” Lifting up the plate, she continued, “You know, he hasn’t had one of those bloody nightmares for a few weeks. I think he may have finally adapted to this little slice of safety that we’ve got right here. What a good chap.”
As the baker stomped down the stairs into the cellar, Sweeney couldn’t help but think on her words. “Slice of safety,” he murmured under his breath. How quickly it could be corrupted. Once Johanna was free, he knew they could not return to Fleet Street. The judge would go to him before any others and demand information from him. We return just long enough for him to seek me out so I can kill him. He still wanted his revenge. And as long as Judge Turpin lived, Johanna could not live peacefully. The man wanted his young rosebud of a bride.
He had clutched the mug of tea almost tightly enough to break it when Toby rounded the corner. “Oh--happy Christmas, Mr. Todd.” The boy yawned. “Have you seen Mrs. Lovett? Does she have any chores for me yet this morning?” He rubbed his eyes, and then he offered a pleasant smile, so genuine and so trusting.
“Happy Christmas, Toby.” He inserted some animation into his voice to sound less stale. “No chores for you today. Mrs. Lovett just ran downstairs to put the pie in the oven. Then, I believe we’ve some gifts to open.” The boy’s face lit in delight and astonishment. “Have some tea, boy. We haven’t had breakfast yet.” He smeared some lard on the slice of bread he’d selected and bit into it. It melted onto his tongue.
Toby hauled himself up onto the other stool and helped himself, and Mrs. Lovett stomped back up the stairs. “Pie’s in the oven. Happy Christmas, Toby.”
“Happy Christmas, mum!” the boy chimed, and he beamed. “We’re having a special pie?”
“That’s right, a special pie just for us on Christmas.” She exchanged a glance with Sweeney, and he snorted under his breath. To disguise it, he drained his mug of tea. “Eat yourself a little bread, and then we can open our Christmas presents.” She grazed her hand over the top of Toby’s head, ruffling his short, choppy hair. “Did you sleep well, lad?”
The boy looked up at her from his intense focus on the slab of bread and the lard he smeared on it. “Yes, Mrs. Lovett. I didn’t expect you to get me anything for Christmas at all,” he apologized, eyes wide.
She waved him off. “Oh, Toby, you’ve been good to me. You deserve better than I can give you, that’s for sure. Set to work on that bread, now, so we can open what we’ve gotten for each other.”
The boy ate heartily, and once he had drained his cup of tea, Nellie took Sweeney by the arm and led him into the parlor. They kept a careful distance between each other under Toby’s watchful eyes, but he felt his face warm with affection as she stared at his cheek. “Come here, love. Now, open this here box I’ve wrapped for you.”
“My first Christmas present!” She stood clear from the path so they could both watch his delight as he tore into the packaging. “It’s--It’s a book!” He paused, uncertain. “But, Mrs. Lovett, you know I can’t read.”
She chuckled and touched his shoulder. “That’s an easy reader, son. It’s what the boys at grammar school use to learn to read.”
The glee returned to his features tenfold, and he flung himself at her in a huge embrace. “Oh, thank you, thank you! Thank you so much! I’m going to learn how to read! Oh, yes! Thank you, mum, Mrs. Lovett! It’s the best thing I could’ve ever asked for in my whole life!” He backed away for a moment with eyes thrilled and indebted. “I didn’t even get you anything--I’ve never actually celebrated Christmas before--I didn’t expect--”
She shushed him. “No, love, you weren’t supposed to get me anything at all. You’re a plenty good lad, just you by yourself. Now, settle down a moment. I believe Mr. T got you something, too.”
With two pairs of eyes on him, Sweeney felt awkward and gruff as he pushed the box toward the two of them. “Only had one box. Something for each of you in there. Toby’s is on top.” He averted his eyes, abashed as Nellie grinned at him like a fool.
“Go on, Toby, you open it,” encouraged the baker.
The boy balked, and then after Sweeney nodded to him confirmation, he used much slower fingers to open the box, like he suspected something may spring from it into his face. Then, reverently, he pulled out the box of toffees. “Toffees! They’re my favorite! Mr. Todd, thank you!”
To ensure the boy didn’t jump at him for a hug, he stepped so that Nellie was between them, and he said, “Don’t have the sticky on your hands when you’re reading Mrs. Lovett’s book. You’d hate to smear the pages.”
“Yessir!” Toby acquiesced. “I’ll take very good care of it. But, Mrs. Lovett, there’s still something for you in there.”
She stooped over to snatch the fabric of the dress. “What in tarnation is this thing?” The bejeweled bosom gleamed in the pale morning light and cast little shimmering reflections all over the wooden floor. Toby’s eyes widened in wonder. “Is this a--a dress?” She held it out to examine it as Sweeney nodded, uncertain if she sounded pleased or positively aggravated. “Mr. T, you must’ve spent half of your life’s worth on this thing!”
He bit his lip, losing faith as each moment passed in his choice as the vibrant purple dress shimmered in the firelight. The wealth of it, the gemstones, were conspicuous against the impoverished, drab background of a peasant’s pie shop. “So...do you like it?”
Her eyes widened. “Of course I like it, it’s gorgeous, probably the prettiest thing I’ve ever touched. But I can’t fathom what--what you think I could possibly do with such a thing.” She covered her mouth with her hand, eyes pooling with inconspicuous tears. “Where would I wear it?”
“To the ball tonight.” Her hand fell away from her mouth in shock. “With me. I thought you wouldn’t have a ball gown--”
“You’re right, I don’t. I don’t have anything to wear to the ball at all, and I hadn’t even thought of it. It’s absolutely marvelous. Thank you, Mr. Todd.” She spun in the light, clutching the dress close to her like she feared letting it touch any of the dusty items in her store, her devout eyes still glued to the bosom of the wealthy artifact. “My, oh my.” Clearing her throat, she gestured vaguely to the mantel. “Your gift is on top of the fireplace.”
He took it and opened it, and the new silver watch gleamed up at him. “A new watch, just like I asked for.” He picked it up, and then he took out his old one and put the new one on the chair. “Thank you, Mrs. Lovett. You are very thoughtful.”
The dress had absorbed her entirely, and after a brief silence, she probed, “You did indeed buy this, didn’t you? You didn’t steal it, or…”
Or kill some wealthy woman and steal her gown. “Of course I bought it!” he assured. “I bought it from the boutique for you, and I’m sure the shopkeeper would validate that story if you asked her.” What does she take me for? A murderer? He arched an eyebrow at her teasingly.
She blinked up at him. The shock had faded from her tired eyes, and he could see the overwhelming joy there. “Bloody hell, then I’m going to go try it on!” She rushed off into her bedroom, but the moments in her absence did not pass in silence, as her squealing periodically interrupted the air until she traipsed back into the parlor.
She held the train of the dress up above the dusty ground so it wouldn’t sweep up the dirt. “Oh, it’s magnificent. I look positively gaudy.” The purple gems gleamed and cast their reflections on the walls, on her face, on the floor. “I love it!” She spun about. The vivid shades and gemstones made her gleeful and youthful, and her wide beam of gratitude enthralled him. Worth every penny.
He prepared himself, knowing better than to dodge when she flung herself at him. She fell into his arms, and he steadied her by the waist. Her arms pinwheeled and then tossed around his neck, and she bounced into a kiss, uncaring of Toby’s eyes upon them. “I love you ,” she amended in a whisper to his ear. Goosebumps erupted on his arms as the words both warmed and chilled him. He lowered his head to brush his lips against his cheek, the only acknowledgment he could yet lend her. But in front of the fireplace with their last frivolities fading, it was enough.
Chapter 9: Chapter Nine
“Mum, the coach is here!” called Toby from the porch. The thick cascading snow decorated the atmosphere even on the gray backdrop, and as Mrs. Lovett stepped out of the shop with her arm in Sweeney’s arm, her purple dress lit up the melancholy London drabness. She held her skirts up out of the slush, her face decorated with blushing powder and her hair done up neatly in her traditional double bun. “Will you be home soon?” pressed the boy. Beside the two properly dressed adult, the workhouse boy looked incongruous.
“Maybe not until very late, Toby. Don’t you worry yourself none, and don’t wait up. We’ll be back by dawn.” She dusted her hand over his hair. “Go back inside and eat a toffee.” Sweeney did not speak. The monkey mask made speech difficult and muffled. Going to have to deal with it. He clenched his fists a little tighter as he followed Mrs. Lovett into the carriage of the coach.
The driver waited until they were seated, then he began, “So we’re off to the judge’s ball, are we? Fourth delivery I’ve made there for the night. Wild how many people he invited. Don’t see many from this side of town, though.” He nudged the horses with his whip. “You look smashing, madam.”
She dusted off her skirt. “Why, thank you!” She winked to Sweeney, and he grunted. It’s going straight to her head. What if she lost herself? His gut turned. It felt like a bad idea, the whole of it. He wanted to strip off his suit coat and flee with her back into the safety of the pie shop, concoct a new plan that did not endanger the baker. “Settle,” she whispered to his ear, and only then did he realize he had tightened his fist around her arm enough for her to uncomfortably pry at the fingers. He released her. “Busy night, then, sir?” she called to the driver.
“Aye, yes, madam. But worth it for the payoff. Now, I have been hearing wonderful things about your pie shop--you are the owner, yes? I may have to stop in sometime. They say it melts on the tongue, positively delectable.” The houses through the window passed by at an alarming speed. There’s no turning back. He couldn’t shake the ambivalence in his stomach. “How did you two end up in attendance at one of these fancy dances, then?”
Mrs. Lovett fanned herself with her hand dramatically. “Oh, Mr. Todd serves Beadle Bamford, and after what with Mrs. Mooney, I’ve had more customers of higher standing in the previous months. Us both being welcomed in the higher circles and whatnot with people seeing we’re not completely useless!” She crossed her legs, and Sweeney could feel her eyes on his cheek. He watched the houses streaming by; they grew more and more wealthy, larger, cleaner, as they left the dilapidated inner city of London and entered the rich neighborhood that claimed Judge Turpin’s house.
The driver sucked his teeth as he halted his horses in front of the judge’s house. Other cabbies were depositing people left and right, mostly men in masks, though some had their wives alongside them. “That’s all well, madam, but I do hope you’re careful. They say things not too good can sometimes happen to women at these shindigs. Wasn’t too sure of it myself, but then my wife’s sister come here--well, she was never the same after she came out. Accusations I won’t repeat, but she ended up in bedlam and then hanged herself.” Sweeney pinched his grip into Nellie’s arm again, and she grimaced. “Just mind yourself, miss. These people don’t gain their standings from having pure hearts.”
Her frivolous laugh couldn’t disguise the serious look in her chestnut eyes. “I’ll be sure to avoid the alcohol. Come along, love. Thank you, sir!” She paid the driver and slipped out into the yard. The driver nudged his horses once they stood clear, and they drove away. “Now we separate. Don’t want anybody thinking we’re together. You do your thing, and I’ll find the beadle.”
“I don’t like this,” he growled under the mask. “They’ve baited a trap, and we’re walking straight into it.”
“Nonsense.” She tugged his mask down a little lower. “Shoulders square and head up. You’re a wealthy man.” Lowering her voice, she continued, “We’re the ones with the trap. These rich men are dimwits. They’ll tell what we need to know, and soon you’ll have your little girl in your arms again before we welcome the new year.”
He set his jaw. She made it sound so perfect. And it would be perfect, wouldn’t it? With Johanna free, they could go anywhere; at least, Anthony would owe them a flight out of London on his ship for rescuing his beloved. But the sheer wrongness of it all twisted his insides. “Just stick the plan,” he finally muttered. “Once I’ve heard what I need, you leave. We meet in the side alley. No deviations.”
Patting his arm, Nellie soothed, “Of course not. Now I leave you. Don’t worry too much on me. I’ve got plenty to keep me in one piece until the end of the night.” She stood on her tiptoes and pecked the cheek of his mask, and then she left him, swooning with perfect confused and elated drama. In the back pocket of her dress, he saw the butt of the razor he had given her. It gleamed in a single flash, and then no more light caught it.
Nellie Lovett would play her part. The hardy baker did not vanish into the crowd because of the vibrancy of her wear, but soon she began to chat up some people, and the barber’s hand went to the spot on his mask that she had kissed. He wished he could have felt her lips on his flesh before they parted. Clearing his throat, he drew himself upward, and he proceeded across the snowy lawn and into the house.
He had never entered Judge Turpin’s house before. The grand vaulted ceiling and smooth marble floors glimmered a wealth he had never dreamed he would touch. Don’t marvel. You are a rich man. He kept his black eyes steady ahead until some drunkard in a pig’s face seized his shoulder. “Is that you, Constable Crane? How marvelous! We heard you’d been called away on duties. The judge will be most pleased at your presence!”
“Tis I, my friend.” Who the hell are you? Sweeney let the bearded fellow guide him through the mosh of people, and he followed apt. Constable. Look intelligent. “I’m afraid it was a case of mistaken identity--the kidnapped girl had actually just gotten lost in the woods, but her poor mother had the brain fever…”
“True, sir? It seems the more women learn, the frailer they become. Ought to stop giving them these supposed educations if it’s killing them off before they can raise all of their children! I tell you, Constable.” The man started up some stairs. “Now, let’s us find the judge. He’ll find favor with me if it looks we arrived together, do you mind?”
He smirked under the mask. “Absolutely not. Anything to please the whim of the lordship.”
“And plenty of time to discuss your objections to today’s disciplinary tactics, eh?” What does he bloody mean? He fought with himself to place the name to a face. Crane . Crane. He felt he had heard it before, and then it dawned on him, and he felt remarkably stupid. “Ichabod?”
In the courtroom, he stared at the floor with red-rimmed eyes, shivering all over, lips pressed white together so that he wouldn’t erupt into tears again. “Your honor, there simply isn’t enough evidence to prove that Mr. Barker has committed any crime, let alone that he was on this street on the night that the jeweler was robbed. The landlord and his wife have both attested that Mr. Barker did not leave his barbershop on the night of Tuesday, April the fourteenth. We’ve found no trace of such valuables on his premises.” The defender paced in front of his client, both eyes on the judge.
Benjamin knew that he would do no good. The man in the velvet chair wanted Lucy, and no amount of pleading on part of the generous officer would alter the outcome. He could only hope that they would transport him rather than behead him or hang him. If they transported him, maybe he could escape. “Constable, I find this interruption pointless. We have the jeweler’s eyewitness testimony that it was, indeed, Mr. Benjamin Barker who assaulted and robbed him--”
“Yet modern science says that eyewitness testimony is unreliable at best!” broke in the constable again. “The jeweler was not even able to identify which pieces were stolen off of his person, as the attack altered his memory. No one on Fleet Street saw anyone resembling Mr. Barker coming or going that night, and with nothing recovered from his premises, I fail to see why this man is still being held!” The energetic young man bounced where he paced. His neck flushed red. “This is a gross injustice and abuse of the law!”
“Constable, control yourself or I will hold you in contempt of court.” Turpin’s icy eyes fell on Benjamin, and he shivered. The tears burbled to the surface again. Bloody hell, man, pull yourself together! He bit his fist. “I find the evidence enough to sentence Mr. Benjamin Barker to transportation for life to Botany Bay. The colony mayors may decide what to do with him from there.” Tears rolled down his cheeks, and he swallowed a sob. “Consider this a show of mercy, Barker,” spat the vulture in the wig. “For what you did to the jeweler deserves a much harsher punishment.”
The guards dragged him away. I didn’t do it! He wanted to scream it at the top of his very lungs. I didn’t do it didn’t do it didn’t do it! What would Lucy do? His family needed him! But he couldn’t resist the strong arms of the officers on his either side. He didn’t struggle. They’d hit him when they took him, and it upset Johanna. The last he ever saw of her, she was open-mouthed and screaming.
The constable jogged after them. “Wait! Wait a second! Mr. Barker! Now, slow down there, officers--come now, the man’s condemned, give him a moment of my counsel. Thank you, gentlemen.” Under his breath, he muttered, “Brutes,” and Benjamin sniffled, unable to make eye contact with him or anyone else. “Mr. Barker, I’m terribly sorry, they just won’t hear reason when it’s right before them.” He shivered. Never before in his life had he desired intimacy so badly. He would have killed a thousand men to hug Lucy one more time. “Mr. Barker, I know you’re innocent. I’ll do everything in my power to prove it, and have you brought home.”
“Don’t bother,” muttered the man in his hoarse voice, still thick with tears. “It won’t make a difference. He wants rid of me.”
The young officer’s emotive eyes darkened in confusion, his eyebrows knitting together. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s better you don’t.” I never thought it would come to this . A woman punished for loyalty by the same bloody judge who would hang a prostitute. “Forget me, Ichabod.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
One of the guards growled, “Are you done, constable? We’d like to have this convict on the next boat to Botany Bay. We have our own families, you know!”
Ichabod Crane curled his lip in clear disdain. “A moment more, gentlemen.” He spat the last word like venom. “Mr. Barker, is there anything you’ll have me do? I’ll go straight to your residence to inform your wife and neighbors--”
“Tell her I love her.” His voice quaked, and the tears fell all the faster.
The constable squeezed his hand. “Absolutely.” The sensitive bloke released him as the guards started to proceed. “Good luck to you, Mr. Barker!” The young man’s voice echoed to him as they marched him down the street, and with a bitter downward turn of his lips, he wondered how the luck could look up at all from a ship bound to Australia.
Sweeney tightened his jaw from the memory. “Yes, sir, but I find these circumstances not conducive to a serious conversation about our work, especially on matters as crucial as men’s livelihoods and the wellbeing of their families when they are relocated.” He kept his hands out and open in a show of truthfulness. “I am honored to have been able to frequent this dance tonight, though.”
The other man suspected not a thing. “You can always recognize the judge--he wears a plague doctor mask, finds it fitting.” No sooner than the pig-face had said the words, he noticed the long bill from the balcony. “Judge Turpin, my lord! Constable Crane has made it here after all! I went to his establishment and fetched him off the books, I did.”
Voice unmistakable, the judge purred, “That’s very well. Look here, constable. The best view is from up here. You can watch everyone enter.” And down below, Nellie spun dizzily from man to man. “Won’t you see that, doctor? Beadle Bamford will be pleased. Can’t imagine what he sees in such a woman.”
The pig-faced doctor responded, “Naturally, but we all have our tastes. Some more refined than others.” The other two men laughed, and Sweeney joined them, though his stomach upheaved. “At least there’s no husband in the way this time. Remember that blighter two years ago whose head you ordered off? Awful lot of trouble for one blonde.”
“A lot of trouble, but worth it for the night I enjoyed.” The cold eyes behind the mask reminisced, and Sweeney’s fists balled up so tight that he plunged them into his pockets so the others wouldn’t question his loyalty to their horrific cause. “Beadle Bamford does claim, though, that the barber has caused quite a stir for him. Now, constable, if I can trust you to remain unlawful for the night?”
Never. Repulsion, horror, drained his face of all color. “Naturally, my lord,” he answered, voice a little soft and a little weak.
“Well, it seems the barber interrupted our friend, the beadle’s courtship of Mrs. Lovett a few weeks ago. The woman dared to scream, and that was history. His apprentice, ah...Nathaniel, is that the name? Did not escape. But we dared not prosecute over such a trivial matter.” The judge’s fingers rapped on the railing. “It is my understanding that the beadle would like to make Mrs. Lovett his wife and move away from London so she has no hope of resistance. Can’t fathom why, personally, but I can only offer my premises as a refuge for him. After all, he has served me well through the years.”
The doctor laughed and slapped his own rotund belly. “The barber has no claim on her. He won’t get in the way. Not a very fine lady, but all the better that she should see the flattery in such a man taking interest in her!”
“That’s the truth!” echoed the judge, and Sweeney chimed a vague agreement to ensure his participation in the sickening conversation. “If you raise a woman in wealth, she doesn’t take so kindly to such interests. I had to learn the hard way… Oh, my poor dear Johanna. Still puzzles me, her not reciprocating my affections. And a sailor! Young rogue probably can’t even read.” He shook his head and clicked his tongue. “She’s safe now, at any rate.”
Now. But the night had scarcely passed. Sweeney pinched his tongue between his teeth as he grappled with the question, how to phrase it and raise no suspicions. “Have you checked in on her in recent weeks, my lord?” He leaned nearer to the judge. “She may have had a change of heart, based on where you placed her.”
The enemy tossed his head back in a bold laugh. “Oh, I’m sure a few more months there and she will have a change of heart, but I want to ensure that she will never forget what the world is like without me, tossing around in the piss of the madmen and the harlots and what other street slop.” But where? “Forgive me, gentlemen, but I am long overdue for some punch and party favors, and it’s been days since I last had a drink. May we continue this conversation later?”
He gave neither the doctor nor the disguised barber the opportunity to reply before he started down the stairs into the mingling crowd, and he vanished as soon as Sweeney tried to bolt after him. Growling under his breath, the doctor continued speaking after a hearty laugh. “Maybe the liquor will loosen his tongue! We’ve been picking his brain for Johanna’s whereabouts for months, but he hasn’t breathed a word to anyone but Beadle Bamford, and that greasy git won’t tell us, either. Anyhow, constable, good to see you, but the gin is also calling my name. Let’s meet again sometime soon!”
“Yes, let’s,” echoed Sweeney. He wanted to rip the mask off in frustration and storm out, but the night was yet young, and the doctor raised a good point--perhaps alcohol would loosen the judge’s hold on his information. But the longer they lingered, the longer Mrs. Lovett was at risk; he hadn’t yet seen anyone resembling the beadle, and that could mean many bad things for the man hatching plans up his sleeves. He worked his fingers, tapping on the railing, struggling for a solution, while his eyes followed Nellie on the floor of the ballroom.
She was a bloody wonder. She chattered and spoke and moved enthusiastically, and several times she picked up a glass, only to put it down without taking a sip and act a shred drunker. “The beadle knows,” he repeated under his breath. And Nellie would have the beadle in her grasp soon enough. Mind made up, he rushed to the stairs, perhaps with more hurry than he should have utilized.
He slipped in between a few couples before he found the purple-clad woman flopping onto a chair. Her dazed eyes darkened into seriousness when she caught sight of him, and she straightened a bit, looking anywhere but at him as he drew closer. His hushed voice met her ear. “The beadle knows, he’s the only one other than the judge.” Her hands tightened in the skirt of her dress. She nodded once. He let the crowd sweep him away again.
At the bar, the man in the plague doctor mask took swig after swig of gin, but the seats around him were all filled, and the music shrilled so loudly that even the voices of those side by side were inaudible. He circled a few times in the course of about two hours and struggled to avoid the conversations of the men around him, some making vague references to cases and arrests that he didn’t understand, and he kept his answers vague and excused himself in a pattern until a seat on the bar opened. He leapt at it. “Ale, please.” He would not drink, but he had to offer the illusion of it. “Fancy seeing you again, Judge Turpin.”
On the dance floor, Nellie had found the beadle. They spun and danced, and she giggled and flushed like a proper drunken woman. When she whispered in the beadle’s ear, an unbidden jealousy boiled within him, even knowing the intentions behind her behavior. The greasy man teased one lock of auburn hair that had fallen free from her do. “Yes, Ichabod.” The judge belched. “Pleasure. Ale only for you?”
“It is the manner of an officer of the law to remain sober for appropriate reflexes at all times, my lord.”
“Ah, you naturally would think so.” He covered his mouth for another burp. “Pardon me. You know, constable, when you were young, I didn’t think much of you. Rather upright for a man of such standing to have nothing lying under the blankets.” The judge pulled off his mask. His skin was hot and red, and he sweated profusely, incredibly drunk, as his speech slurred. “No dirty laundry, that is. But I’ve come to respect you more and more over the years, and now I think I should trust no finer a man than someone with no ulterior motives.”
His heartbeat pulsed in his tongue. He did not touch the glass of ale. “Trust, my lord?” he questioned, voice a little off-set and wary. Both of his eyes left Mrs. Lovett to focus on the judge, all bloated and wealthy with bloodshot eyes, and he puffed with noisy, smelly breaths. “I’m afraid I don’t understand your meaning.”
Cackling too loudly for the situation, the judge laughed, “Of course you don’t! You’re pure of heart and of conscience.” He rubbed his temples. “Now, constable, if you don’t mind discussing such matters publicly, I’ve had problems coming to terms with the prospect of my friend, the Beadle Bamford, leaving London once he’s gotten what he wants from our friend, the baker woman.”
“Perhaps he shan’t get what he wants.”
“Nonsense. We’ve never had a woman evade us. Now, listen closely, constable. The beadle isn’t your matter. But I do need another confidant for my ward, Johanna. In two months, I want her moved from her current station back to my residence, and I need someone to conduct her. As Beadle Bamford will be gone by then with his intended, then, I hope to entrust you with the matter.” He tottered on the stool, and Sweeney took his arm to steady him, enraptured so by the words that he couldn’t risk the drunkard causing a scene. “Do I have your promise?”
Sweeney nodded. “Absolutely, my lord, my promise.” He paused, and then he pressed, the question tantalizing upon his lips, “But I don’t know where it is that you’ve put the girl.”
“Fogg’s,” blurted the vulture thoughtlessly. “Wonder no one else has figured it out, I sent the girl to bloody bedlam. Dunno what all the fuss is about. Place is a fortress. Nobody goes in or out without direct orders.”
But I will. The idea erupted into his mind and then would not leave him. “You are, as always, the pinnacle of genius and piety, my lord.” He would save his daughter.
Over his shoulder bumbled the aforementioned beadle. “Wine, for the lady! It is upon her request.” Sweeney peeked over his shoulder to see the vibrant purple dress making a beeline for the side door. She stole a glance around the room once, locked eyes with him, and then split off into the wintry night, apparently unnoticed by the increasingly drunken crowd. “Judge Turpin, what a fair party you’ve thrown!” He fanned himself. “Excuse me, let me return to my fairest intended.”
He swallowed the budding lump of fury. She is not your intended. Soon they would have no worries on the beadle at all. “I look forward to partaking in your company more often, my lord,” he addressed the judge, “but for tonight, I think I must retire. Rumor has that I will be sent to Plymouth on the morning, and I can’t endure such a trip without being well-rested, you understand.”
The scavenger gulped another shot of gin, and with his head lolling, he slurred, “Certainly, my friend. You have my full confidence. Farewell, goodnight, happy Christmas.” He belched, and his eyes skewed away.
“Happy Christmas, sir.” Sweeney bolted like a phantom for the side door. He floated in his own mind, elated and not truly believing that it had happened at all, that Mrs. Lovett was right, that it worked out so cleanly, so absent of incident. He swallowed hard. The pulse still throbbed in his tongue with a vicious insistence. Had he raised no suspicions? It seemed too excellent to have happened at all.
The chilly night air bit into his arms, and all of his internal musings fell away. They needed to escape back to Fleet Street before they were detected, before her absence was noted. “Nellie?” he called in a whisper in the darkness. Removing the mask, he discarded it with a toss, and he descended the stairs and landed on the snowy alley. “Nellie!”
“Shut up!” Her voice startled him. “I’m down here.” She strode out from under the stairwell, and at the sight of him, she rushed, slipping through the gray slush. “I’ve got where she is,” she whispered. “He doesn’t suspect a thing.”
His face split in joy. “Let’s get out of here, and once we’re home we can start making plans.” The music blasted through the impenetrable mansion walls, a more appreciative volume in the crispness of the night. “Things are looking up for us at last!”
She spun about with a halo of snowflakes decorating her auburn hair. “Oh, the fates have opted to favor us both.” One hand landed on his shoulder, and bright eyes glowed. “It’s nearly midnight,” she whispered. “The night is still young for those inside. They won’t find us at all.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Give me this dance.” The sultry gravity of her flushed cheeks and lips attracted him, and she guided one of his hands to the curve of her waist. Already, she swayed to the beat of the orchestra within. “I’ve spent the past hours at the whims of greasy men who put lard in their hair and whale shit behind their ears. Grant me one dance.”
He took her other hand. “What’ve I to lose?” Joyous, she tossed her head back, and he led into the first pace of the waltz. He hadn’t danced since his wedding night. But in the frigid silver moonlight, their shadows sprawling on red brick walls and their shoes growing dirtier from the waste of the alley, he couldn’t have been farther removed from Lucy, even as close as he was to reclaiming his daughter. Nellie Lovett consumed his vision. Her bejeweled bosom cast pinkish reflections of dazzling light onto the white flashes of snow.
She twirled around, giggling with her mouth open, and he saw her raw and exposed there on the snowing December night, the snowfall shrouding them like a curtain of mystery. The song ended, and he caught her around the waist and jerked her back beside him. Their bodies meshed together. In the silence, he proceeded a step forward and she a step backward three times, until her back collided with the wall.
When her back thumped there against the brick, she gasped, “Sweeney,” in a breathless voice, his eyes meeting hers with more honesty and openness than either of them liked to show to anyone else. He bumped her jaw upward with his thumb, and she lifted her head. They kissed.
Their passionate lips entwined. She wrapped her arms around his neck, boosting herself into his contact. Into her, he breathed his breath of life, and her lungs inflated, her heart there at the surface. His hand roamed northward. From her lips, his mouth severed, and she began a petulant protest, but then he landed upon the trim line of her neck right over her pulse point, and she tilted her head back. One of her hands smoothed up into his dark hair. In response, he nipped her skin and sucked upon it, enough to elicit a moan from her. She made husky, dark noises, sensual and feral just like her. This was a woman he could not cage, that no one would ever cage. He paused a moment to meet her luscious brown eyes again.
“What is it that we’ve got here?” The sharp voice startled the both of him. Nellie grabbed his arm as the beadle stepped out from the shadows. “Just as I expected. You had something to gain for your dear barber friend here.” Sweeney reached for his razor in his back pocket, but then the officers followed their leader. Two, three, four of them behind the beadle, three more at the end of the alley. He could not fight off eight men. “Sickening, really, that you couldn’t wait until you entered the privacy of your own homes to have these illicit goings on.”
The clouds cleared, the snowfall halting. The full December moon cast long shadows on the gray and white splotches of snow. “But you, barber, you’re none of my concern. Whatever it is you wanted to know, I take it you know now.” He moved his abrupt eyes to Nellie, and he called her by name. “Nellie, you know you are the one I want. You’ve resisted all of my efforts to take you in a more pleasant manner, so now I will use my force.”
She pressed nearer to Sweeney’s side. “You wouldn’t dare,” she growled. She quivered in the cold, in the terror.
The beadle laughed. “And that’s where you’re wrong.” He held out one arm. “Nellie.” The condescending tone returned. “You have two options. First, you can come with me, and I’ll leave Mr. Sweeney Todd alive to return to his establishment on Fleet Street. I have no quarrel with him. We will marry on Monday, and then we’ll move to some southern beach where the climate is fairer.”
Her lower lip trembled. “Or, second. You two can try to fight me, and I’ll have Mr. Todd here killed, and you will still come with me to be married on Monday, provided that you have no injuries serious enough to warrant a visit to the physician. It’s your choice, my dear, with a similar outcome for the two of us.” His arm extended, he opened his palm, prepared to take her hand. “Come now, Nellie. Don’t be unreasonable. What will it be?”
She released Sweeney’s hand. “No,” he whispered to her. Then, as she took the first motion toward the beadle, he repeated his objection louder. “No, Nell, don’t.” He tried to grab her back to him, but she shook him off with ease.
“I can’t let him hurt you.” Delicately, she placed her dainty but weathered hand in the palm of the beadle. The man yanked her hard so that she stumbled and fell against him, a grunt rising to her lips. In the moonlight, the handle of the razor in her back pocket glinted once again for his eyes alone.
“That’s my girl.” The beadle patted the top of her curly hair. “I knew you were a good gal.” His gaze shifted to the officers. “Beat him.”
She wrenched her face up. “You said you wouldn’t harm him!” she wailed. She attempted to propel herself away from him, but his vice grip wouldn’t relinquish her in the slightest. “Let me go! Don’t you lay a finger on him!” The beadle grinned a sickening look, ear to ear, and she swung back to face the barber. “Sweeney, run!”
He held fast, shaking his head. He had nowhere to run, even if he would dare to abandon her with such scum--and he wouldn’t have, even if there were only two guards, each of them fatter than the beadle himself. He wouldn’t have left her. He couldn’t do it. “Silly woman, I said I wouldn’t kill him. You uneducated peasants wouldn’t know the difference.” The beadle cleared his throat. “Beat him, but leave him alive. I don’t want any of his memory to be trusted if he goes for the law in the morning.” He tapped his cane on the ground. “And, Mr. Todd, I do suggest you keep to your own business from now on. Out of the lives of widows and the like. It’s improper in the eyes of the law, and in the eyes of God. Come on, my love.”
“No!” shrilled Nellie, and she struggled. In the slush, she could find no traction, and he towed her for a few yards like a horse would tow a buggy until, growing ill of her antics and thrashing, he lopped her over the head twice with his fist and shook her like a ragdoll, and then she quieted into inconsolable tears.
He didn’t back away from the advancing guards until she was out of sight. Too late, he brandished his razor. The first guard raised his stick, and Sweeney dodged it aptly and cut through the air, but another came from behind him and tossed him by the hair onto the ground, and a third plunged the beating stick into the soft of his gut.
He doubled over and curled up into a ball. The next blow smashed across his ribcage, another over his back. He tucked his head in and tried to protect his skull. Feet lopped at him and rolled him, and they jeered, but he didn’t attempt to make out their words.
The front of a shoe caught the underside of his jaw. He sprawled out onto his back into the snow, completely exposed, the wind knocked from his lungs. One man placed a heel on the crotch of his pants. “Please, don’t--” His own breathless voice that he had not given permission to speak.
“What a blithering idiot.” Stars danced much nearer to him when the foot came down, and he wheezed in agony, his ribs kneading around inside of him. He closed his eyes when the final guard raised his staff. “Let’s knock him out and get out of here. I don’t want him running off to get treatment and having to explain any of this.”
I never told her I loved her. The staff came down. Darkness engulfed him.
Chapter 10: Chapter Ten
Pitching in the dark underbelly of a ship, a storm rattled outside in cracks and rumbles of thunder. Faint light streamed in through the cracks in the ceiling, and occasionally dust would shower him when the footsteps thumped overhead. Voices came and went. He had no care for them. “Lucy,” he fought to whisper, but his voice caught in his throat. Bitter cold tormented him. He felt like they’d dropped him barren into the arctic ocean.
But it’s summertime. His narrow eyes opened and then squinted against the sudden light as the door to his cell swung open. “Nellie!” He lurched forward against his chains when he recognized her silhouettes, wheezing, his chest grinding in pain. “Nell--I’m so sorry--” Tears started down his cheeks, and he couldn’t remember why, but grief and longing tore his guts at the sight of her.
She drew nearer in slow, deliberate strides. He strained onto his knees to see her face in the dim light. The features gnarled into that of Beadle Bamford, and he spat in Sweeney’s face. Then he opened his greasy, round mouth, and a child’s voice emerged. “Mr. Todd! Mr. Todd, please, wake up!” A desperate wail. “Oh, no!” A fat, warm raindrop landed on his cheek.
“Ugh…” Consciousness returned sluggishly like a steamboat on a narrow river. The pain, acute, pierced his chest with every inhale. His eyelids fluttered, but he couldn’t open them all the way. “Toby.” A shudder coursed through his person, and he groaned. The shivers wouldn’t cease; the snow penetrated all of his clothing and stung his skin.
Small hands roamed him, warm hands. His face tightened in distaste until Toby decided to cradle his cold face, and the warm hands felt very nice there on his swollen cheek and bruised temple. “Mr. Todd, sir.” The hot tears continued to sprinkle him. “What happened? Who done this? Where’s Mrs. Lovett?” He flopped into the wet slush. “Mr. Todd, please don’t die!”
Calm him down. The dull memories leaked back into his brain one by one. Nellie, beautiful in her violet dress, swaying in the light of the ballroom, then in the moonlight. He remembered her most vividly. “I’m not dying, boy,” he sighed, voice hoarse and weak. On his hands, he tried to push himself up. Broken glass dug into his palms. His cracked ribs ached, and he puffed out a shallow breath. Toby grabbed him round the shoulders and pushed him up, propping him against the stone wall.
The world spun around him like he rode a fast merry-go-round. Pinching his eyes closed, he bit his lip until the vertigo left him. “Mr. Todd, sir.” Toby’s meek and frightened voice drew his attention. Licking his lips, he tried to focus his eyes on the child, but several Tobys swayed back and forth in front of him, shimmering like a reflection in a rippling puddle. His mouth tasted like stale blood. He felt a gap where one of his back teeth no longer rested in its socket. “What can I do?”
In the inside pocket of his coat, he fumbled for his purse. “Go hire us a cab back to Fleet Street…” The pocket was empty. “Maybe.” The other pocket also was unoccupied. “Stole my bloody purse, thieving greedy bastards.” His eyes wandered to the gray December sky, still in the early morning, and cursed under his breath a slew of words that Nellie would not have wanted him to repeat in front of Toby.
“Who done this, Mr. Todd?” Toby shivered. “Where’s Mrs. Lovett?”
They’ve baited the trap, and we’re walking straight into it. “The beadle took her,” he grunted. His scraped and battered face twisted in thought. What could they do? They had until Monday to find the beadle’s home and free Nellie before they would marry and head to god knew where, untraceable. “Help me up.” The boy took his blue hands and tugged him to his unsteady feet. Both staggered, Toby from his limp and Sweeney from his dizziness, until he found himself leaning on the wall again.
Toby pushed something into his frozen, uncooperative hand. “Your razor, sir.” The blade still gleamed without the slightest drop of blood upon it. It left him unsatisfied. “Where are we going?”
He shoved his hands deep into his pockets, though his sodden coat provided little warmth. His shoulder relied on the support of the building as he tested his unsteady legs. He took shallow breaths. Anything deeper sent shooting pain through his lower chest. “Home,” he answered. Back to Fleet Street where he could collect more money and his thoughts, a plan. But a plan would have to hatch quickly. They couldn’t toil on it.
“And what then?” Toby jogged after him.
Pausing at the corner for the boy to catch up, he kept his reply honest and short. “I don’t know.” The street was quiet, many people still in their homes catching up with the relatives they hadn’t seen the day prior, servants unboxing what little gifts they had received from their masters. Of course, Fleet Street and its peasants would bustle about as busily as ever; they could not afford more than two days of no wages.
“But we’re going to save Mrs. Lovett, aren’t we?”
The snow crunched under his boots. “I’ll do my damnedest to bring her home.” He wished he would have fought for her. He wished he would have let the beadle kill him, so he didn’t have to endure the prospect of losing Mrs. Lovett. The tale had repeated itself in such a morbid fashion that he couldn’t bear it: The barber returned home to a different woman, but still she was beautiful, and still he was naive, so very naive.
They started down another street at a remarkably slow pace, and he wheezed with exertion, pausing at every street corner to lean on the building and catch his breath. His numb fingers and toes would barely bend, and the wind chapped his face. “Why would they do something like that to her?” Toby whispered, face apprehensive. “Why would he…” He shook his head. “I don’t understand, Mr. Todd.”
“It’s better that you don’t.” A few wealthy children down the street howled in play, and snowballs flew about. Toby sank into his coat like a turtle, but Sweeney marched past them. He placed one chilled hand on the small of Toby’s back to propel him a little quicker past the group, which paid them no heed. The pain in his knees and pelvis became more pronounced the longer he stayed upright, and his dazed mind wandered. Every few moments, an icepick jutted into his right eye.
How to save Mrs. Lovett. He tried to focus on the subject matter at hand, but whenever he took a step a little longer than the others, his family jewels sang a tune from the crunching they’d received under the boot of the guard. Bloody good thing I’m done having kids. Toby grabbed him by the elbow and snatched him back from the path of an oncoming carriage. “Watch out!” The boy clung to him, but to his surprise, the carriage halted there.
“Mr. Todd?” The driver from last night pulled his horses up tight and cast his whip aside. “Bloody hell, what happened to ya? Where’s your lady friend? Christ almighty, trying to walk all the way back home? Go on, get in the cab.”
“We don’t have any money.”
“I don’t charge the injured and ill! Go on, hurry. I don’t have any appointments for another hour. Goodness! I tell you, you can’t trust any of those vultures for nothing. Tell me, is Mrs. Lovett okay? I warned her, I did, but it’s hard to get anyone to believe anything about the men who are supposed to be protecting them, you know.”
Toby scrambled up into the carriage and turned around to help Sweeney make the step into its bench. “Never been in one of these before,” he whispered.
Sweeney kept his arms tight around his chest, unable to answer either the driver or Toby until the pain abated a bit, and then he said, “Mrs. Lovett’s whereabouts are currently unknown, but I intend to find her.” He put his hands through his stiff, frozen hair, and he wondered how awful he looked in the mirror. His face had swollen with a few bruises. He couldn’t walk without a limp. His head ached with a fierce migraine. His split lip tasted of blood; his whole mouth tasted of blood.
“Noble heart and noble cause, sir. I must caution you, though, mind yourself if you’re meddling in those affairs above your head…” The horses lurched forward through the slush and the snow at a quick pace. “I won’t bother you with small talk, then, but hurry us on back. To Fleet Street, yes, sir?”
“Yessir.” Leaning his head upon the window, he gazed at the drab stone streets. Regret curled in his gut. Why had he agreed to go to the stupid ball? He could free Johanna with his information, but it felt empty without Nellie there to appreciate it alongside him. Any assortment of ways could have led them to Johanna or Johanna to them. But he followed the whim of the world around him, and the world snatched away his happiness once again.
His eyelids descended, and in what felt like a mere second, Toby shook him awake. “C’mon, Mr. T. Thank you, sir!” chimed the boy to the driver, and Sweeney echoed, his voice lacking the enthusiasm and genuineness, pale expression dazed. He let Toby lead him into the pie shop. The fire blazed. The chairs had not budged since Mrs. Lovett had tidied them up on Christmas’ Eve. The boy pushed him into the oversized armchair. “I’ll get you some tea and dry clothes.”
The exhaustion swamped him again, and he slumped over in the chair, fast asleep, before Toby could return with either the tea or the clothes, but his rest came fitfully. He dreamed of damp hands roaming his bare torso in a way that wasn’t quite sensual enough for any woman to touch him. Toby pulled the binding tape tight around his broken ribs, and he wheezed awake. “Bloody hell!” he gasped. His wet coats and shirt lay discarded in the floor right beside his pants. He sat in the armchair in his knickers.
Toby staggered away in surprise. “S-Sorry!”
“What do you think you’re doing?” Sweeney bit his tongue to restrain the stream of unkind words that burbled to the surface so that only his black eyes darkened, cross with rage.
He held up his hands innocently. “I’s just binding your chest so the ribs don’t move around as much, that’s all!” Sweeney pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. His temples throbbed with every flash of light and every word. “Gotta get the wet clothes off so you don’t catch the pneumonia and keel over, like. Just like Mrs. Lovett taught me.” He limped a mite closer. “Mr. Todd? Are you okay?”
Peachy. “I’m fine.” He pulled the bandage taut and fastened it. “Thank you.” Toby had pure intentions. He couldn’t lash out at the only innocent person within a ten mile radius; Nellie would be furious at him if he dared to leave Toby in a bad state. Casting his eyes aside, he noted the pile of fresh clothes and cup of lukewarm tea on the side table. But where he would go, what he could do, after he indulged in the newness? He drew a blank slate. What could an injured man and a boy from the workhouse do against the beadle in his wealth and his mansion and all his means to guard Nellie locked up tight in his own private fortress?
Alone, they could do nothing. Alone. “Alone,” he repeated under his breath.
“Mr. Todd, sir?”
“Toby,” he called, voice sharp but eyes bright. “I need you to go upstairs to my shop. Look under my mattress. I’ve got three or four quid there. Take as much as you need and run to the livery stable and get me a saddled horse and bring it back here. Can you do that?”
“Yessir.” He hesitated. “Are we going to get Mrs. Lovett back?”
“We’re going to try.” He climbed unsteadily to his feet. “Go now, and hurry while we still have daylight.” Toby dashed out the front door; the bells chimed in his wake, and Sweeney hurried to dress himself in the firelight. He knew how to free Johanna from the asylum, and with that information, he could barter for Anthony’s assistance. And his revenge? It would come. It would come in good time, but it would come. He would not let the beadle walk with a clear conscience, not after what he’d done to Nellie.
The tepid tea ran down his throat in big gulps, and then he held his blue-tinted fingers in front of the fire until he could bend his joints with relative ease. He had slept for longer than he liked; the gray afternoon sun sank lower in the curling clouds overhead. But perhaps the darker the skies, the more plausible that they could avoid any detection. “We must be ready to fly once they’re free,” he said to himself, eyes to the window on Fleet Street where few people passed by. He stomped out of the pie shop and up to his room where he packed a bag of his valuables--the portraits of Lucy and Johanna, his last razor, two changes of clothes, a blanket--and then rushed downstairs to collect Toby’s as well.
Toby didn’t have many clothes, he found with some dismay, but he packed what wasn’t reduced to rags along with the two mufflers Mrs. Lovett had sewn for him, his wig, and his reader. The box of toffees lay open and empty on the cot. “No self-restraint,” he muttered.
But he couldn’t linger on his musings, as he flew into Nellie’s bedroom and stripped three dresses from her closet and balled them up into a bag, and then he added her work boots, given that she had left in uncomfortable heels. “What else would she want?” He hadn’t a clue. She didn’t seem to cherish much; she wore no wedding band, and he saw no jewelry box at all in her room. Under her mattress, he found her savings and a neatly folded baby blanket. Moths had eaten the latter so badly that he could hardly discern the color. He left it under the mattress so that she wouldn’t know he had found it.
“What is taking that boy so long?” he growled under his breath, stuffing all of their bags into a larger backpack. Down the street, hooves clomped all too slowly for his tastes, and there he caught sight of Toby leading the horse by the reins, limping along at his average pace. “Good lord, lad, why wouldn’t you get on him?” demanded the irked barber.
“Dunno how to ride a horse, sir. Never actually been so--ah…” The gelding lipped gently at the side of Toby’s face. “So close to one before.” His countenance paled in discomfort.
Sighing, Sweeney fought for his patience. “Of course you haven’t.” He threw the pack at Toby. “Put that on your back.” Loosening the stirrups, he hauled himself onto the back of the sorrel horse, which circled and puffed at the foreign rider. “C’mon, give me your hand.” Bending over, he extended his arm to the boy, but Toby backed away from him.
Big brown eyes gazed back at him with a marked fear. “It--It looks awfully high up…”
“Toby.” He said the name in a soft but firm tone. “I need you to trust me. Come here and get on this horse with me so we can go save Mrs. Lovett. Give me your arm.” He maintained eye contact, hoping to look genuine and trustworthy. The boy approached him, and he bent over to lift him onto the back of the horse. The gelding danced underneath them, and he tightened the reins.
The sidestepping of the nervous animal drove Toby’s arms straight around Sweeney’s waist and fastened there, his face planted in the square of the man’s back. “Stable manager said he was a--he was a li’l green, sir,” he whispered, voice weak as his face was pale. The horse sprang onto his hind legs in a half-rear, and Toby tightened his grip right in the center of Sweeney’s bruised stomach. “Gonna fall and bust my head open, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
“Nonsense.” He attempted to sound sure of himself, but he hadn’t ridden a horse since the last summer he’d spent in Australia. “Hold on tight,” he said, though Toby needed no encouragement to cling to him like a piece of lint. Then he spurred his ankles into the horse’s sides, and the gelding lurched forward in a crooked, springy canter littered with small, intermittent bucks of protest at the command.
A blustery wind picked up and pushed against their backs, and snowflakes darted down in a shower of increasing speeds. The gray sky mingled with peach and navy with the sunset. “Where’re we going, Mr. Todd?” Toby chattered once he had grown certain of his ability not to fall and die. He kept his face burrowed into the small of Sweeney’s back to defend it against the sharp, cold wind.
“The shipyard!” he called in return. The street lamps gassed to light as it grew ever darker and visibility shrank, and he nudged the gelding into a faster gait. Dilapidated streets, broken cobblestone and brick, made their steed stumble; once, he lurched so hard that Sweeney feared he would fall to his knees and pitch them both. But once he had sight of the docks, he hauled the horse up and patted the sweating neck, the legs trembling.
Only one lone sailor walked from the dock onto the street, and Sweeney bumped the horse for him to approach the man. “Sir!” he shouted through the howling winds of the incoming storm. The man jerked to attention and then scrambled in their direction. “Do you know where I may find a sailor named Anthony Hope out of Plymouth on the ship Bountiful ?”
The young man unraveled his muffler and removed his hat. “Mr. Todd, sir,” the sailor greeted. “What’s brought you all the way to this side of the city in weather like this? And on a horse, no less.”
“I require assistance that I hope you can offer. Please tell me there’s somewhere nearby we can speak privately.”
“Let’s go to the cabin. Nobody will be in it at this hour, I don’t suppose.” The shanty he pointed to had dark windows. It had a post for him to tie the horse, and without orders, Toby dropped to the ground. He swayed on his feet but steadied himself before he fell into the wet snow. Sweeney dropped down beside him and tied the gelding there in front of the porch.
The wooden cabin offered little warmth, bearing no fireplace, only a sofa, a teakettle, and a small kitchen area. Anthony struck a match and lit a ring of candles. “Good lord, Mr. Todd, your face! Somebody’s beaten the life half out of you.” He squinted through the faint light. “What’s this about? How can I help you?” Toby sank onto the couch and curled up with his head on the armrest, ignoring the two men.
“I have news on Johanna,” Sweeney began.
Eyes alight, Anthony cut in, “Do you?” but Sweeney held up his hand.
“She’s being held at Fogg’s mental asylum. But wait, listen to me. I need your help, please.”
“Anything, sir.” Earnest and genuine and so very kind, the young man swept his hair from his eyes and leaned nearer. “What is it I can do?”
“My neighbor, Mrs. Nellie Lovett. She was kidnapped.” Spare him the details, he warned himself. “She and I foolishly attended a masquerade ball hoping to hear Johanna’s whereabouts on your account.” And only on your account; it had absolutely nothing to do with me and my desires. He hoped that Anthony would not question it. “But we were discovered. The beadle took Nellie--Mrs. Lovett--after several weeks of toiling for her favor turned fruitless, and I…” And I love her, and he can’t have any of that. He tightened his jaw a bit. “I was in the way.”
A vein bulged in Anthony’s temple. “There is no justice in this city. The officers of the law are as vicious and as corrupted as their masters.” He tugged his coat tighter around his shoulders. “I’ll help you get her back, Mr. Todd. You’ve been nothing but good to me, and I hope we can all escape this bloody city and attend some other wondrous land where the men are kinder and the law more compassionate.”
I don’t believe in such a place. “Anthony, I must ask you to bear us all out of the port and onto sea. And if we bother you, you can dump us on the nearest shore opposite England, but none of us are safe anywhere on this island any longer.” The sailor continued his smooth nods of agreement. “I know where the beadle lives, but I haven’t a clue how to get inside such a place, let alone without detection.”
Biting his lip, the young man hesitated. “Johanna would know.” Sweeney eyed him with skepticism, but he hurried, “She’s spent almost her whole life walled up in a mansion with locked doors. She knows how to run away, hide, climb better than anybody I’ve ever met. But if they’ve had her locked away in Fogg’s for this many months, it must be impenetrable--she would’ve found a way out by now.” His hands shook. “That place is a fortress, isn’t it? I’ve never seen anyone go in or out.”
“I know how to get inside the asylum. If you’re certain that Johanna can help us free Nellie, but we’re on a deadline. The beadle will leave with her on Monday.”
“That gives us, what, not even forty-eight hours. How can we get into the asylum?”
Dark eyes transfixed on Anthony’s, he said, “All the wigmakers and barbers of London get their human hair from the bedlamites. The right price, they’ll sell you the hair off of any lunatic’s head. We’ll go in together and request hair the exact shade of Johanna’s, trusting that you know that, of course.” He paused. “Do you?”
Nodding, the sailor murmured, “Yellow--more flaxen--or ashen--perfectly lovely like a the center of a daisy in the middle of the summer.” The most professional description of hair ever known. Licking his lips, he asked, “Then we’ll make off now? If we can spring her tonight, then we can make it to the beadle’s and scope things out.”
“Have we time?”
“The night is young, it’s only eight-thirty.”
Sweeney stood. “Stock your ship, then, with any rations you can find, and I’ll get you another horse for you from the livery stables so we can fly with haste once we have freed her.”
They shook hands once, and then they split ways, leaving Toby asleep on the sofa.
Once he had returned with the second horse, he watched Anthony and Toby lugging a crate between the two of them onto the ship, Toby most recognizable by his prominent limp. Then they carried a second crate and then a third before they returned to him. “I’ve got rations for maybe a month,” said the sailor as he mounted the mare. “It should be more than enough to get us into Belgium or France, where we can make better preparations.” He gathered his reins while Sweeney’s horse continued to prance, antsy, beneath him, the rider attempting to pull Toby up onto his back. “Which way to Fogg’s?”
The boy scrambled and almost dragged them both off before he rested with his face planted snug into Sweeney’s back, arms cinched around his middle. This is how the horse feels. “Straight and then a left on Fourteenth Street,” he replied, bumping the gelding with his ankles. In response, the sorrel horse sprang onto his hind legs and lashed his forelegs at the air. “Bloody hell, you stupid brute, go forward !” He threw his weight forward to keep them from flipping over backward. A firmer boot and a smack to the shoulder gave them a few crooked jumps until they sorted out the pace, and Anthony kept his mare several feet away from the unpredictable beast.
Howling winter winds muffled the sounds of the hoofbeats on the slushy gray street. Sweeney pulled his steed up a little under a block away anyway, just in case anyone had their ears pointed to the streets in search of racing horses. “Toby, you stay out here with the horses.” From the lad’s backpack he took a pound coin, and then he used his arms to wheel him around and bent to look directly into exhausted brown eyes. “And if something goes wrong in there where there are officers called, or one of us is hurt or killed, don’t you wait around to find out anything. You get on this mare and you gallop her the hell out of London. Don’t look back. Do you understand me?”
“Yessir.” A fat teardrop rolled down Toby’s cheek, and his lips quivered.
Sweeney dabbed it away with his thumb. “Good lad.” He patted the boy’s shoulders and left him there on the street corner, a set of reins in either hand. “C’mon, Anthony. Do you have a means to defend yourself?”
“A pistol, sir, but I’ve never used it before. It’s never been necessary.”
“It may be now. Keep your alert high.” He strode confidently, trying to pinch the wheezing out of his breath so he didn’t look or sound as pained. “I’m trusting you to recognize her. If we come out of here with the wrong girl, we won’t be able to go back inside.”
“I’ll know her, sir. I wouldn’t forget her face if I never saw it again until the day I die.”
Approaching the door to the asylum, Sweeney took the door knocker and banged thrice upon the heavy wooden door. Then he waited. A minute passed of fidgeting and anxiety until the lock clicked, and the hatch opened, revealing the candlelit face of a white-haired man in an equally white coat. He squinted out into the winter weather. “How may I help you two gentlemen this evening?” he proposed, voice slimier than the inside of the beadle’s mouth.
He cleared his throat and pulled himself up a little taller in spite of the pain in his chest. “Very sorry for the late hour, Doctor Fogg. My name is Mr. Sweeney Todd, and I run a tonsorial parlor on Fleet Street. I had hoped to exchange with you prior to now, but given that my apprentice and I were in the area, I opted to stop by. I have an extreme interest in purchasing human hair from this establishment, and if you would entertain, I can promise it will be worth your time.” As a token, he held out the pound coin to the doctor.
Fogg leaned forward and squinted at the coin in a distrustful way, but once he saw the engraving upon it, greed overtook his greasy face, and he tugged the door open. “Come in, gentlemen, come inside. No problem at all.” He ushered them into the building. “Any of my children will certainly grant your their hair. Now, you must understand that it is hard to maintain quality in conditions such as these--what, with some of them having a rather difficult mental state--but you can wash and condition it yourselves back at the parlor and give it a proper luster.” A pink tongue dashed across his thin lips and left a whitish smear in its wake. “What color hair is it you’re looking for, sirs?”
In a voice smooth as a cat’s purr, Sweeney answered, “Yellow.” Just like I always imagined. His heart surged into his throat, its rapid beats causing pain to his chest, and he worked hard to measure his breathing. “Somewhere between ashen and flaxen. My customer has very particular tastes.” A smirk teased his lips. He dared not let it blossom with the doctor’s eyes upon him.
“You can have your exact pick, sir,” replied Fogg as he led the way down a lantern-lit corridor to a stairwell. “I’ve got four rooms of blondes: one for young men, one for young women, one for old men, and one for old women. Are you looking for a lady’s hair?”
“That’s excellent! My children have such a fine selection…” At the sound of Fogg’s voice, a sudden jostling of noise ripped through the walls. Some shrieked, some cackled, some moaned. A few faces threw themselves against the bars of the window on the door. “Pay them no heed. It’s how they demonstrate their love for me.” The dungeon smelled of urine and mold, and rats skittered. He paid one glance to the right. The woman he saw there, no older than forty, had great mats of brown hair dangling into her eyes so she couldn’t see at all. With one emaciated arm, she grasped the bar. Their love, that’s right.
At his side, he felt Anthony’s breath waft over his neck; the young sailor flanked him so closely that their legs and arms brushed, and he resisted the urge to snap for personal space. A bead of nervous sweat trailed down the man’s temple. “Here, my friends. Children, stand back, stand back. These two lovely men are here to take some hair from one of you.”
Sweeney’s stomach twisted as he followed the doctor into the room that reeked as badly as Mrs. Lovett’s cellar. Whimpering, singing, rocking, few of the women paid heed to the doctor and his words. The ones who noticed him cowered away like sheep. The door clanged closed after Anthony. “Take your pick, gentlemen. I do apologize for the poor lighting. I can’t allow my girls any access to fire.”
They sit in the dark all day long. “Hm.” He pretended to consider, eyes fanning the crowd while he waited for Anthony to interrupt. Then he spotted her--she could have been Lucy, a carbon copy, sitting in a threadbare muslin gown with bare feet and eyes cast down. “Her.” He didn’t intend to say the word aloud, but it escaped. She flinched, her head snapping upward. For the first time in almost sixteen years, he met her eyes, black as his own.
“Mr. Todd, sir?” breathed Anthony.
Before he could even glance back at the other man, Johanna sprang to her feet. She didn’t look at Sweeney. She looked straight through him. “Anthony!”
The sailor drew his pistol, and Sweeney forked a razor into either hand. “What is the meaning of this?” demanded Fogg. He bounced back to his feet and leapt at Anthony. In surprise, the young sailor dropped the gun. Light flashed, the bullet cracked, and smoke filled the room.
He shielded his eyes for a moment, and when he looked again, Fogg lay on the floor clutching a wound in the center of his gut. “You’re a bloody fool,” Johanna whispered. Her hand tremored violently with the pistol still in its sweaty grasp. Her round black eyes moved to Anthony’s face. “Will we be married on Sunday?” she sang softly. “That’s what you promised. That was last August.”
“And I’m the fool.” They embraced and kissed.
Sweeney started out of the cell. “Not to rush your reunion,” he growled, “but we are still on a deadline if we are to get to Mrs. Lovett and fly tonight before the law arrives!”
Johanna gazed at him with a peculiar look. He did not make eye contact with her again, carefully diverting himself from her entirely, and Anthony, who did not perceive the uncertain transition between his intended and his friend, dragged her after the barber and slammed the door to the cell shut. “Yessir--” They stalked out of the dungeon and up the stairs, back through the corridor. “Johanna, this is my friend, Mr. Sweeney Todd. He’s the one who found out your whereabouts. But we need your help to free his neighbor, who’s been kidnapped by the beadle, and then we’re all going to sail somewhere far away.”
“The rotten beadle,” she repeated under her breath. The door to the asylum slammed behind them. Down the street, Toby waited with the horses. “I’ll do anything I can to aid you, Mr. Todd, if it’s to you I owe my freedom.” The boy approached. The streetlights cast him in a glistening halo of silver. “But I can’t help but think that I’ve met you before--heard your voice, perhaps.”
“Perchance you have,” he rumbled in return. Still, he did not look at her.
“Do you have the time, Mr. Todd?” Anthony rubbed his hands together
From his pocket, he tugged the pocketwatch that Nellie had gotten him for Christmas. Just yesterday. “We’ve fifteen minutes until midnight.” He put it away. “Let’s go, then, before we waste our limited time. Toby!” he called, voice sharp. “Get Miss Barker the boots out of the backpack and a heavier dress. Then we’ll head to the beadle’s house.”
Behind, he heard Anthony whisper, “Is that your surname?” and her reply in an equally soft voice, “Yes, but I haven’t a clue how he knows it.”
Chapter 11: Chapter Eleven
Moonlight streamed bright on the reflective flakes of snow that blew down from the navy sky, the stars hardly visible under the harsh streetlights that adorned the wealthy neighborhood where they now stood. The party of four loitered in the shadows between the beadle’s mansion and the adjacent house, the horses tied down the street in front of a shop. “Now what do we do?” Anthony asked in a loud whisper.
Gathering the heavy skirt of her dress, Johanna clomped around the side of the house. Mrs. Lovett’s boots were too big for her. Anthony traipsed after her through the snow. “I’m going to get a look at the whole building. The lights are on in the parlor—that means he’s awake. Faster we can figure out where she’s being held, more likely we are to get out with our skins.” Sweeney put a hand on the small of Toby’s back, and they followed the ferocious young woman around the corner of the building. He watched her from behind in the dress that belonged to his Nellie, big brooding eyes on the mansion, her jaw grinding as she thought. She wasn’t like he had imagined. Perhaps a physical clone of Lucy, but much more than a fair and tame lass lay behind the very dark eyes they shared. “Mr. Todd, what does this Mrs. Lovett look like?”
“Sort of short with really frizzy reddish hair. Big brown eyes. I’d imagine she’s the only woman inside.”
“Yes, I’d imagine. They normally off themselves pretty shortly after he gets them, in a few months, or he finds a way to dispose of them.” She spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact manner that left Anthony’s jaw dangling open in horror. Sweeney tightened his grip on Toby’s shoulder. “Even a man like him wouldn’t aim to keep two of them at one time. He’s a pervert, not an idiot.”
The sailor adjusted his hat. “You mean that this has been going on before? That is, the beadle taking women and, and just shutting ‘em up like bloody animals for transportation? That’s awful wicked!”
She snorted. “Of course it’s wicked. He’s done it for years in coordination with my father.” Sweeney ground his jaw. He is not your father. “Every time there’s a ball, it’s for a woman the beadle wants. That’s how I came under the judge’s care—my mother offed herself after the beadle put his slimy hands on her. My governess told me so.” She continued to sweep the side of the building with her eyes. They misted over slightly as she spoke. “I always thought my father to have a cleaner heart than that nasty man, but I suppose it’s proved now that they both have dirty hands and souls.”
Anthony pressed, “Didn’t you have a real father, though?”
Her eyes flitted back up to him. “Transported for life for petty theft and battery.” They have lied to you, and I am so sorry. Abrupt, she cleared her throat, and she swung back to face the building. “I’d put three pounds that she’s in that room with the barred windows.” Faint light streamed through; the bars had stark silhouettes. She drew nearer to the brick wall of the house. “But I can find that out for certain. Anthony, give me a boost.” She hauled herself up onto the windowsill of the first window, but she wasn’t quite tall enough to peer into the second story, so she jumped back down onto the ground.
“What?” Mouth agape in shock, he gawped at her a moment. “Uh… Sure. What do you need me to do?” He followed her to the edge of the building, head tilted backward and upward at the lit window.
“Throw me high enough to grab that window ledge up there, so I can pull myself up and see if she’s in there, see if she’s in fair enough shape to get the hell out of here once we have a free break.” She looped her arm over his shoulder. “Come on, give me a good toss.”
Skeptical, the young man raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” She glared at him. “You could fall, or bust your face open, or something, dear. Couldn’t we find a ladder or something so we can just climb up and see that she’s in there? Or throw a rock at the window to get her attention?”
Johanna rolled her eyes so hard that, for a split second, her pupils disappeared entirely in the back of her skull. “You’re a yellowbelly. A rock or ladder would get his attention.” She removed her arm from around his neck and approached Sweeney. “You do it, then. You’re stronger-looking than him, anyway.” She crossed her arms, and their pairs of fiery black eyes met, an incubus and his cambion. “Well?” One tawny eyebrow arched in a challenge.
“Alright.” His tone held steady. So young to have already made her first kill. She looped her arm around his neck, and he seized her by the waist. Anthony covered his eyes with his hands, face drawn downward into a fearful frown. Sweeney heaved her upward. Like father, like daughter.
She caught air, sailing like a bird until her hands caught onto the windowsill. Her boots scrabbled against the brick wall for a grip. A stone fell loose. Toby dove forward to catch it before it clattered loudly to the ground, and she used the resulting hole as a catch to hoist herself up onto the window ledge. Once she sat safely atop the ledge, she tapped at the window. “She’s in here—looks like she’s asleep. Psst! Psst!” Johanna drummed at the window faintly with her knuckles. One hand gripped a bar to keep her steady at the window. “Psst! Mrs. Lovett!”
With baited breath, he waited until Nellie’s haggard face appeared behind the glass, and she slid it open as far as it would go—about two inches. She blinked out at the unfamiliar blonde girl. Her jaw was swollen, her lip split, her eye blackened; dried blood ringed under her nose. She looked so very broken. His breath caught in his throat, and Toby flung his arms around Sweeney’s waist and hugged him to muffle the snivels in his coat. “Hush, Toby, hush,” he attempted to soothe, patting his head and shoulders.
“Mrs. Lovett? My name’s Johanna. I’m here with Anthony and Mr. Todd and Toby. We’re gonna get you out of here, okay?”
Her voice came, frail like a very old woman’s. “Is Sweeney okay?” Her whisper was hushed and brittle. “I was worried they’d killed him—or worse.” She put a hand on the glass, mouth right at the crack so she could hear her rescuers. “What I last saw, they was bludgeoning him. They was bludgeoning him like they wanted to smear all of him across the pavement.”
Johanna placed her hand over Mrs. Lovett’s on the glass. “He’s a little worse for wear, but he’s in one piece. Tell me, what do you know about this house? Can you tell us how to get to your room, or where the stairs are relative to here? I can pick a lock, I’m not worried about any keys or anything, but once we’re in we need to be out fast with you. Can you get around? Are you hurt?”
Shaking her head, Nellie quickly revoked, “No, ‘e hasn’t hurt me badly. I haven’t seen much of him since last night when he brought me here, except when he brought dinner up, and that was hours ago.” She cleared her hoarse throat, and from below, he could see a spark return to her chocolate eyes. “The back entrance is the closest to my room, but it’s a big vaulted room that connects to the parlor, and he’s waiting there in the front parlor, told me himself that he knows somebody would come for me. You’ll never get past him. All three the entrances go through the parlor, unless there’s another one I didn’t see. I was fighting like the devil and not paying too much attention to my surroundings.”
Johanna shook her head. “No, that’s normal so that fewer guards are needed to stand sentry and can still keep the place safe. But you’re certain it’s just him, and no officers?”
“I hadn’t seen nobody but him. Not even no maids for cooking and cleaning.”
The blonde hesitated a moment, biting her lip, and then she nodded once. “Okay. I’m gonna drop back down now. I’ve got an idea. Is there anything in there you could use as a weapon? A poker for the fireplace, or some big book?”
“I’ve still got Sweeney’s razor.” She set her jaw. “And I’m ready to use it, now—looking forward to it, actually, if I speak the total and honest truth on the matter.”
“That’s great. Hopefully we’ll be inside within the hour. We’ve got to cook up a diversion to get in, and that might take us a bit, but then we’ll bust you out and run back to the docks. We’re gonna sail away from here before the law detects us, all of us. Just hang tight. Is there anything else?”
Nellie pressed her forehead against the glass. “Tell him I love him,” she whispered. Then, lower, “Bloody hell, girl, you have his exact eyes.”
“What’s that?” Johanna’s brow fuddled in confusion.
“Nothing, dear. Go on your business and don’t worry on me. I’ll be here when you come for me. I’ve nowhere else to go, now, do I?” The next attempted smile was a half-grimace, but genuine with the intent behind it. They exchanged a final nod, and she retreated from the barred window.
Johanna peered down at the other two men. “Anthony, can I trust you to catch me, or does Mr. Todd have to do that, too?” The sailor blushed red, shuffling forward with his arms out. “If you drop me, I’ll flip my grits on you.” She dropped into his arms, and Anthony staggered and landed on his ass in a snow drift. “For a sailor, you’re not very strong.” She popped up and dusted off her skirts.
Anthony stood after her. “So you have a plan, then?”
Crossing her arms, Johanna gave a curt nod. “Of course I have a plan.” Retreating back into the side alley, she grabbed Toby by the hood of his coat and tugged him after her; his crooked limp followed in an amble, the men immediately after them. She knows how to call the shots. “Toby, listen to me. I want you to be very brave for me so we can get Mrs. Lovett out of this nasty place. Do we have a deal, eh?” The boy bobbed his head. “Good lad. I want you to try and distract the beadle for us. Go to his front door and act like a lost little mite—”
Sweeney interjected, “He’ll be recognized.” She glanced up at him from where she crouched, face to face with Toby. “He’s Mrs. Lovett’s ward. The beadle will know his face.” He doubted, in fact, that the beadle would remember the unremarkable dirty face of a boy from the workhouse, but he doubted equally that the man would offer any solace to a lost peasant child regardless of recognition.
“Then we’ll make him not look like himself, won’t we?” she snipped in return. “Scrub the dirt off of his face and brighten his eyes a little, clean his hair and his ears and his hands—”
Snorting, Anthony pointed out, “We gotta get her out of the mansion before sunrise. It’d take hours to do all that!”
“God, Anthony, you’re bloody rude!” Johanna waved him off. “Don’t listen to him, Toby. Now, lad, have you always had this limp? No chance we can get rid of it for a little acting?”
Toby shook his head. After a moment biting his lip, he proposed, “But we still got my wig, don’t we? I can just throw that on—oye, that’s cold!” He flinched away from her handful of packed snow that she ground against his soft face.
Humming, she agreed, “Yes, a wig. Hold still while I scrub this soot off of your cheeks and throw a pretty wig on your head. What’s a boy like you doing with a wig anyhow?”
A sheepish chuckle came forth from him, and he mumbled, “That’s a bit of a long story, m-miss.” His cheeks and nose flushed red from the exposure to the snow. “Um, ouch.” She picked at his every soiled orifice with her long fingernails to scrape some of the crust off of him. Toby shot Sweeney a pleading look, and he replied with a half-smile of encouragement, though his fingers tapped anxiously at one another, and he checked his watch each passing minute.
Dropping his backpack, Toby fumbled in it for his wig. He grappled it by the pale yellow locks and secured it over his scalp. “Look at it now, clean and precious, a little cherub. You’ll certainly win the beadle’s greasy heart. Now, I’m gonna make good and sure he knows who you are and who you’re not. Are you listening close to my words, lad?” He bobbed his head again. “That’s right. Your name is Henry Turpin. You are the nephew of Judge Turpin. Repeat that.”
“Henry Turpin, the nephew of the judge.”
“You were meant to arrive from Belgium yesterday for Christmas, but the seas were choppy and the ship arrived late, and now you’re hopelessly lost in the streets of London. You haven’t found anyone who knows the way to the judge’s house, but a beggar pointed you to the beadle’s home because you were so hopelessly wandering and so bitterly cold. You request shelter until dawn, when the sun will rise and light your way to your uncle’s house. Repeat that.”
“Off a delayed ship and lost in the weather looking for a place to warm my bones until the morning,” parroted toby, eyes apt and bright.
She patted his shoulder. “Good boy. Now you run to the front of the house and knock at the door. He should be right there in the parlor. Try to get him to give you a biscuit or something out of the kitchen so we can get through the parlor and up the stairs without him noticing.”
Anthony mumbled, “What if the beadle don’t let him in.”
“Oh, he’ll let him in. The name Turpin makes that man excited as a kid in a candy store.”
“And how am I to get out? Once Mrs. Lovett is free?”
She grinned. “Tell him you’ve got to use the loo, and when he goes to get a chamber pot, you run straight out of the house, real simple like.” Standing upright, she addressed Anthony. “Keep your gun loaded in case we need it, and don’t be bloody gutless next time you’re pointing it at somebody.”
Sweeney picked at his fingernails. “Chances are good he’ll find us out,” he muttered, not entirely sure he meant for either of them to hear it, though they both did. “A player knows what a play looks like when it’s coming against him.” Baited trap. Played us like a fiddle. Maybe he’s still baiting us now. “Are we dawdling for now reason? It’s after one.”
Toby hauled himself up out of the snow and lumbered around the side of the mansion to the front, and the rest of them split to the back door. “Does anyone have a hairpin?”
“Do I bloody look like I carry hairpins?” growled Sweeney.
She knelt in front of the doorknob. “There’s no need to get all snippy about this,” she mumbled in return, eyes narrowing to analyze the lock in the dim light. From within, Toby’s knocking at the door echoed through the walls. “This is a pretty big lock,” she observed. “Quick, give me your razor. I think it’ll break it open.”
Pale hand extended, her black eyes met his. Tilting his head, he placed with deference the handle of one silver razor into her palm. An electricity passed between their fingers where they brushed. The judge has never looked into her eyes without seeing me. Grim satisfaction stirred in his gut at that thought. “Thank you, Mr. Todd.” Her voice changed under his peculiar gaze, a subtle shift into distrust and uncertainty, as she flicked the blade out like she had handled the razor her entire life. She forked it into the lock.
Jiggle. Jiggle. Click. It was much louder than any of them intended, and Anthony gulped audibly as a cringe passed across Sweeney’s and Johanna’s faces in coordination. The muffled voices from within the mansion ceased into a brief, terrifying silence. He’s heard us. He’s going to fling open the door and find us. The certainty swelled in his chest the longer the silence stretched. Then, Toby’s voice began again. “Sir?” he pressed. “Is something the matter?”
Clomping, heavy footsteps approached the door. “I thought I heard a noise, boy, that’s all. You didn’t hear anything?”
“No, sir.” None of them dared to breath, let alone move or speak. Johanna rose from her knees without moving her feet, flanked on either side by Sweeney and Anthony, so near that he could smell the slight perfume that clung to her body. Their hands brushed again when she returned his razor. Then, Toby’s earnest voice piped, “Sir, I—I really hate to trouble you at an hour like this, but I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since I boarded the ship. If you’ve any tea, or ale, or even a biscuit, I’d thank you much graciously.”
The footsteps paced away from the door. A puffing sigh rushed from Anthony’s lungs so forcefully that Johanna’s hair whipped up. “Alright, boy. Let’s put on some tea. I could use some, too, actually…” As the footsteps grew fainter, so too did the voices until they were indiscernible and then inaudible.
Sweeney cleared his throat, and he took a confident step forward. He did not falter; a twist of the door knob followed, and it opened without a creak. No more wasting time. Onto the hardwood floor he proceeded, glancing over his shoulder in the new light from inside the home. Anthony’s countenance had turned white as a bleached sheet. Johanna’s dark eyes and pressed lips gave her a resigned look. They grasped hands tightly. This is on my account. To the left, he saw the winding spiral staircase. Right out in the bloody open.
The teakettle burst out in a whistle, a catalyst; he dashed to the staircase on light feet, his tiptoes, and didn’t dare brush his hand on the railing of the stairs. The second to last stair creaked, but the beadle and Toby continued their muffled conversation without hindrance.
The second floor split out in two wings, and he chose the left wing. There were five doors on each wall of the hallway. “Which one do you suppose it is?” Anthony whispered.
“The locked one,” Johanna muttered in reply. They all sprang forward and jiggled handles. “This one, it’s this one!” Johanna put her eye to the keyhole. “Mrs. Lovett, are you in there?” She blinked but could see nothing except for the faint light and a wall.
A shuffling noise followed, and a brown eye met hers. “Yes, I’m in here.”
Johanna took his razor again. “I’m going to bust this lock, and then you’ll be out and we can run.” She struggled to fit the tip of the razor into the door. “Oh, bugger, it’s too big. Are you sure you don’t have a hairpin?” Pressing harder, she twisted, but it wouldn’t budge.
“No, I don’t have a hairpin!” Sweeney snapped again.
She opened her mouth to answer him, eyes flashing, when an irate voice jolted the house. “You’re that daft boy from the pie shop! Agh! Out! Out with you, out!” Toby’s desperate wail echoed up the stairs through the hall. Goosebumps erupted over his neck.
He pushed Johanna out of the way and kicked the underside of the doorknob. The lock snapped, and the door flung open. Nellie dove at him in a flurry, her arms around his neck, his around her waist. She babbled softly an assortment of things that he couldn’t make out, and he shushed her with a whisper to her ear. “I love you.” He lifted his hand to brush his favorite curl behind her ear. She gazed up at him in astonishment, plush lips parted and chestnut eyes wide. More than anything, he wanted to kiss her.
But footsteps thumped below, and he knew they had more important matters at hand. “He’s on the stairs! We’re trapped!” yelped Anthony, panicked hands frenzying around his face.
“Like hell we’re trapped!” Johanna dashed into the next room over where the window was not barred and snatched it open, pulling the curtains back. “I am not going back to any bloody asylum!”
“We’re a story up!” wailed the sailor. “We’ll break our necks if we jump!”
“Not if you do it right—listen to me, you drop onto your feet, bend your knees, and roll through the impact—”
“ Nellie! ” roared the beadle from the hallway. Johanna dropped from the window and vanished from view. Sweeney rushed to the window to gaze after her; she popped back onto her feet and waved for him to follow. His torn eyes flew back to Nellie, who clung to his shoulder like a bird on its perch, and Anthony, whose dazed expression fluttered alive when the beadle rounded the corner. “There you are, you old cunt!”
The sailor reached for his gun and pointed it too late; the beadle hurled himself at Nellie, and Sweeney stepped between them. They gnarled into a brawl. He reached for his razor, but his empty pocket reminded him that Johanna still had it, and the beadle kneaded him the ribs. He wheezed in pain and doubled over, knees suddenly weak. “I’ve gotcha now, you shithead! Can’t mind your own, can you? I’ll teach you to mind your own!” Hands tightened around his throat. He slammed hard into the wooden wall, mere inches from the open window. Grappling for the beadle’s grasp, stars danced in his eyes.
He’s going to kill me. Anthony quivered all over like a cold dog in the snow, and he knew with a sorrowful resignation that the boy would never fire the gun, not even at the beadle, not even to save his friend. The stars blackened into pits. His grasp weakened. Heat flushed from his toes all the way to his ears. This is not how I want to die. His eyes struggled against the pull of gravity. Everything smeared in shades of gray and blurred out of focus. He saw nothing but the beadle’s face, and then he could make out just his nose and his beady, ugly eyes. Knees sagging, the heat abandoned him. A frigid cold followed it, far colder than when he had awoken outside the judge’s house after lying in the snow for hours. Johanna I love you Nellie I love you Lucy Lucy I’m coming and I’m so so sorry deliver me Nellie Nellie I’m sorry what I haven’t done right what I haven’t done right at all I’m sorry please don’t hang on my account it’s my fault I love you I love you I love you I should have said it a thousand times more I would if I had another chance—
Just when he sagged, almost succumbing to unconsciousness, a howl like that of a banshee convulsed in the air, and an impact slammed into the two of them and wrested the beadle away from him. He collapsed and gasped for air, vision skewing back into view. Nellie hung onto the back of her captor, one arm around his neck and legs wrapped around his back like a backpack. In her right arm, she wielded his razor—the one he had given her after the beadle attacked her weeks ago in her bedroom.
She plunged it into his flabby gut once, twice, and then moved northward. He massaged his throat, eyes transfixed on her in awe until he smashed her against the wall, and she lost her grip, sliding down from his back. The enemy staggered away. His hands moved over his wounds like he couldn’t decide which one to touch. Blossoming stains sprouted from each of them. He opened his mouth, and blood ran out of it and trickled out his nose.
“Go out the window, you fool, don’t just stare at him!” Nellie hauled Sweeney up under the arms. “Anthony, come on!” She propped the barber up onto the window, and he swung crookedly out of it. “Just don’t break your neck,” advised the baker.
He released his hands and tried to follow Johanna’s orders, bending his knees and rolling with the impact. A burst of pain shot through his chest, and he found himself wheezing again, sprawled on his back in the snow. Johanna crouched over him. “Mr. Todd! Are you hurt?” He didn’t have enough air in his lungs to answer her, so instead he ogled at her from below, mouth and eyes wide open. She gazed back at him with compassion until Nellie landed beside them, and Johanna gasped. “Oh my, you’re all bloody!”
The dark haired woman wiped her mouth with her arm. “It’s not mine.” She slid an arm under Sweeney’s shoulders and tugged on him with a strength he didn’t know she possessed. “Sit up, you poor blighter, get off your arse. I know they knocked you one good.” The clopping of hooves on payment drew nearer, though he couldn’t see Toby. His eyes wouldn’t move from her. She hoisted him up on her shoulder. “C’mon, your legs work. I’ve gotcha now.”
Gulping at the air, he staggered but managed to stay upright. A frozen hand brushed against her soft cheek to smear away a thin trail of blood. “I love you,” he whispered again. His grip tightened on her bicep where he held to keep himself on his feet. Then he said it again, just to be sure she heard him. “I love you.”
A grim smile crossed her lips, and she leaned in nearer to him. “Took you long enough.” He blinked in confusion, eyes narrowing. Surely she hadn’t waited this long, pined for so long, to reject him. “I love you too, you demon.” She kissed him, and she tasted like blood.
“Where is Anthony?” demanded Johanna, and they both lifted their heads to the window. “Anthony! Come on down!”
The sailor boy appeared at the window. The beadle grappled him by his locks of hair, streaks of blood on his face. Neither spoke, but the enemy made deep guttural noises in his throat, groans of pain. From his open mouth, blood streamed faster, but not fast enough. Anthony, too fearful to struggle, gazed down upon them. Then the foe heaved him upward, and he dove headfirst at the asphalt.
When his skull cracked open and a slosh of pinkish fluid and tissue flooded the snow, Johanna sucked a deep breath, and Nellie clapped her hand over her mouth. “Don’t scream, lass.” The girl curled up into her embrace and shielded her eyes.
Lolling in the window like a balloon in the sky on a hot day, the beadle pitched forward himself. He landed atop his head as well. In a shocked horror, Toby whispered, “Just like hulling a walnut,” and Johanna split away to vomit against the side of the house.
Sweeney approached the two bodies cautiously, his eyes dark and wary. He crouched a moment by Anthony’s side. The sailor’s face was almost unrecognizable. He pried the gun off of his belt. “Not even to save your own life, boy,” he breathed. Clutching the pistol, it warmed in his hand. A friend that I did not want and do not deserve. He wasn’t certain if the thought applied to Anthony or to the gun that he had taken from the corpse.
Nellie shamelessly picked their pockets like a scavenger. “We need to go now before the law arrives,” Sweeney announced. He pivoted on his heel and grabbed the reins of the gelding from Toby. “Come on.” With more effort than he should have exerted, he heaved up onto the horse, who again started up a series of bouncy dances. He pulled Toby up by the arm.
“Where are we going then?” Nellie clambered up onto the other mare. “Come here, dear, sit behind me,” she beckoned Johanna, who teetered on her feet, face as white as Anthony’s had been inside the mansion. Nellie lifted her up. “Good lass. You hold on tight to me.”
“Back to Fleet Street,” growled the barber. His heels tapped the gelding, and like before, the sorrel horse reared upward.
She gawped at him in disbelief. “You can’t be serious. That’s the first place they’ll come to look for us!”
“That’s what I’m banking on.” He twisted his neck back, a sneer on his face. “The judge will come for me.”
“You and your revenge—Sweeney, we’ve got bigger matters—”
“If he lives, he won’t rest until Johanna is his caged bird again.” His expression gnarled like the roots of an old tree in pain and hate. “She won’t live in peace until he is dead. And I owe it to Anthony to ensure that, if nothing else.”
The girl burst into tears. He studied Nellie’s grim countenance a moment more before he forked his heels into the flanks of his horse, and they both galloped down the streets just as the skies began to gray in the earliest hints of sunrise.
Chapter 12: Chapter Twelve
Fleet Street granted no solace to either the baker or the barber as they pulled up their horses in front of the shop. Johanna’s tears had mellowed, her face stark and pale, lips pressed into a thin line. “Toby, tie the horses behind the shop and see if you can’t find some water for them.” He grunted heavily in pain as he dropped to the ground, breaths shallow and wheezing. I’ll live. “Hurry, get inside before anyone sees,” he urged the two women. Nellie smoothed Johanna’s hair down out of her eyes; the teen moved in a trance after her.
Once in the pie shop, Nellie locked the front door. “Into the parlor, lass, so we can pull the curtains,” murmured the baker, inviting eyes soft on the blonde. “Warm us some tea and have some bread and butter, then we’ll make us both look a little less like ourselves.” She lifted her head to Sweeney. “Bring us down some pants and shirts, would you? I look like a blooming rose in the street in this dress, and they’re sure to recognize her if we don’t pin up her hair.”
The gems on the bosom of her dress had lost their sheen, too streaked with blood to cast the lustrous reflections onto the floor. Her hair frizzed out in all directions. He wanted to smooth it down with his hands and kiss her. “Absolutely,” he replied, a slow nod following.
“And put something on yourself with a high collar.” She gestured around her throat. “On account of all those bruises, yeah?” She smiled at him, grim and sad but still a comfort. He nodded again, eyes transfixed upon her. The rush had abandoned him, and he desperately wanted to drop dead in sleep. He needed rest. But rest was still many hours away, perhaps days.
Heading upstairs, he gazed at his haggard, black eyed self in the mirror. He had never planned on returning to the barbershop. He had stripped it bare, barer somehow than before, and had not even a razor on his person, as Johanna still had it. Only a few sets of clothes hung in his closet, what he couldn’t pack. From it, he took a high-collared shirt and buttoned it up to the top to cover the purple discolorations around his neck where the beadle had seized him. I wish I had made him suffer more. His jaw clenched. I hope he was afraid. I hope he was in a lot of pain, bloody agony. Gentle Anthony lay with his brains splattered on the sidewalk, waiting for discovery. As a dawn lark lifted and chittered outside, h knew he didn’t have much time--a few hours at best before the judge would arrive.
He could only pray that the judge would come alone. Surely he would have to; otherwise, he would have to confess his involvement in the beadle’s kidnapping of Mrs. Lovett. But if Sweeney had learned anything, he had learned that the empowered men of London would go to any lengths to pervert the law, the officers serving as pawns in a sickening game of chess.
After changing his clothes, he returned to them, having a pair of pants, a shirt, and a hat for each of them. “Hide your hair,” he mumbled in a flat voice. Then, extending his hand to Johanna, he focused on her. She gazed back at him in a question, pale and shivering and so small. The ferocity, the intrepidity, that she had demonstrated so aptly earlier had faded away. She was a shadow. “My razor,” he prompted.
From her hand to his the shiny blade transitioned, unused and clean. He pocketed it. “You both hide. When he comes, I’ll pound three times, and three times again once he’s dead.”
“You’re going to kill him?” whispered the girl faintly.
Nellie squeezed her hand. “Just doing what has to be done, dear.”
“Oh. Alright.” The agreement passed from her in the same manner she would have consented to being measured by a seamstress or complied with potatoes for dinner, like the words brushed across her and their meanings didn’t sink in at all.
“Lass, you go on into my bedroom--the door right there. We’ll hide there.” Nellie pointed. “You go on in there. You can lie down and try to rest if you feel a little tired, if you want.” The girl didn’t argue and bumbled back into the room. Sighing, the baker tossed her hands through her kinky hair. “God, that girl’s a wreck--I’m a wreck--you look like a mess--”
No longer able to restrain himself, he kissed her. Her babbling ceased as their lips collided. When they separated, she hovered there so near to him, her eyelashes brushing his cheeks, her warm breath wafting over his dry lips. In her eyes, unshed tears swam. He longed to sweep her into his arms and comfort her, but he knew they had hours yet before they could revel in any such frivolities. “Where are we going to go?” she asked him, voice a thin whisper.
With his hand, he tilted her head upward so that she looked directly in his eyes, and he sang, “Down by the sea,” in a low tone. Leaning forward, he pressed his lips to her forehead. “Nellie?” he murmured, his arms around her waist.
She hugged him and rested her head on his chest. “Yes, love?”
“Don’t breathe a word to Johanna.”
“You know I won’t.” Tipping her head back again, she pecked him on the lips, brief and chaste. “I’ll see to her. You prepare for the judge.” A grin danced onto her face. “I know how long you’ve waited for this--perhaps under different circumstances, but, well.” She tittered.
When she went to pull her hand away, to walk away, he tightened his grasp on her, and she hesitated. “One more thing,” he prompted, keeping her tugged close. “Nellie, promise me something.” She waited, eyes fixed on his bruised face. He licked his lips. “Promise me that if something happens, if I’m captured, you’ll run away. Don’t surrender yourself, or do anything else ridiculous like that--just take Toby and Johanna and run for the bloody hills.”
Her lips pressed into a thin line, and obstinate as ever, she replied, “You know I can’t do that, Sweeney.”
“They’ll hang you.”
“I don’t want you to hang for my crimes.”
She squeezed his hand. “They were our crimes, and I committed them willingly beside you.” He gritted his teeth. “If I’m to hang, then I will hang. But I prefer to be a little more optimistic than that.” Stepping forward, she kissed his cheek. “Let me go now. You can’t linger on things. Go upstairs and make your preparations, and we will wait for you. Go now.”
Their hands separated. He wondered fearfully if he had grasped her hand for the last time. Then she whirled around and strode away as confidently as ever, with the same carriage she always used when she had customers in her chairs. He gulped and, with faltering steps, returned to his barbershop, though the walls felt more accursed than ever before, no more his home than the sewers or the plague hospital or bloody Australia. He would not hail God. If such a thing existed, its benevolence would have no good will toward him of all people. But he prayed to anything out there, anything beyond, that they would all escape safely.
With a big bottle of ale under her arm, Nellie entered her bedroom. Johanna sat in the small rocking chair in the corner with black eyes cast downward. She looked so much like Lucy, all except for the beautiful black eyes that she shared with her father. “Here you go, lass. You need a little something to soften your system. Take a drink. Then we gotta put on this man-garb.”
The girl took the bottle, but she didn’t drink it. She stared at it. “How are we going to sail away without a sailor?” she then muttered, eyes narrow and lips a thin, white line. Her clammy hands quivered cold in her lap.
“Oh, I suppose Mr. Todd knows how to sail a ship halfway, at least, what from the time he spent down in Botany Bay.” Nellie turned her back on the girl as she shimmied out of her violet dress, the poor expensive thing stained and ruined from the spray of blood. She’d thought he was as good as dead when she’d gotten off of him, and then he’d killed Anthony. Should’ve put it in his goddamn throat, what I should’ve done. But she couldn’t linger upon it.
As she pulled on one of Sweeney’s shirts, smelling his cologne (and he used the finest cologne, being a barber), she felt Johanna’s eyes fix abruptly onto her back with a snap of her head. “Botany Bay?” the girl repeated, voice a little more alive and invested in the situation. “He’s a convict? We’re running away with a convict?”
Nellie tugged up the pants and cinched them around her middle. “Darling, lots of people are convicts. Mr. Todd is a good man with good intentions, and he’s going to get us all the hell outta dodge once we’re in the clear from the judge--”
“He’s going to kill my father!”
“That tyrant isn’t your father,” retorted Nellie as she adjusted her hat to cover the frizzy kinks of hair that tried to spring out of place and into her eyes.
Johanna froze. “How do you know that?”
Sighing, the baker replied, “Love, put on your clothes and have some ale. You’ll feel much better, I promise you that.” She had promised not to breathe a word, and she wouldn’t, tempting as it was. If she didn’t tell her, she knew Sweeney never would, not unless the girl figured it out on her own and brought to him, and even then, he would likely deny, too fearful of her rejection to accept her affection. That man kills to cover his own feelings. Or maybe to express them. She thought herself lucky that she hadn’t ended up on the wrong side of his razor before he admitted his feelings for her.
And how glad she felt that he had finally come forth. Goosebumps erupted on her arms at the mere thought of him whispering in her ear those three treasured words that she had so long awaited. “ I love you. ” He had come for her. He had saved her. The fuzz that built up in her chest at the thought of him cradling her, kissing her. One day, and a day in the future that she cherished already, they would tangle up their limbs and learn each other in a new fashion. She anticipated the consummation of their relationship more than she anticipated her next birthday or her death; she knew she would find the answers to all of her questions that she had asked herself, whether he was gentle and careful and slow or wild and erratic and crazed, how he would lay his hands on her when they had no worry of eyes upon them and only each other and the bedsheets.
Damn you, crazy woman, fantasizing about your man when you’re in the same room as his daughter. You’re sick. Johanna’s voice interrupted her self-chiding. “You both know more about me than Anthony could have told you,” the girl pressed. “I’m starting to think there’s some plot going on that I don’t know about, revolving around me.”
Nellie pivoted, and she donned a smile, a gentle look, as she gathered Johanna’s flaxen hair into her hands and wound it up to stuff it under the hat. Johanna leered at her. “Yes, dear, there’s more afoot here than we’ve told you. But it’s Mr. Todd’s business, not mine, and I can’t go around betraying the trust of my friends and the like.”
“Please tell me he doesn’t want to marry me.”
Chuckling, the baker shook her head. “Of course not, girl.” She patted Johanna’s shoulder. “Far from it, I can promise you that.” The blonde sighed and pitched forward, burying her head in her hands. Her long locks cascaded between the two of them like a pale curtain. “Come now, lass. Once we’re on that ship, headed to France or Belgium, certainly things will look up a little. You can stay with me and Mr. T, or you could find your own way, and we’d be there all the same.”
“Anthony’s dead on my account,” replied the despondent teenager, voice hollow and eyes anguished as they peered upward at Nellie. “And now I’m to run away with a convict who has some business with me that I can’t know, and who may not even know how to sail a ship.”
“Anthony’s dead on all our accounts,” Nellie soothed. She rubbed her shoulder. “Come now, lass. I’ve known Mr. Todd since I was your age, and I can promise you that he has no harmful intentions toward you or toward anyone.” The girl sniffled, and Nellie bit her lip. Don’t you start bloody crying now, too. You’ve got to keep your head on straight, at least until you’re out of London. She shushed her voice very softly, barely a whisper, so that it wouldn’t sound thick with the unshed tears. “Come here, dear. Give me a hug. It’ll all be okay.”
The trembling teenager wrapped her up tightly in an embrace, and Nellie squeezed her back, sitting them both on the bed so she could cradle the child with the demonic black eyes just like her favorite barber. A sob muffled into her chest. She rocked slowly back and forth the girl who had never known a mother’s affection. I hope we’ve got many more moments like this in our future. Her hand smoothed up and down her narrow back. “Oh, child, it’s really alright. No one’s going to hurt you. Me and Mr. Todd are going to take really good care of you from now on. Maybe not what you received at the judge’s house, but we’ll do our best, that’s for sure.” She lowered her head to whisper into the cold ear. “You’ll see. I promise, we’ve waited a long time to meet you at last.”
Johanna buried her wet face in the crook of Nellie’s neck, and she sighed heavily through her snotty nose. “Why can’t you just tell me what you want with me?” she whined.
“Not my secret to reveal, love.” She opened her mouth to continue, but a striking noise cut her off, the clomping of boots outside. They both froze where they sat. The footsteps proceeded along the porch and onto the steps that led up to the barbershop. With baited breath, they waited.
Slam. Slam. Slam. Sweeney pounded three times upon the floor. “It’s the judge,” Nellie whispered, voice hushed, eyes wide. “Quick, get your boots and your gloves. He makes fast work on throats, and then we’ll have to fly.”
Sweeney Todd gazed upon the gray, slushy street that he had called home since his wedding when he was a mere nineteen years old. Even in Australia, when asked about his life--Fleet Street, the tonsorial parlor that he ran with his wife above a pie shop in downtown London. The barbershop and given and the barbershop had taken away, and still it stood, filled with ghosts around every turn, and still it would stand long after he and Nellie had fled for better things.
He whirled away from the window and paced to the center of the room, where he sat in his chair, cradling one razor against his cheek, eyes falling closed in the illusion of rest while his mind wandered. Nellie was safe. Johanna was his daughter again, at least in his mind; whence he would tell her, or if he would tell her at all, he hadn’t yet decided. But their troubles would fade soon enough. They would sail. “Oh, Nellie,” he whispered. A coast in France or Belgium would welcome them kindly, he hoped.
The newly lit fireplace illuminated the room faintly, warming it for the judge’s arrival. He required comfort and perfection so the vulture would suspect no ill intentions when he entered the barbershop. Aloud, he practiced his address. “Good morning, your lordship. As always, an honor to receive your patronage… But I suspect you have not come for me to tend your custom, my lord.” He would bow a most humble, low bow of total mocking submission. Then he would mix his tale, filled with half-truths and sullied falsehoods to charm the judge. “Truthfully, your lordship, and if you don’t fault me for my unlawfulness--”
His soliloquy ended as abruptly as it had begun when he heard the distinct sound of footsteps upon Mrs. Lovett’s porch. Springing up from his chair, he rushed to the door and peeked. There, the abominable man took his first stride onto the wooden staircase, his first step toward his own demise. The judge’s eyes surveyed the area, full of suspicion, like he wanted to avoid detection from anyone who might have spotted him.
Faster than I expected. Sweeney stomped three times so hard that the floor shook a little. “The bell on the door jingled as the man opened it. “Mr. Todd,” addressed the judge, expression calculated. But he comes alone. No officers had accompanied him. Sweeney could end his life at his chose; the judge’s earthly shell lay open and at his disposal.
“Good morning, your lordship.” He kept his expression genuine and kind. “As always, an honor to receive your patronage…”
The judge waved him off. “Cut out the shit, barber.” Sweeney clenched his jaw, a little surprised at the vulture’s vulgarity. A blackened mouth would never trouble a vulgar soul. “I am here on legal affairs and legalities alone. I have not come to frequent your damned peasant establishment.” I feel so honored, Sweeney wanted to sneer in return, the smile descending from his face into a blank deadpan. “My ward, Johanna, has been kidnapped, and the guardian with whom I placed her savagely murdered.”
Lips parting in feigned horror, Sweeney widened his eyes in disbelief. “That--That is truly tragic, my lord--”
“ I am not finished! ” snapped the heathen man, fire alighting into fury on his face. “Do not interrupt an officer of the law when he addresses you, lest I hold you in obstruction of justice!” Obediently, the barber fell silent. “And this morning,” he continued carefully, “we discovered the body of my dear friend, the Beadle Bamford, his life also cut short by many stab wounds to his chest, alongside the rogue sailor who had for so long threatened the welfare of my ward.”
Jaw tight, he spat the next words. “I know what company you keep, barber, with that miscreant of a young man and his plot to steal Johanna the first time that I was so fortunate to have thwarted.” Eyes glinting, he continued, “And I also know that you have a...vested interest in the return of your downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, who is also missing from where the beadle had sheltered her before their scheduled wedding. She is now missing. You see how this is rather incriminating of you, Mr. Todd.”
Their eyes met, and he held the judge’s gaze hard and fast. He hoped the man saw Johanna in his eyes. “Truthfully, your lordship, I will speak, if you hold no fault on according to my unlawfulness. I swear to it that I had no involvement in any murder nor kidnapping.”
“No.” Sweeney softened his expression into one of grief. “And you speak the fact that I regretted my neighbor’s sudden disappearance with the beadle. The rogue sailor came to me when the baker did not return from the ball. As it happens, he had sneaked into the ball and learned of Johanna’s whereabouts in a disguise, and he saw Beadle Bamford and Mrs. Lovett make off together. He bargained with me that he would free her from the asylum where she was kept, and if I allowed her shelter in my home temporarily, he would also go to the beadle’s house and free my neighbor.” He held out his hands, palms open. “I am harboring the girl now in the basement, but the sailor never returned to me, nor has Mrs. Lovett. He failed his bargain and left me with a charge I did not desire facing a crime I did not commit.”
A cool look passed from the judge to the barber. “If you relinquish my ward, Mr. Todd, I will forget your involvement in this crime and allow you to return to your life without any prosecution on this account.”
Sweney smiled, sighing heavily in relief. “Absolutely, my lord!” He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “The girl is in fine shape--perfectly and agreeably repentant, I assure you, and desiring only your affections, I swear it! Thank heavens that she has seen the error in her ways, attempting to flee the first time.” He lowered his voice. “Thank heavens, too, that the sailor did not molest her, and she remains intact for your wedding night, which, dare I say, will be soon? Tonight, or perhaps tomorrow? In time for the new year?”
“Yes, yes.” A self-conscious hand wandered to his stubbled face and dusted coat. “Mr. Todd, I will grant you quite the reward if you would spare me a shave--a spritzing of bay rum, or eau de cologne--I must impress my intended--”
“You speak before I could even suggest it, my lord.” Flying to his death like a bat flies home to his cave at sunrise. “Sit, sir, sit. A free shave for you, on account of all of my folly!”
The man sat in the chair, and Sweeney whipped the lather in his bowl. My friend. He studied the blade of his razor in the light, then swiped the blade a couple times to ensure its sharpness. He sponged the judge’s stubbled cheek. Make fast work of it. I won’t have another interruption. “How rare it is to meet a man with a fellow spirit!”
One clammy hand came down to rest on the judge’s warm forehead. The man could not escape, could not move. Trapped. “With fellow tastes--in women, at least,” he purred. The eyes his heathenous enemy popped open from their peaceful closed position. “The years have indeed changed me, sir, but then I suppose the face of a barber--the face of a prisoner in the dock--is not particularly memorable.”
His eyes widened in terror, mouth an O until he whispered, “Benjamin Barker,” and Sweeney snarled back at him in a thunderous shout, “ Benjamin Barker! ” He plunged the blade into the neck of the man. Pulling it free, he stabbed again and again, making no smooth slashes. His victim gargled and protested, legs and arms lashing. Sweeney paid no heed to him. Once the neck was thoroughly mangled, he moved downward with his razor into the man’s chest, flinging it into the flesh again and again until only a dying croak emerged from his mouth.
The corpse lurched in the chair, down the chute, and Sweeney was alone. Blood matted into his short hair and covered his shirt and hands and razor. It mattered not. He dropped it heavy into his pocket and started onto the stairs. From the staircase, he spotted them in the alley: officers, what he thought the judge had arrived without. “There he is!”
He sprinted down the stairs and into the pie shop. “Hurry! Come now! There are officers outside!” he shouted. “Toby, get the horses!” The boy bumbled past them, and Nellie and Johanna followed, each of their faces smudged with soot from the fireplace and their hair crammed under the hats. “The side door--they’ll be coming at the front--they saw me on the stairs.” Trotting hooves echoed outside. “We have to go now!”
In a beeline, the party darted to the exit. Sweeney leapt onto the horse and hauled Toby up after him; the backpack sloshed heavily on the boy’s back, carrying all of their luggage in itself. Nellie clambered onto the mare, and Johanna followed her. Around the corner, two officers dashed, and Sweeney heard Toby yell, “They’ve got muskets! They’ve got muskets!” before he kicked his horse so forcefully that the animal burst forth into a flat gallop, no longer prancing like a dancer.
When the first musket fired, Johanna shrieked, and he glanced back once to ensure that none of them had fallen from their horses. Toby was crying, his face buried in Sweeney’s back and arms clenched around his middle. The mare and gelding raced side by side down the brightening streets. A second gun fired as they wheeled around a corner, and he heard the bullet ricochet off of one of the buildings.
The officers hadn’t anticipated that they would have horses, and he could only hope that it would give them enough of a head start to make it to the shipyard and escape on the good ship Bountiful , Anthony’s pride and joy. Thundering hoofbeats scattered the crowds in the streets; they split like Moses had raised his arms for the Hebrews to pass on their dry earth. “Toby, hold on!” he urged when he gathered his reins, and the horse arced gracefully over a wagon full of fruit. Nellie’s mare skidded through the landing on the icy cement and lurched the rider onto her neck. Sweeney pulled up his gelding and glanced back at her. “Nellie!”
She dangled onto the mare’s neck, clinging with desperation. Johanna seized her by the waist of her pants and hauled her into the saddle. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” panted the desperate woman as she gathered her reins. But the tell-tale sound of hoofbeats rumbled after them, and she kicked her horse again, urging her onward. The mare limped forward a bit, favoring one of her forelegs. “Bloody hell, I’m awful sorry,” whispered the baker. “Go! Yah!”
Once he ascertained that their horse could manage, Sweeney lashed his own gelding with his legs, and they resumed their sprint. “We’re almost to the yard!” He could see the sails of the ships in the distance. Another gun fired at their backs and busted a streetlamp to his right. They’ve caught up to us! He didn’t dare look back at them to see what had begun to ensue just beyond the rumps of their horses.
The sound of hooves on wood as they dashed onto the dock startled Sweeney’s gelding. The animal danced beneath them in fear, rearing. Another musket fired. Blood burst from the horse’s shoulder in a spritz that caught him in the face. They pitched over onto the dock. The horse, squealing in agony and in terror, collapsed onto Sweeney’s leg. He perceived a scream and a splash, and as he tilted his head back, he saw Toby’s head disappear under the choppy waves of the water.
He pulled from his coat the gun that he had taken off of Anthony when the sky was still black and the death still fresh. He fired with remarkably better aim than the officers; the leader’s skull split open with the wound, and his horse slammed into one of the others. “Head for the ship!” he roared to Nellie and Johanna. “Get the sails raised!”
“Toby--” protested the woman, and he interrupted, “I’ll get him!” He kicked himself free from the dying horse and threw the gun to his daughter. She fumbled it and caught it by the butt. Then, before he had the chance to second guess himself, to hesitate, to argue that the boy was not worth it, he dove under the icy water headfirst, not so much as removing his jacket or his shoes.
Under the deep navy waters, faint gray sunlight cascaded, and the sounds above muffled. The frigid water bit him like a thousand snakes wrapped and writhing around his body, restraining it so that his limbs numbed and couldn’t paddle or reach out into the darkness. He sank. Toby. The chill forced his eyes closed. Something brushed his foot, the leg of the dock, and he kicked off of it, downward, arms outstretched. Toby. The boy had done too much for them for him to let him drown. Toby. Nellie would be beside herself, absolutely inconsolable; Toby was the closest thing she had to a child at all, the only one she would ever have. Toby. The simple mite had never argued or debated, and his eyes lit up so gleefully when he received his first Christmas gift. The book was in his backpack. It would certainly be ruined by the water.
His hand brushed something that felt like hair, and he grabbed it all the way to the scalp and dragged him upward. Arms bumped against his torso. He wriggled his body upward. A need for air pinched in his broken chest. He folded his arms around Toby’s middle and strained to keep his limbs in motion long enough for them to break the surface. His eyes refused to open and have the icy waves assault them. Please don’t let us drown. His knees didn’t want to cooperate as he fished himself upward, and then a gasp of air broke across his frozen face. “Toby,” he croaked as he heaved the boy up under the arms.
The face was blue. Brown eyes flitted opened, and the small blue mouth coughed water out from its little O. “Hold onto me,” Sweeney urged. They had been swept out far away from the dock, and from his place, his head barely bobbing above the surface of the water, he couldn’t see which ship was the Bountiful, which way the women had run off. Gun fire sounded, but not pointed at him.
Toby grappled at his shoulders. He pressed his cold face against Sweeney’s neck, and he kept coughing, hardly able to breathe between long spells of hacking. “Papa,” grunted the child, eyes fluttering against his cheeks.
“Sweeney!” It was Nellie’s voice. “This way! Can you hear me? We’re over here!” The frigid water kept stinging his eyes, and he swam blindly in the direction of her voice, his movements clumsy and weighted by Toby, who desperately clung to him. The coast of Australia would never have felt so unwelcoming and chilled. His limbs lashed through the thick water, thick like blood or honey or something worse. The gunfire grew louder and more rapid until he bumped against the side of the ship. “Oh, love!” She dropped something into the water beside them, and he grabbed onto it--a rope.
She couldn’t pull him up. “Toby,” he wheezed. “Toby, here. Let…” His eyes wanted to suck into darkness. So bitterly cold. “Let Mrs. Lovett pull you up.” I did not make it this far to drown beside the bloody ship. The child scrambled off of his shoulders, and she heaved him up out of the water. She threw the rope down again. “Gonna break your back,” he mumbled, unable to get a firm grip upon it.
“Toby, help me.” His weight dangled there, them straining and him bouncing off of the wooden side of the ship. He drew his torso up onto the edge of the deck, and he lolled forward and splatted there on the ground at their feet. “Bloody hell, you both look like little icicles!”
“We duh-did c-come out of the ocean, m-mum.”
“Where’s Johanna?” Sweeney breathed as he struggled out of his sodden coat. The droplets on his arm hairs froze into little silvery beads. “Where’d she go?”
Nellie slid her arm underneath him to prop him up. “She’s goin’ to raise the sails. Come on, they’re still shelling the ship, we gotta get low and--” A bullet pierced the wall of the cabin, and wood splintered at them, silencing her babbling as they crouched down. Sweeney dropped onto his hands and knees, limbs still cold and uncooperative, and crawled past the cabin to the helm of the ship. “Sweeney, where are you going?”
At the helm, he gazed upward at the lookout stand. Johanna rested there. She had removed her hat and raised the sails, and a gust of wind sent the wooden ship out onto the bay. We’re sailing. “We made it,” he breathed to Nellie. The ship lurched forward, and rapidly they began to cruise across the choppy navy waters; fewer shells hit the ship, and then none at all as the men standing on shore became a distant memory, out of range of their muskets.
Both eyes fixed on his daughter above, he watched as she extended her arms and the wind caught her yellow hair, wild and free and so much more than he ever could have imagined her. She turned. A broad, relieved smile lit her face. Even from below, he could see her black eyes gleaming, perhaps not in joy--she couldn’t yet feel joy for the lover she had lost--but in a certain deliverance that came from knowing she would never return to London. “We’re free.”
Nellie jolted upright behind him. “Sweeney!” He snatched his head around to see a final officer on the end of the dock, his musket pointed not at the three passengers on the deck of the ship, but above, upward, like he intended to shoot the clouds from the sky. Nellie shrieked, “Johanna!” and buckled, shielding her eyes when the bullet fired from its barrel.
In slow motion, the girl swooned. Her yellow hair waved, and the impact drove her backward off of the lookout stand, arms wide open. As she descended, her beautiful golden hair cast her in an angelic halo. He had never seen anything so pure. Sweeney lunged forward toward her like a dog diving upon prey, but not quick enough to catch her, and she landed flat on her back on the deck of the ship. Breath caught in her chest and gargled there around the gaping wound blown through her middle.
He put his hand over it. “Johanna, Johanna, no,” he repeated. If he couldn’t see the wound, he could pretend it wasn’t there. But the stain of blood blossomed underneath his pressure, and she squirmed, eyes wide and afraid. His arm cradled her head. “No, no, I’ve so much left to tell you…” He blinked, and twin tears fell onto her cheeks. “It’s okay now, I’ve come home, I’ve come back to take care of you and your mother--” Johanna’s small hand touched his where it blotted out the ugly hole in her middle. Her eyes didn’t leave his.
“Tell her your name, love,” Nellie urged, thin and shaking. She had Toby nestled in her arms, his face in her chest, hidden from the trauma.
Swallowing hard, Sweeney forced the words from his lips. “My name--My name is Benjamin Barker.” The grip on his hand lost its strength, slackening. “Johanna, no, I’ve come back for you, I’ve come--I’ve come--you--” Her eyes didn’t close, but they glossed over, and he knew she was dead, and he couldn’t stop the useless babbling from his lips.
Loud noises followed.“No! No! No!” He didn’t recognize his own voice. “No!” The shouting resounded from his chest and his throat until his voice was so hoarse he could no longer manage a single word, and when the air would no longer pass by his vocal cords, he crumpled up there on top of her, bloody hands stroking her face and her hair and leaving smears behind. Folded at the waist, he kissed her forehead and her cheeks, and he wept until his eyes were nearly swollen shut with the redness and snot poured out of his nose.
The time that had passed, he didn’t count. But neither Nellie nor Toby moved until he had quieted from his rage of violent misery. Then, the baker extended one delicate, trembling arm and used her fingertips to close Johanna’s black eyes. Her hand took his elbow. “Sweeney, love,” she prompted, uncertain, like she hadn’t a clue what to say. Of course she didn’t. She smoothed a rubbing motion onto his back. “I’m sorry.”
He leaned back for a moment, his knees tired and aching from the position, but he didn’t stand. He couldn’t leave her lying there on the deck. Drooping over, he remained curled up in that position, his head resting upon her chest. She slid an arm around his chest. Soft brown eyes sought his out, but he felt hollow and could not look back at her. “You’re freezing. Gonna catch your death.” Her warm hand brushed his cheek. At her words, he darted his gaze to hers and held it, making no effort to move at all, and she sighed. She kissed his cheek. His eyes flitted closed again. Her warm flesh gave him humanity, restored him. But he didn’t know if he ever wanted to restore again.
She did not prompt him again. After a few more minutes passed, Toby murmured, “What now, mum?”
“I don’t know, love. I--” Nellie’s voice cracked, thick with emotion, but she didn’t cry. “I just don’t know.”
There they pitched on the half-frozen waters, London long behind them, the ocean stretched before them: A freedom of opportunities that none of them could now cherish as so long anticipated. Rocking on the uncertainties of tide and weather, they held one another, filled with regret.