Authors: Stefani Milan
Copyright 2014 by Stefani Milan
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For Mom and Dad
THE ADONIS OF LONDON
Petunia Pennyworth was the most notorious gossip on Peddler Street. Some argued that she was the second most dishonorable woman in all of Britain; the first was Mrs. Tessie Wendell, who we will meet in a moment. The wife of a managing director of a bank, Petunia spent most of her humdrum days in her quaint house spying and spreading rumors to anyone who would listen about everyone who wandered along that tiny street.
She had a portly figure, which she usually stuffed into long, chiffon and silk robes, and bushy black hair that she tried (rather unsuccessfully) to keep tame in a tight bun. Her pale-face, avoided by most of the street’s inhabitants, was hawk-like–a beak-nose smashed in between two piercing brown eyes.
Petunia spent most of her days and nights on the second floor in her sitting room, staring down at the busy street to observe her neighbors. She would pull the dark, thick green curtains to one side and watch as the tiny street in South Kensington filled with men, women, and children going about their day. With great pleasure she tattled on little Timothy Wallace when she saw him steal old Barnaby Teller’s gold-watch chain right from his pocket. And with a devious smile she had dished to everyone that Annie Boswell—the neighborhood harlot—carried on an affair with her husband’s brother, Hendrick. Oh yes, Petunia Pennyworth made it her duty to know everything about everyone on Peddler Street, and her friends were no better.
Every Saturday at four in the afternoon, Petunia asked her friends, Beatrice and Tessie, to her home for a cup of tea. Of course, the real reason they gathered each week was to share the latest gossip around London. But that dull, muggy Saturday afternoon in the beginning of April when our story begins, as the women gathered around a petite walnut table in the middle of Petunia’s drawing room, they did not speak of the usual scandals of relationships and stolen items around town, for something had happened in London early that morning that had distressed even the most unlikable ladies.
“Where was the body found?” Mrs. Wendell’s shrill voice wanted to know as she shifted slightly in a lion’s-paw footed arm chair.
Mrs. Wendell was a fierce, traditional woman from Westminster who disliked most people and was ten times worse the gossip than Petunia had ever been—which was quite an accomplishment. A slender woman, with gray hair and small, watery blue eyes, Mrs. Wendell always dressed in an old-fashioned black garb buttoned to her chin. The deep wrinkles that covered her face and neck gave her the appearance of a wild turkey.
“The murder took place in Regent’s Park,” Beatrice Smith answered glumly in her squeaky voice. “Behind one of the fountains in the Broad walk. That’s where they found the blood. They said she’d been shot with the pistol and then dumped in the Thames. Found her under the London Bridge.”
Beatrice was only nineteen: a blonde, bubbly girl who Petunia thought was dim-witted. Petunia often wondered how Beatrice was Mrs. Wendell’s niece. The only thing the two women had in common was that they sat in identical chairs that evening.
“I heard she was a prostitute,” Mrs. Wendell said judgingly, as though the girl deserved her death. Her long slender fingers trembled, showing her age as she took a sip of her tea.
“She was an actress,” defended Beatrice as she smoothed out her sky-blue silk dress.
Petunia interjected with, “I hardly think it matters,” as she paced restlessly back and forth on her red and green carpet. “The girl is dead.”
“Well, I shan’t be walking around these dangerous streets alone after this,” Mrs. Wendell stated matter-of-factly.
Petunia and Beatrice nodded in agreement. Then, though it was an unusual occurrence, all three women sat quietly for a moment as they pondered the tragic incident. Suddenly Petunia’s stomach lurched as she remembered something that had happened years ago.
“What is it Petunia?” Mrs. Wendell asked, breaking the silence.
“Wendy Watson,” Petunia said gingerly.
Wendy had been the only person Petunia had genuinely cared about on Peddler Street, for she had kept Petunia’s greatest secret—the particulars of the tragic loss of her child. Wendy had gone to the grave with that secret, quite literally, and she was the one woman of which Petunia refused to speak ill.
“Constable Wyatt mentioned something about her,” Beatrice said a long moment later. She barely took a breath between words now. “I happened to hear his conversation with Constable Pickens on my way to the cheesemonger’s shop on Jermyn.”
“The constables spoke of this incident outside of their headquarters?”
“Well, not quite. I sort of waited outside of the headquarters and followed them, but...”
“Beatrice!” Mrs. Wendell scolded.
“Oh come on Auntie, no harm done.”
“Well, what did they say about Wendy?” Petunia interjected impatiently.
“Something about the bullets. The way the wound pierced the skin…”
“That’s quite enough, Beatrice. I don’t think I can handle rehashing the gruesome details of her death.”
“Wendy Watson was the most boring woman I’ve ever known. I could never find anything exciting to say
her much less
her,” Mrs. Wendell said.
is certainly not boring,” Beatrice giggled.
“Wendy was a beautiful woman with a kind soul,” Petunia said defensively, but Mrs. Wendell and Beatrice paid her no attention.
“Paul Watson, the
of London,” Mrs. Wendell said sarcastically.
Paul Watson was Wendy’s son, an only child, and from a young boy he had been exceedingly handsome. Now he was grown and manly, with a robust physique, and every woman Petunia had ever known—even Mrs. Wendell, who truly disliked
—regarded Paul as the most handsome man in all of London.
“He may be the most fetching man in London, but he’s dreadfully upholstered,” said Mrs. Wendell.
Petunia thought the comment was peculiar coming from a woman who dressed as though she was kin of Queen Victoria.
“You think he would have developed a better sense of style hanging around those unruly, miscreant friends of his,” Mrs. Wendell continued, exasperation in her tone as she noticed Petunia and Beatrice still day-dreaming about Paul. “And he’s caused enough scandal with the women around here to last a lifetime.”
“He can’t help that so many women desire to be with him,” Beatrice argued. “
wish he’d fancy
shan’t associate with that man in that manner…ever,” Mrs. Wendell snapped, narrowing her eyes. “Do you remember what happened between Paul and that Francine girl? He was not a gentleman in the least.”
Petunia stopped pacing and folded her arms across her chest. She suddenly felt obligated to defend Paul Watson.
“You mustn’t talk that way about him, Tessie.”
Usually, Petunia did not miss an opportunity to expose indecent persons. The young bachelor certainly had his fair share of shameful behavior with the ladies, but when Petunia thought about that day—Paul’s 17th birthday to be exact, when he’d learned his mother had been murdered—well, she could not forget that look of despair on his face. Plus, Paul had always been so nice to her when most people were not.
“I shall talk about him however I’d like. It seems you are both taken with him.”
“It’s not just his looks Auntie Wendell. He’s a kind and genuine person,” Beatrice said as her eyes twinkled. “Even you can’t deny this. He walked you home from the baker the other day just so you would not feel alone.”
Mrs. Wendell accentuated her words as she spoke.
“I did not fall for his shenanigans on that day, nor will I ever fall for them on any other day.”
Petunia pointed her chubby finger at Mrs. Wendell.
“Paul’s led a difficult life, Tessie, and he’s admirable for having done something about it. He was at the top of his class at the University of London, you know. And he just completed medical school. He’s working under the mentorship of Oscar Baker,
top psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital.”
“Well…” was all that escaped the flabbergasted Mrs. Wendell as she adjusted her top buttons like a flustered bird.
Then the women ceased talking about Paul Watson and focused their attention on the murder again.
When nighttime approached, and the throb of the motor engine had faded—Petunia had sent both women off safely to their homes in a motor car—she waited for her husband to come home. She lingered by the window in her sitting room as she did every night, staring up and down Peddler Street. Only the ticking of the cuckoo clock next to the fireplace sounded as she held the curtain to the side. And as she always did, Petunia hoped for something interesting to happen to distract her from that familiar feeling of loneliness that crept through her each night.
The street seemed unnervingly quiet and bleak on that evening except for the dim light of the street lamps. Petunia was just about to release the curtain and turn in for the evening when she saw a tiny movement on the street below. A silhouette of a man emerged under the softly lit street lamp. He wore a black derby hat and suit and was dressed quite nicely for a young man who rarely did. It was Paul Watson, and as his face came into view, Petunia saw his sallow, solemn expression, one she had only seen once before—the day he’d learned of his mother’s death. Petunia stared at the young man’s expression, and for the first time, a woman shuddered in fear at the face of Paul Watson.
All Paul could think about was the murder.
A tall red door creaked open, and he stepped over the threshold into the complete darkness of the front hall of his home. His hands trembled as he turned on a brass table lamp that rested on an oval, slender-legged table to the left of the door, and then he removed his hat and tossed it on the oaken coat stand.
He’d had the worst day in six years, he thought as he opened the door to his drawing room at the foot of his narrow staircase. His stomach and heart felt as though a snake had coiled around them and squeezed firmly. An uncomfortable lump as large as a piece of coal made his throat feel tight. Paul needed
to calm him down.
As he entered the room, his large birch-wood grandfather clock chimed ten times. The clock was a gift from Oscar Baker, crafted in Germany with carvings of flowers and leaves. It stood tall against a dark maroon wall, next to a towering bookcase where Paul kept his brandy locked in the bottom right cupboard. The key to the cupboard had been sandwiched and untouched, for nearly two years, between Joyce’s
The Waste Land
. He hesitated for a moment before grabbing the key. A drink was not the solution to his situation, but Paul was too anxious to care, so he opened the cupboard and brought out the bottle of brandy and a glass. Then he sank into a cushiony leather armchair that sat under a well-lit crystal chandelier in the middle of the room and poured his first drink in two years. His hands shook rapidly as he finished the glass in one gulp.
After he poured a second glass, Paul lit a cigarette. He sat on that chair, smoking the cigarette and staring blankly into his unlit fireplace.
After a third glass of brandy, Paul felt his body finally relax, so sleepily, he stood, stumbled a little, and went straight to bed. He staggered up the creaky wooden stairs that led to his bedroom on the second floor, almost knocking into a large painting of an untamed forest that had hung on that stairwell wall since he was a boy. So many times he had tried to move the painting to the fireplace mantel but never found the courage to change anything in the house since his mother’s death, with the exception of certain gifts from Oscar: the grandfather clock, the hallway table, and the leather chairs.
Paul stood hunched outside his bedroom doorway and wobbled for a moment before he entered his room. The brandy liberated him, and he even sang—out of tune—as he made his way through the petite sitting area that led to his bed. He passed his desk which was covered in old schoolwork and medical documents, tripped on the fringe of a dark-green carpet (another gift from Oscar), and grabbed the worn-in leather chair by the fireplace. The room felt unusually warm, so he opened a window. Then, as he clumsily undressed, he stumbled and stubbed his toe on the accented post of his bed frame. After yowling and grabbing his foot, Paul climbed into bed. Instantly, his eyelids began to droop.
Paul Watson did not want to die. That was his only thought as he carefully made his way down dark, steep stairs that led to a softly lit stone chamber. He was sure he was in a house. The upstairs felt like
house, except the rooms were gray and bare. Fear grew as he realized he did not recognize this room. Something lurked in that chamber, and the door behind him vanished. A candelabra sat on a table in the middle of the tiny room. Paul tried to light it unsuccessfully. Suddenly a thick fog, so dense Paul felt he might perish for a want of air, filled the entire space. That was when he saw the figure in black.
A hooded cloak obscured the figure’s face as it emerged from the shadows and drew closer to Paul. The figure lashed at him with a long blade, and Paul lost no time running into the thick fog hoping he would reach a wall or the stairs perhaps. But the chamber seemed endless and quiet except for a strange ticking noise. The intruder in the cloak continued to pursue him. Paul tripped over something large in his path, and he stared for what seemed like an eternity at a deceased girl, her face cold and expressionless. He knew he should run, but he felt paralyzed. Suddenly, the cloaked man was upon Paul with the knife, and as he looked up at the ominous figure, he knew he was going to die.