Aldersgate School of Medicine
London, October 1830
It was a perfect specimen. Almost.
Abigail Hale took a steadying breath and stooped into the cool, dark alley to examine the bloodless gash on the cadaver’s high forehead. The injury was a minor flaw, really. Nothing to worry about, although she intended to use that imperfection to best advantage when haggling over price.
Straightening, she opened the door wide and motioned the five figures surrounding the body inside. “Quickly!”
Three men followed as two, their features distorted by the flickering light of her lamp, hefted the sack containing the corpse into her father’s office and dropped it with a thud as solid as though it contained nothing more than so many rocks.
Nervous about what she was going to do, and the risk she was taking in order to do it, Abigail squared her shoulders and crossed to the desk adjacent to her father’s. Although she had dealt with resurrection men during the last school year, thrice, she had never done business with this particular gang. The sheer number of them took her off guard. Usually a couple of gravediggers or sextons showed up, regular men who didn’t look nearly so unsavory.
Hoping to keep the “sack ’em up” men from seeing how badly her hands were shaking, she clasped them behind her back.
A behemoth of a man, marked with the smallpox and dressed all in black, stepped forward. “When I saw the name on your letter, I assumed we were dealin’ with the good surgeon himself,” he said with a thick Cockney accent. “So who the bloody hell are you?”
“Who I am doesn’t matter so long as you get paid. Am I correct, Mr. … Hurtsill?” She was guessing at his name. This was the first time she had ever met him, but he had to be the man she had written. He seemed in charge and had referenced her letter.
“This is some risky business we’ve got going here, little lady. I have to trust you and you have to trust me. And that means who you are matters more than you might think.”
Since he didn’t correct her, she assumed she had accurately identified him. “Fine.” She gestured as if to say she would agree to almost anything if it would expedite their meeting. “I am steward of the household accounts here, if you must know.” She was also a would-be student and would one day become a great anatomist, like her father—if only she could overcome the bias against her gender. Her father kept telling her she should marry instead. But she could never be content to live the mundane life other women did.
He picked a piece of food out of his teeth. “The surgeon’s daughter, eh?”
Apparently, he knew more about the school than she had expected.
“Does your father know you’re doin’ this?” he asked.
If they didn’t get on with it, he would find out. And she couldn’t have that. “Time is money, Mr. Hurtsill.
“Big Jack,” he interrupted. “But you can call my brother, here, Mr. Hurtsill, if you like. I wager it’ll make him feel quite important.”
She didn’t care to meet his brother or any of the other men who were lounging around her father’s office. “I’m sorry?”
“Call me Big Jack.”
Eager to get down to business, she focused strictly on him. He was intimidating enough. “Fine. Mr. … er … Jack, then. How much do you want for … um…?” Abigail nodded toward the sack.
“The stiff?” A low, guttural laugh shook his belly, which rolled well over his belt. “No more’n our due, that’s for sure. It ain’t easy workin’ the supply end these days, what with the number of friends and family posting watchmen to guard the graves of their dearly departed.”
She grimaced at the sad picture that created. Just last January those appointed to protect the corpse of a man interred in a churchyard in Ireland were fired upon by the resurrection men they had been trying to ward off. “It’s a miracle you manage it.”
They had to be doing more than loitering about a likely graveyard. The resurrection men she had previously dealt with hadn’t been able to get near a corpse in weeks. For the first time in its twenty-five-year history, the school had been forced to open without an anatomy specimen and enrollment was suffering because of it. Every student needed two full courses of anatomy, with dissection, to apply for a license from the Royal College of Surgeons.
Big Jack grinned, seemingly indifferent to her sarcasm. “We have our ways. And this is a damn fine stiff. Big, too. Ain’t that so, boys?”
His men—some folding their arms as they looked on, others leaning against the furniture—grunted in agreement, but Abigail continued to anchor her attention on their leader. She didn’t want to see the others standing around with dirt from their recent dig still clinging to their shoes and pant legs, didn’t want to acknowledge how easily she could be overpowered. She had paid the
other resurrection men nine or ten guineas, a few shillings more if the corpse was large and in good condition. Then she’d had them carry the deceased to the cellar on their way out, and that was that.
She hoped this transaction would go as smoothly, but … something didn’t feel quite so routine. Thank heavens she’d had the good sense to secret Bransby, the college porter, behind the door with a firearm. She had taken the same precaution before, of course. Resurrection men were, generally speaking, a rather desperate and unpleasant lot—but, fortunately, she had never had to call out to Bran.
She prayed she would be able to say the same about tonight…
“Your price, sir?” She lifted her chin to suggest they get on with their business.
“Don’t you want to see the rest of ’em before we start talkin’ money?” he asked.
See the rest of the corpse? Absolutely not! It had been difficult enough peeking at the head. Viewing cadavers when they were properly laid out in a clinical atmosphere was somehow different. She could tolerate that. Anyone who wanted to be an anatomist couldn’t faint at the sight of a dead body. But she couldn’t face that sight now. What the sack contained was far too fresh. Someone’s son, uncle or brother had died, and these men had stolen his corpse from what should have been its final resting place…
A necessary evil, she reminded herself, one of those rare instances where the end justified the means. The bodies of those condemned to execution and dissection,which as about the only legal way for a college to gain a specimen, could no longer fill the burgeoning demand,not with only fifty or so hanged in a year. The medical profession required several thousand.
“A more experienced buyer would want to see what he’s gettin’ for his money.” Big Jack spread his hands. “But it’s up to you, of course. I’m merely tryin’ to be helpful.”
Whatever he was doing, trying to be helpful played no part in it. Of that Abigail felt sure. She suspected he was having a bit of fun at her expense, taunting her in front of his men.
But he was right. She should take a closer look at what she was buying. Although she’d had great success with the three corpses she had purchased in the past, she’d heard stories about resurrection men selling bodies not quite dead or delivering cadavers too decomposed to do a college any good. She would be a fool to let Big Jack and his “London Supply Company” cheat her so easily.
Clearing her throat, she said, “All right. Show it to me.”
He motioned to two others, who opened the sack. Then a swath of pale, white chest covered with dark hair caught the lamplight and Abigail’s eye at the same time, and she couldn’t go through with it. She didn’t want to see the shriveled private parts of the deceased with an all-male audience eagerly awaiting her reaction. Having never been with a man, she generally tried to look away from that area as it was.
“Wait!” She shouldn’t have let Jack goad her into this. She knew the body would be naked. Stealing a corpse was a misdemeanor for which a resurrectionist might receive a public whipping. Technically, a corpse didn’t belong to anyone. But taking so much as a sock defrauded the deceased’s heirs, and that was punishable by hanging.
“I … er … on second thought, never mind. That won’t be necessary.” She pulled the mouth of the sack closed lest they ignore her. “You already informed me that it’s a fine specimen, did you not? Is there any reason I should doubt your word?”
Big Jack nudged his neighbor, and they both chortled. “A might squeamish to be dealin’ in such commodities, wouldn’t you say, Miss Hale? But I’m good as my word. This bugger’s got all his parts, even those what might interest a young woman like yourself.”
“He’s got his bloody roger, all right,” one of the others called out with an appalling, hoot-like laugh.
“You could fondle that if you want. But if it’s a kiss you’re after, you should know he’s not got his teeth!”
Abigail’s face burned with embarrassment as Jack winked at her. “Aye. My brother’s right. He has everythin’ ’cept his teeth. We sold those to a dentist not far away.”
This was getting out of control. Abigail couldn’t let it continue. “Fine, that’s fine.”
She didn’t want to think about the forceful removal of the cadaver’s teeth, the shroud that had been stripped from the body and shoved back into the grave, or her role in supporting a business that filled so many with anger and disgust. She wasn’t any more pleased with the way the system worked than anyone else. They needed reform.
Despite the public’s abhorrence of the idea of allowing surgeons access to all the bodies that went unclaimed from the prisons and the workhouses, the government had to make these bodies available. That would provide the specimens necessary to advance medical science and do away with this nasty black market. But even with Henry Warburton’s Select Committee on Anatomy, formed in parliament two years ago to study the problem and suggest oversight and other regulation, change didn’t seem to be coming—at least not very fast.
“Enough games,” she said. “I am not amused. And my father won’t be gone much longer.”
Jack sobered but his expression grew smug. “So he doesn’t know what you’re up to, eh? I thought that might be the way of it.” He dropped his voice, obviously intrigued. “Why are you meddlin’ in his affairs?”
“This college cannot go on without subjects. I won’t have my father’s career ruined, the school closed simply because England cannot keep up with France and Italy and provide a proper supply of bodies for dissection. In case you haven’t heard, my father is currently collaborating with Sir Astley Cooper!”
At this, Jack whistled. “He is, is he?”
She wasn’t sure he was properly impressed, but she knew he should be. “Yes. They are writing a treatise on the thymus gland.”
He scraped dirt out from under one of his fingernails. “Your father runs in high circles, all right. Must feel good, given that surgeons aren’t considered much better than resurrection men.”
“Not everyone feels that way,” she snapped.
“Plenty of those who matter. It’s not like you’d ever be considered on par with the bloody aristocracy. Anyway, hobnobbin’ with the likes of Astley also makes it a bit messy to run afoul of the law. Is that why you’re doin’ your father’s dirty work for him?”
Of course. Although her father wouldn’t want her to be the one arranging for the specimens he so desperately needed, someone had to do it. So far, no one else had stepped up.
“The dead are dead, sir. Why let their bodies rot, to the betterment of no one?” She came off much stronger than she felt in her heart. She was as sensitive to the humanity of the dead as anyone, but it wasn’t as if her father could continue to learn by dissecting dogs and other animals, as anatomists of centuries past. He’d said himself that doing so was almost useless. And if she wanted to follow in his footsteps, she needed to push for progress, overcome the obstacles in her path.
“Well, your secret’s safe with us, luv.” Jack advanced on her. “A pretty thing like you could ask just about anythin’ from Old Jack. For a quarter hour of your time, I’d even be willin’ to give you a deep discount on our latest prize here.” He reached out to finger the fabric of her sleeve while indicating the cadaver with a jerk of his head. “We could make it a weekly trade, if you like.”
When Abigail stepped away, his companions snickered.These men were definitely worse than any resurrectionists she’d met before. Although none of those previous examples had been exemplary citizens, they hadn’t dared show her such disrespect.
“What’s wrong?” Big Jack’s meaty face creased into a dark scowl. “You too high and mighty for the likes of a workin’ man like me? And you, nothing better than a surgeon’s daughter?”
Maybe she was only a surgeon’s daughter, and therefore denigrated along with the rest of the medical community. But her father was head surgeon here at the college and had prospects many of the others didn’t.
Regardless, she wasn’t willing to let Big Jack paw her in order to get the college the specimens it needed.Cooking the books would be bad enough.
Eager to consummate the deal and dispense with the whole distasteful transaction, she didn’t bother responding to the question. “I will give you six guineas.”
The mention of money seemed to mollify him, at least a little. “We’ll not settle for less than ten—”
“Make that fifteen.” A deep voice interrupted, and for the first time, Abigail looked directly at the man standing to the side and slightly behind Big Jack. His clothes bore as much dirt and his face as much beard growth as the rest of the group, but he was different. Not only was he significantly taller, he carried himself with a certain … authority.
How had she not noticed him before?
She’d been doing her best to block him and the others from her consciousness, she reminded herself.
Her gaze locked with an intense pair of sea-green eyes. “Why, that’s highway robbery! My father has never paid a resurrectionist more than nine guineas, six shillings. I’ve got it all in a book, right here.” She tapped the top of the desk to convince him.
When he smiled, his teeth looked clean and mostly straight, another detail that set him apart from his companions. “Evidently, you’re not a pupil of economics, or not a very good one, Miss Hale. Short supply, high demand, prices go up. Sometimes significantly. Fifteen guineas. No less.”
Those short, clipped sentences bore no Cockney accent and revealed a definite culture to his voice, causing Abigail to wonder if she had been dealing with the wrong man all along. She couldn’t imagine this stranger taking orders from anyone, much less the likes of Jack Hurtsill.
“Blimey, Max,” one of the other men muttered.
Drawing herself up to her fullest height, which was at least ten inches shy of this Max’s six feet something, Abigail clung tenaciously to her composure. “At this point, I would rather you take your ‘large’ and go.” Surely, there had to be other resurrection men she could contact; she hadn’t gone through all the names she heard muttered about the halls of the college and St. Bart’s Hospital next door. “I have seen naught but the head, and that small sample revealed a nasty wound.”
“There’s not a mark on the rest of him,” Max responded coolly. “We offered to show you, but you refused.”
Abigail had no intention of letting this body snatcher tempt her into dumping the body out onto the rug as she had almost let them do before. “Mr. Hurtsill—I mean, Big Jack, here, was about to say ten guineas. I will go that high.”
“I’m afraid it’s not high enough,” Max countered.
“You’re a fast study, mate.” Jack slapped him on the back but didn’t interfere. Instead, he turned a challenging smile on Abigail and waited for her response.
“Then go,” she said, shooing them away. “Take Mr. Whoever He Is and leave. I will not let you rob me. Not if I can help it.”
“And what if you can’t?” Insolence lit the eyes of the man identified as Max. “Perhaps we should wait here for your father. No doubt he will have better sense of what a corpse is worth at the present time, although I doubt he would want us loitering about the place. What’s it been … eighteen months or so since those two surgeons were prosecuted for receiving and dissecting stolen bodies? With a possible knighthood on the horizon, and such a close tie to Sir Astley Cooper—the sergeant-surgeon of the late king himself, no less—it would be quite unfortunate if your father were to be found dealing with the likes of us, wouldn’t you say?”
Abigail’s jaw dropped at the not-so-subtle threat. These were not learned men but, evidently, they had heard of her father’s many accomplishments even before she had mentioned his involvement with Cooper. She hadn’t said a thing about the crown’s probable recognition.
Perhaps she had underestimated these sack ’em up men. This man, anyway. “If what you have brought is worth so much Mr … Max, is it?”
He gave her a mocking bow and added his last name,as if to prove he feared nothing from her. “Wilder.
Maximillian Wilder at your service, Miss.”
“Mr. Wilder, then. Take it elsewhere to claim your fifteen guineas. Take it to Guy’s or … or the Webb Street School!”
His chin rasped as he rubbed it. “We could do that, Miss Hale. But you said yourself that time is money, and we don’t have all night. You wrote us to request an adult specimen and we brought a large. Now it’s time to pay up.”
“And if I send someone for the police instead?”
He clucked his tongue. “You don’t want to do that.”
Three long strides brought him to the edge of her desk, where he toyed with the ivory elephant her mother had bestowed on her following their last trip to India, only two months before she died. “It’s too risky,” he said.
Abigail plucked the elephant from his grasp. She wasn’t sure she could rely on the new police, anyway. Sir Robert Peel had only recently established the metropolitan force. Like many others, she regarded it with a certain amount of skepticism. “It’s the sensible thing to do,” she said. “After how you have behaved, I am not opposed to seeing the five of you spend considerable time in gaol.” Hoping the weight of her own threat would give him and his companions reason to squirm, she smiled, but Maximillian Wilder merely shrugged.
“You do what you feel you must, Miss Hale, but you should be aware that Bill over there has a wife and children. You will not want his dependents looking to the college for support while he is imprisoned, now would you?”
“Looking to the college for support?” she echoed. “Why, you have some nerve, sir. Perhaps there have been faculty members blackmailed into such an arrangement in the past, but don’t expect me to be so accommodating.I wouldn’t allow you to—”
“I recently heard of an anatomy teacher at Great Marlborough Street School of Anatomy who refused to pay a fair price to men such as ourselves,” he interrupted, turning casually to one of his cohorts. “Did you hear about that, Emmett?”
A man with shaggy blond hair, who looked more like a boy, nodded. “Aye. He found a stinkin’ corpse at each end of his street every day for more’n a week as retribution. ’Twas a shame, really. Terribly bad for business. That’s what I heard.”
Impotent rage warmed Abigail’s blood as the import of their words struck her. For a brief moment, she flirted with the temptation of calling Bransby in to force them out at gunpoint. She even imagined handling the pistol herself, pressing the barrel of it into the solid chest of the man named Wilder and watching his arrogance crumble into fear.
But Bransby couldn’t shoot them all. Truth be told, he would be hard-pressed to shoot one. And she sensed this Max made no idle threat when he hinted at how the gang would respond should she put up a fight. She couldn’t risk the public uproar of having some stranger stumble upon a rotting carcass outside the college doors. Not only would her father lose any chance of a knighthood, he would be prosecuted like those other poor surgeons.
Clenching her teeth, she reined in her temper. “I see your point.” She retrieved a purple pouch from her desk and began counting out the necessary remuneration. “Eleven, twelve, thirteen … Here we have it. Fifteen guineas. Take it and go.”
Max looked at the money but made no move to accept it. “Actually, your haughty attitude should cost you a little more. That was entirely too easy.”
“Easy?” She would have had to alter the books just to hide the loss of the eight or nine guineas she had been planning to pay. She had no idea how she would cover any more.
“I think perhaps … twenty guineas should relieve your debt,” he said.
Someone coughed and the men began to murmur amongst themselves.
Abigail curled the nails of her free hand into her palm. “Twenty, indeed! You great lout—”
The rest of her words stuck in her throat as Maximillian’s dirty hand shot across the desk and caught her own, sandwiching the money in her fist.
“You have already run up a sizable bill, Miss Hale. Are you sure you can afford to make me angry?” He quirked an eyebrow at her, and Abigail once again noticed his striking, blue-green eyes. An aquiline nose, high cheekbones and a strong jaw combined to create an arresting face, not quite handsome but striking. His features were too stark to be handsome in the conventional sense, although they were certainly … memorable.
“Come on, fifteen’s well an’ good, Max.” The way Jack shifted on his feet made him appear anxious. “She is the surgeon’s daughter, after all. And he bein’ a friend of Cooper’s, a fair deal’s good for business, eh?”
Much to Abigail’s dismay, Max ignored his leader, if Jack really was the leader, and continued to glare at her. “You have gotten involved in something you are incapable of navigating,” he continued, his voice softening just enough to make him sound as if he might be addressing a child. “I suggest you let this go, and take it as a well-deserved lesson.”
His fingers tightened, but Abigail refused to admit that his grip was beginning to hurt. “You are every bit a louse,” she said, “and I think we both know I could call you much worse.”
His laugh, deep and rich, seemed to flow out of his mouth as naturally as his threats. “Perhaps,” he agreed, and wrested the money from her grasp.
Without those funds, Abigail couldn’t continue to stock the kitchen with foodstuffs, purchase candles and coal, or pay the help. Desperate to salvage what she could, she grabbed for the pouch, but Max used his height to keep it well out of reach.
“There is far more in there than what you have demanded!” she cried.
Jack was no longer laughing. “How much more?”
“Two or three times as much!” She didn’t know, exactly. She hadn’t bothered to count it. She had been too confident that she had all contingencies covered, with Bran and that firearm in the hallway. She had also been preoccupied with making sure her actions went beneath the notice of the college housekeeper, who would tell her father exactly what was going on if she found out.
“I’m depending on it,” Wilder said.
“I doubt you can spare any more coin,” he broke in, “so I suggest you cease flinging insults, while you still have the dress on your back.” His meaningful grin sent fear of another kind coursing through her. It was that look, and the sure knowledge that she could never overpower him, that stopped her from rounding her desk.
She glanced at the door that hid Bransby, even opened her mouth to call out to him. But Wilder silenced her with a quick shake of his head.
“I wouldn’t, Miss Hale,” he said. “Whoever you have tucked in that hall probably doesn’t have the nerve he would need, and your pride is hardly worth his life.”
“My pride? That money belongs to the school—”
“Also far less of a consideration, I’m sure.”
Never had Abigail wanted to strike a leveling blow at anyone more. The arrogance of this body snatcher!
His blatant greed! Since his intervention, she had lost the small amount of power she had initially possessed, and he had laughed in her face while stripping it from her. None of last year’s encounters had prepared her for this. She had felt so confident coming into tonight—confident enough to carry her entire purse.
She sorely regretted that now. “You know me well enough that you can predict my next move, Mr. Wilder?”
“I could always know you better.”
A half smile curved lips that looked soft and foreign to the hard planes and angles of his face. His eyes darkened to a glittering blue and appraised her with such boldness that Abigail folded her arms across her breasts in a rather primitive move to defend herself against his piercing gaze. Dear God … what had she done?
“Please, don’t go!” she whispered. “Let’s … let’s work out some sort of … arrangement.” Her father was due to arrive home at any moment, but she had to detain these men, regardless. “You will get no more business from me if you do this. Wouldn’t it be … wouldn’t it be preferable to … to agree to an ongoing contract? Other gangs have offered to do that with my father, with … with start-up money for … for all the bribes you must pay and … and finishing money when the school year is over. If you give me back my purse, I could possibly … get more for you later.”
“You mean you will turn us in,” Wilder said. “But remember, we have your letter, which we can show, if necessary. And now, we really should be going.”
“No!” She grabbed hold of him, but he easily shook her off and followed the others outside.
Tears burned the backs of her eyes. “That’s it?” she cried. “That’s all?”
“That’s all,” Wilder repeated.
Abigail gripped the doorframe so she wouldn’t launch herself at him in a fit of temper. “I hope one day you and I will meet again, Mr. Wilder, under very different circumstances.”
His smile broadened as his gaze settled on her mouth. “Is that an invitation, Miss Hale? Because meeting you, under any circumstances, would be my pleasure. There is much I would like to teach you yet.”
“You have already taught me a great deal, sir. Rest assured, I will never call upon you again.”
Max threw the pouch in the air and caught it with a jingle. “More’s the pity, pretty lady. More’s the pity.” He tilted his head toward the sack they had left in the middle of the floor. “Enjoy your time alone together, and give my regards to your father,” he said. Then he followed Jack and the others down the alley, but his voice, raised in recital, carried back to her:
“Bury me in my brother’s church,
For that will safer be,
And I implore, lock the church door,
And pray take care of the key.”