Chapter One Saturday, February 9, 1895
The wind cut to the bone and Alice Black pulled her shawl tight about her head and throat. The hot gin was a fire in her stomach but no defence against the cold of the winter night. She grumbled to herself, trying to expose as little of her face as she could. She’d expected to do some business at the John O’Neil but none of the piss-makers wanted to pay for a bit of dock tonight. She wiped the back of her hand across her dripping nose. She hoped Ettie had fared better, else it was potato-peel soup for the next few days.
It was getting late. Although the hotel officially closed at the legal Saturday time of seven o’clock, there was a backroom where the regulars could go to top off, and for a cut of the dash, the proprietor, James McCay, usually allowed her and Ettie to stay on.
Alice edged closer to the houses. She was afeard to go past the churchyard where the bodies of the Irish immigrants were laid out in their eternity boxes. Even though the epidemic had happened almost fifty years earlier, for sure ghosts lingered in the area. Not so the cholera. She always held her nose as she scurried by. On this stretch of Queen Street the shops were interspersed with vacant buildings and the boarded-up windows were blinded eyes. The gas lights were few and far between and what with that and huddling into her shawl, she didn’t see the young woman walking in front of her until they almost collided.
“Mind where you’re goin’,” snapped Alice. She heard a muttered “Pardon” as the other one moved out of the way. She had a thick muff ler wrapped around her face, but Alice had an impression of youth, and she wondered where the girl was going by herself at this time of night. A country piece, by the look of that hat and valise.
Alice glanced over her shoulder. The girl was hovering on the sidewalk. She looked lost, and for a moment Alice considered stopping to offer help. But sod it, it was too cold. A gust of wind blew her skirts up about her knees and she struggled to hold them down. At that moment she heard the jingle of harness as a carriage came around the corner heading east onto Queen Street, going a good clip considering the state of the road. The iron-hard ruts had a light covering of snow and they were slippery and dangerous to the horses.
“Get out of the way, you bloody bint,” yelled the driver. Alice jumped back onto the sidewalk just in time. She lost her balance on the snowbank and fell backwards, landing on her tailbone. For a moment she remained sprawled on the hard ground, groaning, then angrily snatched up a handful of snow and threw it in the direction of the carriage. The wind tossed it back in her face. Sodding toady. She shook her fist and suddenly the driver pulled his horse up sharp, wheeled around and headed back in her direction. She shrank back, prepared for recriminations, but the carriage went right past her and halted beside the girl. The door opened and a gloved hand reached out. After a moment’s hesitation, the young woman accepted the help and climbed in. In the f lick ering yellow light of the gas lamp, Alice saw that the carriage was a smart burgundy colour with brass fittings, the high-stepping horse light-coloured, but the blinds at the windows were pulled down tight and she couldn’t see the occupant.
The driver cracked his whip, wheeled the horse around, and they set off again at a brisk canter back along Queen Street.
Alice got to her feet, rubbing at her rump. She brushed the snow off her skirt, rewrapped her shawl and started to walk. Her stomach was cramping badly and she needed to get home soon. She should’ve known better than to trust those snaggy sausages of McCay’s. If there was a morsel of real pork in there at all she’d be surprised. More like rotten horsemeat, by what it was doing to her stomach.
She was going by the Dominion Brewery now, the pleasurable part of her route. In spite of the increasing urgency of her indigestion, she paused in front of the entrance. The smell of hops hung heavy and sweet on the night air. She sniffed hungrily but the cold made her cough. Sod it. She headed up Sumach Street. Her toes had gone numb. Even though she’d stuffed newspaper into her boots, they were so split they were useless.
“Lucky for that little tit, whoever she is. Gettin’ a ride to some warm place. Why’d it never happen to Alice?”
Constable Second-Class Oliver Wicken was looking forward to the end of his shift, when he could warm his feet at the station woodstove. His thick serge uniform and cape kept his body warm enough but his feet were frozen and a chilblain itched painfully on his right heel. He stopped for a moment and stamped to restore his circulation. Since the early hours of the morning a steady snow, soft and pure, had been covering the grey detritus of the week. Now with dawn approaching the wind had got up again, burning his face, and tiny icicles had formed along the edge of his fine blond moustache.
At this hour the streets were empty. He hadn’t encountered another living soul during his entire beat except for a bread man in his dray rumbling down River Street. Privately, young Wicken always hoped for a little excitement he could relate to his sweetheart. She was a romantic girl and was always after him to tell her his adventures. Like he’d told her, the graveyard shift in the winter wasn’t going to be lively. The citizens were sealed up tight in their snug houses. Summer was different. Larceny, pickpockets on the increase, violations of Sunday bylaws. And, of course,the f lood of drunk and disorderly. Over three thousand cases of D-and-D charged in 1894. Made you want to take the Pledge. Almost.
This month his main task was to check the vacant houses to make sure no vagrants had broken in to get shelter for the night. Toronto was just climbing out of bad times and there were over a thousand properties standing empty throughout the city. The police were placed in charge of protecting them.
He turned north on Sumach Street. He badly needed to relieve himself and he wasn’t sure he could hold it until he got to the station. Just up a ways was a dark laneway, and he walked in for a few feet, intending to use one of the outside privies that served the row of houses along St. Luke Street. However, the pressure in his bladder became too urgent and he stopped by the tumbledown fence.
In a hurry to unbutton his trousers, he didn’t notice the body immediately, as the whiteness of it was blended into the snow. But two large rats were sniffing at the girl’s head, and at Wicken’s approach they scurried away like shadows and attracted his attention. He had placed his lantern beside him on the ground and it was only when he raised it aloft that he fully comprehended what he was seeing.
He went close enough to confirm the girl was dead and then spun around and ran as fast as he could to the telephone signal box that stood on the corner of Wilton and Sumach. Panting, he tugged free his key, opened the box and grabbed the receiver off the hook. He turned the crank and waited for what seemed endless moments until the police operator at central headquarters answered. Wicken could hardly hear him above the usual static and hiss of the telephone. He yelled, “Connect me with number-four station. It’s an emergency.”
Excerpted from Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings. Copyright © 2010 by Maureen Jennings. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.