Madeleine looked hesitant when she opened the door. She had never hesitated before, no matter what he did. Adalbert made sure the coat was covering his knife. His sister looked pale in the light of the street lantern standing in front of the house. Was it getting to her at last?
“Come in,” she whispered at last.
He stepped into the modest town house they had grown up in, no different than any others in the quarter except for his presence.
“Would you like some tea?” she asked, her voice still thin. She still looked pale here, too, outside of the light of the street lantern.
“Please,” he said, his own voice thin as well. Perhaps it was getting to him, too. If even his sister couldn’t stomach it anymore, there was nothing left. There was nothing left at all. He sat down and found his hands were shaking, when they hadn’t all evening. When they should have, were he a decent man. He stared down at his shaking hands and waited.
With the tea came her frail voice: “You can’t come here anymore.”
His insides clenched together, like when – no, not now. The thought went away, but the sensation wouldn’t. “Can’t…“ His voice was strained. “Maybe I could…”
She shook her head. “It’s not about you. I’ve always stood by your side.” She sat down, away from him.
But why now? Was it some circumstance in her life? Was there a suitor who wasn’t to get involved? “I can change, if there’s anything…” Adalbert wondered if he could. He hadn’t considered it seriously. He hadn’t had to.
“It’s not about you,” she repeated in a thin, urgent voice. “I’m… It’s for your own good.”
“I’ll change, I’ll… I only have you.”
She looked down. And now he didn’t anymore. Was this how things went? He had always thought it wasn’t. But now…
“The drowning cough. I caught it.”
And the world went cold.
“You can’t come back here. I’m afraid for you. I’ll… You’ll find someone when I’m gone. It doesn’t have to be me. Look, we got over mother’s and father’s deaths, and you’ll get over it… You could still marry, nobody knows what you…”
The rain was cold, even on this body of his that felt frozen all over. He couldn’t think. He had to do something, but his thoughts were frozen, too. There was a cure, but it might as well not exist for how rare it was. The upper classes had it, occasionally, and one barely heard of it because they couldn’t let it slip out which among them had the disease. It would be their families’ social death, along with their own literal one. So what to do?
“That bloke with the knife’s out and about again,” said the bartender.
Adalbert listened from a table in the corner.
“Again?” a man at the counter asked. “Doesn’t he get enough? You’d think it gets old.”
Did it get old? But that wasn’t his problem now.
“I swear, at the rate he’s going he’s gonna kill more than the drowning cough,” said the bartender.
“Wouldn’t mind if he offed some nobles, too,” said the other man.
There was his entrance. “Like the drowning cough does,” Adalbert said.
They looked over to him and turned back to their conversation.
“Don’t say that aloud though,” the bartender said.
“I’ve been telling my wife,” the other man said. “You can’t let Prunia out like that. But you know my wife, she says…”
Adalbert clenched his teeth.
“Another?” said the bartender of another bar.
“Another,” said the man standing next to him at the counter. “The guards are looking into it, but I tell you they won’t find anything. ‘cept a lot of blood.”
Adalbert silently drank his ale. Why did they all have to talk about him when he wanted information on something else? Could the topic be swayed around like in the other bar? He acutely felt the shame rising again at how they’d just turned back around and ignored him. Why was he so bad at this?
“Are they sure it’s the same one?” asked the bartender.
The man shrugged. “Who knows? But if there’s more of them running around…”
“I swear,” Adalbert said, “that bloke has killed more people than the drowning cough.”
“That’s not funny,” another man said.
“Least he stays away from the nobles,” the bartender said.
“Is that a blessing or a curse?” said Adalbert.
The man next to him snorted. “Bet you some of them would rather have the killer do it. Least they wouldn’t have to admit it’s that cough.”
He sat on the low canal wall next to the bridge, waiting for someone to take the bait he had scattered across Duke’s Lane and Highfield. It was dark except for the street lanterns. Barely any moon either. What was he to do if Madeleine left him alone in this city? At least she hadn’t turned him out of her own free will. At least this he still had a chance of fixing. Low as it might be.
Timid steps approached him. He turned his head to face a young lady in mourning dress. He tipped his hat.
She hesitated. Then she nodded slightly. “Are you the gentleman that is looking to help out?”
Adalbert smiled a bitter smile. “Always ready to help.”
She nodded again. “Our family. It’s… It’s a problem. First my father, but now my aunt, too, and people are starting to talk…” She looked around. “Could we get out of the light? I can’t be seen, I…”
They moved into an unlit alley.
Now or never. “I heard there’s a cure,” Adalbert said.
Her brows furrowed. Wrong?
“I meant to ask… before we do anything rash, of course,” he said.
She stood still, then, with a sob, she buried her face in her hands. “We can’t afford it! Uncle Joseph has lost too much with his… We’re ruined, and if word comes out… I can’t pay you much, but I’ll try to… try to compensate, I have some jewels, I…”
Adalbert sighed. “I’ll help out.”
“Did you hear? It’s a rich lady this time,” said a man at the counter.
“He’s moving up,” said the bartender.
“Sure it’s the same one?” asked another man at the counter.
“You can’t be sure,” said the first. “And no one knows who he is. The niece is under shock. Can’t remember anything.”
“Who wouldn’t be?” said the second. “Poor girl.”
“Least it hits us all equally now,” said the bartender. “That makes me feel better. Never got why it was just folks like us.”
“You’re all sick bastards,” said a man sitting in another corner.
The bartender shrugged, looking guilty.
Over his notices, new ones had been posted.
There is another way. Come to Market Street Chapel at dusk. Bring funds.
So Adalbert visited Market Street Chapel, with the meagre funds he had saved up, and another way.
Outside of the light of the street lantern stood a cloaked figure staring into space under a large hat. It took him a moment to make out that it was a woman. He approached her. “I’m here for the other way.”
She looked up. “You don’t look like you could afford it.”
“You don’t know that,” he said.
Her look was sceptical.
“Perhaps I don’t want to be recognised,” Adalbert said. “It’s a problem. For the reputation.”
She rolled her eyes. “If you’re a guard, just say so. I’m not doing anything forbidden. It’s medicine, no more.”
So it was. Adalbert smiled. “I’m not a guard.” The smile fell. “I have a sister.”
The woman frowned, seemingly considering his words. “Name?”
“You wouldn’t know.”
She sighed. “Of course not. Look, I’m not wasting my time with low offers. It was hard enough getting this. I’m sorry about your sister, but get lost, I’ve got real business.”
Adalbert felt at his sides, where his coat was covering his hips. “Of course.”
“How did you see my notice anyway? You don’t look like you’d be in the area normally. Are you staff, or…”
His hand slid under the flap of his coat. “It was posted over mine. Business was slow lately.”
It was hard to tell if she went pale. She stepped back as if to creep into the wall behind her. She was definitely pale. He didn’t like that look anymore.
“Should we negotiate?” he asked.
She nodded silently.
It felt good to do good. Perhaps he could change after all.
Madeleine’s cheeks were rosy when she opened the door. The street lantern was not yet burning. “Come in,” she said, her voice lively. “I’ve made a cake.” She looked him over. “You look better.”
“Thank you.” Adalbert was still unsure about that, but it was good to hear from her. He went inside and sat down in his usual spot.
Madeleine brought tea and cake and sat down in her usual spot. “You wanted to discuss something?”
He nodded. “As you know, I’ve… quit.”
“So I know! And I’m really glad of it. Is it working?”
“That… yes. But there is a complication. I’ve had to make some waves before this, and I found it better to lay low for a while. Do you think… Do you think I could…”
“Oh don’t even worry about it, silly!” Her smile warmed his heart. “I’ve always told you to come home, and now you don’t have your problem anymore.” She looked down. “And I don’t have mine.”
“It can happen to anyone,” he said.
“Yes… yes. That is true.” She looked back up. “Oh, did you hear? There are nobles killing each other for the cure now! It was in the afternoon paper. They think they’ve found the killer, too!”
“The killer? Which… You mean…”
Her bright smile was back. “Yes! They caught a man who killed a medicine peddler, one that dealt with nobles and rich people. And get this, they think the killer is the same one as the other cases.”
Adalbert silently sipped his tea. After a while, he nodded. “That’s good. Then the killings are going to stop now.”
His sister snickered.
In the falling dusk outside, the street lantern’s light flickered on.