ShortBookandScribes #BlogTour #Extract from Death and the Harlot by Georgina Clarke @clarkegeorgina1 @Canelo_co
Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Death and the Harlot by Georgina Clarke. I have a great extract to share with you today. My thanks to Ellie Pilcher from Canelo for the place on the tour.
A gripping historical crime debut from an exciting new voice.
‘It’s strange, the way fortune deals her hand.’
The year is 1759 and London is shrouded in a cloak of fear. With the constables at the mercy of highwaymen, it’s a perilous time to work the already dangerous streets of Soho. Lizzie Hardwicke makes her living as a prostitute, somewhat protected from the fray as one of Mrs Farley’s girls. But then one of her wealthy customers is found brutally murdered… and Lizzie was the last person to see him alive.
Constable William Davenport has no hard evidence against Lizzie but his presence and questions make life increasingly difficult. Desperate to be rid of him and prove her innocence Lizzie turns amateur detective, determined to find the true killer, whatever the cost.
Yet as the body count rises Lizzie realises that, just like her, everyone has a secret they will do almost anything to keep buried…
Soho, March 1759
There are few sights more ridiculous than a fat old man naked from the waist down.
Mr George Reed pulled off his wig and fumbled with his breeches. The most successful cloth merchant in Norwich – as he had told me more than once in the tavern – was struggling to reach his shoe buckles without grunting. His belly sagged under his vast shirt. At last, he stood triumphant and wiped a handkerchief across his brow to remove all signs of effort.
Ah, Mr Reed. Another respectable tradesman from the shires with time on his hands, money in his purse and a liking for pretty young women, who had found his way to the best bawdy house in London. In a moment, he would be clambering over me with all the excitement of a youth half his age. Unless his heart gave out first.
Nothing much was stirring below the shirt, mind. Mr Reed was going to need a helping hand. I shifted position on the bed, allowing a wisp of muslin to float away and expose a little more flesh. His eyes danced apologetically but little else twitched. I lay there, staring at a long and tedious evening.
Poor old goat, he really did want some help. I eased myself up onto an elbow and flashed him the famous Lizzie Hardwicke smile, the smile that they speak of in taverns from Marylebone to Fleet Street – so I’m told – the smile that brings them running to throw gold into my lap.
‘Well goodness me, Mr Reed, what have we here?’ I leaned forward, so that he could see even more of me, and lifted the hem of his shirt.
He straightened his back.
‘Upon my honour, I don’t think I have seen the promise of such magnificence since I entertained the Duke of Rutland.’
His eyes widened. Every word a lie, of course. I have no honour; George Reed was not magnificent and nor was he going to be – and I would never question the fidelity of any duke to his duchess. But one thing that my career has taught me is that men will hear what they want to hear from the mouth of a beautiful woman, especially when she is nearly naked.
‘The Duke of Rutland was here?’
I changed the angle of my leg, revealing the treasure for which he was paying so handsomely.
‘His grace was right here. But he wasn’t as splendid as you, Mr Reed.’
‘Really?’ He was, of course, susceptible to flattery.
‘Hush now, sir, there’s really no need for you to boast. Only bring yourself a little closer and keep me company.’
I patted the pillow next to me. Perhaps I could get this over with quickly. Polly, Emily and Lucy would be home soon with gossip to share, and Ma Farley was downstairs with a new girl. He didn’t need to be invited twice, and strutted like a bloated peacock, ready to give me the benefit of his superior physique.
A full five minutes later I rolled him off and left him to doze. I couldn’t leave the room until he was dressed – that was one of the rules of our house. There was little point dressing myself at this hour, so I left off my stays, shrugged a loose gown over my shoulders and tied it at the waist. I sat at the table to fasten up my hair with a blue ribbon. Blue was my colour; it set off my copper curls to their best advantage.
I scrutinised the girl in the mirror: nineteen years old, considered slightly built, and not yet showing the hardened face of a career on the town, I could still pass for much younger. I was respectably born, decently educated and, just six months ago, was living in the comfort of my father’s house. Now I was here; one of a small number of girls in Berwick Street, earning a living on my back. It’s strange, the way Fortune deals her hand.
Outside, the city was wallowing in darkness. The elegant streets of Soho had given up their nocturnal creatures. Girls walked slowly arm in arm with lovers more than twice their age; in windows, they lit lamps and sat in near nakedness. The night time was when the real business of London’s day took place.
I closed my ribbon box, catching sight of the scars on my hand, shining in the light of the candle.
I did not choose to become a whore. Few of us do.
George Reed snuffled and snorted in my bed, turning over to face the wall. He hadn’t been so bad after all, and splendidly quick – thank God. His handsome coat, sage green wool with gold buttons down the front edges and sleeves, was discarded on the floor. I laid it carefully over a chair. The tabby silk waistcoat, which I’d noticed earlier, was very fine; embroidered with exotic flowers. He would need to be wealthy indeed to afford such a lovely piece. Did he pick it up in Spitalfields, or had it come from Paris? This Norwich cloth merchant had a good eye as well as a heavy purse. I stroked the needlework. Perhaps I could persuade him to visit again and part him from a few more guineas.
There was a soft thud. A brown paper parcel had fallen to the floor. I picked it up, feeling the weight of it.
‘Leave that alone, girl.’ Mr Reed was awake and sitting up in bed, frowning.
‘It fell from a pocket as I was tidying your clothes.’ No one wants to be thought a thief. ‘I didn’t want the silk to crease.’ I handed him the parcel. ‘Some important papers?’
He pulled at the hem of his shirt and cleared his throat. ‘Yes. Papers.’ He was embarrassed by his nakedness.
‘You have a beautiful waistcoat, sir,’ I gestured to it. ‘Very fine embroidery. Perhaps I can assist you with it when you’ve dressed?’ I handed him his breeches and turned away. A gentleman is happy enough to be watched and applauded when he’s removing his clothes, but is generally shy when dressing.
I heard him huffing at the effort of tucking his shirt. After a minute, I held the waistcoat out, smoothing it over his shoulders and touching his neck softly once he had put it on.
‘I hope that everything was satisfactory.’
‘Yes, yes, very good,’ he said, ‘very good indeed.’ His mind was still on the parcel.
I couldn’t afford to lose this plump catch, however unappealing the thought of further transactions might be. I took his hand and held it flat against my breast, fluttering my breath with practised care as he squeezed.
‘I wonder whether you are in London for business or … just for pleasure?’ I might as well tease: he wouldn’t be fresh for hours. He began to slobber at my neck, thoughts moving away from his papers and back to me. I risked a small moan to encourage him.
‘Aside from the pleasure of you, it is all business. I’ve a few days left in town before I return home.’
‘Then you might like to visit me again before you leave?’
He started biting my earlobe, which I tolerated. ‘That would be most delightful.’
I pulled away, having secured the promise.
‘Lovely,’ I said. I held both of his hands firmly and gazed into his greedy eyes with as much cheeriness as I could.
‘I’m sure that you could entertain me for a little longer, while I’m here,’ he said, tugging me uncomfortably close again, ‘I have the means to pay’. He started to grope inside my gown. I really didn’t want this now, and he surely wasn’t so vain as to think he would be capable?
‘I’m not sure I’m available at this hour.’
He was a large man and quite strong and I didn’t like the way he was pulling at my body. I had to get rid of him, promise him something.
‘But we’re having a party, a masked ball, here tomorrow night, as it happens. Would you care to join us?’ As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted my rashness. The girls would kill me.
‘A masked ball?’ His eyes bulged.
‘Well, it’s really nothing special at all, just some food and wine and a few friends.’
He licked his bottom lip and a sickly smile spread over his face.
‘I’ve heard of such parties.’ That wasn’t a surprise. Mrs Farley’s parties were the talk of the town. The combination of exclusivity and notoriety was enough of an enticement.
‘I’ll come. My friends at home will be green with envy when I tell them.’
I never should have asked him. In a little over a day he would be dead because of the party and I would be running from the magistrate and the hangman. If I had known that then, I would have given him every pleasure he wished that evening, every trick in my book, and then kicked him out for good. But I did not know.
I am a whore, not a fortune-teller.
Georgina Clarke has a degree in theology and a PhD in history but has only recently started to combine her love of the past with a desire to write stories. Her Lizzie Hardwicke series is set in the mid-eighteenth century, an underrated and often neglected period, but one that is rich in possibility for a crime novelist.
She enjoys running along the banks of the River Severn and is sometimes to be found competing in half marathons. In quieter moments, she also enjoys dressmaking.
She lives in Worcester with her husband and son, and two extremely lively kittens.