Don’t forget to preorder the next book in William Ritter’s bestselling Jackaby series (out August 23) here.
“Follow my lead, Miss Rook,” Jackaby said, rapping on the ornately trimmed door to 1206 Campbell Street. Were my employer a standard private investigator, those might have been simple instructions, but in the time I’ve been his assistant, I’ve found very little about Jackaby to be standard. Following his lead tends to call for a somewhat flexible relationship with reality.
Tall and lanky, Jackaby swam in his long, brown coat. It looked like it might have once been an expensive garment, but it was now battered and affixed inside and out with myriad clinking, jingling pockets and pouches, each loaded with trinkets and tools he insisted were essential to his work. Around his neck he had wound a ludicrously long scarf, the ends of which brushed the cobblestones as he walked.
On his head, stuffed over a dark mess of wild hair, was the main offender. Jackaby’s cap, the knit monstrosity, was a patternless composite of uneven stitches and colors. The threads clashed with his scarf. They clashed with his coat. They even clashed with one another. Alone on a hat rack, the thing would have looked mismatched.
Jackaby was not an ugly man. He kept himself cleanshaven, and always seemed to smell of cloves and cinnamon. In a fine suit and tie he might have been downright attractive to the right sort of girl, but in his preferred garb he looked like an eccentric lunatic. He was fond of reminding me that “appearances aren’t everything,” but I dare say they aren’t nothing, either. My employer can be singleminded about some things. Most things, in fact.
The woman who answered the door appeared far too overwhelmed by her own concerns to bother about silly hats, anyway. Jackaby and I soon found ourselves ushered past the threshold and into an elegantly furnished sitting room. The house looked like so many of the regal English manors to which my mother had dragged me as a child. My father was a bit of an explorer—you may have read about the intrepid Daniel Rook—but my mother much preferred tradition and civility. Mother took full advantage of my father’s notoriety to find her way into countless London garden parties, and she brought me along in the hopes that a little exposure would make me wish to be a proper lady as well. It generally made me wish instead that I could go outside and play in the dirt, like my father.
In some ways, there was really nothing new about New England. Our current hostess looked as though she would have fit very comfortably into my mother’s social circles. She introduced herself as Florence Beaumont and offered to take our coats. Jackaby flatly declined for both of us. I would have preferred he hadn’t, as the heat of the chamber was a sharp contrast to the breeze outside. The spring of 1892 had arrived in New Fiddleham, but it had not yet fully chased away the last of the winter winds.
Mrs. Beaumont led us to a small alcove at the rear of the room. Within the recess were a pile of blankets, a little pink collar with a bell on the front, and a set of silver bowls perched on white doilies. In one bowl was a bit of what looked to be leftover tuna, and in the other were water, a great deal of cat hair, and a live fish. The fish circled uncomfortably, being nearly as wide as the bowl itself.
Jackaby squatted, resting his forearms on his knees and staring into the water. He watched the fish take a few cramped laps, studying its movements, and then he plucked a bit of damp cat hair from the rim, sniffed it, tasted it, and tucked it into a pocket somewhere in the depths of his coat.
I whipped out the little black notepad Jackaby had given me upon the completion of our first case, trying not to let Mrs. Beaumont see that I was still on the very first page. “Your message said something about a sick cat?” I prompted the woman while my employer poked at the sticky pile of leftovers in the other bowl. “I’m sure Mr. Jackaby will want to see the animal.”
The woman’s lip quivered. “Mrs. W-W-Wiggles.”
“Yes, and where is Mrs. Wiggles now?”
Mrs. Beaumont tried to answer, but she managed only a sort of squeak I could not decipher and gestured toward the alcove.
Jackaby stood. “Mrs. Wiggles is right here, isn’t she?”
The woman nodded.
“Mrs. Wiggles is the fish, isn’t she?”
She nodded again. “Only since recently,” she sniffed.
“I see,” Jackaby said.
His matter-of-fact response seemed to burst a dam within the woman. “You must think me mad! I didn’t know to whom I could turn, but your name has come up from time to time. I entertain, you see. Very prominent people come to my soirees. Mayor Spade had tea here, just last week. Some of the people I dine with tell me that you specialize in things that are . . . that are . . . different.”
“To put it mildly,” I submitted.
“Nice to hear I’ve come so highly recommended, madam,” Jackaby said, turning his attention back to the big fish in the little bowl.
“Oh, I wouldn’t call them recommendations, exactly,” she added. “More like anecdotes, some of them warnings, actually . . .”
“Yes, yes, very nice.” Jackaby’s attention had migrated back to his investigation. He dropped to his hands and knees, peeking at the pile of blankets.
“I’ve always taken such good care of Mrs. Wiggles,” the woman continued. “I keep her brushed and washed, and I buy her the most expensive cat food. I even get her fresh fish from Chandler’s Market from time to time. At first I thought she was just feeling a bit off due to her—well—her state. But then she began to sprout s-s-scales, and now . . . now . . .” Mrs. Beaumont broke down again, her voice wavering into uncomfortable octaves.
“Due to her state?” I asked, trying to press forward. “What state was Mrs. Wiggles in?”
“She was pregnant,” Jackaby answered for Mrs. Beaumont.
The woman nodded.
“How did you know that?” I asked.
Jackaby pulled up the corner of the blanket to reveal a pile of adorable, sleeping kittens. Here and there a patch of scales peeked through the fur. The smallest had fuzzy gills, which puffed up and down as it snored, but they were precious nonetheless.
“Do I deduce correctly that, until recently, Mrs. Wiggles has had significantly more freedom to roam about at night?” Jackaby asked.
The woman blinked back to self-control. “Yes, yes, that’s true. I generally leave the window open at night, and Mrs. Wiggles likes to pop out, but she would always be back home in the morning. I decided it was best to keep her in this past month, at least until she had her litter. It’s been freezing cold out, anyway. Didn’t want the poor thing—”
“Yes, that’s all very good,” Jackaby interrupted. “You mentioned you purchase fish for her from the market, occasionally. Is it also correct to assume you have been treating her to such morsels more often of late?”
“I just wanted her to be happier, cooped up indoors like—”
“Always the same sort of fish?”
“Er . . . yes. Mackerel from Chandler’s Market. Was that wrong?”
“On the contrary, Mrs. Belmont—”
“Beaumont,” she corrected quietly.
“On the contrary, Mrs. Beaumont, it may have been just the thing. Don’t worry. We will see to it the animals receive adequate care.”
“You’re taking the kittens, too?” She sniffled. Her eyes welled up, and her lip quivered.
Jackaby sighed. “Give me just a moment to confer with my esteemed colleague.” He gestured me closer as Mrs. Beaumont wrung her hands.
Jackaby leaned in and adopted the sort of hushed, secretive tones that one nearby cannot help but overhear. “Miss Rook, on a scale of one to pomegranate, how dangerous would you say this situation has become?”
“Dangerous?” I faltered.
“Yes, Miss Rook,” prompted Jackaby, “in your expert opinion.”
“On a scale of one to pomegranate?” I followed his lead, checking over the notes I had scribbled in my notepad and speaking in my most audible, serious whisper. “I should think . . . acorn? Possibly badger. Time alone will tell.”
My employer nodded solemnly.
“What? What is it? Can you make them . . . better?” Mrs. Beaumont fidgeted, worrying the lace on her collar as Jackaby considered his response.
“Contamination, madam. Viral infection, no doubt. You’ve been thoroughly exposed, but don’t worry, you’re probably just a carrier. It is most unlikely you will display any symptoms yourself. What’s important now is to be sure the litter does not further contaminate the neighborhood.”
“Is it really as bad as all that?” she asked. “Sh-should we tell the police or . . . or the animal control officer?”
“If you like.” Jackaby looked thoughtful. “Of course, it might be best if we simply take Mrs. Wiggles and her litter to our facility and keep the whole thing quiet. I’m no expert in entertaining, but I do not imagine one’s social standing would weather well the news that one is a carrier to an exotic, viral plague. How is Mayor Spade, by the way?”
Mrs. Beaumont sniffed and digested the detective’s words for a moment. “Let me fetch you a bigger bowl,” she squeaked. “I want Mrs. Wiggles to be comfortable, at least.” With one last sniffle, she ducked away into the house.
Some girls work in shops or sell flowers. Some girls find husbands and play house. I assist a mad detective in investigating unexplained phenomena—like fish that ought to be cats but seem to have forgotten how. My name is Abigail Rook, and this is what I do.
For more on William Ritter’s Beastly Bones, click here.