The Lost Apothecary Page 2

Killing and secret-keeping had done this to me. It had begun to rot me from the inside out, and something inside meant to tear me open.

At once, the air grew stagnant, and smoke began to curl into the low stone ceiling of my hidden room. The candle was nearly spent, and soon the laudanum drops would wrap me in their heavy warmth. Night had long ago fallen, and she would arrive in just a few hours: the woman whose name I would add to my register and whose mystery I would begin to unravel, no matter the unease it brewed inside of me.



Present day, Monday

I wasn’t supposed to be in London alone.

Celebratory anniversary trips are meant for two, not one, yet as I stepped out of the hotel into the bright light of a summer afternoon in London, the empty space next to me said otherwise. Today—our tenth wedding anniversary—James and I should have been together, making our way to the London Eye, the observation wheel overlooking the River Thames. We’d booked a nighttime ride in a VIP capsule, replete with a bottle of sparkling wine and a private host. For weeks, I’d imagined the dimly lit capsule swaying under the starry sky, our laughter punctuated only by the clinking of our champagne glasses and the touching of our lips.

But James was an ocean away. And I was in London alone, grieving and furious and jet-lagged, with a life-changing decision to make.

Instead of turning south toward the London Eye and the river, I headed in the opposite direction toward St. Paul’s and Ludgate Hill. Keeping my eyes open for the nearest pub, I felt every bit a tourist in my gray sneakers and crossbody tote bag. My notebook rested inside, the pages covered in blue ink and doodled hearts with an outline of our ten-day itinerary. I’d only just arrived, and yet I couldn’t bear to read through our made-for-two agenda and the playful notes we’d written to one another. Southwark, couples’ garden tour, I’d written on one of the pages.

Practice making baby behind a tree, James had scribbled next to it. I’d planned to wear a dress, just in case.

Now I no longer needed the notebook, and I’d discarded every plan within. The back of my throat began to burn, tears approaching, as I wondered what else may soon be discarded. Our marriage? James was my college sweetheart; I didn’t know life without him. I didn’t know myself without him. Would I lose, too, my hopes for a baby? The idea of it made my stomach ache with want of more than just a decent meal. I longed to be a mother—to kiss those tiny, perfect toes and blow raspberries on the round belly of my baby.

I’d walked only a block when I spotted the entrance of a pub, The Old Fleet Tavern. But before I could venture inside, a rugged-looking fellow with a clipboard and stained khakis waved me down as I passed him on the sidewalk. With a wide grin on his face, the fiftysomething-year-old said, “Fancy joining us for mudlarking?”

Mudlarking? I thought. Is that some kind of dirt-nesting bird? I forced a smile and shook my head. “No, thank you.”

He wasn’t so easily deterred. “Ever read any Victorian authors?” he asked, his voice barely audible over the screech of a red tour bus.

At this, I stopped in my tracks. A decade ago, in college, I’d graduated with a degree in British history. I’d passed my coursework with decent grades, but I’d always been most interested in what lay outside the textbooks. The dry, formulaic chapters simply didn’t interest me as much as the musty, antiquated albums stored in the archives of old buildings, or the digitized images of faded ephemera—playbills, census records, passenger manifest lists—I found online. I could lose myself for hours in these seemingly meaningless documents, while my classmates met at coffee shops to study. I couldn’t attribute my unconventional interests to anything specific, I only knew that classroom debates about civil revolution and power-hungry world leaders left me yawning. To me, the allure of history lay in the minutiae of life long ago, the untold secrets of ordinary people.

“I have read a bit, yes,” I said. Of course, I loved many of the classic British novels and read voraciously through school. At times, I had wished I’d pursued a degree in literature, as it seemed better suited to my interests. What I didn’t tell him was that I hadn’t read any Victorian literature—or any of my old British favorites, for that matter—in years. If this conversation resulted in a pop quiz, I’d fail miserably.

“Well, they wrote all about the mudlarkers—those countless souls scrounging about in the river for something old, something valuable. Might get your shoes a bit wet, but there’s no better way to immerse yourself in the past. Tide comes in, tide goes out, overturning something new each time. You’re welcome to join us on the tour, if you’re up for the adventure. First time is always free. We’ll be just on the other side of those brick buildings you see there...” He pointed. “Look for the stairs going to the river. Group’s meeting at half two, as the tide’s going out.”

I smiled at him. Despite his unkempt appearance, his hazel eyes radiated warmth. Behind him, the wooden plaque reading The Old Fleet Tavern swung on a squeaky hinge, tempting me inside. “Thank you,” I said, “but I’m headed to a...another appointment.”

Truth was, I needed a drink.

He nodded slowly. “Very well, but if you change your mind, we’ll be exploring until half five or so.”

“Enjoy,” I mumbled, transferring my bag to the other shoulder, expecting to never see the man again.

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