“See him?” Battlecruiser Barry jabbed a finger with a cracked, filthy nail at the pub window, pointing at the dignified-looking doctor hurrying down the street.
Florrie leaned forward, causing Battlecruiser to involuntarily recoil backwards. Six years earlier, when women of Florrie’s profession were being slaughtered on the streets of Whitechapel, a rumor circulated that Jack the Ripper had come up to her, taken one whiff of Florrie’s breath, and then run away screaming. A slightly nastier version of the rumor suggested that Florrie’s halitosis had proved lethal, which is why the Ripper’s reign of terror finally ended.
“Oh, I know him—his picture used to be in the papers all the time. Not so much now that his friend’s dead and he’s spending all his time seeing patients instead of solving crimes.” Florrie shuddered. “So sad about his friend. Such a brilliant man. Terrible that he fell off that cliff in Switzerland three years ago.”
“Yes … fell …” Battlecruiser put special stress on the second word.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Mean by what?” Battlecruiser tried to look innocent. It didn’t suit him.
“You were being very coy when you say ‘fell’. Of course, it wasn’t an accident. He went off the cliff because of his fight with that professor, didn’t he?”
Battlecruiser shrugged. “Well, that’s the official line.”
Florrie scraped her chair forward, causing Battlecruiser to scoot further back. “That’s what the doctor said in his account, didn’t he? Don’t you believe his story?”
A contemptuous sneer spread across Battlecruiser’s face. “The doctor would want everybody to believe that his pal was killed by a master criminal who’s conveniently also dead and can’t defend himself.”
“Are you saying that’s not what happened?” Florrie looked incredulous.
“I’ve got a distant cousin who works at that Swiss hotel where the doctor and his friend stayed, and my cousin told me that the so-called good doctor was acting very shifty the day his friend and the professor died.”
“No! I can’t believe it!” Florrie made an effort to sound indignant, but it was obvious that juicy, scandalous gossip delighted her. “You think—you’re saying that the doctor pushed his friend over the cliff and into the waterfall?”
“Of course he pushed him. It’s obvious, really. There’s something not quite right with the doctor. You can see it in his eyes, he’s a wrong’un, he is.”
“What about the professor? Are you saying the doctor killed him, too?”
Battlecruiser shrugged. “Who knows? You know that the doctor was in the army in Afghanistan. Some men go a bit wrong after a war. And not to be too crude to a lady, but there was always something a bit amiss with his relationship with his … ‘friend’. Not surprising it turned violent. I suppose they quarreled, the doctor shoved his pal, and perhaps he took care of the professor as well because that distinguished old mathematician witnessed the crime. Then the doctor came home and wrote that ridiculous story to explain away the deaths.”
Florrie continued to express skepticism about the doctor’s guilt, but still paid close attention to Battlecruiser’s theories. It was obvious that the possibility that the doctor was a killer, possibly a double murderer, had latched into her imagination. By the time she finally left to go in search of paying clients, she was not only convinced of the doctor’s guilt, but she was itching to spread her suspicions to everybody she met.
Battlecruiser smiled when he saw Florrie whispering to one of her colleagues. Truth is sluggish, but malicious gossip is quick as lightning. He knew that if he spread the rumor to all of the names on the list, in a matter of weeks all of London would be convinced that the doctor had shoved his best friend off a cliff and into a central European waterfall.
Battlecruiser checked his watch. He had just enough time to make his date with the scullery maid, Polly.
“I never liked him. There was always something uncouth about that doctor. I never trust a man who writes about himself. There’s something vulgar about that sort of self-aggrandizement.” Mrs. Talmidge sniffed disapprovingly, and adjusted her cards in her hand.
Mrs. Dinell tittered softly behind her cards. “I always liked the doctor’s stories.”