Sharyn McCrumb

Missing Susan

The sixth book in the Elizabeth MacPherson series, 1991

For the ladies and Milton;

with thanks to Phyllis Brown

of Grounds for Murder bookstore;

and especially for Martin Fido,

who knows where the bodies are buried.

Some of the information on true crime in this book is derived from Murders After Midnight and The Murder Guide to London, both by Martin Fido.

I love my work and want to start again.”


September 25, 1888



IN A DINGY and antiquated district of east London called Whitechapel, the shivering drabs huddled against a faded brick wall, thinking of Jack the Ripper. It was twilight, and a piercing March wind tore through Whitechapel Road, cutting into the bone-chilled mass of humanity camped outside the tube station (District and Metropolitan lines). In the dim circle of light, they clumped against the old building, seeking shelter, ignoring the wino collapsed in a nearby doorway, and talking in hushed tones about the infamous Ripper: the uncaught killer of five women in this dreary stretch of London’s East End. The more knowledgeable ones speculated on the identity of the dreaded killer, debating whether they would have been clever enough to elude his deadly grasp. Others wondered if they had been wise to brave the dangers of Whitechapel in the bitter chill of night. The rest, numbed by the gathering darkness, merely waited.

From the shelter of a nearby shop, cupping his last cigarette of the twilight hour, he watched them, sizing them up as a wolf might survey a flock of Dorset ewes. There were a good many of them tonight, despite the cold. They came every night, even when slags of rain turned the alleyways into a sodden blur. His eyes narrowed as he singled out the likely ones: the young, the vaguely pretty, or, if all else failed, the flashy ones on the make. After a few moments’ study, he could surmise which of them traveled alone, which were timid and eager to please, and which might be more trouble than he cared to have. Eliminating the latter from his reckoning and concentrating on the first two requisites, he decided that the group offered three or four possibilities. The choice would narrow down as the night wore on. He was ready now. He knew them as well as he cared to. They were always much the same in Whitechapel. Night after night, rain or hunter’s moon: much the same.

He threw the smoldering remnant of the cigarette on the pavement, ground it out with his heel. His eyes never left them. Hurry, before the cold drives the weak ones back into the Underground. He drew one last anticipatory breath. Ready now. Move in for the kill.

Striding briskly toward the milling crowd, he raised one hand above his head and motioned for them to gather round. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” he said in his heartiest stage voice. “Welcome to the Jack the Ripper tour. My name is Rowan Rover, and I am your guide for this evening. That will be three quid, please, everyone!”

A bewildered woman in a Penn State ski cap rummaged through her purse and held out a handful of coins. With Olympian dignity Rowan Rover indicated the proper currency and intoned, “That will be three of the little round bronze ones, madam. Yes, they are rather like your American quarters, aren’t they?”

Jack the Ripper, the Scourge of Whitechapel, killer of five aging prostitutes in the autumn of 1888, had been abstaining from mayhem for one hundred and one years and four months, but his sinister presence was still felt in the east London thoroughfares between Houndsditch and Brick Lane. He was, in fact, a cottage industry, supporting-within his native borough-an inordinate number of tour guides, crime enthusiasts, T-shirt makers, and pub owners. Indeed, had a superannuated Ripper appeared on the old turf, brandishing his bloody knife and proclaiming his guilt, the local residents might have been impelled to call the police, but many would also have felt obliged to stand the old boy a round of drinks while awaiting the law’s arrival.

Rowan Rover, tour guide and criminologist extraordinaire, owed much to Jack the Ripper. Not that he approved of butchering women, you understand-he himself was a lady-killer only in the metaphorical sense-but in an intellectual way, he had always been interested in tales of true crime, particularly in the enigmatic Jack. A century after the fact, the abomination of the Whitechapel slayings had dimmed to a nostalgic and scholarly absorption in criminology’s greatest mystery. Besides, the public’s morbid fascination with history’s most famous serial killer had enabled a poor but clever Oxford alumnus to escape the thin gray line of academia (in Wisconsin, Guyana, and Sri Lanka) after years of teaching English lit. to the unwashed, the unpromising, and the uninterested; and to return to his native England in untenured triumph.

Rowan Rover had thus escaped the wrath of two ex-wives (the third lived perilously close-in Glasgow-but you couldn’t have everything), and he had put his upper-class English lecture voice and his teaching skills to more glamorous use: leading murder walks around London and giving seminars on English true crime. It was steady work: the Ripper tours drew a crowd in even the most inclement weather; and the exercise of a two-mile walk five nights a week had kept him as fit as a man half his age, despite his incessant smoking. It was not, however, an inordinately profitable way to earn a living, educating tourists at three pounds a head. Still, it provided him with a subsistence, an admiring audience to buy his book and to stand him drinks at the pubs he cleverly wove into each evening’s walk, and an occasional one-night stand gleaned from the pack of sightseers. No danger of one of those tourist birds becoming Wife Number Four; most of them were due to leave London only hours after their brief encounter, probably returning to husbands or lovers back home. Rowan Rover was always the first to agree with these birds that traveling did not actually count as part of one’s real life.

It was an agreeable existence, all in all. Or it would have been, if he could have catered to his own pure and simple needs and left it at that. Unfortunately, as an older Oxonian, Oscar Wilde, had put it: “Life is rarely pure, and never simple.” In Rowan Rover’s case, the complications involved child support payments to Wife Number Three; hefty public school fees for Sebastian Melmoth Rover, his son by Wife Number One; and some expensive recaulking required by Rowan’s boat, in order to keep afloat the residence that allowed him to live in London without paying the rates demanded by the city’s demented estate agents. He lived in a cabin cruiser moored at St. Katharine’s Dock, an abode roomy enough for one person, yet sufficiently cramped to discourage any woman from wanting to share it for more than a day or two. Now, though, thanks to a harsh winter in corrosive Thames water (which

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