Chapter 1: Nella (February 3, 1791)
Nella Clavinger is 41 and an apothecary. She runs a shop specializing in “women’s maladies”, hidden away at 3 Back Alley in London.
There is a woman who regularly visits her with requests for poison to kill certain people. Nella looks at her register’s book, which logs all the many similar orders she had fulfilled over time. The beginning entries of the logbook were written by Nella’s mother, who Nella presumably inherited the trade from. Nella’s mother only dealt in good, healing mixtures, but Nella’s work has taken a more sinister path. Brewing poisons also causes Nella physical discomfort, so she suffers from chronic pain.
Nella has assiduously documented all of her victims, except for one, Frederick.
Chapter 2: Caroline (Present Day, Monday June 2)
It is Caroline Parcewell and her husband James’s 10th wedding anniversary. But Caroline, 34, arrives sad and alone in London for a ten-day trip they’d originally planned together. As she walks around, a man stops her near a pub, The Old Fleet Tavern, trying to sell her on a “mudlarking” outing (an activity where you scavenge in the mud around the Thames for items to sell). Caroline declines and heads inside for a drink instead.
James had been Caroline’s college sweetheart. He had studied accounting, while Caroline had studied history in school. He’d gotten a job in Cincinnati easily after graduating, while she’d been planning on applying to Cambridge for grad school to improve her career prospects. However, James’s proposal a few months after their graduation changed all that. Instead, Caroline agreed to stay in Cincinnati and work at her family’s farm nearby instead.
Over the last ten years, James had been concentrating on climbing the corporate ladder. Caroline had wanted kids, but he didn’t want the additional stress. (Meanwhile, Rose , Caroline’s best friend, has recently had a newborn, Ansley. And it seemed like everyone else was having kids, too.)
Four months ago, James was finally ready to start trying for a baby. They hadn’t had much luck in those months. However, just as soon as Caroline had discovered James’s infidelity 48 hours ago, she had noticed that her period was late as well.
Now, leaving the tavern, Caroline decides to try her hand at a mudlarking adventure for some fun, as she walks up to join the tour group.
Chapter 3: Nella (February 4, 1791)
After her mother’s death and Frederick’s betrayal, Nella began delving into more sinister activities in her shop, so she divided it into two areas. The front half looks largely abandoned except for an old grain barrel and shelves. To outsiders, the place looks closed, so only through word-of-mouth do women hear about Nella’s services. The barrel is where women in0the-know can place orders by depositing letters to request Nella’s services.
That day, Nella hears someone enter the shop to pick up their order, peeks out and is surprised to see her that her customer is a young girl, Eliza Fanning, only 12. Nella thinks about the girl’s note “For my mistress’s husband, with his breakfast” and is curious about her. Nella invites the girl into the back room as she prepares the mixture. Eliza was sent to the shop by her mistress, Mrs. Amwell. Eliza also says that poisoning the breakfast of Mrs. Amwell’s husband, Thompson Amwell, was Eliza’s own idea.
Chapter 4: Caroline (Present Day, Monday June 2)
In present day, Caroline thinks about how she’d discovered James’s infidelity due to a text message notifications that popped up on his cell phone, followed by a suggestive picture, from someone saved on his phone as “B”. She’d confronted him afterwards.
At the mudlarking tour spot, Caroline joins 5 or 6 others and the tour guide, Alfred (nicknamed “Bachelor Alf” due to the number of wedding rings he finds in the mud). He says they can keep whatever they find.
Chapter 5: Nella (February 4, 1791)
In her shop, Nella takes two large eggs that have been infused with rat poison to give to Eliza and two normal, slightly smaller eggs. Eliza plans on cooking the smaller eggs for her mistress and the larger, poisonous ones for the husband. Nella notes how smart Eliza is when she inquires about the best method of transporting the eggs. Nella places the egg in a jar with a etching of a bear, the store’s insignia.
Nella thinks about her mother’s passing 20 years ago, when Nella was 21. Her mother had developed a cough and died six days later. Nella’s father had been a boatman passing by who she’d never known, so Nella was completely alone and worried about how to keep the store afloat. She’d met Frederick, a meat merchant, soon after. He’d helped her get the store’s finances in order, and they’d fallen in love. But a few short months later, he’d ended up being her first victim.
After Eliza leaves, Nella enters the visit into her logbook: “Thompson Amwell. Egg prep NV. 4 Feb 1791. On account of Ms. Eliza Fanning, aged twelve.”
Chapter 6: Caroline (Present Day, Monday June 2)
Though initially uneventful, as she mudlarks, Caroline finds a small, light blue, vial-like bottle with an etching of a bear. Caroline is curious about the provenance of the bottle, and Alf suggests going to a glassmaker or the British Library. At the library, Caroline asks for Gaynor Baymont, who Alf knows and who turns out to be Alf’s daughter. Gaynor says the vial likely came from an apothecary shop, but doesn’t know anything else.
Chapter 7: Eliza (February 5, 1791)
Eliza awakes with a stomachache and anxiety over what is to be done that day. Eliza thinks back to two years ago, aged 10, arriving in London with her mother. Eliza had grown up with her parents and brothers on a farm in a small village, Swindon, but her mother imagined a grander life for Eliza and found Eliza a job with Mrs. Amwell in London through the servant’s registry office. At Mrs. Amwell’s house, the cook/scullery maid Sally taught Eliza what to do, and Eliza liked it there. Mrs. Amwell also has a tremor in her hand, so she taught Eliza how to read and write so she could transcribe notes for her.
Then, last year, Eliza noticed how Mr. Amwell started paying attention to Eliza. A month ago, Mr. Amwell had given Eliza brandy and put her to bed when she’d complained of a headache. Eliza later recounted to Mrs. Amwell how he had talked with her and put his hand on her stomach, but then he’d had been called urgently out of the room. Eliza suspects this event is what finally prompted Mrs. Amwell to poison her husband.
That morning, Eliza goes to serve the poisoned eggs and Mr. Amwell briefly runs his hand up her leg as she does. She watches as he goes to take a bite.
Chapter 8: Caroline (Present Day, Monday June 2)
In her room, Caroline searches online archives for information about the vial. Finally, she comes across a handwritten letter referencing “Bear Alley“, vials, a female apothecary and poisons. On Google Maps, she sees that Bear Alley is a real place in London, a short distance from her hotel. Meanwhile, James tries calling and e-mails her to say he’s headed to London and will arrive in a few hours.
Chapter 9: Eliza (February 5, 1791)
As Eliza waits with trepidation, she wonders if Mr. Amwell’s ghost will haunt her. She thinks about how Sally recently told her about a girl named Johanna , who worked at the house previously but became pregnant (it’s implied Mr. Amwell may be the father). Johanna went into labor, but both she and the baby died. Since learning about her, Eliza has imagined that she can hear Johanna’s ghost in the house.
Finally, Mr. Amwell runs upstairs and begins to retch. A doctor is called, and Mrs. Amwell implies that his illness may be due to excessive drinking. Eventually, Mr. Amwell dies. As Eliza waits for the news, her period starts (for the first time), though she doesn’t know what it is and she fears that his ghost has done this to her.
Chapter 10: Nella (February 7, 1791)
A few days later, Nella gets a new letter in her barley barrel. The letter-writer is upper-class and implies that her husband has been unfaithful and wants a poison that also “inspires lust”, in hopes that he will die in the arms of his lover. It seems a bit weird to Nella, but Nella goes to make the preparations anyway.
As Nella crosses the city to head for the fields (to find blister beetles), she begins to cough and is stopped by a family. The man and woman insist that Nella let them give her a ride on their boat, given her weak condition. The woman has a baby, named Beatrice. It reminds Nella of when she was once carrying Frederick’s child (but the child didn’t make it).
The next morning, there is an unexpected knock on Nella’s door, and she sees that it’s Eliza.
Chapter 11: Eliza (February 8, 1791)
Eliza is worried about her bleeding and discomfort (her period, which she does not understand) and wants to get away from the Amwell house for a while (since she think Mr. Amwell’s angry spirit is causing her period, and Mrs. Amwell is out of town for a bit anyway). Eliza also did not want to go home to Swindon. Instead, Eliza offers to help out at the shop.
When Nella refuses her help, Eliza finally admits that she thinks Mr. Amwell is haunting her. Nella denies the existence of magic (“magick”), but when Eliza insists it’s true, Nella gives Eliza a pamphlet on healing magicks that someone once gave to her mother. The pamphlet also has an address printed on it of a bookstore that sells books on magick.
Chapter 12: Caroline (Present Day, Tuesday June 3)
Caroline heads to Bear Alley early Tuesday morning, which leads her to a small and unremarkable alleyway. Still, she finds herself driven by curiosity over the possible existence of a Killer Apothecary once upon a time. Finally, she spots a small gate that leads to a overgrown clearing. As she peeks in, a plumber interrupts her and ends up telling her about the service door at the end of the clearing. When he leaves, Caroline makes her way through the gate.
Chapter 13: Nella (February 8, 1791)
When the customer arrives for her poison that “inspires lust”, Nella is surprised to find a very well-dressed 30-ish-year-old woman there, Lady Clarence of Carter Lane. Eliza brings the woman peppermint tea. Nella brings the woman her powder. As Nella explains it, the woman interrupts to clarify that she wishes to kill her husband’s lover, Miss Berkwell, not her husband.
Nella then explains that she cannot give her the poison. While it’s possible her customers may have lied about their intentions, Nella has never knowingly dispensed poison to someone aiming to kill the “other woman” in affairs. Nella thinks about how she had unknowingly been Frederick’s “other woman” when they were together. Lady Clarence grows petulant and angry, but Nella holds her ground. When Lady Clarence grabs for it, Nella tosses it into the fire nearby. Lady Clarence then demands a new poison, and threatens to tell the authorities about Nella’s activities if she refuses.
Chapter 14: Caroline (Present Day, Tuesday June 3)
With James arriving soon, Caroline holds off on doing a full investigation of the clearing in the alley. Instead, she heads back, but stops off at the British Library first. Caroline updates Gaynor on her search. With an address, Gaynor (who works in the maps division) is able to pull up an old map which shows a tiny side street jutting off of Bear Alley (where the service door is now). Gaynor also tries searching old newspapers using various search terms, but they don’t find anything useful.
Chapter 15: Eliza (February 8, 1791)
As Nella debates what to do, Eliza worries about her own name written in Nella’s logbook. Eliza offers to gather the beetles for a new poison. First, Nella also asks Eliza to retrace the faded entries in her logbook, since Nella’s hand is weak. Nella insists that it’s important to “preserve the existence of these women” through her logbook.
After, Eliza heads to the fields with Nella to gather the beetles. When Eliza expresses consternation about how much work is ahead of them, Nella suggests that she should be more concerned about the prospect of taking someone’s life. Afterwards, as they rest, Eliza asks Nella about why she started dispensing poisons. Nella admits it started with a betrayal by a former lover, Frederick.
Nella had still been grieving over the death of her mother when she met and seemed to fall in love with Frederick (but perhaps it was some combination of grief as well). When Nella learned she was pregnant, she told him. Instead of proposing, he secretly put motherwort in her food to induce a miscarriage and stopped going to see her. Then, Nella received a visit from the woman she thought was his sister, Rissa, but who turned out to be his wife. Rissa wanted to poison Frederick for his numerous infidelities, Nella agreed to help, and so Frederick became her first victim. Soon, word got around somehow and Nella started getting requests from others.
Chapter 16: Caroline (Present Day, Tuesday June 3)
Caroline arrives at La Grande hotel to meet with James. They go to lunch at a restaurant nearby, Dal Fiume. James tells her that the “other woman”, a co-worker of his, is being transferred to a different department and that it’s over between them (Caroline notes how the “other woman” has to pay the price for their actions). James attributes his infidelity to the predictability of their lives and offers to go to counseling with Caroline. However, Caroline tells him she needs to time to process everything. She permits him to sleep on the hotel room couch, but she wants to functionally be alone for the trip.
Afterwards, Caroline sees that she has a text from Gaynor who has made some progress in researching the Killer Apothecary.
Chapter 17: Eliza (February 9, 1791)
At daybreak, Nella and Eliza take a coach back to the shop with their beetles in hand. They painstakingly dry them and turn them into a fine powder. Finally, Lady Clarence arrives to pick up her powder, and Nella reluctantly hands it off. Afterwards, Nella feels a sense of foreboding. Nella tells Eliza it is time for her to go home.
Chapter 18: Caroline (Present Day, Tuesday June 3)
That night, Caroline heads back to Bear Alley. She manages to shove open the door at the end of the clearing. She finds herself in a cellar. Using her phone as a flashlight, she looks around. It seems empty at first, but Caroline notices a hidden interior door on the back wall. She locates a small lever and triggers it, revealing the back room.
Chapter 19: Eliza (February 10, 1791)
On the way back to the Amwell house, Eliza stops at the location of the magick bookshop on Basing Lane, called the Shoppe of Books and Baubles. The store is manned by a shop boy, Tom Pepper, and it belongs to Tom’s father. Tom says that some believe there is a “curse” when it comes to using magick — for every spell that succeeds, something else must go terribly wrong, since there is always a price to be paid for using magick.
She finds a book called Spells for the Modern Household, which Tom says belonged to his late mother and holds a special meaning to him. Tom’s father believes one of the spells saved Tom’s life when Tom was stillborn as an infant. Tom offers her the book for free, merely asking that she report back to him whether her spell worked when she tries one.
Chapter 20: Nella (February 10, 1791)
After Eliza leaves, Lady Clarence rushes back in, in a state of distress. She says it’s all gone wrong, and she ended up killing her husband instead of the mistress. Lady Clarence describes what happened, saying the glasses got switched. She also used the whole jar (instead of half as instructed), so he died immediately which made it more apparent he was murdered.
Then, when Lady Clarence describes the jar of poison, Nella realizes that Eliza must’ve grabbed an old jar to give to her, one with the shop’s address written on it (as opposed to just an engraved bear). Nella realizes that the incriminating jar could be traced back to Nella, and she demands that Lady Clarence retrieve it. Nella also tracks down Eliza to confirm what had happened with the jars.
Chapter 21: Caroline (Present Day, Wednesday June 4)
In the back room, Caroline finds what appears to be an old apothecary shop. With her phone running low on power, she snaps a bunch of photos. By the time she exits, her phone shuts off. She heads back to the hotel and goes to sleep.
In the morning, James has a cold. He tries to go sightseeing, but feels unwell and returns to rest. Caroline offers him eucalyptus oil to put on his throat. Meanwhile, Caroline is eager to get a good look at the photos she took, including some of the logbook that was in the room. Caroline makes a note of the ingredients mentioned in the logbook, and she transcribes what she can make out from the photos. Meanwhile, Gaynor calls and they agree to meet up near the hotel with updates. There, Gaynor shows her some old bulletins she’d identified, including one with an image of the etched bear.
Chapter 22: Eliza (February 10, 1791)
Eliza watches as Nella prepares to clear out her shop, at least for the time being. Eliza feels terrible for what happened. Eager to fix her mistake, Eliza consults her newly-acquired book of magick. She sees a spell entitled “Tincture to Reverse Bad Fortune”.
Before she can gather the ingredients, there is a knock at the door. Lady Clarence shows up to give Nella the incriminating jar. She also says that her lady’s maid has quit (likely due to being implicated in the crime) and she asks Eliza to consider coming to work for her.
Afterwards, Eliza considers whether she should use the spell and go back to Mrs. Amwell, or if she should just go work for Lady Clarence.
Chapter 23: Nella (February 11, 1791)
Nella thinks about how her poisons are rotting her from the inside, and she is certain the potion for Lady Clarence was especially bad for her. Nella goes into the city, and she retches when she sees a news item about the search for Lord Clarence’s murder.
Through the news article, Nella learns that Lady Clarence’s maid had given the police a wax impression of Nella’s engraved jar. The letters were only partially legible (“B ley” instead of “3 Back Alley”), but the bear could clearly be made out. The maid had been told the poison was sweetener, but clearly figured out the truth, and she told the police about Lady Clarence’s involvement. Lady Clarence claims it is a lie, so the police are now looking for the dispensary of the poison to clear up their stories.
Nella wants to flee immediately, but remembers that Eliza is still at the store, so she heads back. However, she returns to find Eliza in the process of mixing something up. Nella tells Eliza she needs to return to the Amwell house immediately. Eliza agrees and pockets something that Nella doesn’t see.
Chapter 24: Caroline (Present Day, Wednesday June 4)
The bulletins that Gaynor found are from a periodical that was published in the late 1700s called The Thursday Bulletin. The headline for the first bulletin is entitled “Bailiff Searching for Lord Clarence’s Murderer”, and it mentions a wax impression of a jar with a bear etched on it.
Before Caroline can read the second bulletin, James calls, saying needs to get to the hospital. Caroline rushes back to the hotel to find him on the floor and the smell of vomit in the air. After calling an ambulance, Caroline finds out from James that, instead of applying it topically, he ingested the eucalyptus oil that she gave him, which is toxic.
When the medic arrives, he sees Caroline’s notes from the logbook including the phrase “Quantities of non-poisons needed to kill”, and she is asked to accompany them to speak to the police.
Chapter 25: Eliza (February 10, 1791)
With two vials of her Tincture to Reverse Bad Fortune tucked away in her pocket, Eliza heads back to the Amwell house. However, she decides to stop at see the Lady Clarence out of curiosity and because her potion needs to cure for another hour or so. At the Clarence house, Lady Clarence tells her what happened and warns her she needs to leave or Eliza may be hanged if she’s found to be implicated. Lady Clarence says the police have heard word of other killings associated with these bear-etched vials.
Eliza goes back to warn Nella, and Eliza also finally asks Nella about her “bleeding”, which Nella says is normal. Eliza feels relieved, but there’s no time to waste since they need to leave and part ways.
Chapter 26: Caroline (Present Day, Wednesday June 4)
At the hospital, Caroline explains to the police her interest in history and the research about the apothecary that she has been engaging in. However, the two policemen bring up the recent rift in her relationship and want her to go to the station to answer more questions.
Chapter 27: Nella (February 11, 1791)
Before she departs, Nella takes a final glance around the shop to see what she should take with her. She resolves to leave her logbook, even knowing that it would be wiser to destroy it. However, she doesn’t want to erase these people, and she is convinced the authorities will never discover her back room.
As Nella and Eliza exit the shop, three constables walk toward then, and Nella and Eliza break out into a run.
Chapter 28: Caroline (Present Day, Wednesday June 4)
Caroline gets a call from Gaynor and the police allow her to take it. She asks Gaynor to come over to clear things up, which Gaynor does. However, in the process the police show Gaynor the notes Caroline took, and Caroline knows she owes Gaynor an explanation for not disclosing that she’d broke into the apothecary’s office.
Chapter 29: Eliza (February 10, 1791)
Eliza and Nella finally hide in a carriage house, with the constables still hot on their trails. Then Nella bolts and heads for the river, telling Eliza to disappear into the crowd. Eliza tries to offer Nella one of the two “Tinctures to Reverse Bad Fortune” (one is in a light-blue vial, the other is in a pinkish vial) and tells Nella to use it. Eliza then realizes that Nella intends to jump from Blackfriars Bridge into the water.
Chapter 30: Caroline (Present Day, Wednesday June 4)
When James stabilizes, he reassures the officers that the whole thing was an accident. After the officers leave, Caroline talks to Gaynor, telling her about her husband and her break-in at the apothecary’s.
Afterwards, Caroline is relieved to find out she is not, in fact, pregnant. She goes back to her research and sees the second bulletin that’s headlined “Apothecary Killer Jumps from Bridge, Suicide”.
Chapter 31: Nella (February 11, 1791)
With both of them standing there on the bridge, Nella watches as Eliza drinks her vial of the tincture (the light blue one) and jumps into the water. As two of the constables catch up to them (Craw and Putnam), they aren’t sure if Nella is part of the crowd or if she was with the person who jumped. Craw says that they can tell papers that they chased someone and that they jumped to their death. Meanwhile, the third constable reports that they checked out the location and it’s empty with just a grain barrel. The constables leave.
Chapter 32: Caroline (Present Day, Wednesday June 4)
As Caroline reads about the demise of the “apothecary killer”, she notes how they never actually uncovered her identity. Caroline also wrestles with what to do about what she knows, since it is of historical significance and she has information about a slew of murders even if it was a long time ago.
When James awakes from resting, Caroline tells him that she’s planning on quitting her job at the farm and to separate from him. Then, Caroline asks James if he ingested the oil on purpose to make her stay with him, but James refuses to answer.
Back at the hotel, Caroline goes back to her research. She looks at her photos and sees the name “Lord Clarence” in the logbook which affirmatively ties the shop she broke into to the stories about the “apothecary killer” she read about in the bulletins. However, she also sees that the intended recipient of the poison was “Miss Berkwell”, not Lord Clarence.
Finally, Caroline notices that the report of someone jumping off the bridge was dated February 11, 1791, but the final entry is dated February 12, 1791.
Chapter 33: Nella (February 11, 1791)
Nella decides that she needs to tell Mrs. Amwell what had happened with Eliza, and she resolves to mix a pain-reliever for her since she is certain Mrs. Amwell will be sad. She returns to the shop to mix the tincture, but Nella also sees that there’s a letter there for her. It’s an easy request but Nella has now realized that brewing these poisons has not and would never heal the pain in her heart. Instead, it was only hurting her more.
Nella burns the letter and knows her poison-dispensing days are over. Nella also has been coughing up blot clots since the day before, and she fears her body is failing. For the final entry of the book, Nella makes a note of the potion that Eliza had taken (“Eliza Fanning, London. Ingr. unknown. 12 Feb 1791.”), partially because she wants a record of Eliza’s existence somewhere.
Chapter 34: Caroline (Present Day, Wednesday June 4)
Caroline regards the strange final entry in the logbook, noting how the ingredients are “unknown” and how it’s the only entry that doesn’t denote who requested the potion. She wonders who Eliza Fanning is.
The next morning, James is planning on leaving London. Before he leaves, she gives him the business card holder she’d been planning on giving him as their anniversary gift, making clear that it’s not a symbol of forgiveness. Instead, she says that they each have a lot of work to do for themselves, separately, and accepts a hug from him as he leaves.
Later, Caroline updates Gaynor on her findings. Caroline has also figured out that the handwritten letter she originally found referencing “Bear Alley” was in fact a deathbed confession from Lady Clarence 25 years after his death. Gaynor suggests to Caroline that she join the research crew at the library.
Chapter 35: Nella (February 12, 1791)
At the Amwell estate, Nella starts feeling unwell. She has with her a package containing the pain-relief tincture and a letter explaining why Eliza would not be returning. As Nella drops the package on the porch, she thinks she sees Eliza, but isn’t sure if it is her or an apparition. Eliza walks towards her carrying her tincture (in the pinkish vial).
Chapter 36: Caroline (Present Day, Friday June 6)
On Friday morning, Caroline heads back to the British Library, and tells Gaynor that she has submitted an application for a nine-month English Studies grad program at Cambridge. She says she plans to make the apothecary shop the subject of her dissertation.
She also takes the opportunity to research Eliza Fanning. She finds a record with a headline that reads: “Eliza Pepper, née Fanning, Sole Inheritor of Husband’s Magick Book Shoppe.” Eliza had married Tom Pepper, they had two kids, and they’d run a successful bookshop. In the article, Eliza talks once risking her life for a “special friend” who “still encourages and counsels me to this very day”. She also says how drinking her tincture (a “little blue vial of magick”) brought her warmth (and presumably saved her life) when she ended up in the frigid river.
Based on the article, Caroline understands that it was Eliza who jumped into the river and not the apothecary. She also surmises that the light blue vial she found is likely the one that Eliza drank from before jumping into the river. Caroline thinks about Eliza’s secret; even though she knows what a great — and very publishable — story this would make if the truth of what happened so many years ago were to be revealed, Caroline feels protective over Eliza and her secret.
Caroline heads back to the spot where she’d originally found the vial. In the corner of her eye, she sees two women walking toward her. Caroline tosses the vial back into the waters of the Thames, and she looks back up to see that the two women are nowhere to be seen.