Ghosts of Albion: Accursed / Chapter Three

Chapter Three


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Damn William for lacing me up so . . . emphatically.

Tamara cursed her brother as she took baby steps toward a nearby love seat. In the midst of the Wintertons' dinner party, she had slipped away to steal a moment to herself in a sitting room beside the front parlor.

Dark spots drifted across her field of vision. She tried to take a deep breath but thanks to her corset, her chest could not expand, which meant that her lungs could only partially fill with air. Perhaps if she took only shallow breaths, she would be all right.

You should never have listened to Byron, she admonished herself. If she had worn a bodice without a plunging neckline, she would not have had to use the whalebone. It was the most unforgiving corset she owned, but it did give her decolletage a nice push heavenward. Looking down at her meticulously powdered chest, she sighed. Lightly. Oh, well, if she had to suffer for beauty, she supposed the effect was worth the trouble.

With a careful glance around the room to be absolutely certain she was alone, Tamara slid the bulk of her body onto the love seat. Since she really could not bend into a sitting position, thanks to the heavy saffron material of her dress, the effort was decidedly clumsy. She heaved a sigh, though, as she stretched her torso out so that her back took on a slight convex curve. Blissful relief, she mused.

Her peaceful respite was disrupted by the sound of a woman loudly clearing her throat. Startled, Tamara looked up to find Sophia Winchell standing at the threshold, her mouth twisted into a little moue of disapproval. It was, Tamara had discovered, the natural state of her countenance.

"You look as if you've swallowed something unpleasant, Sophia," she said, allowing a hint of exasperation to enter her voice. "Shall I call for someone to bring you a glass of water?"

Sophia sniffed superciliously and averted her eyes, as though unable to bear witness to Tamara's debasement. "It was William I sought. You'll pardon my interruption." She clutched her hands so tightly together that they were white.

"Yes, of course. As you can see, however, William is elsewhere. Might I be of any assistance?"

Sophia shook her head quickly, causing her tightly wound curls to jiggle like little insects. Tamara suppressed a snicker, knowing that if she at all exacerbated the tenuous situation, William would skin her alive.

"Right. Then, if you don't mind, I shall return to the task of breathing. This corset seems to require all my attention at the moment."

Sophia didn't respond, just rolled her eyes and turned on her heel. Tamara watched her retreating back.

Assured that she was gone, Tamara allowed herself to grin. So pleased was she with how well she had handled the encounter, and still suffering from oxygen deprivation, her grin quickly turned to a giggle. To her alarm, she found herself unable to stop.

"Oh, that does hurt . . ."

She and William had arrived at half past eight. Their lateness, while fashionable, had been Tamara's fault, not William's; he would do anything to avoid a public faux pas. But after her visit with "Father," it had taken her several minutes to clear her mind. By the time she was ready to leave the house, William was so red-faced it seemed as if he was caught in a fit of apoplexy.

Even then, she was mightily distracted by both the repugnant filth that had spewed from the demon's lips, and by the insinuation Oblis had made. The implication was that he might still communicate with other demons, other Vapors, and that he could observe the workings of the malign forces that hovered over Albion even from that locked room on the third floor of Ludlow House. The thought unnerved her.

You'll need me soon enough, he'd said. Tamara found the idea deeply unsettling. If they ever truly needed help from Oblis, surely they were already doomed.

His insinuations were usually merely a way for him to play with their minds, but Tamara knew they could not discount the possibility that the demon knew something. And if there was some new evil on the rise, well, she and William would have to look into it.

Those thoughts had been weighing heavily upon her throughout the night. Soon after they had arrived at No. 15 Half Moon Street and made their hellos to Marjorie Winterton, Tamara had taken leave of her brother and begun to wander alone through the beautiful Georgian town house. Her thoughts were too grim for her to be very sociable.

Unhappily for Marjorie, her husband's business these days lay in Virginia, and he was forced to travel frequently, leaving his young wife to her own devices for fortnights at a time. Indeed, Marjorie had put together this dinner party as a diversion. She had once told Tamara that parties were the only things that relieved the monotony of her lonely days.

The dinner bell began to chime. With a distinctly unladylike grunt she heaved herself away from the comfortable love seat, glad that dinner was forthcoming, but worried about where she would put the food, since her stomach seemed to be compressed to the size of a walnut. Perhaps she would ask Marjorie's maid to loosen her ties before dinner.

WILLIAM SAT STIFFLY in his chair and stared at Lord Delwood. They had been conferring about the old man's holdings in Barbados. Normally William would have been eager for the discussion. It was just the sort of business he had been attempting to nurture since he had taken the reins at Swift's of London, tapping into the enormous financial opportunities developing around the world. This evening, however, he was so preoccupied that all he could do was hope that he was nodding and mm-hmming in all the right places.

His memories of Sophia's afternoon visit to his office were driving him to distraction. Even now he found his thoughts returning to the way she had slid onto his desk, the nearness of her thigh to his hand, the taste of her lips-

Oh, that's quite enough!

"Young man? Young man!" Lord Delwood's face was a patchwork of angry, broken capillaries. "Are you listening to me, Mr. Swift?"

William snapped back into the moment and nodded mutely.

"Sir, Lord Delwood, of course-" he stammered, but it was too late. The old man wrinkled his nose in distaste.

"Just like you young fellows. Head in the clouds, heart in your mouth. Bah!" Lord Delwood exclaimed, spraying saliva in William's face. The old man's breath was abominable, like overcooked liver and onions. But William had regained his composure, so he simply smiled politely and nodded.

"Of course, Lord Delwood, you are absolutely correct in your estimation. The youth of today do nothing but laze about," William replied, hoping to confuse the man with this avowal. Delwood did appear to be taken off balance. He opened his pale, withered lips like a great codfish, then promptly closed them again, his jowls actually shaking with the aborted effort.

"Well, I say, I never-"

But William pressed his advantage.

"Yes, quite right, indeed, sir. Though I do hope that wasn't your estimation of me, my lord. On the contrary, I apologize that my thoughts were elsewhere, but certainly they were not far afield. I was merely contemplating how Swift's of London might best advise you upon an investment plan that would be both aggressive and secure-"

This blatant lie was interrupted by the dinner bell.

"I must say that it has been a very real pleasure, Lord Delwood, and if you ever have need of banking services, know that we at Swift's would be more than happy to oblige you."

William stood up and gave the old man a polite bow before escaping the confines of the study for the delicacies of the dining room. At an intersection of two corridors, away from the main flow of the guests, he saw Sophia waiting for him.

"I looked everywhere for you, darling," she began, but William quickly silenced her with a kiss. Their lips met for the briefest of moments, then Sophia pulled away from him, the darkness of the hallway hiding her expression from his curious stare. He was afraid he had gone too far.

"I am sorry. I shouldn't have-"

Then Sophia was in his arms again, kissing him with her soft, honeyed mouth, her corseted breasts pressed firmly against his chest. She drew her mouth away and peered about to make sure that they were alone. Then she leaned her head on his shoulder and sighed contentedly.

"Not tonight, my love, but soon," she cooed. "Very soon we will be together."

William blinked, and stared at her. What promise was this?

She took his hand and quietly led him toward the dining room.

Six other dinner guests were already settled at their places when Sophia guided him to their seats at the table. He was very glad of the gentle pressure of her fingers around his wrist. If she had not led him, he wasn't sure he would have been able to move forward of his own volition.

Tamara was one of the guests who had already found her place, and she fixed her gaze upon him the moment he entered. A knowing smile flickered across her face, replaced instantly by one of mock concern.

"William, you look ill at ease. Are you unwell?" she asked.

Tamara was seated across from Marjorie Winterton, at the far end of the large, square dining room table. Her blond head was the only fair one among a sea of dark coiffures.

"I am fine, thank you-"

Lord Delwood, his ornately carved bamboo cane thumping ahead of him with every step, came into the room, interrupting William.

"I am afraid the boy is of the sensitive type," the old man proclaimed loudly as he found his seat at the end of the table, beside Tamara and Marjorie.

"I beg your pardon, sir?" William spluttered.

Lord Delwood turned and smiled broadly at him. His crooked teeth were yellowed from years of tobacco addiction.

"As I was saying," he began, laying aside his bamboo cane so that it rested delicately against the dining room chair.

William assumed that the old man would lose his footing without the cane and collapse onto the thickly carpeted floor. But to his surprise the fellow actually straightened up to a height several inches taller than William himself. The hunched shape was revealed to be illusion, nothing more.

"I have found William Swift-" At this point, Lord Delwood produced a monogrammed handkerchief from his black frock coat and unfurled it with a dramatic snap of his wrist. Then he took the white cotton handkerchief and began to wipe the soft material across his cheek. "-to be a bit of a prude."

The old man's wheeze was now replaced with a smooth, rich tenor. "Sorry, Willy."

William spluttered again, and cursed inwardly for having done so. "Who in God's name-" he began.

But he was silenced by a gasp of shock that came from one of the other guests-a stocky, middle-aged woman called Mrs. Northrup-as the "old man" turned the handkerchief so that the assembled guests could see the greasepaint that covered it.

Sophia gave a cry of her own, her pale cheeks crimson with anger.

"John Haversham," she croaked out, "how dare you! How dare you! I shall have words with your mother!"

Marjorie Winterton gave a sharp giggle, then quickly covered a mischevious smile with her hand. William gaped openmouthed as "Lord Delwood" wiped away the rest of the greasepaint, revealing a handsome young visage. The now much younger Mr. Haversham turned away for a moment as he pulled something large and pliable from his mouth-a set of very realistic-looking teeth, which he dried with a napkin.

When he turned back, he spoke to Tamara.

"You will have to forgive my cousin Sophia. She, too, is of a delicate nature, I am afraid."

Sophia's eyes flared, but this time she held her tongue. Her anger was too raw to give polite voice, William supposed. Haversham paid no attention to her rage. Instead he continued to address Tamara, doing so with an impish grin.

"These were a gift from a dear American friend, who found that his invention of vulcanized rubber could be put to good use in the improvement of mankind."

"I can think of nothing of more import to mankind than the gift of rubber teeth," Tamara responded archly.

Haversham tossed her a wink before dropping the dentures into her hand. William watched with some amusement as a bright crimson blush came to his sister's throat.

"Yes, I had a feeling that these might be of keen interest to you especially, Miss Swift. I've heard tales of your grandfather, and about your curiosity concerning the art of stagecraft. These should enthrall you, no doubt."

Tamara nodded, smiling mischievously herself now. "Oh, indeed, sir. My curiosity is certainly piqued."

William just stared at his sister, all traces of amusement having evaporated. This man was a rogue, and Tamara was actually flirting with him.

Marjorie Winterton stood up abruptly and called for everyone's attention. "Thank you very much, John, for such an entertaining diversion. If only my Thomas were here to enjoy it, the evening would be perfect." She paused, giving Haversham a quick nod. "Please, everyone, take your seat, so that we may begin. I think you shall all thoroughly enjoy the treacle tart."

DINNER WAS SUMPTUOUS. It began with raw oysters and proceeded through a course of bouillon. There were fried smelts and then sweetbreads, neither of which Tamara fancied. But the main course-quail with truffles and rice coquettes-was the equal of any dish she had tasted in ages. By the time the fancy cakes and coffee were served, Tamara felt herself under the spell of John Haversham. During the elaborate meal she had quite enjoyed the attentions of the dramatic newcomer. He was an entertaining dinner companion: smart, witty, and very, very attractive. She liked the way he posed his slim, powerful body so casually in his chair, his hands lying on the tabletop, oblivious to etiquette.

As she sipped her coffee, she stole a glance at him. Haversham was talking animatedly to Marjorie's weak-chinned brother-in-law, Reginald. Tamara studied his face. She liked his strong jaw, and the way his brown hair was a bit ruffled at the top, as if he had just been out in the wind. His eyes were dark gray, and the lashes were long and thick like a woman's. There was still a bit of greasepaint on his chin, but she didn't mind the effect. Indeed, it added to his mystique.

Reginald must have noted her interest, for he gave her a knowing, gap-toothed smile. Thus caught, she quickly turned her attention back to her own plate.

Tamara had always found Reginald a bit unsavory. Sometimes, when he thought she wasn't looking, he gave her body a lingering stare that made Tamara shudder. Tonight, though, he seemed much more interested in John Haversham's company.

As if he had read her thoughts, Haversham extricated himself from Reginald's bossy baritone with a wry smile cast in Tamara's direction.

"Excuse me, Reginald, but it appears Miss Swift is in danger of drifting off into boredom, and I feel it's my duty to rescue her. The treacle tart does not seem to be keeping her as occupied as Marjorie had promised."

Before Reginald could protest, Tamara interjected. "Mr. Haversham, your selfless devotion to duty is an admirable trait."

He gave her another grateful wink-it seemed to be his trademark-and swiveled in his chair to face her. Reginald Winterton simply turned to find another unfortunate victim.

"Tamara Swift, where have you been hidden these seven-and-twenty years of mine?" Haversham's eyes sparkled with interest. She imagined that she could see herself reflected there, the candlelight suffusing her honey hair with a rich, warm glow. What a silly thought, she mused, but she continued to look.

"I've been at Ludlow House, waiting to be rescued from my boring existence," she said.

It was a lie, of course. Tamara could hardly call her life boring. But there was a kernel of truth in what she had said. It could be terribly dreary in Ludlow House, no matter how interesting things had become of late. The flutter in her heart when she sat so close to this intriguing stranger was a pointed reminder of precisely what had been missing from her life.

Yet how might he react if he knew what her life was truly like? If she were to tell him of her life as a magical Protector of Albion-instead of pretending to be the typical wilting English Rose-would he believe her? And if so, would he still find her as fascinating as he seemed to this evening, when she was simply a pretty young society woman? Or would the truth repel him?

"Boring? I find that difficult to believe, Miss Swift. You seem like a clever girl. I can't imagine you as being incapable of keeping both your mind and body . . . well, shall we say, occupied." As he spoke, his eyes flitted onto the swell of her breasts as they rose and fell with each breath. She felt herself starting to blush.

He quickly drew his eyes away and seemed to gaze upon the smooth hollow of her throat, then at last returned to her face. Was it her imagination, or were his eyes dark with desire?

She had only experienced the intimate attentions of a man once before, and that had been a very fleeting-though exciting-experience. After her grandfather's death, Tamara and William had enlisted the help of Ludlow Swift's old friend Nigel Townsend in battling the demon that had murdered the old man.

During that dark time, Tamara had found herself Nigel's quarry, despite the vast difference in their ages. His flirtations grew bold, and though Tamara was flattered by them, even aroused, she was not prepared to respond. The situation became such that William had been forced to intercede on behalf of her virtue . . . for Nigel was more than a family friend; he was also a vampire who had walked the Earth the better part of three centuries.

Not evil. No, not that. But he carried a hunger that could overwhelm him the way passion might take control of any man.

Now, as Tamara remembered the sensation of Nigel's lips on her own, she looked away from John Haversham, embarrassed that her own desire might show in her eyes.

Haversham cleared his throat and took a sip of red wine from the fine cut-crystal flute in front of him. He was a rogue, certainly, but at least enough of the gentleman remained for him to give her time to collect herself.

She stared at the glass of Bordeaux he held in his hand, thinking how much it looked like blood. And she shuddered at the thought.

"You've not caught a chill, have you, Miss Swift?" Reginald asked.

Tamara flinched as she glanced over at the repulsive man. She wondered how much of her exchange with John he had observed, and felt her cheeks flush crimson once more.

"May I fetch you one of Marjorie's shawls?" Reginald continued, smiling crookedly.

"No, thank you, Mr. Winterton. I'm grateful for your concern, but I'm quite comfortable, I assure you."

As she spoke, she noticed that dinner seemed to have reached its end. Thankfully, she could retire with the other women to the sitting room now, without offending Reginald too terribly. She took her leave of the men, following on the heels of Marjorie and Sophia, who seemed to be discussing the new art exhibit that had opened at the Egyptian Hall.

The hallway seemed darker to Tamara as she slowed her steps to look at the sketches that hung on the lime plaster walls. By the light of the oil lamps, she could make out few of the details in the artwork. They all seemed to be of the same subject, which was surprising to Tamara, as she had never noticed these particular sketches in her other visits to the house.

She stopped and peered at one of the drawings. At first, she could see only charcoal lines, but as her eyes adjusted to the half-light she saw that the sketches were actually quite beautifully rendered nudes. All of the same, buxom-bodied woman.

"Do you approve?"

She turned quickly at his words. John Haversham stood only inches from her, so close that she could feel his breath on the nape of her neck. His nearness caused a ripple of pleasure to travel through her, and her brain seemed to slow so that words might take hours to come to her lips.

"If I said yes, would you be appalled, then?" she asked.

He smiled, reaching out to tease a strand of hair that had come loose from her bun. "What if I were to reveal to you, Miss Swift, the identity of the artist responsible for these pieces," he began.

Tamara shook her head. "No, thank you, sir. I don't require that particular revelation."

This stopped him. He cocked his head, gazing at her curiously.

"You do not wish to know who created them?" He seemed utterly confused by Tamara's demurral. "I did not think you were as prudish as your brother. Perhaps I was mistaken."

With a bit of satisfaction she watched him floundering for something else to say, something that would ease them back onto level ground. Tamara knew he had expected her to flit about after him, hanging on his every word, to show that she was surely taken by him. But she was no hollow-headed waif. It was becoming clear that John Haversham was used to dominating his female conquests, and for Tamara to truly capture his attention, she had to place herself beyond his control, make herself seem less easily attainable.

"You complimented me earlier, Mr. Haversham, by calling me clever. Don't you think me clever enough, then, to examine the signature of the artist? You've an excellent eye for detail. Tell me the subject, though. Is she your lover?"

The word lover trilled from Tamara's lips. She felt wanton even voicing it.

John raised an eyebrow. "Would it matter if she were?" he countered, his words a whisper in the long expanse of hallway.

She didn't know how to respond. She knew she should say no, that this would impress him more than anything else she could say, but instead she found herself whispering back in return.

"Yes."

Tamara was shocked that she had confessed it, but it was the truth. The thought of this man wrapped in carnal embrace with another woman made her angry. No, not angry. Jealous.

They stared at each other for a moment, the silence heavy between them, then he took her hand and brought it to his lips.

"Come with me to the Egyptian Hall, tomorrow evening. If you are a connoisseur of art, even in the slightest, there is an exhibit there that I think you might find as fascinating as I find you."

Inside, she was shaking, but she managed to keep her voice steady.

"That would be lovely. I accept. With great curiosity."

HER FATHER'S STUDY had always been a friend to Helena Martin. As a small child, she had spent many an hour staring at all the curios her father had accumulated in his many years of travel.

In truth, those travels had kept him absent for much of her life. Most of what Helena knew of her busy father came from her time spent among his artifacts. She drew wide panoramas of his life and character based on what she saw there in his study. She often compared her fancies to the real man, and found reality lacking.

Her father had recently accepted a lectureship at Magdalene College at Oxford, and Helena's mother had joined him there, so now most of her parents' time was spent away from London. The traveling, which had always been so important to her father's work as an archaeologist, was placed on hold so that he could impart everything he had learned to the next generation. Except, of course, to Helena herself.

Helena knew she should not be jealous of other people spending time with her father, but she wished that both her parents had more time for her. When she was a tiny child, she had gone to Egypt and Mesopotamia with them, but the moment she had reached school age she was shipped back to England and a waiting tutor. Her half brother, Frederick, had endured the same familial disconnection, but where she found it painful, he actually reveled in the lack of super-vision.

She had discovered her love of sketching when she was only nine and a half. Helena had been allowed to spend the summer on a dig with her parents in Lower Egypt, and had passed the months gazing in fascination as the old French priest, Father Louis, had painstakingly sketched every object her father unearthed. She had loved staring at his darting, birdlike hands as he dipped his pen in ink and transformed each blank piece of paper into a detailed picture.

She had begged for a sketchbook, and her mother had obliged. So Helena had spent the balance of the summer copying Father Louis's delicate example.

Now, it seemed, she could not exist without her charcoals and paper. She knew others found her habits odd, but she did not care. Her work was the only thing that kept her sane in a world she could not control.

This evening she had curled up in one of her father's large brown calfskin chairs, and was contemplating a strange new curio that had been sent to her father the week before by a family friend. She turned it this way and that, seeking the best angle for her next drawing.

Helena scratched her nose, smearing charcoal across the bridge, and sighed. The artifact was decidedly odd, and actually frightened her more than she cared to admit. But that was the very thing that had drawn her to it, and made her determined to capture its essence. When she stared at the artifact, it seemed to stare back. The figurine was toadlike in appearance, its bulk made up of jasper and lapis lazuli. It was a small creature, no more than four inches tall, but it had an alarmingly large presence, and seemed to draw the eye no matter where one stood in the room.

When it had first been delivered, she and Frederick had stood staring at it for what seemed the better part of an hour, in part repelled by the subject, yet admiring the detailed workmanship. Frederick actually touched it, but Helena could not bring herself to do so. She knew she was being silly, but something about the thing made her skin crawl.

Frederick had teased her, of course, but she didn't resent him for it. They were very close despite the difference in their ages. Frederick's mother had suffered from cholera until he was two years of age. Helena's mother, Rose, had nursed the dying woman, and when the ailing woman had finally succumbed, Rose had won the widower's heart.

Frederick had grown up almost believing that Rose was his own mother, and when Helena had been born, there was never any animosity or jealousy. The children had been treated as equals in the eyes of their parents, and had grown close in the face of their parents' frequent absences. Now adults, they still lived under the same roof, but it rarely bothered Helena. She and Frederick had never found much to quarrel about-until this past week.

She knew Frederick spent his days suffering in the employ of a bill discounting house, and lived for his evenings at play with the other so-called intellectuals he had studied with at Cambridge. Helena found them all rather trite, even boring, but she would never dare say as much. She knew that she would offend him deeply with her dismissal.

Yet the past few nights he had eschewed his usual pursuits and languished about the house-generally in his own rooms-seeming unusually pale and cantankerous. Helena had warned him that he was transforming into an ill-tempered lout, and rather than skewering her with some snide riposte, as was his wont, he had only glared. She had no idea what had him so aggrieved, and could only assume that his abhorrence of the financial world been exacerbated by some recent occurrence.

"Helena?"

She jumped at the sound of her name.

Frederick stood in the doorway, watching her. His thinning, light brown hair was rakishly disheveled, so that he looked a bit like a peacock. He was of middling height and carried his gut low on his hips, just like their father. She did not think him a handsome man, but there was a kindness to his face upon which her lady friends had often remarked.

Those same young women would not have been so quick to admire him this evening, though. For days he had not looked himself, and tonight there was a yellowish tint to his hazel eyes. His skin had darkened to an unhealthy gray that was disturbing to see.

"Yes, Frederick?" She smiled broadly as she spoke, hoping that her own conviviality would rub off on him. Her brother was ill, that much was clear, but she felt certain that his despondency was at the root of it.

He didn't smile in return.

"Helena, I must have words with you." His voice was more precise than usual, even clipped. And she did not understand what he meant. Was he upset with her about something she had done? She could think of nothing that would require that they exchange "words."

Determined not to add to his agitation, she simply waited as he crossed the room and came to perch on the side of her chair. The look he gave her as he scooted in close to her shoulder made her nervous. It wasn't the kind of look one gave a female, and especially one who was a blood relation.

"Frederick, you do not look at all well . . . and your eyes . . . have you been drinking?" She meant to continue, but he cut her off by running his hand across the side of her face. The touch made her feel sick to her stomach.

"You have such beautiful, smooth skin, sister."

Helena stiffened in her chair. The sketch she had begun slid to the floor. She moved to retrieve it, but Frederick moved more quickly. His hands closed around the sketchbook, and something about his actions carried a finality that filled her with dread. He put the book back in her lap, his hands purposely grazing across her waist.

Her mouth grew dry and she tasted copper-tasted blood-as she unconsciously bit too hard on her lower lip.

"I hardly think the state of my skin should be of interest to you," she said, her voice cracking.

Frederick smiled, then, a wide, teeth-baring grin that somehow didn't seem human. She realized with complete certainty that he was enjoying her discomfort. Enjoying it greatly.

Helena tried to stand so that she might place some distance between them, but Frederick grabbed her wrist. This time the sketchbook fell to the floor without interruption. She whimpered, heard herself telling him to let go of her, and struggled to no avail as he pulled her to him.

He stood up, and his gut pressed into the softness of her belly.

"Frederick, please . . ."

Her whimpers seemed somehow to inflame him, so that as her struggles grew more ferocious, his smile widened and his fingers dug into her. His grip became more powerful, and more painful.

He dragged her toward the love seat and, when she tried to stand her ground, hoisted her off the floor and carried her the rest of the way. He threw her onto it so hard that Helena's head struck the wooden frame with enough force to momentarily disorient her. But the moment passed, and she looked up to find him advancing upon her.

"Frederick, no!" she cried as he came at her. "Something's got hold of you! Please-"

"No, you're wrong, sister," he said, his eyes feasting upon her as he brought his weight to bear. "Something's got hold of you."

Helena screamed as he pulled at her nightgown, tearing her bodice and exposing her soft, white breasts to the lamplight. She tried to cover herself, but he grabbed her arms and held them above her head. His strength was uncanny.

As he undid his breeches, she closed her eyes, praying that this was all a nightmare, or an episode of insanity. Perhaps she was the one who was ill, and she would wake any moment, safe in her own bed.

With one hand he pinned her arms against the love seat, and with the other he raised her nightdress above her hips. He tore away the cotton undergarment that was his last obstruction, forced her legs apart, and thrust himself inside.

Something tore in her. Her mind shrieked in denial as she was violated.

Then Helena screamed, blackness billowing in her mind, swallowing her. As she slipped into unconsciousness, the reptilian eyes of the jasper-and-lapis figurine looked on, dolefully enjoying the show.

CHARLIE WATCHED AS the last remnants of purple faded from the sky, creating an inky backdrop that offset the pale glow of the moon. The night brought with it a chill wind that ruffled his hair and raised gooseflesh on the back of his neck.

The winter had been long, and he was used to the night coming early. Now the spring had arrived, and though the evenings were still chilly, daylight lingered longer. It was after six o'clock when he left the flower shop and started the long walk toward home.

Still, the night was coming on fast. He hadn't thought much of this at first, but as the wind and darkness grew, wariness crept into his mind.

The whole area by the river played host to many a criminal deviant. Before the home secretary, Robert Peel, had created the Metropolitan Police Force just a decade earlier, the criminal element in this part of London had made it almost uninhabitable. There were still areas down around the docks that were unlivable, though far too many did live there. Beggars, thieves, and harlots, mostly. Men wrapped in stinking, filthy rags, shrill women, and barefooted children with blackened eyes and bloodied cheeks.

Charlie had been one of them, once upon a time. But he had left the filth of Shadwell behind.

Not very far behind, of course. He still walked through those streets every morning and every night, getting to and from the shop. Conditions in the city had improved, but the danger of such lost, ignored districts remained. Even now, only the very stupid or the very wicked dared walk these streets alone. Knowing the peelers patrolled the city was cold comfort in Shadwell, where even the quiet echo of a footfall in an otherwise empty street would be cause for alarm.

Charlie put his hand in his pocket now, and felt the hilt of his dagger. There weren't many in this neighborhood brave enough to mess with Cold Metal Charlie's business. He wouldn't have categorized himself as the murderous sort, but there might be others, long since dead, who would decry that opinion. Still, Charlie picked up his pace as he passed the yawning mouth of a dark and fetid alleyway. There was risk in every moment of his life, but there was no sense in taking unnecessary chances.

Charlie's no fool.

The smell of the Thames was rich and meaty in his nostrils as he hurried down the cobblestoned street, avoiding eye contact with passersby. The stink of gutted fish and human waste at times made him want to gag, lending speed to his feet. As a young, towheaded boy, he had wandered the twisting streets near the docks, always looking to stay one step ahead of the law. His petty thieveries might well have consigned him to a long, dark stay in Newgate Prison.

Now that he was eighteen, and knew the ways of the world, he wasn't so terrified of being caught. He was smart, and knew how to wield a knife. He had only one weakness-women-of which he was well aware, and therefore stayed clear of the music halls and other immoral houses where prostitution was commonplace. Time spent with the ladies took his coin and left him no better off than he started.

But then, around the next corner, he saw a small, dark head and a petite body clothed in shimmering gold and red. The figure slipped out of a darkened alleyway up ahead, so that he found himself collected in her wake. He began to follow her as she made her way languidly down the street. Surely, this was no prostitute, Charlie mused hopefully. Indeed, he had no qualms about removing his trousers, as long as he didn't have to empty his pockets first. Fortunately for him, there were ladies as could be counted upon to be cooperative, if they took a fancy to him. And a handsome lad he was, or so he had been told.

The woman-more like a girl, really-must have realized that she was being followed, but she gave no sign that she cared. Charlie kept his distance at first, but as she turned in to another darkened alleyway, he picked up his pace so that he wouldn't lose sight of her in the maze of backstreets.

I'll just follow her to her destination, make sure she gets herself to where she's going, safe and sound, he thought. But he knew in his heart that he was hoping to at least get a closer look at this shimmering creature who so carelessly made her way through the festering boil that was Shadwell Street.

Through a window he heard the sounds of a fight, of men and women celebrating the violence, cries of pain and fury.

He hurried on after his quarry.

It might have been a trick of the half-light, or the lack of same, but Charlie found his eyes drawn to the swing of the girl's hips as she walked. It was as if she was purposely slowing her gait, to tease him with the nearness of her sex, to excite a lust inside him. He found his body responding, falling into rhythm with hers, riding her from fifteen feet behind.

She turned her head, and he caught a glimpse of honey skin and delicate bone structure; coal-black eyes bored into his own. She mouthed the words, Come with me . . .

Abruptly, she turned down a blind alley, disappearing into an inky darkness. Charlie could feel his loins tighten, all the blood in his body pooling there expectantly.

He made a mental note of how much money he had with him. He had no doubt now that she was a high-class prostitute who had been, for some unknown reason, forced into working the slums. She had been purposely leading him toward some anonymous darkened alleyway, where she would spread her legs and take his money. So with a smile on his pockmarked face, he moved toward the alleyway. In his mind, he could already feel the smoothness of her naked hips pressed up against his own.

When he arrived at the end of the alleyway, he stopped to allow his eyes to adjust. All that awaited him were three monstrous, contorted shadows. He looked around wildly, trying to locate his prize and an escape route at the same time.

The girl was nowhere to be seen.

Before he could turn and run, the three shadows emerged into the moonlight.

So Cold Metal Charlie, who had endured all the horror and ugliness, the cruelty and debasement that Shadwell Street had to offer, just screamed. Long white, saliva-flecked teeth gleamed against the darkness. Yellow eyes appraised him hungrily.

"No-" Charlie began, but no sooner was the word out of his mouth than the horrors descended upon him, ripping him to bloody shreds, savoring every piece of Charlie until there was nothing left of him but a pile of picked-over bones.

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