The clockwork scarab, p.13
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       The Clockwork Scarab, p.13
 

         Part #1 of Stoker & Holmes series by Colleen Gleason  
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Chapter 13

  Miss Holmes

  An Unfortunate Miscalculation

  I could hardly catch my breath, but the cool night air helped. Whoever the individual was who'd been carrying me dumped me unceremoniously onto my feet.

  I looked around and didn't immediately see Evaline, although I'd watched her run out onto the street behind us. However, just a short distance away was a cluster of very confused, frightened young women. The Society of Sekhmet had been evacuated. She was probably in the midst of the girls. Just then, the sound of sirens screeching filled the air. The police or firemen.

  The young man who'd carried me out, whose torso was bared by the vest that identified him as one of the opium servers, spun to look behind him. "Bloody 'ell! I'm gone. " Before I could thank him for his assistance, he took himself off.

  I stood there for a moment, still panting, and looked up. The fire in the upper floors would devastate, but the building wouldn't come down. It was brick. Surely someone as clever as the Ankh would find an escape.

  Which meant that this wasn't over.

  The sky-anchors swayed high above, large dark balloons bumping against each other in the breeze. As I watched, one of them detached itself from the others. It happened occasionally that one of the moorings loosened, and streetwatchers would announce it with cries of "Cut loose! It's cut loose!" and there would be wagers on how long it would be buffeted about in the sky and where it would land.

  Then comprehension dawned. The stage, the entire stage in the opium den, had been a sort of airship. The steps, in all four directions, had actually been folded sides, collapsed onto the floor. Now they'd been raised and the entire stage lifted . . . and was being piloted up and out of the open roof. I watched with a combination of admiration and annoyance that I hadn't observed this earlier.

  "Miss Holmes!"

  A familiar peremptory voice had me spinning around.

  "This is becoming quite a habit, is it not? Encountering you in the thick of criminal activity. " Inspector Grayling stood there, radiating exasperation. "You promised not to come here tonight. "

  "I didn't promise any such thing," I told him. "I merely said-wait!" I cried, struck by a realization. "I must get to Cosgrove Terrace. " This was my chance to catch Lady Cosgrove-Pitt in the act-or, more accurately, not to. She wouldn't be there. She couldn't be. "Quickly!"

  "What is it?" he asked, his pique easing in the face of my desperate entreaty.

  "It's-it's a matter of life and death," I said. I couldn't explain it to him; he wouldn't believe me. He wouldn't want to believe the awful truth about his relative.

  I'd have to show him.

  It was to Grayling's credit-and I suppose mine-that he didn't hesitate. "This way," he said, taking my arm when I whirled to hail an air-bus. "It's faster. "

  With a little more force than necessary, he directed me to the large, gleaming steamcycle. It appeared even more dangerous at close proximity. I swallowed hard.

  "Put these on," he said, shoving an aviator hat and a pair of goggles at me.

  Then he climbed onto the machine, straddling it as one would a horse. His long coat split over the seat, falling in two black swatches. For the first time, I noticed how long and powerful Grayling's limbs were and I realized, with a sudden shock of heat and nerves, that I was going to have to sit behind him. And hold on.

  I couldn't breathe.

  "I . . . "

  "Miss Holmes," he said with challenge in his eyes, "a matter of life and death cannot wait for you to build up your courage. "

  Drat. He was right. I had to get to Cosgrove Terrace to prove that Lady Cosgrove-Pitt was the Ankh. I pulled the aviator cap down over my head and arranged the goggles as he did something to the machine.

  Its engine came to life with a spectacular roar, then settled into a rhythmic, metallic purr. Steeling myself, I climbed onto the seat behind him, thankful I had had the foresight to wear the new split skirts I'd had made, like Miss Stoker's. I couldn't imagine what a spectacle I would have made of myself otherwise.

  "Hold on," he said, and the engine gave another loud roar. I could feel it charge and vibrate beneath me, and I realized he was waiting for me to hold on to him.

  Thankful my face was hidden by the goggles and that I was behind him, I placed my hands gingerly at his waist, curling my fingers into his wool coat.

  The cycle roared again, then surged forward. I jolted backward and, stifling a shriek, gripped his coat more tightly as I leaned toward him. The warmth of his body melded into me as a sharp wind blasted over my arms and skirted legs.

  We rounded a corner at full speed. I slipped to one side on the seat and nearly tumbled off. Terrified, I gave up on propriety and gave in to practicality, changing my position to wrap my arms around his torso, grabbing my wrist with my other hand. This position required me to rest my cheek against Grayling's back, filling my nose with the pleasing aroma of wood-smoked wool.

  I felt the muscles of his torso shift and slide as he manipulated the cycle, and only after what seemed like forever did I realize I had my eyes closed.

  Cautiously, I opened them and peered down from behind the green-tinted goggles. The first thing I saw was my leg curved forward, directly behind his as my split skirt blustered wildly about. Thank Fortune I was wearing pantaloons beneath it. Beyond that, I saw part of the brass detail curving around the cycle. We were moving so fast that everything else, including the ground some distance below, was a blur.

  I'd never traveled anywhere at this speed. Cool air roared over me as we slipped in and out of alleys and over canals, beneath air-lifts and among carriages with the dexterity of a cat. I even lifted my face away from Grayling's warm spine and eased my death grip around his waist. It was exhilarating.

  And then, suddenly, there was a brick wall. Right there.

  I closed my eyes and ducked instinctively as Grayling's arm jerked. The cycle turned, tipping to the side so acutely I had to cling even more tightly to him.

  I kept my eyes closed, deciding it was better I didn't see where we were going as we zigzagged through the streets, the roar of the machine filling my ears, its rumble buzzing through my limbs.

  At last, it slowed and the roar eased. I opened my eyes to see Cosgrove Terrace, and my heart began to race for different reasons. Grayling drove the cycle up to the front entrance and parked just below the rise of three main steps. This was a different entrance than the one we'd used during the Roses Ball, but just as grand.

  I climbed off the vehicle. My knees shook, and my body vibrated as if I was still riding the machine. And yet . . . I glanced at the steamcycle. During the moments I'd had my eyes open, the speed and maneuverability had been exciting.

  Avoiding Grayling's glance, I pulled off the aviator cap and goggles. I wasn't going to worry about the condition of my hair. After a long night of wearing a bonnet with a wig and then the ensuing altercation with the Ankh, I couldn't imagine that an aviator cap would have worsened the situation.

  After all, Lady Cosgrove-Pitt had already seen me.

  Grayling walked to the door with me and rang the bell. "Is Lord Cosgrove-Pitt in danger? Or Lady Isabella? Have you received some information from your father?"

  Shaking my head, I waited with complacence. Thanks to Grayling's speedy vehicle, it would be impossible for Lady Isabella to have arrived at Cosgrove Terrace before we did, even if she had an inkling that I might come here. She wasn't going to be inside, and her absence was going to be the first piece of evidence against her.

  The door swung open before I had the opportunity to respond to Grayling's question, which was a good thing, because what precisely was I going to tell him? That his distant relative had been murdering young women in order to resurrect an Egyptian goddess from the ether?

  "Good evening, Dusenbery, I need to speak with Lord Belmont or Lady Isabella. "

  "It's urgent that we speak to Lady Cosgrove-Pitt immediately," I said.
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  "Of course, Inspector Grayling. And Miss . . . er . . . ?" The butler stepped back, giving us entrance.

  I didn't offer my name. I saw no reason to give Lady Isabella or anyone else warning that I was there. When Dusenbery seemed to hesitate-perhaps waiting for me to do so-I pressed, "It's quite urgent. Is Lady Isabella in?" Since it was well into the early hours of the morning, it would be odd for her not to be in, even if she'd attended a party or the theater.

  "Lord Belmont is at his club," Dusenbery said, looking at Grayling instead of me. I'm certain the only reason he was so forthcoming with that information was because my companion was both a relative and from the authorities. "I shall see if Lady Isabella will see you. "

  "We'll wait in the parlor," Grayling told Dusenbery.

  "I'd prefer to wait here," I said. It would be easier to see or hear anything else happening in the house if we remained in the foyer.

  "Very well," said Dusenbery as he turned, presumably to hunt down Lady Isabella.

  I chafed at the delay, yet at the same time, I felt a strange calm settle over me. Lady Isabella wouldn't see us, of course, because she wasn't here.

  And even if she happened to arrive in the next few moments-which in itself was unlikely; after all, she'd been air-lifted from a roof on the other side of the city-she'd be unable to change her clothing and otherwise hide the traces of her secret identity.

  I was going to have to induce Grayling to search the house if Lady Isabella "refused" to see us-that is, when the butler found that she wasn't in residence after all.

  "Miss Holmes," said my companion, looking down at me from his excessive height, "will you please provide me some explanation for this?" His hair was ruffled from the ride, and I couldn't help but remember how my legs had pressed into the underside of his. And how well he'd managed that monstrous machine.

  I heard the sound of footsteps.

  "Ambrose! Whatever is wrong? What are you doing here at this time of the night?"

  My heart dropped to my feet at the sound of Lady Isabella's voice. I whirled, the inability to hide my shock surely evident in my expression. My whole body had gone cold and numb. "Lady Cosgrove-Pitt. You're here. " My lips hardly moved.

  Impossible.

  "But of course I'm here. " Her eyes went from me to Grayling and back again, a bemused, confused look in them. My face heated to a fiery temperature as the rest of my person remained icy. "It's nearly one o'clock in the morning. "

  I examined her desperately, searching for any sign she'd just been in the midst of a fire. She was wearing a long night rail and a loose housecoat, and her hair was braided in one single plait that hung over her shoulder. I saw no trace of makeup nor any debris on her slippered feet.

  How could I be wrong?

  "I'm sorry to bother you, Lady Isabella," Grayling said. I could hear the stiffness in his voice and feel his confusion as he looked at me. "Miss Holmes-er-we believed it was an urgent matter. "

  I found my voice at last. "I just learned about Lilly Corteville. I wanted to express my condolences. I understand you were close to the family. " I could think of nothing else to say, and Grayling's heavy regard continued to weigh me down.

  Lady Isabella looked at me. I looked back at her, searching in vain for something in her eyes, some sort of recognition that we'd been face-to-face less than an hour ago.

  "Yes, indeed. What a tragedy that was," she said in a soothing voice that conveyed confusion. "That was your purpose for rousting me from my bed?"

  "I-I apologize, my lady. I . . . er . . . didn't realize how late it was. "

  "My apologies as well, Lady Isabella," said Grayling. "We'll be off now. Please give Uncle Belmont my regards. "

  "Of course," said the gracious lady.

  No sooner had the door closed behind us than Grayling gave me a long, inscrutable look. To my surprise, it was neither condemning nor angry. It was . . . exasperated and a little bemused. And concerned.

  "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you simply wanted an excuse to ride on the steamcycle. "

  I couldn't look at him.

  I'd been wrong.

  Very wrong.

  How could I have made such a mistake?

 
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