The clockwork scarab, p.3
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       The Clockwork Scarab, p.3
 

         Part #1 of Stoker & Holmes series by Colleen Gleason  
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
Chapter 3

  Miss Holmes

  Of Mudless Shoes and Murder

  "Don't move. " Miss Adler was the first to speak, and she took charge instantly. I'm certain her bravery was helped in no small part by the gun that shone in her hand.

  "Step away," she said. "Place the knife on the floor, then raise your hands. " She stood so the man had no opportunity to slip behind a sarcophagus or the statue of Ramesses II that loomed to his left.

  "I didn't-I was trying to help," said the man caught in shadow. "I think she's dead. " I couldn't place his accent.

  "Evaline," Miss Adler said without taking her eyes from him. "On the wall next to the fist of Ptah. Find the lever. We need light. " As she spoke, she moved away from the body on the ground, all the while keeping the gun trained on the man, edging him away from the center of the chamber.

  Moments later, a glow illuminated the space. The looming seven-ton statue of Ramesses II and massive pieces of frescoes and hieroglyphs were no longer casting long, dark shadows that hampered my observations. The gaslights now shone on the intruder. He was hardly any older than I and wore a style of clothing I'd never seen before.

  "Is she dead?" asked Miss Adler, glancing at Miss Stoker, who had refrained from approaching the body. The question was clearly meant to spur my counterpart into action.

  "Er . . . " Miss Stoker began. She moved forward with reluctant, robotic movements. She looked ill.

  Impatient, I went to the unmoving figure and crouched next to the rumpled mass of skirts and limbs. I'd never come across a body, or a fresh crime scene like this before. I had certainly seen corpses, even studied them under my uncle's tutelage. But not like this. Not so . . . raw.

  I forced myself to actually look at her, then to touch the pulse point on the girl's throat. Even before I did that, I knew she was dead. But her chill skin and lack of pulse confirmed it. "There's no hope for her. "

  "I'll ring for the authorities. They must be notified. Evaline, if you please. " Miss Adler gestured for my companion to take her place with the pistol.

  I returned my attention to the victim. The poor thing could have been no older than seventeen or eighteen, a peer of my very own age. The fact that a short time earlier we had been talking about the disappearances and death of other young women was not lost on me. Could Miss Adler have anticipated such an event might happen here, tonight? Had she meant for us to prevent it?

  I drew in a deep breath, smelled the sharp iron of blood and other bodily excretions, and pushed away my uncertainties. Only minutes ago, I had pledged my loyalty and self to the Crown. The moment of truth had come sooner than we could have realized.

  Who was she? How had she come here? Why would someone do this to her and how? I forced myself to observe. Coldly. Objectively.

  She lay on her side, curled up, eyes open-fallen or dumped here.

  Her hair still pinned in place-she hadn't struggled.

  Not enough blood on the floor-she hadn't been killed here.

  Which meant . . . I looked at the intruder, who, still under the control of Miss Stoker, had nevertheless edged closer to the sarcophagus at the side of the gallery.

  No bloodstains on his odd clothing-he had not moved the body. He wasn't the murderer.

  Grateful for an excuse to edge away from the girl, I approached the young man. "Did you touch her or change her position?"

  "No, I didn't move her. " His accent sounded American, but not like any other American accent I'd ever heard. "I was checking to see if she was alive when you showed up. I just touched her . . . for a pulse. " His voice was tense, and his eyes darted from me to Miss Stoker and back again.

  I believe even the most objective of persons would agree he was a handsome man, with his golden-tan complexion and startling blue eyes. His jaw was square, and his chin firm. He looked as if he were not even twenty, and as he stood there, his hands raised in surrender, I admired his mussed, too-long dark blond hair plastered around the ears and neck.

  He wore a red shirt with no opening down the front. Its material made it cling to his chest as if it were wet, even though it wasn't. Strangely, there were large letters painted or sewn on the front of it. I could see enough to make out AEROPOSTA-a French word, which added to my suspicions that he was a foreigner. If there were more letters, they were hidden by an unbuttoned plaid shirt. I'd never seen a man wear a shirt like that, open and unbuttoned. I found it scandalous.

  Over the unbuttoned shirt, the intruder wore a jacket of black leather that was much shorter than any other coat I'd seen, ending just at his waist instead of halfway to the knees. The hem of the plaid shirt hung below it. His trousers were just as unfamiliar-made of dark blue denim, like the Levi Strauss pants worn by American laborers. They were frayed a little at the hems and worn in the knees.

  And his shoes! I wanted to crouch and examine them, for I couldn't identify the material from which they were made. They laced up the front like a woman's shoe, but without the tiny little buttons that took forever to hook. (My mechanized Shoe-Fastener had broken three weeks ago. ) Gray with age, yet decorated with an odd swoop-like design on the sides, they looked as if they were made of rubber.

  Despite being worn, his footwear was not blood- or mud-splattered, which was curious because it had been raining today-as was usual for London. It would have been impossible to avoid the muck outside, even on the upper streetwalk levels.

  He'd not been outside today.

  Curious.

  Had he been hiding in the museum since before it had begun to rain at dawn? My eyes narrowed in thought and I exchanged glances with Miss Stoker. I didn't expect her to have followed my train of thought-after all, one must be a trained observer, my uncle always said-but nevertheless, I saw intelligent question in her gaze.

  "You claim you didn't move her, that you were trying to help her. But what are you doing here in the museum, in the middle of the night?" I asked.

  "I'm-uh-I'm part of the custodial staff," he said. "We were going to wax the floors. " His smile was forced, yet I couldn't help but appreciate the attempt at an explanation, regardless of how implausible it was.

  "That's absurd," said Miss Stoker. The gun wavered in her hand.

  "What? The waxing? Hey, it needs to be done-" He must have noticed my severe expression, for he changed his tack. "Look, I swear I didn't touch her. I just found her lying here. I know I shouldn't be here at night, but it wasn't exactly my fault. Circumstances beyond my control. Really freaking odd circumstances. "

  "You can explain all of these-erm-odd circumstances to the authorities when they arrive," I said. "But you needn't worry about being arrested for murder. I can attest to the fact that you're innocent of that, at least. "

  "Well, thank goodness you figured that out," he said, his voice dripping with insincerity.

  With a little sniff, I returned to the victim, leaving Miss Stoker to deal with the intruder. It was imperative that I finish my examination before the authorities arrived and disturbed everything.

  Face, jaw, and fingers beginning to stiffen-rigor mortis in early stages; dead at least three hours, possibly four or five.

  Steeling myself for my first good look at her, I turned the girl onto her back. I couldn't hold back a little shudder. Her sightless eyes stared up into the high ceiling of the gallery. With a catch of breath, I closed them with two fingers, hoping she'd found peace without too much pain first.

  Blood stained the front of her shirtwaist and her left sleeve, but only a bit on her right. Slender burn-like marks around her arms, as if a thin cord or wire had been wrapped around them. And a terrible slash along her left wrist. I sniffed her hair. Opium. Faint but unmistakable.

  Too little blood on the left sleeve-no splashes of blood on the arm that made the cut? Impossible to be self-inflicted.

  "Miss Stoker. Do you recognize this young woman?"

  Before she could respond, I heard the sound of approaching footsteps
. More than one pair, so it would seem Miss Adler had not only rung for the authorities, but fetched them as well. "Hurry," I said as Miss Stoker moved toward me, still holding the gun pointed at our intruder.

  She swallowed audibly. "Yes, I believe that's one of the Ho-"

  Whatever she was about to say was cut off by a loud, strange sound. It was perhaps a sort of music, but it was like nothing I'd ever heard before. I spun on my haunches and saw a small silver object sliding across the floor. A colorful light shone from its flat top and the sound-loud, screeching, vibrating-seemed to be coming from it. Miss Stoker jumped out of the way just as one of the large stone statues at the edge of the gallery teetered and began to fall.

  "Look out!" I shouted as the bristly-haired stone satyr crashed to the floor.

  "Stop there!" ordered a commanding voice as two men and Miss Adler came rushing around the corner from the Roman Gallery.

  "He's gone!" hissed Miss Stoker, who still held Miss Adler's gun and was now next to me. She was pointing to where the young man had been moments ago.

  Ignoring the shouts from the new arrivals, we dashed over to where the intruder had been standing. Having either taken advantage of or manufactured the distraction, he had slipped into the dark shadows.

  "I'll go after him," said Miss Stoker, starting off, but a voice ordered, "You! Miss! Stop there!"

  "Drat," I muttered, snatching up the silver object that had presumably belonged to the intruder. Clever to use it as a distraction for us, and convenient that he'd left it behind.

  The smooth, flat device had gone silent and dark by now. I shoved it in my trouser pocket to examine later, hoping it wouldn't start screeching again. I turned at last to greet Miss Adler and the two gentlemen: Scotland Yard inspectors. They were out of breath from running along the gallery.

  "Ladies, this is Inspector Luckworth. " Miss Adler gestured to the older of the two men.

  About forty, Luckworth was a man of average height and a spare amount of hair, except for the neat beard and mustache that hid his lips. I gave him a brief examination.

  Misbuttoned jacket, shirt half untucked, mismatched boots-dressed hurriedly in dark, likely to keep from waking wife.

  Tarnished wedding ring, tight but removable-married at least three years; enjoying wife's home cooking.

  Small fingerprints just above the knee and a swipe of dried milk on the front of his trousers-toddler in the household.

  The faint shift of gears and quiet rumble-mechanized left leg, overdue for oiling.

  "Miss Adler. " Luckworth's voice was less friendly than hers had been. "Who are these girls? And what are they doing here at this time of night? What are you doing here at this hour? And how did that happen?" He gestured to the rubble that had once been the stone satyr.

  Miss Stoker and I exchanged glances at his remark, which made it sound as if we were schoolchildren.

  "I've been engaged by the museum to catalog its unorganized antiquities acquired over the last three decades, Inspector," Miss Adler replied. "I'm certain you are aware of that. "

  "Yes, and I still find it inconceivable that the director selected you to do so. "

  "Unfortunately, that opinion is not relevant to our current tragedy," Miss Adler pointed out with a cool smile.

  The younger inspector, who couldn't have been more than a few years older than I, rose from his examination of the girl's body. "Right. Regardless, madam, that doesn't explain your presence here at"-he paused to flip open an elaborate pocket watch that had four small folding doors and, once open, rose into a complicated three-dimensional timepiece arrayed with buttons-"twelve forty-three in the morning. " He pushed a button and the clock folded back into place with soft, pleasant clicks.

  Miss Adler's smile turned gentle. "But of course it does. There is no limitation on my work schedule. Sir Franks has given me access to the museum at any and all hours of the day. You of all people, Inspector . . . ?"

  "Grayling," the young man replied. "Ambrose Grayling. "

  "Inspector Grayling, you and your colleague should well understand that there are certain occupations which are not regimented. One works whenever one must. Even in the dead of night. " She made a smooth gesture with her hand. "Perhaps we could quibble about my employment restrictions later. I rang Scotland Yard because we have a crime to investigate, and I'm certain the two of you would like to get to work before more time has passed. "

  "We have a crime to investigate?" said Luckworth. He laughed. "Miss Adler, there is no 'we' about it. You and your companions will give your statements and leave the investigation to us. "

  "But I beg to differ, Inspector-with all due respect," Miss Adler added in a sugar-coated voice, "we have already begun the investigation. "

  I took this as my cue to step forward. "I have already begun a preliminary examination of the body. If you wish, I shall enlighten you with my conclusion-"

  "Pardon me," said Inspector Grayling in a flat voice that carried a bit of the Scottish. It was no surprise, for it matched the dark copper color of his thick, curling hair.

  I turned my full attention on him, aware that he was a rather attractive young man. He had a freckled complexion over tanned skin; however, the freckles did nothing to make him look boyish or innocent. Instead they gave a pleasantly ruddy cast to his square jaw and prominent nose.

  Unevenly stubbled chin and tiny cut near left ear-needs to sharpen his razor and is impatient in character.

  Cuts and scrapes as well as a large blister adorned his left, pencil-holding digit-doesn't wear gloves, works hard but not without haste and clumsiness.

  No wedding ring and one button dangling from jacket cuff-unmarried and lives in a household without females.

  Jacket cuffs frayed, short for his elegant wrists, two years out of style-handed down clothing, not of upper class.

  Ornate, complicated pocket watch but wears used clothing-an utter cognoggin; more concerned with his gadgets and devices than personal appearance.

  Grayling was saying, "This is no concern for a civilian. Now, if you-"

  "Inspector Luckworth and Inspector Grayling," interrupted Miss Adler, "may I introduce Miss Mina Holmes?"

  Both of the gentlemen turned to me, and if I weren't so shocked at being back in the spotlight, I might have found their expressions comical. Luckworth looked as if he'd swallowed a biscuit whole, and Grayling lifted his Scottish nose as if he smelled haggis gone bad. (Incidentally, I am of the opinion that haggis is always bad. )

  "I daresay-" Luckworth began, but his younger colleague interrupted, "Holmes? You don't expect us to believe-"

  "I am the niece of Sherlock and the daughter of Sir Mycroft. Ponderous appellations and high powers of deductive reasoning run as rampant in my family as the pox does in Haymarket. " I wasn't certain from where I dredged up such confidence, but the words tripped from my tongue.

  "I can't imagine how a young lady such as yourself would be familiar with the curse of Haymarket. " Grayling cast me a cool gray-green look that threatened to bring a warm flush to my cheeks. "But regardless of your name, Miss Holmes, which I will accept as proof of your relation to the esteemed Misters Holmes, your assistance is unnecessary. Inspector Luckworth and I are well trained and able to do our jobs without interference by a fe-civilian. "

  "Very well," I said, lifting my nose. "Carry on. " At that moment, I wished I had a skirt hem to snatch up for a bit of feminine emphasis in my vexation. His expression made me prickle: supercilious yet polite.

  But my new mentor wasn't about to be cowed. "We won't be leaving until we've completed our own investigation. " Miss Adler gave me an affirming nod that meant I should continue with my work. I sidled away from the cluster of people.

  "Your investigation?" Luckworth choked as I knelt next to the dead girl. "This is not tea time, Miss Adler. Nor is it a woman's salon nor even a ruddy-'scuse me-suffragette meeting. This is the scene of a crime, and only the investigators
will remain. "

  Swallowing hard, I searched through the pockets in the victim's voluminous skirts as Miss Adler responded to the inspector in her low, even tones. It wasn't that I expected to find something as obvious as a Sekhmet scarab, but anything could be a clue. She wore no jewelry except for a comb of topazes in her dark hair, and her gloves were missing.

  "Her Royal Highness has authorized you to-" Luckworth bit off his own words as if to keep from saying something regretful.

  As the discussion (I use that term loosely) raged between the inspector and Miss Adler, I used my hand-cranked Flip-Illuminator to examine the wound on the girl's arm. When he noticed, Grayling made a sharp sound and stalked over to me. This placed his shoes in my field of vision-right next to my legs, where I crouched in voluminous trousers, and I noticed that his footwear gleamed in the mellow light except near the soles where they were speckled with mud. That reminded me of the foreigner and his mud-free shoes. Was he still in the museum?

  "Miss Holmes, this is the scene of a crime," Grayling said in a tone that indicated clear displeasure.

  "I'm aware of that. I'm making my observations and deductions. Shall we compare notes?"

  He looked down at me, and the light from my small illuminator shone in his eyes. They were still spots of exasperation, spoiling an otherwise pleasing countenance. "If you feel it necessary to share your information with us, I cannot stop you, Miss Holmes. But my partner and I are able to draw our own conclusions. " He crouched next to me.

  I could smell the clean, lemony scent of his skin and see the freckles on his large, square, capable hands. All at once I felt uncomfortable in my dusty men's trousers and ill-fitting coat, and wished that I wasn't dressed like a street urchin. Perhaps if I wasn't, he would take me seriously.

  Inspector Luckworth and Miss Adler approached. "Well, whatta you found, Brose?" asked Luckworth. He sounded disgruntled but resigned.

  "A variety of things," Grayling replied. "Death occurred four hours ago-"

  "Closer to three," I interjected, "based on the morbidity of the fingers. "

  He turned those grayish eyes on me. They were close enough that I could see amber flecks in them. "A temperature reading I took from this device," he said, producing a slender silver implement from some pocket of his vest, "indicates that the body began to lose heat at least four hours ago. "

  Drat. I closed my mouth and nodded in agreement, trying not to look at the instrument with too much fascination. I'd never seen one so sleek and efficient. And even though mine was more primitive, I would never leave my thermometer home again. It was a much better measure of time of death than estimating rigor mortis.

  "As I was saying," Grayling continued in a smooth voice touched with Scottish brogue, "death occurred at approximately nine o'clock this evening from an apparent self-inflicted wound on the left wrist. "

  "Suicide?" Luckworth said, his face going sharp and serious.

  "It wasn't suicide," I said, just as Grayling interjected, "I said apparent. "

  We looked at each other. His lips tightened, and he said, "Pray go on, Miss Holmes. "

  My heart was pounding as I lifted the woman's right arm, the unwounded limb. "It would be impossible not to get blood on this sleeve if she used this hand to cut her wrist," I said. "It's much too clean; only a few tiny drops. And-"

  "Aside from that," Grayling interrupted, "she wouldn't have cut herself on that hand because-"

  "She was left-handed," we both said in unison.

  "Indeed," said Miss Adler, her eyes going back and forth between us.

  "We'll need to identify her," said Luckworth, speaking to his partner.

  "That won't be difficult," I said.

  "No, it won't," Grayling said. "Based on her clothing, which is well-made of good fabric and from a seamstress, she comes from a well-to-do family. We can observe her shoes-"

  "Or Miss Stoker can tell us her name," I said, perhaps a trifle too loudly. I looked at the young woman in question, who'd been peering into the shadows as if looking for something. Or someone.

  Grayling shot me a disgruntled look as Luckworth turned to my companion. "Well?" he said grumpily.

  "I believe this is one of the Hodgeworth sisters. Lecia or Mayellen. Of St. James Park. "

  Luckworth grumbled under his breath and wrote down the name as I took the opportunity to move toward the knife, which had heretofore been left unexamined. It still lay on the floor where the young man had dropped it at Miss Adler's command. The blood had long dried on the blade and handle. I resisted the urge to pick it up to examine it.

  "Look at this," I said, forgetting Grayling and I were at odds. "Do you see this?" I crouched once again and lifted Miss Hodgeworth's wounded arm to show him the incision. "Now look at the blade. "

  Grayling knelt to get a closer look. The museum's light glinted over his hair, highlighting occasional strands of copper and blond in the midst of dark mahogany waves. "That blade couldn't have made this incision. The cut is too smooth, and-"

  "The blade is dull and too thick," I interrupted. "It would have made the skin jagged. "

  "Precisely," he murmured, still looking down at the wound. Grayling fished in another vest pocket and withdrew a gear-riddled metal object hardly larger than a pince-nez. It clinked as he settled it over one eye, fitting an ocular lens into place. Leather straps held the device over his temples and around the crown of his head; it looked like the inner workings of a clock with a pale blue glass piece through which one eye could see.

  I'd never seen an Ocular-Magnifyer of that type before; this particular device seemed not only to magnify the objects, but to measure them as well. Grayling lifted his large, elegant fingers to his temple and turned a small wheel attached to the gears. I heard soft clicking sounds as it measured the wound on Miss Hodgeworth's wrist.

  Uncle Sherlock often complained about the lack of care taken at crime scenes by the authorities. They trampled over grounds and moved objects and, in his words, "wouldn't notice a weapon unless it was pointed straight at them. " But even he would have found little to fault in Grayling's handling of this crime scene, except, perhaps, for the use of such fancy gadgetry. My uncle was a medievalist when it came to such devices.

  "What's that there?" said Luckworth as he approached, noticing his partner's task for the first time. "Wastin' yer time with the numbers again, Brose? Why aren't you questioning the witnesses here? They found the girl. Witnesses and people, not mathematics, is going to solve this case-and all of the others on your desk. I'm tired, and I want to get back to m'bed. "

  Grayling stood, and his face appeared ruddier than usual. He didn't look at me, but spoke to his partner in a stiff voice, one greenish-gray eye still magnified behind its lens. "Bertillon's process has already proven useful in three cases-"

  "In Paris," Luckworth said. "Not here in London. Waste of blooming time-pardon me, Miss Holmes," he added. "Hasn't helped us to find Jack the Ripper, now, has it? Or the bloke who done away with the Martindale girl. "

  "I thought the Martindale girl hanged herself. " I stood abruptly. "Are you saying she was murdered too?"

  Grayling's teeth ground together, and he shot Luckworth a glare as he yanked the magnifyer off. Then he looked at me for a moment. "There was no step," he growled at last, as if in challenge. His Scottish burr had gone thick.

  "Do you mean to say, there was nothing that she'd stood on to-ah-affix the rope to the tree branch, then knocked away?" I swallowed hard.

  Grayling didn't reply; therefore, I took that as an affirmative response.

  If there was no step for her to stand on, Miss Martindale couldn't have hanged herself. Someone else had to be involved.

  We had two cases of young women dying in apparent suicide, that were not really suicides. And a third young woman who'd disappeared. Two of the women were connected by the Sekhmet scarab.

  Would Miss Hodgeworth be as well?

  Like my uncle
, I didn't believe in coincidences.

  Miss Stoker

  In Which Miss Stoker Is Fanned by a Glocky Sprite

  I watched Mina Holmes climb into the horseless cab that had stopped in front of the building. The marble of the museum's front colonnade entrance was cool to the touch as I slipped away. A wide stripe of moonlight filtered over the top of the vehicle and illuminated the glistening road. The gas lamps that normally lit the grounds were dark. Someone had been busy, making certain to keep the area in shadows.

  Another carriage trundled by, this one pulled by a clip-clopping horse, but otherwise, the lowest street level was deserted. The only movement was a slinking cat and the something small and dark that was its prey.

  I still couldn't dismiss the rumble of shame at the way my insides had earlier pitched and churned at the scene of the dead girl. All that blood . . .

  But the sight of poor Miss Hodgeworth had been nothing compared to my memory of Mr. O'Gallegh, his neck and torso torn open, his innards spilling out . . . and the red-eyed vampire that looked up at me, its fangs dripping with blood.

  It had smiled at me.

  I closed my eyes even now, curling my fingers tight. I fought away the horrific images, the memory of fear and terror that rushed over me as I stumbled toward the vampire, stake in hand. I'd never forget the smell. Blood.

  Death.

  Evil.

  I remembered washing my hands over and over, trying to scrub the blood away even as I tried to recall exactly how it got there. I had no clear memory of what had happened: whether I'd killed the vampire as I'd meant to do . . . or remained paralyzed by the sight of Mr. O'Gallegh's blood spilling everywhere.

  Had my mentor, Siri, intervened? Or had the vampire escaped?

  That uncertainty and the knowledge of my failure haunted me.

  Now, a year after my only encounter with a vampire, I still shuddered over the memory of that night . . . and from the horror I'd witnessed in the museum.

  Mina Holmes had approached that awful scene so readily. She'd seemed so fascinated with it, I half expected her to crouch and sniff at the blood with that long, slender nose of hers.

  Shame rushed through me, landing like a stone in the pit of my belly. I was the Chosen One of my family, born to hunt vampires, endowed with superhuman strength and speed. And yet at the sight of blood and carnage, my insides curdled, my stomach heaved . . . and I became paralyzed.

  I often wondered why Bram hadn't been the one called. He had a morbid interest in all things UnDead and considered himself an expert. And yet he had no comprehension of what it was like learning how to fight them. How to wield a stake and where to slam it into the vampire's chest for the fatal blow. Preparing to take the life of a creature, damned or not.

  But I was the one who'd been chosen, the one who'd been called to this life. And I was determined to follow in the footsteps of my ancestor Victoria, the most famous female vampire hunter to ever have lived.

  Naturally, Mina Holmes and her steel-cased stomach lacked the physical attributes that enabled me to protect myself from dangers on the dark streets. Miss Holmes might have a brilliant mind, but I was faster, stronger, and possessed the ability to sense the presence of a vampire by the unpleasant chill over the back of my neck. That, at least, was small consolation.

  As Miss Holmes's cab trundled off on damp cobblestones, leaving me alone with the night, I closed my eyes and listened to the familiar sounds of sleeping London. There was the faint shhhhhh and the accompanying rumble of a Night-Illuminator meandering its way down the street. On the next block, one of the heavy gates to a street-lift clanged. The air smelled of damp grass and coal smoke, along with the ever-present twinge of sewage-stale, putrid, dank.

  "Waitin' for something?" said a male voice. Very close behind me.

  My eyes popped open, and I barely managed to swallow a gasp of surprise. "I was simply waiting for you to show yourself," I replied without turning around. Though my heart was ramming in my chest, my voice came out smooth and steady. I eased a hand toward the pistol weighing down my skirt pocket.

  His low, rumbling laugh sent a prickle of awareness over the back of my neck. It was almost . . . pleasant. Not like the eerie warning that an UnDead was near.

  "Cop to it, luv," he said, a heavy dose of Cockney in his tone. "Ye didn't granny me till I spoke. "

  I turned, searching the shadows. I spied him in a dark nook of the wall, tucked behind a slender bush. I could just make out his form next to the sharp line of the bricks, but no details other than the angle of his hat.

  "Right," I replied. "Neither your presence nor your absence matters to me. " My pulse had spiked, and anticipation barreled through my veins. At last, something interesting was happening.

  Something dangerous.

  He chuckled again and shifted a little. A splinter of moonlight slashed down from the hat brim to his face, jolting over a shoulder covered in a long, flowing coat. I had the fleeting impression of a dark brow and the quirk of a smile.

  The man eased out of the shadows. He was taller than me and had broad shoulders. I caught the glimpse of a square, clean-shaven chin. Although I hadn't seen more than an impression of his countenance, from his voice and demeanor, I guessed he wasn't much older than I. "Pr'aps you were waiting for someone else to appear? Some 'andsome gent t'woo ye in the moonligh'?"

  The cool metal of the firearm felt comforting in my pocket, but I saw no need to pull it free. I was more curious than anything. And even with my unfinished training, I could easily defend myself against a mortal man.

  "I was merely taking in the night air," I replied. Why was I still standing there talking to him? Unless . . . "What are you doing, lurking about at this time of night? You must be up to no good. "

  Again he smiled. This time, I caught a glimpse of white teeth and a dimple in his right cheek. "I'm allus up to no good, Miss Stoker," he said in a voice that dipped low and dark and velvety.

  A little surprised flutter went through my belly-only because he knew my name. Not at all because of the way his voice seemed to wrap around me and tug, deep inside. "You seem to have the advantage of me, boy. "

  But my juvenile insult didn't have any effect on the young man, who was years past being a boy.

  He gave another of those low, rumbling laughs. " 'Aving the advantage o'er a vampire rozzer is quite the accomplishment, then, aye?"

  This time, the prickle that squirreled up my spine wasn't as pleasant. Not only did he know my name, but he knew my secret identity as well? My fingers tightened around the cool butt of the pistol.

  "What do you want?" I asked again. I'd definitely lost my advantage, if I'd ever even had one.

  He seemed to sense the change in my demeanor, for his own easy personality became more intense. "I don't know all that 'appened inside there tonight, but when the Jacks get called in, even a glocky like me knows 'tain't for the good. Someone buy it? The Ripper at it again?"

  I raised my eyebrows, even though I'm sure he couldn't see them in the dim light. "A glocky like you?" I understood his Cockney slang and the false modesty he was attributing to himself. Even from the few moments in his presence, I knew this man was not the least bit half-witted or, in his term, "glocky. "

  "Nothin' wrong with a bit o' modesty, luv, now, is there?"

  Just then I caught the faintest shadow of movement from above. He noticed it too, for we both looked up at the same moment. It was an odd airship, cruising much lower to the ground than usual.

  My companion muttered something, and the next thing I knew, I was propelled back into the deepest niche of the building's exterior. The force of his body, strong and quick, shoved me into the dark V of two brick walls as if he intended for us to melt into them.

  Surrounded by the damp, tobacco-scented wool of his coat, I found my chin pressed into his shoulder as a strong arm curved around my waist. Nevertheless, I kept looking up and watched as the strange airs
hip slid past us. Low enough to enter an air-canal, it slid between the buildings. It was so close, a person could step from the upper streetwalks onto the vessel.

  This was unlike any airship I'd ever seen. It was a slender, elliptical shape, smaller and more elegant than the ones I was familiar with, and it boasted wicked-looking fan-like wings and a swallowtail.

  This one . . . it moved like a dark cloud. Eerie and forbidding. Breathless. Ghost-like.

  "Bloody hell," my companion murmured.

  I realized with a shock that I was still plastered up between his formidable chest and the damp brick wall. And that his Cockney accent was all but gone. "What was that?"

  " 'Tis jus' as well ye don't know. 'S a battle ye'd be best out of. " He looked down. His face was close, his eyes focused steadily on me. The bridge of his nose was a slightly lighter shade than the shadows around him. I realized my breathing had gone shallow.

  "I'm certain they didn't see us. " I had to say something. Then I started to push him away, but he didn't move. And although I could have shoved him to the ground with ease, I held back. I didn't want to expose the full extent of my strength . . . even though he knew my identity.

  It was only then that I remembered to uncurl my fingers from the lapel of his coat.

  "What's the 'urry, luv?" he asked in a low, rumbling voice. "Ye' afraid I'm gonna fan ye 'ere?"

  The accent was back, thicker than ever. He was definitely faking it. "You won't find anything of value in my skirts," I replied, and tried not to think about where his hands had been . . . or could go . . . if indeed he tried to feel around my clothing in search of valuables. My cheeks heated there in the dark.

  "Not even this?" he asked, and suddenly there was my dratted pistol, right there between us, in his hand. The moon glinted off the engraved barrel as if magneted to it, being the only light in a dark corner. "A nice piece o' iron, luv. Though I would've expected somethin' a bit more fancy from the likes of a fang rozzer. "

  Blast! I hadn't even felt his hand moving about. "Who are you?" I needed to at least know the name of this man, who smelled like wood smoke and something else that was fresh and spicy.

  Our pivot into the corner had resulted in his soft cap being jolted to the back of his head, and I caught a full look at his face. I saw sharp eyes and a few waves of hair curling about his temples, but couldn't tell its color. He had a slender, elegant nose and dark slashing brows, and looked about twenty years old.

  He turned away, as if realizing I could see him clearly. "I'm called Pix," he replied, adjusting his cap low. To my surprise, he handed back my pistol.

  "Picks?" I repeated, slipping the pistol back into my pocket. There was no sense in letting him think I felt threatened and in need of a weapon. "As in . . . what you do to pockets? How appropriate. "

  "Nay, luv. Just Pix. Like the dangerous little sprites of legend that canna be caught. " His grin came again, but a bit lopsided this time.

  I smothered a snort. He was about as far from being like a little pixie fairy as I was from being a properly demure lady-in-waiting to Princess Alexandra. Although . . . I might have agreed with him on the dangerous part.

  "If ye ever get into trouble in the stews, ye just say you know Pix. " His voice had dropped to that low rumble again, and he captured my hand in his. Before I could pull it away, he lifted it between us, watching me . . . and then as my breath caught and my insides fluttered, he pressed his lips to the back of my hand.

  They were warm and soft, and left just the faintest bit of damp when he lifted his face.

  I couldn't believe his boldness, and I yanked my hand away, giving him a good, solid shove in the process. The back of my hand felt as if it were alive, burning from some searing mark, and my pulse pounded as if horses galloped through my veins. "Why would I need to invoke anyone's name for help?" I told him haughtily, resisting the urge to rub the imprint of his lips from my skin. "I am a Stoker, after all. "

  "Aye, ye are . . . every bit o' you," Pix replied, his voice low and smooth. He began to ease back, into the shadows cast by a row of hedge. "Which is why I'll leave ye to your own devices wit' nary a twinge o' my conscience. "

  "Wait," I said, remembering what he'd said earlier about seeing someone near the musuem. I stepped toward him, but he slid into darkness. The moon had gone behind a heavy cloud, and the lights that should have dotted the perimeter of the museum were dark. The bushes shifted.

  He didn't stop, but his voice floated in the night air, "If you need me, Miss Stoker, ye can find me through Old Cap Mago. "

  "Why would I need you?"

  "To tell ye what I saw tonight. " Now his voice was even farther away. "Before the razzers arrived. Big crate, bein' moved out. Guilty-lookin' flimpers, four o' 'em. "

  "A crate? How big?"

  He'd stopped, and although I had only an impression of where he was, I stared into the darkness. Why couldn't I see him? I had excellent night vision.

  "Bigger'n me. 'Eavy, from the looks o' it," Pix called from the shadows. "Put it in th'back o' a wagon. One of 'em 'ad another thin' too-long and slender. Like a cane. Went off southwise. "

  "When? When did you see this? And what were you doing here?"

  Silence. Drat. "Pix?"

  There was no response from the darkness but a faint chuckle and the rustle of leaves.

  In the distance, St. Paul's tolled four, and I gave in to the urge to rub his kiss from my skin.

  I hoped he was watching from the bushes.

 
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