Camille, p.1Tess Oliver
Copyright © 2009 by Tess Oliver
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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The shadows of the grave markers stretched thin across the mossy ground. I scooted nearer to Dr. Bennett. A layer of death rested eternally beneath me, yet the white heat of the moon infused the night air with energy.
“Another graveyard,” I said, “why always a cemetery?”
Dr. Bennett grabbed my hand and pulled me along the fence. We stooped low behind a dense row of shrubs. He lowered Dutch’s cage to the ground. “Perhaps, for the next hunt, we should send a short missive suggesting our prey show up in a more preferable location such as Hyde Park or the Adelphi.”
“I don’t see why not.” In a futile attempt to warm my feet, I reached down to tighten the laces on my boots. “We’ve been following the man for two hours. What if the paper was correct and the man was actually bitten by a dog?” I rubbed my hands together. The friction heated them but only for a moment. “If I find that I could have been at home, tucked on the settee with hot tea and a book instead of…”
Dutch’s hairless tail flicked through the bars of his cage and lightly brushed my cheek. I jumped, imagining a cold finger had reached up from one of the graves. A low growl rolled out from beneath the cat’s whiskers shattering my dog bite theory.
Dr. Bennett shifted onto his left knee, and the light conversation froze into rigid silence.
The cat’s gray stripes bristled, and it shrank back into a crouch. We’d saved the animal from two boys who’d been torturing it with a lit candle, hence the hairless tail. But it was not until we’d nursed the cat back to health that we’d discovered Dutch’s talent for sensing a lycanthrope. Drunken laughter pulled my attention away from the cage.
The lantern glow inside the caretaker’s shack cast a liquid stream of light across the yard and onto the unearthed coffin. A shiver vibrated my tired body, and I clutched my cloak tightly around my neck. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like if my life had not taken such a fierce turn. Not that I didn’t appreciate what Dr. Bennett had done for me. Without him, I surely would have ended up starving and homeless. Or worse. Besides, I’d tried to stop feeling sorry for myself long ago because it only made my life more pathetic.
My toes tingled with numbness as I rolled forward onto them and wrapped my gloved fingers around the black iron bars, the only barrier between me and the hallowed home of the dead. “You did remember the bullets this time,” I said as a statement, but it was more a question. Academically, Dr. Bennett was the smartest man in Britain. He’d read every science book written and even wrote a few himself. He was a distinguished member of several of the Scientific Societies, all with names too long to remember. But I had to remind him to do simple things like stir honey into his tea, put on shoes, and bring his silver bullets.
He patted the pistol in his pocket and nodded.
I glanced across the yard. Two silhouettes wavered in the small window of the shack. “I believe we’ve found tonight’s dinner special, fresh gravedigger with a side of caretaker.”
“Don’t be so crude, Camille. They have no idea the danger they’re in.” There was a stern edge to his voice but he knew that my ill-timed humor was a defense system. It kept us both from going mad. Dr. Bennett glanced across the deserted grounds to the coffin. “That funeral must have been hours ago. I don’t understand the delay.”
The two men laughed again not realizing that the next grave may very well be their own. “It’d serve them right, lazy louts. Spending the evening celebrating, while she sits out in the cold, waiting for eternal peace.”
“I hardly think the corpse is experiencing any discomfort from the cold.”
I hugged myself. “She may not be, but I’m frozen down to my drawers.”
“Spoken like a finely raised young lady. How do you know the corpse is a woman?”
“The casket is small and feminine. Anyone can see that.” Other girls my age were floating across polished dance floors, and I was standing in the cold assessing the size of a coffin. I stood and shook out my feet. A flicker of movement in a nearby tangle of ivy made me drop back to a crouch. We both relaxed simultaneously as a rat scurried past our feet. An unnatural silence surrounded us now. My heart raced as if I’d run a steep hill.
Dutch released a series of yowls. Dr. Bennett hastily removed his coat and threw it over the cage to silence the cat. His gaze shot across to the copse of trees at the far end of the cemetery, the last place we’d seen our prey still in the shape of a man. “No doubt the transformation is taking place as we speak.” A visible shudder ran through him, and he fished for the pistol in his pocket. None of this was new to us, yet even with experience, the terror of it never lessened.
A crackling of leaves snapped our attention to the south end of the cemetery. Three figures, one tall and two short, floated out from behind the vine covered mausoleum. Their nervous whispers swirled around the maze of crooked headstones. The smallest one tripped, and the tall one grabbed his coat collar and wrenched him back to his feet.
Dr. Bennett pressed his face closer to the gate. “Now, who’s this?”
“Splendid.” I leaned forward. “Who would have thought a cemetery could draw such a crowd.” A bitter taste filled my mouth. While I’d seen the horrific remnants of a werewolf attack, I’d never actually witnessed a victim being ravaged by one, and I intended to keep it that way. But five possible targets in one location seemed like unavoidable carnage. My stomach tightened somewhere between nerves and nausea.
We watched as the three sprinted across the path to the caretakers shack. The tall one knocked lightly as he took a peek back over his shoulder. He handed the gravedigger a bottle, and the stout man shut the door on the three boys.
“They look rather young.” I stood. “I’ll scare them off.”
Dr. Bennett took hold of my wrist. “Wait. Those lads are planning to rob that corpse. That explains the delay on the burial. They must have bribed the gravediggers with gin.”
“I don’t see how stolen jewelry will help them if the flesh has been shredded from their bones,” I whispered loudly.
Dr. Bennett’s eyes widened as something caught his attention across the way. His hold on my arm tightened as he yanked me down to my bottom. “It’s too late, Camille.”
I wrapped my arms around my knees and pulled them against my chest both for warmth and to keep my heart from slamming against my ribs. For an instant, my gaze floated up to the night sky. It looked as if someone had cut a perfect circle out of black broadcloth and patched it with a gold sovereign.
The tall lad pulled a metal pipe from his coat. The moonlight illuminated his face beneath the wild, black hair that framed it. It was a symmetrical face with a straight nose and a strong jaw. The thief bit his lip in concentration as he pried
I squeezed my legs tighter and shut my eyes for a moment attempting to transport myself into a bad dream that I could wake from at any moment. The ground beneath my frozen feet trembled. My eyes shot open and I looked at Dr. Bennett. The pallor of his skin assured me that he had felt the tremor too.
The boys were still huddled around the dead woman. One of the younger boys grabbed the tall boy’s arm. “Let’s go, Strider. Leave the bloody ring.”
The boy they’d called Strider reached into his coat and pulled out something shiny. With one swipe, he removed the corpse’s finger. Both the finger and ring dropped to the dirt. As he stooped to retrieve the gold circle, a ripple started in the boxwood lining the back fence of the cemetery. The wave of movement grew in speed and intensity.
A breath caught in my dry throat. Panic pushed me to my feet. I was in no mood to witness the murder of three pickpockets. “Give me my bloody finger!” I yelled into the night air.
“Christ, Strider, what’ve you done?” one of the smaller boys asked and grabbed the arm of the other, dragging him back the way they’d come. The lad with the knife stared in our direction, slipped the ring on his pinky, and ran off, leaving the disfigured hand draped in a macabre display over the side of the casket. At the back fence, he easily tossed the two smaller boys over. He grabbed the bars to hoist himself up but lost his grip and fell hard on his bottom.
“Get up, you fool.” My teeth ground against each other as I clenched my jaw. Then the sound came. It started as a guttural snarl and quickly exploded into a squall loud enough to shatter the stone angels that stood watch over the yard. My hands flew to my ears. It was an unbearable noise that sounded as if the wretched creature was caught somewhere between ecstasy and torture.
The thief shot to his feet.
Dr. Bennett raised the pistol in his shaky hand. “Godspeed,” he whispered as the boy grabbed the fence again. With preternatural speed, the beast bolted across the yard. Its putrid odor lingered in the cool night air. My gaze darted to the back fence. The tall boy had one leg still on the cemetery side as the beast’s jaws snapped at him. He yelled out before falling to the ground on the other side.
Blood pounded in my ears and gooseflesh covered my skin. I grabbed Dr. Bennett’s arm. “Shoot it.” The words barely broke free from tight lips.
It heard me. Like the dense orange center of a flame, its eyes flickered in the blackness. My head throbbed with each of its thunderous breaths. I grabbed the fence for support. At times like this, when my defenses were concentrated elsewhere, the disastrous memory of my father’s death surfaced. I could not pull my gaze from the beast’s eyes. Transfixed, I hoped to catch a glimpse of something, a glimpse of the human soul still within.
Dr. Bennett’s voice jolted me from my trance. “Run, Camille!”
I hesitated, not in fear but in worry for Dr. Bennett. My only true friend.
I pushed to my feet but my legs wobbled. The roar rolled closer. With rubbery legs, I flew across the path toward the road. A gunshot blasted behind me, and I stumbled but caught myself. I dared not look back. Up ahead I spotted three shadows darting down the gravel path that led out of the cemetery grounds. I followed.
My thin soled boots were no match for the myriad of rocks and holes in the road. One deep crevice wrenched my ankle into an unnatural position, and I fell to the ground. I jumped to my feet and wiped the gravel from my palms. A branch snapped behind me. Clumsily, I reached under my cloak to the pocket in my trousers. My fingers curled around the smooth ivory handle of the knife. I turned sharply on my heels, waving the gleaming silver blade in the air.
“Tis only me, Cami.”
A whimper of relief bubbled from my lips at the sound of Dr. Bennett’s voice. His chest heaved with deep breaths as he clutched Dutch’s cage in his hand. He lowered the cat to the ground as I ran to hug him. His embrace always felt logical, scientific, but it comforted me.
“The bullet landed in its leg. It limped off into the dark. I think it will be enough silver to finish him, poor wretch.” There was a heavy sadness in his words. “The gravediggers stayed hidden inside. More interested in their gin than in the outside events, I suppose.” He grabbed my shoulders, and I pulled my face from his chest and stared up at him. The color was inching back into his skin. “Let’s find that lad. I want to get a closer look at his leg.” Dr. Bennett picked up Dutch, grabbed my hand, and pulled me along.
A wall of heavy trees loomed over the road, nearly obliterating the light from the sky. Anybody or anything could lurk unseen in the thick foliage. Tendrils of fog curled up from the moist ground as our feet pounded the path. My ankle still ached. I held tightly to Dr. Bennett’s hand so I would not stumble again.
We raced along for a good fifteen minutes following their footprints. But as the gravel ended, so did our trail. “I’ve lost sight of them.” Dr. Bennett’s breath came in heavy spurts leaving puffs of steam in the cold air. “No doubt, they’re headed for Whitechapel.”
The warming glow of the gaslights lining Whitechapel Road smoothed the gooseflesh on my arms. Suddenly we were back amongst the living. During the day, the road was a throng of shop owners, shoeblacks, and newsvendors. Horses and cabs slammed over the uneven pavement with little regard for the poor souls on foot.
In the middle of the night, when the visitors retired to the safety of their homes, the road transformed into a quiet canal of cobblestone and brick, lined on either side with a rainbow of wavy shop windows. Up ahead, the towering white silhouette of St. Mary’s steeple stood lonely in the midnight sky. The street was far from deserted though.
We slowed our pace. Two men, enjoying alternate pulls on a bitter smelling cigar, leaned in the doorway of a vacant building. I yanked the hood of my cloak low over my face as Dr. Bennett approached them. A young girl had no place on the street after midnight unless she was a prostitute.
“I say, did you happen to see three young lads run past here recently?” Dr. Bennett asked.
One of the men had a long scar across his cheek. He squinted into the light to get a better look at the man addressing him. Dr. Bennett, with his neatly trimmed moustache and white-peppered beard, always appeared respectable. And for good reason, he was. No one would ever guess he’d just shot a man in the cemetery.
“Aye, three skinny ne’er-do-wells sprinted past just now. Looked like trouble, they did. The tall one must ‘ave been in quite a brawl.”
“Yes, yes. Which way did you say they went?” The strain of the night was getting to Dr. Bennett and his patience grew thin.
“I didn’t say nothin’ about it.” The man’s gaze dropped to the cage. “A bit strange seeing a grown man with a caged cat. You planning to cook ‘im?” His unshaven cheeks wobbled with laughter.
“About the three boys,” Dr. Bennett continued. “Did you see where they went?”
The man turned his attention to me. I stared down at my feet. Surely, the trousers looked strange hanging above my petite, kidskin boots. We were, no doubt, a curious pair, out for a stroll with our pet. But the drama of tonight’s adventure left me aching with exhaustion. I reached into Dr. Bennett’s coat pocket and fished out the expensive cigar he always had tucked inside.
“Sir,” I said louder than I’d anticipated, “we’re happy to part with this cigar, if you would be so kind as to point us in the direction they ran.”
Dr. Bennett’s gaze followed the cigar as I handed it to the eager man.
The man displayed a sparse row of yellowed teeth as he motioned with his head. “They ran toward Buck’s Row. There’s a hole in the wall down one of the back lanes where scoundrels with a ‘eavy pocket can trade trinkets for sour ale and bread.”
Dr. Bennett nodded politel
“Curse you, gravity. I think this cat needs a few less bacon scraps.” Dr. Bennett switched the cage to his other hand.
“Would you like me to carry the cage for awhile?” I asked, but I really didn’t have the energy to lug the heavy cat around town.
“No, I can manage. I’m going to miss that cigar though.”
I’d been to Buck’s Row only once before and in daylight. I shuddered thinking what it would be like at night. In this area of London, the neighborhoods changed drastically with a step in either direction. Sections of the streets were lined with comfortable homes, glittering shops and street carts overflowing with goods. Then there were the other sections, areas so wrought with poverty and despair even the street lights refused to be lit.
Loud voices and a badly tuned fiddle drew us down a narrow lane. A man and a woman crouched on a front stoop shared sips from a bottle of murky liquid. They eyed us greedily as we crept past. Dr. Bennett’s hand went instinctively to the pistol in his pocket. Further down, moans and grunts floated out from behind a stack of broken crates. Dr. Bennett took hold of my arm and urged me to move faster.
Prim, proper girl that I was, I twisted my head back to catch a glimpse down the passage. Dr. Bennett yanked me forward.
“There seems to be a great deal more activity on this side of town.”
He dragged me toward the music and voices. “I’ve raised an amusing girl with the vocabulary of a sailor who gives away imported cigars to men who would be just as pleased smoking a piece of dried fish rolled in parchment.”
“I believe it’s time to accept the loss of the cigar, John. By now those two blokes are leaning over a tavern table, puffing away as they recount their comical story about the bookish man, his odd companion, and their balding cat.”
Camille by Tess Oliver / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes