Excerpt: The Last Necromancer
Book 1 : The Ministry Of Curiosities
London, summer 1889
The other prisoners eyed me as if I were a piece of tender meat. I was someone new to distract them from their boredom, and small enough that I couldn’t stop one—let alone four—from doing what they wanted. It was only a matter of who would be the first to enjoy me.
“He’s mine.” The prisoner’s tongue darted out through his tangled beard and licked what I supposed were lips, hidden beneath all that wiry black hair. “Come here, boy.”
I shuffled away from him but instead of the brick wall of the cell, I smacked into a soft body. “Looks like he wants me, Dobby. Don’t ye, lad?” Large hands clamped around my arms, and thick fingers dug into my flesh through my jacket and shirt. The man spun me round and I gaped up at the brute grinning toothlessly at me. My heart rose and dove, rose and dove, and cold sweat trickled down my spine. He was massive. He wore no jacket or waistcoat, only a shirt stained with blood, sweat and grime. The top buttons had popped open, most likely from the strain of containing his enormous chest, and a thatch of gray hair sprouted through the gap and crept up to his neck rolls. Hot, foul breath assaulted my nostrils.
I tried to turn my face away but he grasped my jaw. The wrenching motion caused my hair to slide off my forehead and eyes, revealing more of my face than I had in a long time. A new fear spread through me, as sickening as the man I faced. Only two prisoners seemed interested in a boy, but if they realized I was a girl, the others would likely want me too.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re too pretty for a boy?” My tormentor chuckled, but he didn’t seem like he’d discovered my secret. “Pretty boys can get themselves into trouble.”
Girls even more so. It was just my ill luck to get caught stealing an apple from the costermonger’s cart outside the cemetery and wind up in the overcrowded holding cell at Highgate Police Station. The irony wasn’t lost on me, but it wasn’t in the least amusing. As an eighteen year-old girl, I should be separated from the men, but I’d been passing myself off as a thirteen year-old boy for so long it hadn’t even occurred to me to tell the policemen. With my half-starved body, and mop of hair covering most of my face, nobody had questioned my gender or age.
The big brute jerked me forward, slamming me against his body. My nose smacked into a particularly filthy patch of his shirt and I gagged at the combined stenches of sweat, vomit, excrement and gin. I wasn’t too clean myself, but this fellow’s odor was overpowering. Bile burned my throat but I swallowed it quickly. Showing weakness would only make it worse for me. I knew that from experience.
“Come here and keep old Badger warm.”
Warm? It was summer, and the cell was hotter than a furnace with four adult men and myself crammed into a space designed for one.
“I’m next,” said the bearded Dobby, closing in to get a better look at me.
“If there’s anything left of him after old Badger’s broken him in.” Badger chuckled again and fumbled with the front of his trousers.
I closed my hands into fists and clamped down on my fear. Shouting for the constable wouldn’t help. He’d told the other prisoners to “Enjoy,” when he’d tossed me into the cell. It had only been a few minutes since he’d walked off, whistling. It felt like hours. I had to fight now. It was the only way left. Not that I stood a chance against the men, but they might beat me unconscious, with any luck. It was best not to be awake while they took their liberties.
I swung my fist, but Badger was faster than he looked. He caught my wrist and sneered. “That ain’t going to help you.” The sneer vanished and he shoved me into the wall.
I put my hands up and managed to stop myself smashing into the whitewashed bricks, but my wrists and arms jarred from the force. I gasped in pain, but smothered the cry that welled up my throat.
“Leave the boy alone.” The voice wasn’t one I’d heard yet. It didn’t come from outside the cell but from another prisoner to my right.
“What’d you say?” Badger snarled.
“I said leave the boy alone. He’s just a child.”
I turned and pressed my back into the wall. My rescuer stood in a similar position, his arms crossed over his chest. He was perhaps late twenties, with fair hair and cloudy gray eyes circled by red-rimmed lids. He wasn’t nearly as tall as Badger, nor as solid, and I doubted he could defeat either Badger or Dobby in a fight. My heart sank.
“You going to make us?” Dobby asked.
The man shrugged then winced, as if the movement hurt. He sported a bruise on his cheek, and his blond hair was matted with blood. “One must try. It’s the decent thing to do.”
“‘One must try.'” Badger mimicked the other man’s toff accent to perfection. Dobby and the fourth prisoner, lounging on the cot bed, laughed.
Dobby straightened his back, threw out his chest, and affected a feminine walk to where the man stood. The prisoner on the bed laughed even harder at the hairy beast’s acting. “Oh, protect me from these brutes, sir,” whimpered Dobby in a high voice. “You’re my hero.”
The blond man lowered his hands to his sides and curled them into fists. I held my breath and waited for the first punch to be thrown. The man smiled instead. It held no humor.
Dobby tugged on the lapels of the blond man’s jacket, pretending to straighten it, then fidgeted with the high, stiff shirt collar. The gentleman wore no tie, and his hat and gloves were also missing. The fine cut of his clothes reminded me of my father, always so perfectly groomed. Even the fellow’s aristocratic bearing was very much like my father’s. Whether it was also an affectation this gentleman had developed, it was difficult to tell. I wasn’t as experienced with the upper members of society and their ways as I used to be.
“Finished?” the blond man drawled. I wondered why the gentleman had landed in jail and why he was defending me, a stranger. He’d get himself killed if he didn’t keep quiet.
His fun spoiled by the gentleman’s lack of fear, Dobby snorted and moved away. He turned back to me and licked his lips. Badger wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and eyed me with renewed interest. He reached for me, but the blond man smacked his hand away. Neither Badger nor I had noticed him approach.
Badger bared his teeth in a snarl. “You don’t get to ruin Badger’s fun!” He smashed his fist into the blond man’s face, sending him reeling back into the bed.
The prisoner lounging there had to quickly pull up his legs or be sat on. The blond man recovered, and with a growl of rage, lunged at Badger. But he swung his fists wildly and his blows merely glanced off the bigger, meaner prisoner. Badger responded with another punch to the gentleman’s jaw. Blood splattered from the blond man’s mouth as he careened backward and slammed into the wall. His head smacked into the bricks, and the crack of his skull turned my stomach.
Dobby laughed, sending spittle flying from the slit in his beard. Badger dusted off his hands and watched as the gentleman folded in on himself and crumpled to the floor like a ragdoll. My heart sank, and it was only then that I realized I’d let it rise in hope.
My rescuer was dead.
A sickening fear assaulted me along with the memories of that terrible night five years ago when my mother had died. I could still hear my father’s accusation, still feel the sting of his belt across my back, and the icy rain he’d sent me into with the order never to return home.
Yet those awful memories could help me now. If the prisoners reacted to my strange ability as my father had… It was my only hope.
I knelt alongside the gentleman’s lifeless form and placed my hands on either side of his face, as I had done to my mother after she’d breathed her last. While I’d been overset by tears then, I wasn’t now, and I could see the gray pallor of death consuming his youthful face. I stroked his jaw. It was still warm and his short whiskers felt rough on my palms.
Someone behind me snickered. “You can’t do nothing for him now, boy. Let old Badger comfort you, eh?”
I didn’t move and he didn’t rip me away from the body, thank goodness. I needed to touch it. At least, I think I did. I’d only ever done this once before. What if I couldn’t repeat it? What if my connection to my mother had been the key that time, and it wouldn’t work on a stranger?
I caressed his face as if we’d been the most intimate of lovers, and willed his spirit to rise. Please speak to me. Do this for me and help me to live. I don’t want to die here like this.
I didn’t want to die at all. That in itself was something of a revelation, but I had no chance to think about it further. A pale wisp rose from the body. At first it looked like a slender ribbon of smoke, then it grew larger and took on the shape of the dead man. It was still as thin as a veil of silk chiffon, but it moved as if it held solid form.
The spirit frowned at me from his floating position then settled his gaze on his own lifeless figure. He sighed. “And so it ends.”
My heart ground to a halt. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
The spirit blinked at me, as if surprised that we were communicating. “Not your fault. I brought it on myself. I’d had enough of living, you see.” He sighed again. “My parents said I would amount to nothing and they were right. Couldn’t even get in a good punch.” He nodded at Badger, who was standing behind me.
“What’s he saying?” Dobby asked.
“He’s talking to the dead,” Badger said. “Boy’s mad.” He snorted and spat a glob of green mucus on the floor near my feet. “Get up, lad. It won’t go well for you if I have to drag you over here.”
The spirit’s face twisted with disgust. “Wish I could have done something to help you, child. I haven’t accomplished much in my life, but my hatred of bullies is well known. Just ask my father.” He laughed at a joke I wasn’t privy to. “That’s something, eh? A legacy I can leave behind?”
I didn’t think it was much of a legacy, but I didn’t say so. He was my only friend in that cell, and I needed him. “There is one thing you can do for me before you go,” I whispered.
“What’s he saying?” Dobby repeated.
“I don’t bloody care.” Badger’s hand closed around my shoulder and he wrenched me away from the body. He fumbled with the front of his trousers again. I had only seconds.
“Get back into your body,” I told the spirit. I no longer kept my voice low. He needed to hear me, and it didn’t matter who else did now. The die was already cast.
The spirit didn’t move. “How?”
I wasn’t entirely sure. When my mother had done it, she’d simply floated back down into her body when I’d asked her to. “Lie on your…self,” I told him.
Badger’s fingers gripped my jaw, smashing the inside of my mouth into my teeth. “Shut it,” he snapped. “I don’t want to hear no lunatic talk. Do ye hear me?”
“He’s soft in the head.” Dobby bent to get a better look at me. If Badger hadn’t been holding my jaw, I would have smashed my forehead into his nose.
“Bloody hell!” The other prisoner leapt off the bed, his eyes huge. “He’s still alive!”
Badger let me go. He stumbled back and stared at the now standing body. It wasn’t alive, but the spirit had re-entered it and was controlling it. Even though I knew what was happening, the sight still made my blood run cold.
The body turned to Badger. The insipid, blank eyes of the dead man were as lifeless as they had been moments ago, and I wasn’t certain how the spirit could see through them.
The third prisoner crossed himself. Dobby mewled. Badger continued to stumble backward until he fell over his own feet and landed heavily on his backside.
“What…me…do?” The brittle, thin voice coming from the corpse startled me as much as it did the prisoners. It was nothing like the spirit’s smooth one. It was as if he labored to get the dead vocal organs working.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Jesus christ,” Dobby muttered. He joined the other prisoner in the cell corner, as far away from the body and me as possible.
“You…control…me.” The body bent over the cowering, sweating Badger. The brute looked like he’d pee his trousers if the dead man got any closer. “Kill?”
“Can you?” I asked. It wasn’t a request but an honest question, since the gentleman hadn’t been able to so much as punch Badger when he’d been alive. As the color drained from Badger’s face, I realized how it must have sounded. I didn’t correct myself.
“Constable!” Badger screamed. “Constable, get this madman out of here!”
Was he referring to the reanimated corpse or me? I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Perhaps I was mad, but seeing the cruel Badger frightened out of his wits was the most gratifying experience of my life, and I was going to enjoy it while it lasted.
Unfortunately that wasn’t long. The constable’s face appeared at the slit in the door. “What’s all this noise about?”
“Get it out! Get it out!” Badger threw his arms over his face, like a child hiding under the sheets at night.
“Shut up in there!”
“He’s gone mad,” I said to the guard.
Badger kept screaming at the constable to remove “the devil,” and the other prisoner joined in. Dobby slunk back against the wall, away from us. Away from the door.
The door that was now opening. “Bloody hell, don’t make me come in there, you bleedin’ idiot,” said the constable, as he stepped into the cell. He wasn’t armed, and his attention was distracted by Badger and the others. “What’s got up your arse, anyway?”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said quietly to the corpse.
Like an automaton, the body turned stiffly toward the door. The constable took one look at those dead eyes and fell to his knees. “Devil,” he muttered before launching into an earnest prayer.
I almost didn’t move, so stunned was I at the similarity to my father’s reaction when he’d first seen Mama’s corpse rise. But a nudge from the dead man got my feet working. I slipped past the constable and out the door. The body lumbered after me with jerky, awkward steps, as if the swift movement was too difficult for its dead, uncoordinated limbs.
“Hoy there! Stop!” Another policeman ran toward us, his truncheon raised.
The body pulled back bloodless lips and hissed. The constable dropped the truncheon then took off in the opposite direction.
“Hurry,” I urged the body.
“If you wish.” His voice sounded stronger, not as strained, and his steps were more sure now. He seemed to have adjusted to his deceased state.
We ran along a corridor, past another two holding cells. Three more constables fell back from us with gasps and terrified mutterings. Only one challenged us, and the corpse under my command pushed him away. Easily. It seemed he was stronger, now he was dead, than when he was alive.
“You there!” shouted the constable behind the desk in the reception room. “What’s—?” He stumbled back as the corpse turned vacant eyes and white face toward him.
The clang of a bell sounded from behind us, warning of a prisoner escape. Ordinarily it would signal for all available constabulary at the station to chase us, but none did. Their fear of “the devil” overrode any sense of duty.
The dead man pushed me toward the door. We ran, but he stopped before reaching freedom. I stopped too.
“Do not let them catch you, child!”
“And you?” I asked.
“When you are safe, release my spirit.”
“Speak the command. Now go!”
The desk constable approached uncertainly, his shaking hand clutching a revolver. He swallowed heavily and pointed it at the corpse.
I slipped out the door and into South Grove. The street was surprisingly empty, but then I realized any passersby would have scattered when they heard the bell. I darted into a nearby lane as a gunshot joined the cacophony.
“I release you,” I said softly. “Go to your afterlife.”
I never found out if my words, spoken from some distance, were enough to release the spirit from his body and send him on his way. I hoped so. He’d died for me, and I owed him whatever peace was in my power to give.
I kept running, not daring to stop or steal anything, despite my hunger. I hadn’t eaten in three days, and then it had been only some strawberries. My last experience at thieving had got me arrested. It was the one and only time I’d been caught. I prided myself on being one of the best thieves on the north side of London, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to trust myself again. For now, it didn’t matter. I was too intent on getting as far away from the police as possible to think of food.
When I finally reached Clerkenwell, I slowed. My throat and lungs burned, my heart crashed against my ribs. But I was far from Highgate Police Station and there’d been no sign of pursuit. I took the long route to the rookery, just in case, and stopped outside the old, crumbling house with the rotten window sashes and door. I glanced up and down the lane, and seeing no one about I pulled aside the loose boards at knee height. I squeezed through the hole and let the boards flap closed behind me.
“Charlie’s back!” shouted Mink, standing lookout near the trapdoor that led down to the cellar. The boy lifted his chin at me in greeting. It was as much as he ever acknowledged me. He wasn’t much of a talker.
“‘Bout bloody time!” came the gruff voice of Stringer, from down in Hell. That’s what we called the cellar. It was an apt name for our crowded living quarters where we ate, slept and passed the time. It was cold and damp in winter, hot and airless in summer, but it kept us off the streets and out of danger.
“Thought you’d scarpered.” Stringer popped his head through the trapdoor. His face and hair were dirty, and I could smell the stink of the sewers on him from where I stood near the entrance. He must have gone wandering down there again.
“I got arrested,” I said.
Both Stringer and Mink blinked at me. Then Stringer roared with laughter, almost propelling himself off the ladder. “You! Fleet-foot Charlie, caught by the filth! Well, well, never thought I’d see the day. Oi, lads, listen to this—Charlie got himself arrested!”
“How’d you get out?” asked Mink in his quiet voice. He was a serious boy, compared to the others, and watchful. He didn’t join in with the annoying pranks they liked to pull, and he could read well enough too. I liked him more than the rest of the gang members, but that wasn’t saying much. I’d almost asked him how he’d learned to read and where he’d lived before he found himself part of Stringer’s gang, but decided against it.
I didn’t know any of the children’s pasts, and they didn’t know mine. Nor did I get too friendly with them. It would make it easier to leave, when the time came. No goodbyes, no sorrows, no ties; that was my motto. I moved on twice a year, every year, and had done so since that wet night Mama died. I couldn’t have lived as a thirteen year-old boy for over five years if I’d stayed with one gang the entire time.
“Bit of luck,” was all I said to Mink. “Move it, Stringer, and let me past.” I thumped his shoulder.
He descended the ladder and I followed, leaving Mink to watch the entrance.
“Charlie!” cried another boy named Finley. Mink, Stringer, Finley…they weren’t real names but, like mine, they were probably near enough. “How’d they catch you, then? Dangle a clean pair of britches in front of ya nose?”
The eight lads lounging in the cellar fell over each other laughing. Ever since I’d mentioned wanting to steal clean clothes to replace my reeking ones, I’d been the butt of their jokes. It made a change from them teasing me for refusing to strip off so much as my shirt in front of them.
“Pigs were hiding near the costermonger’s cart,” I said, lying down on the rags I used as a mattress. It was cleaner than the actual mattress that had been dragged down from the upstairs bedroom before the roof caved in. Cleaner, but not free of lice. I scratched my head absently. “I think the costermonger told them to look out for me.”
“Serves you bloody right for getting slack,” Stringer said, kicking my bare foot. I didn’t rub the spot, despite the pain. It was never a good idea to show weakness, even among boys from my own gang. Perhaps especially to them. “And for going back there. Again.”
One of the other boys snorted. “What you going there all the time for, anyway, Charlie? What’s in Highgate?”
“Idiot. Don’t you know nothing?” Stringer leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. In that pose, he reminded me of the gentleman in the holding cell. Both blond and slender, there was a certain bravado and defiance about them.
My heart pinched. I regretted that the man had lost his life because of me. I sent a silent word of thanks to Heaven, Hell, or wherever he’d ended up. I wouldn’t forget his sacrifice, nor would I make the same mistake again and allow myself to be caught. Life was precarious for homeless children. And women.
Stringer rubbed his thumb along his smirking lower lip. “He goes to the cemetery.”
I went very still. He must have followed me once. How much did he know? Did he see me visit Mama’s grave? Or wander around the other headstones, imagining what the deceased had once looked like and how they’d lived? Did he know I liked to sit beneath the cedar trees and dream the day away?
Finley pulled a face. “Blimey, Charlie, that’s a bit mordid, ain’t it?”
“Morbid,” I corrected him automatically.
Stringer’s smirk turned to a sneer. “Shut your hole, Charlie. No one cares what you been doing, anyway. You got caught today. You got slow.” He leaned down and poked me in the shoulder. “Never forget that.” He hated when I corrected them. It always seemed to bring out the worst in him. I supposed it was because it made him feel inferior to me, when in fact he was the eldest and the leader. Well, not actually the eldest, but no one there knew it.
The boys were aged from eight to fifteen. Stringer was not only the eldest but also the biggest. He was already the size of a grown man, and there were rumblings about him leaving the gang of children to take up with a band of more ruthless men who lived in the neighborhood. Two of the boys had even approached me to take over from him, but I’d refused. It would probably mean I’d have to fight Stringer, and there was no way I could win against him. Besides, it was coming time for me to move on again. Mink in particular was beginning to look at me like he was trying to solve a puzzle. Sometimes I wondered if he already knew that I wasn’t who I said I was.
“Anything to eat?” I asked to distract Stringer.
“Some bread,” he said, jerking his head at the boy nearest the board we used as a table.
The boy tossed a hunk of bread to me. I caught it. Not a crumb flaked off the hard crust. I set it aside with a sigh, not wanting to break my teeth.
The afternoon wore on. Boys came and went, some bringing food and water that I didn’t touch. While I was hungry, they were hungrier. They always were. That was the problem with boys. I had at least finished my growing. Not that I had much to show for it. Sometimes I wondered if I would have been taller with a more womanly figure if I’d had plenty to eat in the last five years. I would never know now. My size helped me to blend in, so I wasn’t overly disappointed.
I slept until it was my turn to watch the entrance, then slept again after Finley relieved me. It was mid-morning on a dreary day when I got the first inkling that something was amiss. The boys who returned from foraging—as we called our thieving stints—eyed me warily. They whispered behind their hands and tittered nervously.
“What is it?” I said as one boy crossed himself when he passed me. “Why is everyone staring at me like I’ve got two heads?”
He wouldn’t answer.
“Mink? You’ll tell me.”
But even Mink kept his distance and wouldn’t speak to me. I did overhear him tell a group of boys that it wasn’t possible and the devil didn’t exist, nor did God. That earned him an eye-roll.
When Stringer returned around midday, and also gave me a wide berth and strange looks, I decided it was time to go for a walk. I wasn’t getting answers. I didn’t need them anyway. I knew what they’d heard. The gossip network among the gangs was more efficient than any telegraph.
I left through the hole in the wall and made my way north out of Clerkenwell. I felt no fear walking among people who were little better off than me. It was safer in the downtrodden suburb than the holding cell at the police station. My patched up clothing and shoeless feet marked me as not worth robbing, and if a man wanted to rape someone, he would wait for dark, and choose someone slower and most likely female. There were easier pickings than a small, quick youth.
I wandered for hours, not really heading anywhere. Or so I thought. When I found myself at the top of a familiar Tufnell Park street, I realized long-buried habit had taken me home.
Home. The detached red brick house with the white trim couldn’t be called that anymore. Home was where you slept at night, and where people who loved you welcomed you with open arms. My father still lived there, but I doubted he would let me in if I knocked on the door. I had visited from time to time, but never ventured further than the shrubs inside the front gate behind which I hid as I waited for my father to make an appearance. Most times he didn’t. I’d seen him only twice in five years, when he’d invited in a parishioner who’d come to his door. He’d welcomed them with smiles and a warm handshake.
I checked up and down the street and, seeing no one, opened the gate. I cringed at the squeak of hinges and quickly ducked behind the shrubbery. Spindly twigs grabbed at my hair and the patch sewn over my jacket elbow tore. The bush was in need of pruning. Mama had been the gardener, not Father. There were signs of neglect everywhere, now that I looked closer. Weeds sprouted along the flowerbeds and moss grew between the brick pavers. The gate needed oiling and the front steps needed sweeping. I wondered if the housekeeper had kept the inside clean or if she’d let her standards lapse too, now that Mama wasn’t there.
I adjusted my position to alleviate the cramping in my legs. After a few more minutes, I needed to shift my weight again. What was I doing here? Why did I need to see him? He’d made it clear that he didn’t want me. “The devil’s daughter,” he’d called me, right before he hustled me outside into the rain.
I’d stood near this very bush, crying, hoping he’d change his mind when his temper cooled, but knowing he would not. Then, like now, I knew I would never be forgiven for making Mama’s corpse come to life. I was an unholy abomination against God, according to my father. He should know, being a vicar.
I was about to get up when the gate squeaked. I peered through the shrubbery leaves to see a gentleman in a gray suit closing it. He was of medium height and slender build, with brown hair poking out from beneath his top hat. I caught only a glimpse of his face, but it was enough to know that he was about forty with a strong jaw and nose. I didn’t recognize him, so if he was a parishioner, he must be new to the area.
I couldn’t leave now. I might catch a glimpse of my father. Perhaps it was foolish to want to see a man who did not want to see me, yet I did. I never claimed to be anything but a fool.
The stranger knocked, and the housekeeper opened the door. The stranger introduced himself, but all I heard was “Doctor,” the rest was taken by the wind. Was father ill? I was trying to decide how I felt about that when the housekeeper asked him to wait then disappeared. A moment later, he appeared in her place. Father.
Emotion washed through me like tidal waves, threatening to overwhelm me. First happiness at seeing him alive and healthy, then sadness that he didn’t want me, and finally anger for the manner in which he had disowned me at the age of only thirteen. I’d heard much later that he told his parishioners I’d been kidnapped. The police had even searched for me. I wondered how long a person needed to be missing for them to be declared dead. Did I even officially exist anymore?
My emotions and thoughts stopped tumbling in all directions with the next words spoken by the stranger. “I’m seeking a particular girl of eighteen years of age. I believe one lives here.”
The look on my father’s face probably matched mine. His mouth opened and closed, wobbling jowls that had gone pale. When he finally found his voice, it came to me clearly across the garden. “You’re mistaken. There’re no girls here.”
He went to shut the door, but the stranger thrust his foot into the gap. I strained to hear. “Are you Mr. Anselm Holloway?”
“Kindly leave my premises,” my father said.
“Not until I have answers. I believe you have a daughter, Miss Charlotte Holloway, who is eighteen.”
“I told you.” My father’s voice had taken on that stern, commanding tone he used in his sermons, and when banishing daughters. “There are no girls living here. Kindly remove yourself from my premises, Doctor.”
For one long moment I thought the stranger would force his way into the house, but he did as asked and removed his foot. My father slammed the door and the doctor walked back down the footpath. I was sure to get a better look at him this time. He was quite handsome, for a man of middle age, with the smooth face of someone who spent most of his time indoors. He wore his whiskers very short and only on the sides. The flecks of gray in them gave him an air of authority that his soft cheeks did not.
Should I announce myself to him now, or wait until I could slip away from the house undetected and catch up further along the street? I abandoned the idea altogether when I saw his eyes. They were filled with fury. Rage pulsed from him with every determined step. The muscles in his jaw twitched and his lips peeled back from his teeth as he muttered something under his breath that I couldn’t quite hear. He uncurled one fist to open the gate then slammed it shut behind him. He stalked off down the pavement, stopping a few feet away to cast a piercing glare back at my father’s house. Then he continued on, around the corner, and was gone from sight.
No, I would not reveal myself to him yet. Not until I knew if he was as dangerous as he looked.
I considered how best to find out more about him as I walked back to Clerkenwell. Perhaps the housekeeper would tell me his full name if I asked. But she might alert Father to my visit. Perhaps I could return to the house tomorrow and wait again. The doctor might also return, looking for me. I could then follow him home and question his neighbors as to his nature.
But what if he caught me and was indeed up to no good? I had the horrible feeling that his searching for me was connected to the gossip my gang had been hearing that morning, and the thing I’d done in the Highgate holding cell. It might be wise to avoid him and lay low for a while. Or leave the gang altogether.
Yes. I would do it that afternoon, while there was still enough daylight. After I retrieved my few belongings, I would set off and get far away from Clerkenwell and Stringer’s gang.
I pulled the loose boards back from the hole in the wall, but someone blocked the entrance from the other side. Stringer came through, followed by Finley and the others. They spilled onto the street like rats escaping a sinking ship via the porthole.
“This is her!” Stringer shouted.
I blinked at him. “Who’re you talking to?”
“You need to come with us.” Someone gripped my elbow, but not hard. It was easy enough to wrench free.
I spun round and backed away from the two burly men. “Don’t touch me,” I snapped.
One of them held up his hands. “Apologies, boy, but we need to speak to you.”
“No, he needs to come with us,” the other man countered with a roll of his eyes. He was a little taller than the first fellow, and a lot uglier. His features were put together like a roughly hewn cliff beneath the craggy ridge of his brow. A curved scar sliced across his cheek and pulled down the corner of one eye. His small mouth and thin lips seemed out of proportion to the rest of him.
“Right,” said the first man. His handsome face was a stark contrast to his friend’s. Fair hair flopped down from beneath his hat and fell into wide gray eyes that blinked at me without guile. He smiled a dazzling smile. “Come on, lad. We’ll see that you get a hot meal.” He sniffed and wrinkled his nose. “And a bath.”
“I don’t want food and a bath,” I said, hoping they couldn’t detect my lie. “I want to know where I’m going and why.”
“Can’t tell you that,” said the bigger man. “Orders are to bring you back.”
They seemed harmless enough, and the offer of food and a bath sounded wonderful. Too wonderful. I’d heard of street children being lured into slavery and prostitution in just such a manner. I lived by the rule that if something sounded too good to be true, it usually was. That rule had kept me safe so far, and I wasn’t about to abandon it now.
“Why me?” I asked them. Had they heard what had happened in the holding cell? If so, how had they traced me here so quickly? Money must have changed hands, and a few key questions asked of the right people. The police weren’t well enough connected, so these fellows weren’t officials. Whoever they were, I doubted they had good intentions.
“Dunno,” said the ugly one with a shrug of his heavy shoulders. “We just carry out orders.”
Convenient. “What did they offer you to rat on me?” I asked Stringer.
“Enough.” Stringer shoved me in the back. “Go on. Go. We don’t want you round here no more. You’re trouble, Charlie, and your freak tricks will bring more people to our den if you don’t bugger off. Word’s out now, so you gotta go. Right, lads?”
“Right,” chimed in the other boys, even Mink. I shot them all withering glares then turned back to the two newcomers. They’d taken a step closer to me and they held themselves tense, as if ready to spring. If I were going to avoid being caught, I would have to be quick.
“I’m not going anywhere with you until you tell me why,” I said.
The ugly one blew out an exasperated breath. “Bloody hell, stop being a stubborn little turd and just come with us.”
The pretty one rolled his eyes. “What my friend is trying to say is that we mean you no harm.”
“Unless you don’t copperate.”
“It’s co-operate, idiot, and well done. You’ve just made the boy soil his trousers.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” I told him.
“You should be. Death won’t be as civil as us.”
Death? They meant to kill me if I didn’t go with them?
Pretty held up his hands. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, lad, but—”
“Bloody hell,” muttered Ugly. “We ain’t got time for this. Grab him and let’s go. Death’ll have our guts if we take too long.”
“Death will come and do the job himself, like he always does when you mess up.”
I turned and ran.
“Jesus,” growled Pretty. “Get back here! It won’t go well for you, that way.”
Their footsteps pounded behind me, but they were slow and I managed to streak ahead. “You should’ve grabbed him,” I heard Ugly say.
“You’re not in charge here, I am.”
“You bloody well are not. He is.”
“He’s not here!”
“Oh yeah? Who’s that, then, eh?”
Just as he said it, I tripped over something thrust in my path. I landed on the pavement on my hands and knees, scraping off several layers of skin. There was no time to wallow in the pain or assess the damage. I scrambled up, only to find two strong hands clamping down on my arms, pinning them to my sides. I struggled, but it was useless. The man behind me was far stronger. I stopped struggling to lull him, but his grip didn’t relax. Damn, damn and hell. I heard Ugly and Pretty approaching and knew I had to act immediately or it would be three against one.
I kicked backward, smashing my foot as hard as I could into my captor’s shin, then jerked my head back hard. Unfortunately, his height worked against me and I only managed to hit ribs instead of a throat, chin or nose. The kick earned a sharp intake of breath from my abductor, but otherwise he didn’t make a sound. Nor did he loosen his grip.
I was out of ideas. I was good at avoiding capture—usually—but not so good at freeing myself afterward. The panic seizing my breath and overriding my brain wasn’t helping either. Should I scream? Would anyone come to my rescue if I did?
Instinct took over and I struggled again, trying to wrench myself free. But that only made his fingers dig further into my flesh with bruising strength.
“Stay still,” he snarled, in a voice that welled up from the depths of his chest.
“Or what?” I was pleased that I sounded defiant. If I couldn’t have my liberty, I could at least hold onto some dignity.
“Or I’ll be forced to hurt you.”
As if he wasn’t already.
“Want me to shoot him, sir?” That was Ugly’s voice.
“Idiot,” said Pretty. “What’ll that achieve?”
“Doubt he’ll feel very co-operative with a bullet wound.”
The grip of the man holding me changed, but before I could use the opportunity to my advantage, I was rendered immobile once more. He wrenched my arms behind my back and pinned them there.
I winced as pain shot down to my wrists and numbed my fingers. “You’re hurting me!”
The man they called Sir didn’t answer.
“To be fair, he did warn you,” said Pretty.
Ugly snorted a laugh.
Sir shoved me forward, but I refused to walk. I wasn’t going to make this easy for him.
“Move,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm in my ear.
I pulled my knees up so that my feet were clear of the pavement. He didn’t so much as grunt with the effort of suddenly taking all my weight. I, however, gasped as my arms screamed in agony and my left shoulder popped out of its socket. I bit my lip to stop myself crying out and tried kicking again, but it only served to put more pressure on my already burning arms and shoulders.
“Fool,” Pretty muttered. He appeared in front of me and, walking backward to keep pace, went to push my hair off my face.
I jerked my head from side to side then when that didn’t work, spat at him. Ugly laughed.
“Little blighter.” Pretty raised a hand to strike me, but Sir’s steely, “Don’t,” stopped him.
“Go on ahead,” Sir said. “Let me know if someone comes.”
Pretty glared at me then he and Ugly strode off around the corner.
“Stop resisting,” Sir said to me. “Nobody wants to harm you.”
“Your name Mr. Nobody, eh?” I laughed at my joke although I didn’t find it funny. “I’m not going anywhere with you until you tell me what you want with me.”
“We can’t talk here.”
“Then we won’t be talking at all, Mr. Nobody.”
He continued to carry me forward, only to stop when Ugly’s face appeared around the corner. “Gang of rough looking types coming this way!”
A gang? They might be willing to help me, but it was unlikely. Most of the “rough looking types” in Clerkenwell only helped when there was something in it for them. Yet I had to try and get them on my side. I could claim Sir and his men were police. “Rough looking types” hated the constabulary. I opened my mouth to scream, but before a sound came out, Sir clamped a large hand over my mouth and my nose. He pulled me back against his body, one arm now bracing me around my waist, still pinning my arms, the other smothering me.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move to scratch at his hand. The harder I tried to breathe, the quicker I used up the remaining air in my lungs. My chest burned, my throat closed, and blackness crept in from the edges of my vision.
He was going to kill me and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. Fog clouded my thoughts. I felt my strength drain away. He finally let me go, but I could not have run even if I’d had my wits about me.
The darkness swallowed me. I felt my body being lifted, but I was unsure if it were by human arms or the Reaper’s, come to take my soul to the afterlife. All I did know was that everything was about to change.
I didn’t need to open my eyes to know that I was inside a coach. It had been many years since I’d ridden in one but the rocking sensation was unmistakable, as was the subtle scent of the leather seat on which I lay. My hands and feet were tied and I lay on a bench seat, facing forward. My shoulder still hurt, but not as badly as before. It had popped back into the socket while I was unconscious. By luck or by my captors?
At least one of them was with me in the cabin. I could hear soft breathing and feel a gaze upon me. My hair still covered half my face, reaching past my nose. A small mercy.
“I wasn’t expecting him to put up a fight.” That was Pretty’s cultured voice, coming from the seat opposite. Unless he was talking to himself, there must be another beside him.
“The lad’s got some fire in his belly,” Pretty went on. He paused, yet there was still no response from his companion. I suspected it was the one they called Sir then, not Ugly. Ugly was more talkative. “Do you think he’ll have answers?”
“Some.” Yes, definitely Sir. I recognized his rich, velvety tones.
“Do you think he knows where she is?”
She? Who was he talking about?
“Perhaps,” Sir said.
Pretty grunted. “Think he’ll tell us where to find her, if he does?”
“I’ll see to it.”
A cold lump of dread lodged in the pit of my stomach. He had no qualms rendering me unconscious to capture me, so what methods would he employ to get answers? Answers to what? I didn’t know the whereabouts of any missing women—
Unless he meant me, Charlotte Holloway. If so, it seemed he hadn’t connected Charlie the boy to Charlotte the missing girl. Yet. I needed to get away from him as soon as possible, before he worked it out. With my hands and feet tied, escape was not going to be easy.
The men didn’t speak for some time and the silence between them felt awkward. They weren’t friends then, but more likely master and servant. A good ten or fifteen minutes passed before the leather seat creaked beneath the shifting weight of one of them.
Pretty cleared his throat. “Odd that he hasn’t woken up yet.”
“He’s awake,” Sir said.
How had he known?
The leather seat creaked again and I felt warm breath on my chin. I opened my eyes, startling Pretty. “How long have you been awake?” he asked.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t want him knowing I’d overheard their conversation.
The man sitting beside him spoke instead. “Since we drove off.”
Sir was not what I expected. He was strikingly handsome, although he seemed to want to downplay his good looks. His black wavy hair reached to his shoulders, a few errant strands spilling over one sharp cheek. No gentleman I’d ever seen kept his hair that length or in such disarray. Nor was the hair on his face the latest fashion. Instead of being styled and oiled to a sheen, it shadowed his jaw as if he’d forgotten to shave for two days. If he didn’t wear such a fine, well-fitting suit, I would not have thought him a gentleman at all. He didn’t even wear a hat or gloves.
I sat up, which was not an easy task, trussed up as I was. Neither man assisted me. I shrank into the corner then remembered I was trying to look defiant and unafraid. I tilted my chin and stared into Sir’s black, black eyes.
That was a mistake. He met my gaze with his own fiercely direct one, and I felt like I was being sucked into a well so endless it would take a lifetime to reach the bottom. He gave away nothing through his eyes, yet I felt he could see everything in mine. Surely he must know I was not who I claimed to be. I wanted to look away before he saw too much, but I could not. He was much too compelling.
It was only because the carriage slowed that I was released. He glanced out the window and my own gaze followed. We drove through a set of enormous iron gates spiked with spearhead finials, then along a drive. Lawn carpeted the landscape, the occasional tree or shrub interrupting the smooth surface. I craned my neck and finally caught a glimpse of our destination as we rounded a gentle bend.
I gaped at the mansion. It sat atop a low rise like a crow with wings spread out in either direction. The building was a mad collection of shapes. Tall, narrow pinnacles shot from the centers of square towers positioned between the triangular gables and rectangular chimneys. But it was the central tower that caught my attention. At almost twice the height of the rest of the house, it was an imposing entrance. Beneath the three cones at its crown was a small window, then nothing but dark stone plunging down to the large arched door. Rapunzel wouldn’t look out of place in that high window, but it would take more than a lifetime for her hair to grow long enough to reach the ground.
I recoiled and suppressed a shiver. Sir watched me with those all-seeing eyes of his. His expression remained cool, detached, unreadable. It was unlikely he cared what I thought about our destination, unless he could use that fear against me.
“Is this Bedlam?” I asked. I could well imagine the mansion was the infamous insane asylum. It looked bleak enough to house those miserable, mad people. People like me.
Pretty snorted. “An apt assessment, but no.”
The coach pulled to a stop and Sir opened the door himself. No servants emerged from the house to do it for him. The cabin dipped as he stepped off, then dipped again as someone jumped down from the driver’s seat.
Ugly came into view beside Sir. “How’s he going to walk with his feet all bound up like that?”
“You’re going to carry him,” Pretty said.
Ugly looked to Sir, but he merely walked off. “Put him in the tower room,” he said. “See that he’s fed and bathed.”
“Don’t just stand there, pizzle head.” Pretty signaled to Ugly. “Come get him.”
Ugly grimaced, revealing two rows of broken, jagged teeth. “Why don’t you do it?”
“Because I’m in charge, and the one in charge doesn’t do any hard labor.”
“You’re not in charge, Death is.” Ugly jerked his head at the retreating figure of Sir. They called him Death behind his back and Sir to his face? I wondered if he knew.
“I’m second in command, and since he’s no longer here, I am in charge. Grab the little blighter and get him up to the tower room.”
Ugly sighed and reached for me. I scooted along the seat into the back corner. “I’m covered in lice,” I told him.
Ugly scratched his bushy sideburns. “Do I have to touch him, Seth? Couldn’t we just untie him and let him walk up?”
“And risk him running off? I’d like to see you explain that to Death.” Pretty—Seth—grabbed my arm and dragged me to the cabin door. Without warning, he shoved me into Ugly’s waiting hands.
The big man caught me easily. “You stink.”
I managed to dig my elbow into his ribs and received an oomph for my troubles. “Compared to your sweet smell, you mean?”
Seth chuckled. “I think I’m going to like you, lad.”
“Don’t get too attached to him.” Ugly hoisted me under his arm and carried me toward the house like a roll of fabric. “Death’ll get what he wants out of him then send him back to the sewer.”
“What information is that?” I spat.
“Stop moving,” Ugly said. His arm tightened around me and I thought he’d cut me in half.
“You’re hurting me!” I wriggled and kicked out with my bound legs, but connected with nothing but air.
“Calm down, lad,” Seth said. “Co-operate and you will not be harmed. Fight and it will not go well for you. Death doesn’t like it when his orders aren’t followed.”
“I don’t have to follow his orders. He’s not my master.”
“Yet he will get what he needs from you nevertheless. He’s good at that.”
I gulped at his ominous tone as much as the promise in his words. I imagined the man they called Death extracting my real name from me with the use of medieval torture devices. He probably kept them in the dungeon. Surely a place as grim as the one we were now entering had a dungeon, with walls so thick that no one would hear my screams.
“What you shivering for, boy?” Ugly said, hoisting me higher on his hip. “It ain’t cold.”
“This is uncomfortable,” I told him. “Can’t you put me down and let me walk?”
“No,” Seth said.
“Where are we?”
“Are we still in London?”
I knew Highgate had some big homes, but estates of the scale of this one weren’t common. I could picture only two that I knew of, both behind high fences and rows of trees. Now that I thought about it, the front gate had looked familiar. We weren’t too far from the cemetery.
Knowing my location buoyed me somewhat. If I did escape, finding my way back to Clerkenwell wouldn’t be too difficult. The first thing I’d do when I returned to our basement Hell would be gather my few belongings and find a new place to live, somewhere where nobody knew me. Somewhere far away from Stringer and his gang.
I got to see very little of my surroundings, facing downward as I was. The floor tiles in the entrance hall were mostly covered by a crimson Oriental rug and the walls were paneled in dark wood. Ugly carried me up a grand staircase, his footfalls deadened by a carpet runner. Despite being daytime, the lack of windows meant it was dark in the stairwell without the chandelier lit. We continued up and up, Seth following behind us. We passed many doors, all closed, until we finally reached what must have been the highest room in the central tower.
Seth slipped past us and pushed open the door. The room was larger than I expected, with more furniture than I’d seen in one place for a long time. Still, it was bare compared to my childhood room in Tufnell Park. It contained only a small bed, a dresser, table and chair. There were no knickknacks on the table or dresser, no pictures adorning the deep red walls, and the bedspread was plain gray. Yet I loved the room. Once Ugly and Seth left, I would be alone inside four walls for the first time in an age. It was a luxury I’d feared never to experience again.
Not that I would experience it for long this time. If I could tie together the sheets and blankets, I wouldn’t need Rapunzel’s hair. I could simply attach one end to the bed and climb out the window. I glanced at the window and bit my lip. Perhaps not. It was a long way down.
Ugly dropped me onto the bed. I bounced on the mattress and had to suppress a smile before they saw it. The mattress was soft.
“How’re we supposed to bathe him up here?” Ugly said.
“I don’t need a bath.”
“Smelled yourself lately?”
Seth looked me over and I made sure to keep my face dipped so that my hair hid it. “You stink worse than Gus.”
“Oi!” Gus protested. “I ain’t that bad.”
“Besides, our orders are to get you bathed.”
My face flushed and I was glad my hair covered it. My filth was a foolish thing to be ashamed of, but I couldn’t help it. My mother had been a stickler for cleanliness, scrubbing my skin with carbolic soap and my fingernails with a slice of lemon every day. She would have a fit if she saw the grime that had been deeply ingrained into my nails and skin now.
“Fetch a washstand and bowl of water,” Ugly—Gus—said.
“It won’t be enough,” Seth said. “The water will be black before he’s even half clean.”
“Take him to the bathroom and fill up the tub.”
“The bathroom’s two levels down. Besides, Death didn’t tell us to take him to the bathroom. He said to bring him here.”
“Then what’ll we do?”
“A jug of water and a bowl will do me well enough,” I said, sitting up. “There’s no need to bother with a bath.”
Seth jerked his head at Gus. “You get it. I’ll strip those rags off him.”
They both blinked at my vehemence. “Why not?” Gus asked. “You ain’t got nothing we ain’t seen before. Only smaller.” He chuckled as his gaze focused on my crotch.
“You’ll be perfectly safe with us,” Seth said, somewhat soothingly. “Neither of us care what you look like.”
They would if they knew I looked like a girl. “I’ve got scars. I don’t like folk seeing them.”
“Me too.” Gus began to unbutton his jacket. “I’ll show you mine first. Ain’t no reason to hide scars. Shows you’re a fighter.”
“Or careless, in your case.” Seth’s eyes gleamed with humor. I almost found myself smiling along with him.
“Weren’t my fault the water got spilled.” Gus didn’t continue to unbutton his jacket, nor did he do them up again.
“No, but it was your fault there was still hot water in the pot. You were supposed to empty it.”
Gus gave Seth a rude hand gesture. Seth ignored him and bent to untie me. “Guard the door,” he told Gus.
Gus did. He was a solid man, a wall of brawn that I would never get past without a distraction.
“Don’t think about running off,” Seth said. “Death will get you before you even leave the house.”
I tilted my chin. “How will he know I’ve escaped?”
“He’ll know. He knows everything. That’s how we found you.”
“Death’s a machine,” Gus chimed in. “And like God, too. A god-machine. Don’t push him or he’ll come down on you like a ton of bibles.”
“He probably knows you just said that,” Seth said with a wink at me.
Gus swallowed heavily and glanced around the ceiling, as if looking for the god-machine himself up there.
With my hands and ankles finally free, I felt more human. I stood and walked around the room, checking the drawers in the dresser—they were empty—and looking out the window. Definitely too far to climb down.
“Go get the water,” Seth said. “I’ll fetch him something to eat.”
Gus narrowed his eyes at me. “He’ll escape.”
Seth grinned and pulled a key out of his waistcoat pocket. “Now, why would he want to leave this comfortable room and return to the sewers anyway?”
“I didn’t live in the sewers,” I growled at him.
“You lived in a cramped, dark cellar that stank like a sewer. You’re better off here, lad. Don’t forget it.”
“Do I have my freedom here?” I snapped. “Can I come and go as I please? No? Doesn’t seem like I’m better off.”
Seth’s mouth flattened into a sympathetic grimace. Gus shook his head and opened the door. The two of them filed out and quickly shut it again. The lock tumbled and I was left alone.
I suddenly felt weary to the bone. I stared at the bed, so soft and inviting. The pillow was plump too, like a cloud. But it was too clean for the likes of me. I didn’t want to get any lice on it. Same with the chair. It was upholstered in nice brocade fabric patterned with gray and crimson flowers.
I stood by the window instead and looked out upon the garden and lawn. Large trees rimmed the edge of the property, and beyond that I could see buildings in one direction and parkland in another. It was a lovely vista, and one I could have happily stared at, yet my stomach wouldn’t let me enjoy the view. It churned with worry. The last time I’d been locked away had been the morning before and men had tried to rape me in the police cell. While I didn’t think Death and his men had that in store for me, their reasons for abducting me couldn’t be good. Nothing associated with my reanimation of dead bodies had turned out to be good, on the two occasions I’d done it. The first time I had been thrown out of my house by my father, and the second time, scary people came looking for me. First the doctor, then Death.
I sank down onto the floor and drew my knees up to my chest. I had a sickening feeling that I wouldn’t be going anywhere for a long time.
Death visited me after I’d washed and eaten. Seth and Gus allowed me to bathe in private when I asked to be left alone. Still, I didn’t undress entirely, nor did I put on the clean clothes provided for me. For one thing, the trousers and shirt were too big. For another, I didn’t want to get comfortable at Lichfield Towers. If I succumbed to the comforts, I might never want to leave. And I had to leave. Death had something in store for me, the re-animator of corpses. Something I suspected I wanted no part of.
He stood with his back to the closed door, arms folded across his chest. He’d dispensed with jacket, tie and waistcoat, and the informality made him seem less like a gentleman and more like a wastrel. Indeed, his dark, disheveled looks wouldn’t have been out of place on a carnival gypsy.
“What’s your name?” he asked me.
I scowled at him from my position by the window. I’d not yet sat down on the chair, since I hadn’t changed out of my filthy clothing, and I stood with my arms crossed over my chest too.
“They called you Charlie.”
I wished I’d gone by a name that wasn’t so close to Charlotte. Fortunately, Death didn’t seem to notice the similarity. Perhaps I’d been mistaken, and he wasn’t looking for me—Charlotte Holloway—after all, but another girl that he thought I knew.
“My name is Lincoln Fitzroy,” he went on.
“I thought it was Death.” I didn’t care if my retort got Seth and Gus into trouble. They were nothing to me.
One corner of Fitzroy’s mouth twitched in what would have been a smile on anyone else. On him, it was probably just a twitch. His face didn’t lighten in any other way, but remained stern. I wondered if the man ever smiled or laughed. I doubted it.
“Are you going to kill me, Mr. Death?”
“That would be foolish, since I want answers from you.”
“And if I refuse to answer? Will you kill me then?”
“Have I given any indication that I would?”
“You nearly killed me when you kidnapped me.”
“You were not in danger.”
“I fainted from lack of air! How could you have known I wouldn’t die?”
“Ladies faint all the time and do not die.”
I recoiled. Did he suspect? I dipped my head to ensure my face remained covered by my hair. “I am not a lady.”
“Clearly.” He came toward me and regarded me levelly. “I know how long a person your size can be deprived of air before death takes him.”
“How do you know? Trial and error?”
He lifted a hand. I ducked out of his reach and put my arms up to shield my face.
“I only want to get a better look at your face,” he said.
That was precisely why I’d darted away, but I realized my action could have been mistaken for fear that he’d hit me. “This ain’t right,” I told him. “You can’t keep me here.”
“Who will stop me?” He shrugged one shoulder. “Nobody will look for you. Your friends gave you up for a few coins. You have no family, no one to worry about you. For all the world cares, you might as well not exist, Charlie Whoever You Are.”
Tears burned the backs of my eyes. He was right, but hearing it put so baldly stung. I was truly alone. Not a single soul cared whether I lived or died.
Except me. Sometimes, I wasn’t even sure why I did care. It wasn’t as if I was adding value to society. Even the blond man whose spirit had saved me in the cell had left behind a reputation for defending the weak from bullies. The only impression I would leave behind would be my freakish way of communicating with the dead.
“Tell me how you did it,” Fitzroy said.
“I don’t know what you’re on about, and I don’t want to know. Let me go. I don’t want to be here.”
His gaze flicked to the clothes still folded on the bed and the food I’d left largely untouched. I’d nibbled at the bread and cheese, but the butterflies fluttering in my stomach wouldn’t let me eat more. “Is there something else you desire?”
He waited, as if he expected me to add something of a material nature that he could command Seth or Gus to deliver to my room. “I will grant you your freedom when you tell me how you became a necromancer.”
Necromancer. Was that the name for me? It was quite an improvement over devil’s daughter. “I don’t know nothing about necromancing.” I clenched my jaw, folded my arms and sat on the floor.
After a moment, he crouched by my side. I’d not heard his approach. The man was light on his feet. Even more surprising was that he had no smell. No hint of any soap or hair oil, no body odor, nothing. It was the oddest thing, and more unnerving than his quiet step.
“There is another who can bring the dead back to life,” he said. “A young woman of eighteen. Are you related to her?”
“I don’t know no women, and I ain’t related to nobody.” I hugged my knees and pressed my forehead against them. “I don’t know anything about bringing dead bodies back to life, neither.”
Another long pause then, “Where are you from?”
I didn’t answer.
“How long have you lived on the street?”
I hugged my knees tighter. He didn’t go on and when I glanced up, I saw that he’d moved away. He watched me from the window, his arms once more crossed. The window was on the opposite side of the room to the door—the door that he’d left unlocked.
“He saved you, didn’t he?” Fitzroy didn’t pose it as a question. “The prisoners were going to hurt you, but the spirit frightened them off by re-entering his body. At your command.”
If he knew that much already, what else did he know?
“How did you do it?”
I snorted. “You’ve got the wrong boy.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You do.” He said it with the utmost conviction that I knew I could never get him to doubt himself. “Is it something you’ve always been able to do?”
“You’re a tosspot.”
He grunted. “I expect a gutter dweller to come up with something more offensive than that.”
“A fucking tosspot.”
“Better. Now answer my question.” He leaned a hip and shoulder against the wall and glanced out the window. A small frown connected his brows.
His distraction gave me the opportunity I needed. I sprang up and sprinted for the door.
But he reached it first. His palm slammed against the wood at my head height, the sound reverberating around the tower room. I watched him through the curtain of my hair, searching for signs that he would use that hand on me. His only movement was a small tightening of his lips.
“I have tried asking nicely,” he said in a voice that was much too calm. “I have fed you and clothed you, provided a soft bed for you.”
“I need none of that.” It was a bold thing to say, considering the man’s nickname was Death, but while I was the person with answers, he wouldn’t kill me. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t hurt me.
He straightened to his full height—an impressive size. Not as tall or broad as Gus, but big nevertheless. It would be easy for him to beat me senseless or break my bones.
I shrank away from him, regretting my impulsive actions and words. It might be wiser to bite my tongue in future.
“Then what do you need?” he said.
I glanced at the door.
“You will be worse off out there than in here.”
I shrugged a shoulder.
His black brows drew together and his gaze drilled into me. “Who is out there for you? Who do you want to see again?”
I edged away from him and sat on the floor again, my back to the wall. I pulled up my knees and curled into the tightest, smallest ball possible. He watched me from beneath that severe brow. His anger seemed to have dissolved somewhat, but I still didn’t trust him. He was too quick and too hard to read. He could haul me up by my shirt in a heartbeat and thrash the answers he sought out of me.
A knock on the door made me jerk. “Mr. Fitzroy, sir,” said Seth from the other side. “Lord Gillingham is here to see you.”
A lord? A real live lord was under the same roof as me? I suddenly wanted to look out the window and catch a glimpse of this lord’s carriage and horses. I’d wager it was magnificent and the animals fine.
“Tell him I’m unavailable,” Fitzroy said.
“Er…” Seth cleared his throat. “He already knows you’re in here talking to the boy. Gus told him, not me.”
I would not have known Fitzroy was irritated if it weren’t for the curling of his right hand into a fist. His face remained unchanged from its glowering severity. Without a word, he opened the door and left. The lock clicked into place, and I was once more a prisoner and alone.
I expelled a long breath and got up to look out the window. A gleaming black coach pulled by two grays was indeed waiting down below. I unlatched the window and pulled up the sash.
“You there!” My loud whisper didn’t so much as cause the horses’ ears to twitch. “You there!” I called.
The driver glanced around, but seeing no one, shook his head.
He tilted his head back and touched the brim of his hat in acknowledgment.
“Help me! I am being held prisoner. Tell the—” Not the police. They wanted me over the theft and escape. “You must help me get out!”
The driver merely stared up at me. Then, with a shake of his head, he turned back to the horses. My heart sank. It was hopeless. He probably thought me a mischievous child, having a lark. It would be impossible to convince him otherwise from such a distance.
With a sigh, I picked up the wedge of cheese and bit off the corner. It tasted delicious, not like my usual fare of stale crumbs that even the rats turned their noses up at. I devoured the rest, shoveling it in, unable to eat fast enough.
Then I promptly threw up in the corner. What a waste. I should have opened the window and deposited the contents of my guts on the front steps. That notion made me smile.
The lock clicked in the door. Fitzroy must have finished his business with Lord Gillingham already and come to question me again. I steeled myself and took courage in the fact that he’d not yet hit me.
But instead of my captor, another man entered. I guessed him to be about forty, with rust-colored hair starting high on his forehead and a short beard of a redder hue. He cut a fine form in a dark suit, with shoes polished to a high sheen and a gold watch chain hanging from his waistcoat pocket. He clutched a walking stick in one hand, and I caught a glimpse of the tiger shaped head as he adjusted his grip. It wasn’t his clothing that told me he was Lord Gillingham, however, but his bearing. His body was ramrod straight, his mouth turned down in disapproval, and his head tilted back so that he looked down his nose at me, even though he wasn’t very tall. Fitzroy may be a gentleman, but this man was a cut above—and he knew it.
“Close the door,” he said over his shoulder to Gus.
Gus and Seth, standing in the hallway outside the room, frowned at one another, then Gus closed the door. I was alone with the stranger.
I debated whether I should bow to Lord Gillingham, nod, or take his hand. I was still trying to remember the proper etiquette for when a boy met a lord—and whether I wanted to conform—when he spoke.
“You are the child.” He sounded as if his mouth were full of strawberries that he didn’t want to spill. It was quite ridiculous. I had to press my lips together to suppress a laugh.
“Don’t see no other in here, do you?” I said.
“Name’s Charlie, but ‘my lord’ will do just as well.” I winked, warming to my bit of fun. Mimicking and mocking the upper classes had always been a popular pastime in the slums, no matter if it were Stringer’s gang or any of the others I’d lived with over the years.
Gillingham’s wide nostrils flared and his pale blue eyes flashed. “Do not play the fool with me.”
“Yes, my lord.” Perhaps riling him wasn’t a good idea when he could prove an ally. I knelt on the carpet and clutched my hands together. “Please, my lord, will you help me? The man named Fitzroy has kidnapped me and is keeping me prisoner here. Against my will,” I added when he gave no sign of concern or surprise.
He stalked around the room, pinching his nose when he spotted my sick, then came back to stand in front of me. “He tells me you have not yet answered any of his questions.”
I went to stand, but he poked his walking stick into my shoulder. “Stay.”
“I am not a dog,” I spat.
His top lip curled up. “No. A dog would do as his master bid and be thankful for what he’s been given. People like you are fit only for picking up the shit of dogs.”
Charming fellow, although hearing “shit” said in his toff accent was quite amusing. Stringer and the others would laugh if I mimicked this conversation for them.
“Where is the girl?” he asked.
“I already told Mr. Fitzroy, I don’t know no girls, I ain’t got no relatives, and I don’t know what happened in no prison cell. My answers ain’t changed.”
His top lip curled again and he circled me slowly. He didn’t lean on his stick, and I wondered why he carried it. It was part of his nobleman’s image, I supposed, like the accent and sneer. “Fitzroy is too lenient this time,” he said quietly, as if speaking to himself. “I do not pretend to understand why, when a good beating ought to produce answers. He rarely shows mercy, so why start now?”
I gulped. “Where is Mr. Fitzroy?”
“I will ask the questions. Where are you from? Who are your parents?”
I swiveled to keep him in my sights.
His face turned pink then a mottled red, and his lips quivered. “Answer me!”
I clenched my jaw and held the man’s gaze with my own. I would not let him intimidate me. He might be a lord, but he wasn’t my master. “Buckingham Palace, and her majesty the queen. I call her Mum.”
The walking stick smacked across my back. I arched forward and gasped as hot pain bloomed. I gathered my nerves and steadied my breathing to control the agony. If I let it rule me, I would give in, and I didn’t want to give in to this man. I went to stand, but he shoved me so hard with his boot that I fell onto my side. I scrambled away, but he followed me, stick raised. Glacial eyes pinned me to the carpet as thoroughly as his boot did.
“I’ll ask again,” he snarled. “Where are you from and who are your parents?”
I hesitated, trying to think of the ramifications if I told him the truth about my Tufnell Park home and Father. But I couldn’t think. The fierce pumping of blood through my veins and the knot of anxiety in my stomach were playing havoc with my mind.
He raised the stick again and I braced myself. It cracked across my shoulder with bruising force. He raised it again and I scampered further, only to hit the wall. Gillingham stalked toward me like a hunter tracking his prey. With a gleam in his eye, he brought the cane down on me again. And again. And again.
I endured each blow, managing to protect my face, but my left arm, shoulder, side and leg took the full force of his strikes.
And then they suddenly stopped.
“What the blazes are you doing, Fitzroy?”
I peeked through my fingers to see Fitzroy holding the stick and glaring at Gillingham like he wanted to smash him with it. I hadn’t heard him enter. Over by the door, Gus and Seth stared like simpletons at the lord and their master, their lips apart, their eyes wide.
I wiped my tears and snot on my sleeve to remove the evidence of my fear and pain. But I couldn’t stop the shaking.
“Don’t touch him,” Fitzroy said in a low voice that I had to strain to hear.
Gillingham tugged on his jacket lapels and tilted his chin even further. “The ministry hasn’t become what it is today without laying a corrective hand or two on little rats like him.”
“He is a child.” Fitzroy spoke through a jaw so tight that it barely moved.
Gillingham wrinkled his nose at me. “Children are capable of duplicitous thoughts and behavior, just as adults are. Children like that one are vermin, not fit for the comforts you offered him. Of course he won’t tell you anything useful. Look at that.” He nodded at the clothes still folded on the bed, untouched. “He doesn’t want to help himself. Filthy creatures like him are a scab on a decent, God-fearing society. He even threw up the food you provided, the ungrateful little wretch.”
The angles on Fitzroy’s face sharpened. His eyes narrowed to pinpoints. The air in the room stretched thin, taut. I held my breath, waiting for his temper to explode. “I am in charge of the ministry now, and I say how we treat our informants.” Fitzroy’s voice was cool and ominously quiet.
Either Gillingham didn’t fear his temper, or he wasn’t terribly observant, because he didn’t back out of the room as I would have done if I were him. He straightened and squared his shoulders. “You are only in charge because the committee put you there. And the committee do as I say, Fitzroy.”
“No?” Gillingham spluttered a humorless laugh. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you need to get out of Lichfield Towers before I turn your stick on you.”
Gillingham did take a step back then. His gaze flicked from the stick to Fitzroy’s menacing face, where it settled with renewed determination. “You get above yourself again, Fitzroy. Do not forget who I am, and do not forget what I know. I can crush you.”
“Seth,” Fitzroy said.
Seth stood to attention. “Yes, sir?”
“See that Lord Gillingham finds his way safely to his coach.”
“Certainly, sir.” Seth didn’t bat an eyelid at the tense exchange, but Gus, just behind him, gawped openly as Gillingham and Fitzroy glared daggers at one another.
Seth cleared his throat. “My lord, the, er, stairs are this way.”
Gillingham pushed past the men without a backward glance at me. “The committee will hear of this!” His heavy footsteps echoed for some time until they muted into nothing.
The tension in the bedroom relaxed somewhat, but a sense of awkwardness lingered. Or perhaps it was me who felt awkward, as all eyes focused on me now. I wished they would ignore me. I preferred to go undetected, blending in with the other boys when I could, or simply vanishing altogether when I could not. This attention was far too unnerving.
“He forgot his stick,” Gus said with a nod at the cane still in Fitzroy’s hand. “Not that he needed it. Bloody toff walked out of here without a limp.”
Fitzroy had been watching me from beneath lowered lids, but now he grasped the stick with both hands and snapped it over his knee. He opened the window and threw both pieces out.
Someone below cursed loudly. I hoped it was Gillingham.
Fitzroy shut the window. “Help him out of his shirt.”
“Don’t come near me,” I snarled at Gus and Seth.
Seth frowned, but Gus approached. He reached for the top button on my shirt. I slapped his hand away.
“I’m only trying to help!”
“Don’t come near me,” I said again.
“I ain’t going to hurt you, Half Pint,” Gus said. “Just get your shirt off and let us look at your sores.” He reached for me again and this time I grabbed his hand and bit it.
He yelped and went to slap me. I jerked away and he made no connection. It was just an empty threat.
“Leave him,” Fitzroy said.
“I weren’t going to hit him,” Gus grumbled. “Just scare him into doing as he’s told.”
“Fetch clean water, a salve and bandages.”
Seth hurried out of the room. Gus regarded me with hands on hips. “Saying we get him to take his own shirt off, do you think he’ll let you tend his wounds, sir? I wish Lady Harcourt were here,” he added before Fitzroy answered. “She’d know how to get the lad to trust us.”
A lady? That was all I needed—another bloody toff. I’d only met one, but that had proved to be enough for me to thoroughly dislike the lot of them. “I can tend my own wounds,” I said before one of them got ideas that they would do it.
“You cannot see all your wounds,” Fitzroy said.
“I don’t need to.”
Fitzroy’s eyes narrowed. “Help him stand.”
Gus came forward, but I put my hand up. “I don’t need help.”
To prove my point, I got to my knees. Pain spiked through my body and made my head spin. I put a hand to the wall and concentrated on controlling my breathing. Everything hurt, but I couldn’t let the men know, or Fitzroy would insist on inspecting my wounds.
The breathing helped and although the pain didn’t lessen, I could endure it. I got to my feet and raised my brows in triumph at Fitzroy.
“Sit on the bed,” was all he said.
I eyed the bed. “I have lice.”
Gus pulled a face and scratched his head.
“That’s why you were given clean clothes,” Fitzroy said. “Remove your rags and throw them in the fireplace. We’ll shave your head. Gus—”
“No!” I inched away from both men. “I’ll change into them clothes myself when you’re not looking. And you’re not touching my hair.” I’d had beautiful hair as a child. Long golden curls had reached down to my lower back. Now it was above my shoulders, with a long fringe, and it was light brown. Shaving it off meant losing a little bit more of the real me, as well as losing the veil it provided.
“Why d’you care?” Gus said with a shrug. “It’s just hair.”
“Can you walk?” Fitzroy asked. I nodded. “Then come with me. Gus, fetch salt from the pantry. Lots of it. And kerosene.”
“Cook won’t like me taking his salt, sir.”
Fitzroy picked up the pile of fresh clothes from the bed then stood by the door. Gus slumped out and I followed at a slower pace that still made me wince as I put pressure on my leg. At least no bones had been broken, but it damn well hurt. Gus trotted down the stairs ahead of us.
“What’s the salt for?” I asked Fitzroy.
“But that’ll hurt!”
I stopped and folded my arms, but that only made the bruises down my left side ache more. “I’m not having no salt bath.”
“Then you can succumb to either Gus or Seth rubbing salve into your wounds.”
“It’s just some bruises. Salt won’t do much for them.”
“There’s blood on your back and shoulder.”
I tugged the shirt at my shoulder to get a better look at it. There wasn’t a lot of blood, but even small cuts could fester.
“You have a choice,” Fitzroy said. “A salt bath or Gus will play doctor.” He continued down the stairs without watching to see if I followed. “You cannot reach the cuts yourself.”
With a sigh, I trailed after him. He was right, and my wounds needed tending, but I couldn’t let anyone see my body. “And the kerosene? I ain’t putting that on my sores.”
“For the lice.”
It was what my mother had used on my hair the one time I’d picked up head lice. “I’ll need a narrow toothed comb too.”
I followed Fitzroy down two flights of stairs and along a corridor. We passed no one, and I heard no sounds of life coming from elsewhere in the house. Gus had mentioned a cook, and the absent Lady Harcourt perhaps lived there, but what about other servants? A house on the scale of Lichfield Towers ought to have footmen and maids, a housekeeper and butler. Perhaps their duties were done for the day and they were downstairs in the service area with the cook. I didn’t know the routine of grand households.
In the bathroom, Fitzroy opened the taps and the cast iron tub began to fill with hot and cold water. My father’s house didn’t have indoor plumbing, and the ease with which the bath was drawn amazed me. I dipped my hand in and suppressed a smile. The water felt wonderfully warm.
Seth arrived with the salve, then Gus brought in a bag of salt and a bottle of kerosene. He added the entire bag to the bathtub as Seth poured the kerosene into the washbasin and added some water. He pulled a comb out of his jacket pocket and placed it on the washstand.
Fitzroy ushered them out. “You will not be disturbed. A guard will remain outside and that window needs a key to unlock it. We are also two floors up with no means of climbing down. There is no escape.” With his unspoken warning hanging in the air, he left.
I slid the lock home and stared at the door, half expecting someone to bang on it and order me to open up. Nobody did. Seth and Gus’s voices rumbled in conversation as they quietly discussed Gillingham’s behavior and Fitzroy’s cold ire. I understood that to mean Fitzroy had left.
I washed the hair on my head and nether regions first. The diluted kerosene burned my skin, but I knew it ought to kill any of the crawlies. I didn’t rush combing my hair, even though I wanted to climb into the bath. My mother had told me the lice would return if the eggs weren’t completely removed. It wasn’t easy to de-louse my own hair, even with the mirror, but I was as thorough as possible. I tried not to think about being around lice-infested bedding and children again after I escaped Lichfield. At least I would be itch-free for a few days.
Finally I peeled off my clothes and stepped into the bath. The salt bit into the cuts, but the thought of being clean again was so alluring that I bore down on the pain and plunged in. I gasped as my body burned. It felt like thousands of pins were being stabbed into the cuts. The urge to leap out of the bath was overwhelming, but I resisted. The salt would heal me faster, and I needed to be healed for when I returned to the filthy, germ infested streets.
After a long few minutes, the agony subsided until my cuts merely stung. I embraced it, welcoming the salt into my skin, and closed my eyes. For a long time I simply soaked. My earlier wash in the tower bedroom had taken much of the filth off, but immersing myself in the bath seemed more thorough. I could feel years of dirt leaching out of me. I used the exotic smelling soap on my skin and hair until the odor of salt and kerosene no longer filled my nostrils, and then I washed myself again with it.
Earlier, I’d thought bathing would make me too comfortable at Lichfield Towers, but now I wished I hadn’t resisted. Surely one bath and a little food didn’t mean I would give up my secrets. There was no reason I couldn’t enjoy the comforts until I found a way to escape.
I remained in the bath even when the water cooled. Getting out meant returning to the tower room and being questioned by Fitzroy. While he hadn’t hurt me, I didn’t trust him not to snap when my refusal to answer stretched his patience too thin. I would need to watch him carefully for signs that his hard exterior was about to crack. Keeping my life and my identity safe had meant learning to read even the subtlest of cues given by those around me. Fitzroy, however, was more difficult. He seemed to have few expressions and held himself with stillness. A machine, Gus had called him. I could well see why.
The banging on the door startled me. “Oi!” Gus called. “You drowned or what?”
“We can’t stand round here all day. It’s almost dinner time.”
Was it that late already? The water was getting cold anyway so I climbed out and dried myself off. I dabbed some of the salve on the cuts I could reach, then finally dressed in the clean clothes. I left my old ones in a puddle in the corner. They were fit only for burning.
I went to adjust my long fringe over my face in front of the mirror, then paused. My skin was no longer dirty and my hair was already drying into waves. I brushed it back with my fingers and stared at the woman in the reflection. There was no way I could fool anyone now that I was clean. My features were too fine and feminine, the plumpness of the thirteen year-old gone. I had changed so much that I hardly recognized myself.
I dipped into an awkward curtsy and smiled at an imaginary gentleman come to ask me to dance. “Why, thank you, sir,” I whispered. “My hair is my crowning glory, so everyone says.”
I sounded ridiculous. I looked it too with the short ends of my hair sticking out between my fingers. With a sigh, I let it fall back to cover my eyes, cheeks and nose.
“Farewell, Charlotte,” I whispered, biting back tears. “It was a pleasure to see you again.”
I unlocked the door and held my breath as both Seth and Gus looked me over.
Gus sniffed. “You smell better.”
“The clothes are a little big,” Seth said. “At least they’re clean.” He chuckled and ruffled my hair.
I smacked his hand away, but I was relieved that they still saw me as a boy.
“Come on, back to the tower room with you.” Gus prodded one of my new bruises and I hissed in pain. “Sorry, Half Pint. Forgot.”
They marched me up the stairs and led me back into the tower room. I eyed the bed, this time allowing myself to imagine what it would be like to sink into the mattress.
“Sure you don’t want me to check you over, make sure nothing’s broken?” Seth asked.
“Suit yourself. I’ll bring you some dinner soon.”
“What d’you think’s wrong with him?” I heard Gus whisper to Seth as they left. “Deformed pizzle? Only one plum? Third nipple?”
I didn’t hear Seth’s response as he shut the door and locked it. It didn’t matter what they thought, only that they left me alone. They had, and the bed was calling me. I climbed onto it and peeled back the covers. The sheets smelled like sunshine and lavender, and were as white as snow. I lay down and my head sank into the pillow. Heaven. Nothing had ever felt so soft.
I suddenly felt exhausted. The warm bath, warm room and big bed all conspired against me. There would be no attempted escapes tonight, while my body was weary and half broken. Tonight, there would only be blissful sleep.
Tomorrow, however, was a new day.
I woke up to morning sunlight shooting through the crack between the closed curtains. A cold supper sat on the dressing table. I pulled the curtains aside and threw open the window. It was the sort of summer day I used to appreciate when I was a child. Father would drive us to the countryside for a picnic after church, or Mama and I would pick flowers from the garden and take them to poor parishioners along with loaves of bread. I’d forgotten how to enjoy summer since then. Probably because warm days meant the smell from the sewers became overpowering, and the rats and lice multiplied.
I ate the cold beef and carrots, but left the rest. I didn’t want to throw up again and I already felt full. Someone had cleaned up the sick from the previous day and set out a clean shirt. I’d have to remember to take it with me when I left.
Seth and Gus came mid-morning. One carried books and the other paper and ink. I almost fell off my chair in my haste to touch them. I took the topmost book from the stack that Gus set down. It was a novel titled A Study In Scarlet by Conan Doyle.
It had been an age since I’d held a book. I used to love to read, although Father didn’t allow novels at home. It seemed rather scandalous to simply hold one. I wondered what was so wicked about A Study In Scarlet. I couldn’t wait to find out.
But…why were they delivering books to me?
I returned the book to the stack and backed away. “I don’t know how to read,” I told the men. “I don’t know why you’d bring them in here.”
Gus flipped through the pages of the novel then carelessly tossed it on the bed. “Death’s orders. Don’t know why he thinks you’d want ’em. Wasted on you, if you ask me.”
“Wasted on you, too,” Seth said.
“I can read.”
“Barely.” Seth turned to me. “Death says you’re to have whatever you want.”
“I want my freedom.”
Gus picked up a cold green bean from my plate, tilted his head back and deposited it like a worm being fed to a bird. “He thinks boys want books and writing paper,” he said as he chewed. “I reckon he’s forgotten what it were like, being a lad.”
“Just because you have no use for these things doesn’t mean Charlie doesn’t want them.” Seth winked at me.
I worried he’d seen my reaction to the book and knew I could read. “I don’t want them,” I said. “Take them away.”
“Can’t,” Gus said. “Death said to bring ’em to you, so we did.” He picked up the plate and headed for the door.
Both men stopped and blinked at me.
Now that I had their attention, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to say to them. No, that wasn’t quite right. There was a great deal I wanted to say to them. I just wasn’t sure where to start. “Where’s Mr. Fitzroy?”
Good. That was one less person I had to worry about, and going on previous experience, I could outrun Gus and Seth. “Who else is in the house?”
“Never you mind,” Seth said before Gus could answer. “You’ll only see us while you’re in here.”
“Who is Lady Harcourt?”
“Death’s mistress,” Gus said.
Seth slapped Gus’s shoulder. “He won’t like you telling the lad that.”
“The boy’s thirteen and been living on the street! He’s probably had more girls than you. Unlike you toffs, lads like Charlie and me dipped our wicks soon as we could. Eh, Half Pint? Talk about lovers ain’t going to shock you, is it?”
“I wasn’t referring to educating the boy in the ways of romantic relationships. I meant Death won’t like you calling Lady Harcourt his mistress.”
Gus sniffed. “Because she’s a toff?”
“Yes, but also because she may or may not be his lover anymore. He seems a little cooler toward her lately.”
“Don’t know how you know the difference. He’s always showed as much warmth as an icicle to anyone, including her, far as I can tell.”
“That’s because you’re an unobservant nitwit.”
I only half listened to their bantering. I couldn’t stop thinking about Fitzroy having a lover. Like Gus, I couldn’t imagine their leader capable of a romantic relationship, as Seth had called it. He seemed as passionate as a stone.
“What is the ministry?” I said, cutting through their bickering.
“Save your questions for Death,” Seth said.
“When will he be back?”
“And what am I to do until then?”
He nodded at the books. “Teach yourself to read.”
The men left. They continued to bicker outside, until one set of footsteps receded. The other must have remained to guard me. I didn’t think it necessary, since I was locked in.
I sighed. Escaping would have to wait. Perhaps the next time they delivered provisions, I could slip past them and out through the unlocked door. Until then, I had a book to read.
I pulled the chair over to the door and set it against the wall. I stuffed the spare shirt down the front of the one I wore then sat on the chair to read. I was ready to spring up the moment the door opened.
After the first ten pages, I’d decided to take the book with me when I escaped. My reading was a little rusty, but I managed to follow the story, despite not understanding some of the more complicated words. I read several more pages before the door opened.
I sprang up, ducked under the tray Seth carried, and darted through the door and past Gus.
“Get him!” Seth shouted.
Gus let out a string of curses that would have made a lady blush, then lumbered down the stairs after me. My bruised left side throbbed in protest, but I outpaced the bigger, slower guard easily enough. I took the stairs two at a time, and leaped over bannister handrails to avoid the landings altogether. On the final flight, I slid down the bannister to the floor.
Momentum propelled me forward toward the front door. I hoped it was unlocked, and that I was fast enough to outrun Gus and Seth and got to the trees before them. Once there, I could hide or climb the fence. I knew how to disappear in Highgate, as long as I wasn’t captured before I reached the street.
“Get back here!” Gus shouted. Two sets of footsteps pounded behind me now, but I’d outstripped them by a considerable margin.
I was almost free.
“Halt or I’ll shoot.”
I glanced toward the voice to see a beautiful woman aiming a small pistol at me. My heart and feet stopped dead.
I was not free.
“Remove the book,” the woman commanded. “We don’t want him using it as a weapon.”
Gus went to snatch the book from my hand, but I refused to give it up. It was a silly thing to worry about, while a gun was pointed at my head, but the thought of permanently losing the book weighed heavily on my heart. With a click of his tongue and an almighty wrench, Gus freed it from my clutches. He tucked it under his arm, where I worried his sweaty pits would stain the cover.
“Bring him into the parlor.” The woman turned her back on me. The hand that held the muff pistol dipped into the folds of her lustrous black skirts and came out empty.
Seth and Gus glanced at one another, their brows raised. “Shouldn’t we take him back to the tower room, my lady?” Gus asked.
“He will be fine with me.” The woman’s gliding steps reminded me of a sleek, unhurried cat. Perhaps it was the tight corset that slowed her movements. Having worn the undergarment before my banishment, I knew how restrictive they could be, and going by the woman’s tiny waist, she must have her laces tied very tightly indeed. It was so small it was a wonder she could hold up the top half of her body, particularly considering she possessed ripe melons rather than raspberries, as Stringer would say.
“Fetch luncheon for him,” she ordered the men. “He may eat while you both guard the exit.”
Gus shoved me in the back. I grunted and shot him a glare. He shrugged an apology, which surprised me. Seth returned up the stairs with my book.
Gus and I followed the woman into a small room off the entrance hall. I tried not to gawp at the pale blue and gold wallpaper, thick rug, and spindly-legged furniture that didn’t look sturdy enough to hold a man the size of Gus. It was fortunate that he remained near the door.
The woman sat on the sofa and indicated I should sit on one of the cream wingback chairs. I hesitated then sprawled like I imagined a boy would. I’d never had the opportunity to sit on such a luxurious piece of furniture while pretending to be a boy, so I hoped I did it right. Usually sitting took place on floors or low walls, not chairs.
The room was lovely with so many elegant things on the mantel, the walls, and on top of and inside the glass cabinet, but my attention was fully captured by the woman. She perched gracefully on the edge of the sofa, giving her prominent bustle space behind her. Her midnight black hair was arranged in an elaborate style at the back of her head, unhindered by the little hat perched on top. I couldn’t determine her age. There was no gray in her hair, no lines marring her smooth, pale skin, and yet her bearing was that of a middle-aged woman, sure of her appeal and without the arrogance of a pretty, pampered girl.
She oozed authority, from the tips of her manicured fingernails to her tilted chin. Coupled with the striking aristocratic bones of her face, her confident air would have intimidated most men; yet her appearance was softened by full lips that curved into a warm smile as she regarded me.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Fat Gut called you ‘my lady,'” I said.
“Oi,” Gus growled from the doorway. “I ain’t fat.” He sucked in his stomach and puffed out his chest.
“So I’m guessing you’re Lady Harcourt,” I finished. I almost added “Fitzroy’s lover” just to see what her reaction would be, but held back. I didn’t want to be beaten up by yet another member of the aristocracy.
“I am,” she said in a lilting voice that held none of the harsh command of earlier. “Your name is Charlie, is it not?”
“T’is, my lady.”
“Have they been treating you well?” she asked.
“I’m being held against my will. As if that ain’t bad enough, a mad toff beat me black and blue yesterday.”
The hint of a smile vanished altogether and she folded her gloved hands one over the other on her lap. “I heard that Lord Gillingham was too heavy handed. It is regrettable.”
I snorted. “I’ll say it is.”
“Have your wounds been tended to?”
“Has Lincoln—Mr. Fitzroy—harmed you in any way?”
“He almost killed me when he kidnapped me.” At her surprised look, I added, “I stopped breathing.”
Her slender eyebrows lowered. “I dare say he knew what he was doing. He’s not in the habit of hurting children, and I’m sure whatever methods he employed were necessary.”
She said it as if it were perfectly normal for a man to kidnap a child and render him unconscious in the process. I was beginning to think I’d stepped into another world where such behavior was acceptable. Perhaps it was in the upper classes. Or perhaps Lady Harcourt was as mad and dangerous as Fitzroy and Lord Gillingham. I wasn’t yet sure what to make of her.
“Do you have comforts in your room?” she asked.
I shrugged one shoulder.
“Ask Lincoln for whatever you desire and he’ll do his best to give it to you.” Lincoln, not Mr. Fitzroy. Interesting. She blinked wide brown eyes at me. “Tell me about yourself, Charlie.”
She was a better interrogator than Fitzroy, I’d give her that. She’d tried to disarm me by asking after my comfort, and offering friendly smiles, then asked an innocuously broad question about myself, rather than one specific to the necromancy incident.
A naive child would have fallen under her spell, but I was no longer naive or a child. “I’m thirteen. I live in Clerkenwell, with Stringer and his gang. I steal to eat and keep warm in winter. I’m good at thieving, that’s why they call me Fleet-foot Charlie. I’ve been told I’m too skinny, but seems to me everyone in the gang is skinny. I thought my hair was dark brown until I washed it yesterday and saw it in the mirror. Turns out it’s light brown. My nose has a dint on the tip, which I hate but had forgotten about until yesterday, and my eyes are blue. There ain’t no more to tell.”
The curve of her lips widened a little more. “What shade of blue?”
“May I see?”
“I’d call your hair honey colored, not light brown.” She gave a low, throaty chuckle. “We women enjoy these little distinctions.”
“I don’t care. It’s brown.”
“Why do you cover your face?”
“Why not allow me to judge?”
I glared at her but it was difficult to know if she noticed through my hair. Fortunately, she didn’t ask Gus to pin me down while she pulled the hair off my face.
Seth arrived and deposited the tray with my luncheon on the table next to me. He backed away and joined Gus near the door. I eyed the plate of salad greens, tomato and a wing of poultry.
“You speak well,” Lady Harcourt went on. “You’ve had an education?”
“No,” I lied.
“But you can read.”
I shook my head. “I was stealing the book, not reading it. I thought it might be worth something.”
“I see.” She indicated the tray of food. “Don’t let me keep you.”
“I just ate breakfast.” Actually breakfast had been the cold supper from the previous night, but it was more than I usually ate in two days. “I’m not hungry.”
Her smile turned a little sad, but I couldn’t think why. If she felt sorry for me, it was an odd time to show sympathy for my plight. She’d made sure I wasn’t going to leave. If I darted for the window now, would she pull out her pistol again?
“Do you have any questions for me, Charlie?”
I knew everything I needed to know already—these people wanted me because I’d made a dead man walk. The sort of people who knew that yet showed no fear around me weren’t ordinary, moral people. There was something as diabolical about them as there was about me.
“Only one question,” I said. “Where is Mr. Fitzroy?”
Her rapid blinks were the only sign that my question had taken her by surprise. “He’ll be back later this afternoon.” It wasn’t a direct answer, but I didn’t ask again.
The clock on the mantel chimed one and Lady Harcourt stood. “I have an appointment. Seth, please inform Mr. Fitzroy that I’m sorry to have missed him. If he could spare a few moments to visit me, I would be most grateful.”
So it seemed she didn’t live at Lichfield Towers, although she treated Seth and Gus as her servants and they did her bidding without question.
“Good day, Charlie,” Lady Harcourt said. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
She walked off and I saw my chance slipping away from me. I’d taken too long to act. I blamed her lovely, mesmerizing presence. “Wait!” I leapt up and ran after her.
Seth and Gus stepped between us, protecting her, but she didn’t seem as worried by my approach as them. “What is it, Charlie? Is there something you’d like to tell me?”
“I…I’d like to kiss your hand, m’lady.” It seemed like such a ridiculous thing to request that I blushed. I hoped it made me look innocent and endearing.
It must have worked because she ordered the men to move aside. She extended her gloved hand and I stepped forward, close enough that I brushed against her full skirts. I took the hand and pecked it. The lace of her glove felt scratchy against my lips and her exotic floral scent filled my nostrils. I breathed deeply, committing the smell to memory. I didn’t know the names of the different scents that made up her perfume, but I vowed that one day I would learn them.
“Thank you, m’lady,” I said, stepping back. “You are very kind and lovely. I wish you only good things.”
She laughed softly. “You are quite the flatterer. Be sure to use such sweet words on your lady love.”
I dipped my head in a bow, my hands at my back, and watched as she left. Both Gus and Seth’s gazes followed her, even though they didn’t escort her, and I used their distraction to quickly tuck the little pistol into the waistband of my trousers. I adjusted my shirt to hide it and prayed Lady Harcourt didn’t notice it missing from her skirt pocket until she was far from Lichfield Towers.
“Upstairs again with you, Half Pint,” Gus said cheerfully.
I walked ahead of them out of the parlor. As we passed the front door, I heard the wheels of a carriage roll away and breathed a sigh.
“You like our Lady Harcourt, eh?” Gus chuckled as we headed up the stairs. “She ain’t for the likes of you. Not even if you were ten years older.”
“Is she married?” I didn’t know why I wanted to know more about the woman. It wasn’t like I would see her again. But I found her intriguing. I supposed it was because I’d never met anyone like her before, and it was unlikely I ever would again.
“Widowed,” Seth said. “Her husband was Lord Harcourt, from a very ancient and noble line. He was much older than her, and some say she married him for his money and title.”
“But you don’t?”
“There’s never been a whiff of scandal associated with her.”
“Why would there be?” Gus said. “She knew which side her bread were buttered on. She’d be a fool to give it all up for a bit of prigging.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “Don’t be so vulgar, particularly when speaking about Lady Harcourt. She’s a true lady, in every sense of the word.”
“Except by birth.”
“She wasn’t noble born?” I asked.
“Nah,” Gus said. “School master’s daughter. Caught the eye of old Lord Harcourt and got him to the church quick, before his grown children knew what was happening.”
“They never said a word against her, though,” Seth protested.
“That we know.”
“By all accounts, they liked her instantly. One can see why.”
“‘One can see why,'” Gus mimicked. “One is in love with her, isn’t one?”
I saw Seth punch Gus in the shoulder out of the corner of my eye. “You can’t know what his family thought of her,” I said.
Seth squared his shoulders. “I can and I do. My mother moves in the same circles as the Harcourts.” He sighed. “Or used to.”
Gus groaned. “Seth’s been dying for you to ask about him. Likes to make sure even the prisoners know he’s from toff stock.”
“There have been other prisoners besides me?”
“Nah. Matter of speech. You’re our first.”
“That explains why you’re not very good jailors,” I muttered.
I expected a thump on my arm for my insolence, but Gus only snorted a laugh. Seth didn’t seem to have heard me. Although I was curious about his background, and why his circumstances had become so reduced that he’d wound up working as a thug for Fitzroy, I decided not to ask. It was better not to get too friendly with my captors, since I might have to hurt them.
I entered the tower room with a loud sigh, although I was pleased to see A Study In Scarlet on the dressing table near the other books. It wouldn’t hurt to while away the afternoon reading it. I couldn’t use the pistol and attempt an escape with both Seth and Gus in the room. The barrel was single shot. I would have to wait until there was only one of them.
“Don’t think about running off this time,” Gus warned. “Death ain’t going to be happy when he hears of it.”
I shrugged. “I don’t care.”
“You should. He’s dangerous when he’s in a rage.”
“I’m sure he is, but it’s not me he’ll be angry with. As a prisoner, my duty is to escape. As my jailors, it’s your duty to keep me in here. Which one of us failed?”
Gus swallowed. “What d’you think he’ll do to us?” he said to Seth.
Seth gave him a smug smile and patted his shoulder. “He won’t do anything to me. I was holding the tray and didn’t have my hands free. You were the one supposedly on guard.”
“That ain’t fair.”
“Life isn’t fair. If it were, I’d be spending my evenings deflowering virgins instead of cleaning up the sick of a gutter snipe.”
“Ha! You couldn’t deflower a flower.”
“That doesn’t make sense. And I’ll have you know, the ladies fell over themselves to get to me when I used to attend balls.”
“You had money and a good name, then,” Gus said, striding for the door. “Course they’re going to throw themselves at you. Weren’t nothing to do with that ugly face of yours.”
Seth looked offended, and I couldn’t blame him. He wasn’t ugly in the least. He trailed after Gus. “I’ll have you know I had an indecent encounter with a lady three nights ago. And no, I didn’t pay her a penny. She gave herself freely to me.”
“Gave you the French disease for free, more like.” Gus’s chuckles faded as he closed the door.
Finally I was alone again. I settled on the bed with the book and removed the pistol from the waistband at my back. I checked the barrel to see if it was loaded—it was—then slid it beneath the pillow beside me. I tried not to think about it and concentrated on the book instead, but it wasn’t easy. I’d never shot anyone before.
Despite the apprehension curdling in the pit of my stomach, the afternoon didn’t drag. The book was riveting, and I found myself reading as quickly as possible.
The clicking of the key in the lock startled me. How much time had passed? I took note of my page then closed the book and slipped my hand beneath the pillow. The metal of the pistol felt cool in my fingers. My pulse quickened.
Death walked in. His assessing gaze took in the book and my relaxed repose. “You met Lady Harcourt.” He did not mention my attempted escape.
“She’s very nice.”
Behind him, Seth and Gus crowded in the doorway.
“I’m hungry,” I said.
“I’ll fetch you something from the kitchen.” Seth trotted off.
“My chamber pot needs emptying,” I told Gus.
He screwed up his nose. “Should’ve offered to get the food.” He slid the pan out from beneath the bed and left the room in much less of a hurry than Gus. I was alone with Fitzroy. With Death.
He moved toward the bed, his long, easy strides bringing him close to me much faster than I anticipated. With my heart in my throat, I pulled the pistol out from under the pillow, aimed at his shoulder and fired.
Next thing I knew, he was sitting on top of my thighs, pinning my wrists to the headboard. I bucked but couldn’t dislodge him. I went to butt my forehead into his nose, but he dodged the blow. I hawked up a glob of saliva, but before I could spit it into his face, he’d shifted his weight, lifted me, and threw me face down onto the mattress. He resettled his weight on my legs and pressed a hand into my back. He took the pistol off me. Just like that, I was rendered immobile and defenseless. It had been far too easy for him.
“Lady Harcourt will be pleased to have this returned,” he drawled.
A grunt was all I could manage.
Footsteps pounded along the corridor and stopped at the door. Gus and Seth’s faces peeped around the corner and, seeing their leader in control, they entered the room.
“We heard a gunshot,” Gus said, his eyes huge.
“Sir!” Seth cried. “You’re bleeding!”
I’d shot him? He’d not shown any signs of pain or even a little discomfort, nor were his movements hindered. He’d attacked me so fast that I’d not seen him coming. I tried to look back at him to see how badly he was hurt, but the angle was too awkward and he pressed his knee into my lower back, locking me in position.
I sucked air through my teeth as the bruises inflicted by Lord Gillingham flared with pain.
“You should tend to it,” Seth went on.
“It’s nothing.” Fitzroy let me go and climbed off the bed. A patch of blood bloomed on his shoulder, but it was hardly a significant amount. “Go.” He spoke to the men but didn’t take his gaze off me. His eyes were like two pools of black ice.
Gus and Seth exchanged glances then left the room again. They shut the door.
I scooted back up the bed, as far away from him as possible. When it came, his retaliation would be swift and brutal. I braced myself.
“Your hands shook.”
I blinked slowly. “Wh-what d’you mean?”
He balanced the weapon on the flat of his palm. “You didn’t hesitate and your gaze was focused, but your hands shook. If they’d been steady the bullet would have hit my throat.”
I hadn’t been aiming for his throat, but his shoulder. My aim had been better than he thought, but not good enough. The bullet must be lodged somewhere in the wall. “You moved. If I didn’t hesitate, how did you know I was going to shoot?”
“I can’t give away all my secrets.”
All? So far, he’d given away nothing. “So I am to remain your prisoner. I have tried escaping, twice today, and yet here I am. What will you do to me?”
Despite his bleeding shoulder, he remained standing. Perhaps he thought sitting was a sign of weakness. “I will not do anything to you, child.”
I was beginning to hate it when he called me that. Nobody called me “child” anymore. Not since I was a thirteen year-old girl. “Then you will let me go?”
“I will wait.”
“For what? For Hell to freeze over? Because that’s when I’ll give you answers, and not before.”
“I’m a patient man, Charlie, but the situation requires some urgency. The lives of British citizens are in danger, perhaps the life of the queen herself.”
I snorted. “You think that ridiculous fairytale will have me telling you anything?”
“I thought you said you had nothing more to tell me.”
Damn. “I don’t. You’re wasting your time and mine.”
“Have an appointment to keep?”
I gave him a withering glare. His expression didn’t change from his usual bland one.
“I returned to Clerkenwell today,” he said. “I spoke to your friends.”
“They’re not my friends.”
After a moment he said, “I’m glad you realize that. They were quick to tell me what I wanted to know.”
“You gave them money.”
I folded the book in my arms against my chest. “And what did they tell you?”
“They told me where they think you came from before they met you mere months ago.”
“How can they know where I came from?”
Again he hesitated, as if weighing up how much to tell me. “Your accent and a few words you used were more common in the Whitehall area.”
“I don’t have no accent.” So I’d thought. Yet he’d been correct. I’d lived in Whitehall before Clerkenwell.
“I traveled to Whitehall and asked around. A boy matching your description lived there for six months or so. They thought he’d come from Finsbury. Tomorrow I’ll send Gus and Seth there to find out about a child who kept his brown hair over his face to hide it.” He took a step toward me and lowered his voice. “I will find out where you came from, Charlie, and I when I do, I’ll discover how it is you can bring the dead back to life.”
I swallowed past the lump in my throat. I couldn’t look away. His gaze held me, pinning me as thoroughly as his body had done moments ago on the bed.
“Here you go,” Seth said, carrying a plate of food in. Gus entered behind him.
Fitzroy stepped back and marched out the door. “Follow me. Bring the boy and his books. I see he’s already in possession of the spare shirt.”
I was too stunned to do anything but follow meekly. Fitzroy had not only dodged the bullet intended for him, but he’d learned more about my past than I’d have liked. And his methods were going to lead him to discover the truth. My only hope was that the further back in time he went, the slower his investigation would become. Gangs broke up, and children died or moved on. And then, of course, he would hit a wall altogether. He would be asking about a boy with hair covering his face, not a girl. My secrets were safe until I chose to reveal them.
If I chose to do so. I didn’t believe his silly story about the queen’s life being in danger. I certainly didn’t want to reanimate the dead for him or his cause, no matter what it was. On the other hand, Lady Harcourt was his ally, in whatever scheme they had in mind, and surely such a fine noblewoman wouldn’t want me to do anything wrong.
“Where are we taking him, sir?” Seth’s question might as well have fallen on deaf ears. Fitzroy strode ahead, heading down two flights of stairs then swiftly along the corridor that housed the bathroom.
Gus prodded me in the back with the clean chamber pot he still held and I had to trot to keep up with Fitzroy. Finally we reached the end of the long corridor and stopped at a door.
“He’s to stay in here until I give further word,” Fitzroy said, opening the door.
Seth gasped. “But these are your chambers?”
I was as confused as he and Gus. Why did Fitzroy want me in there instead of the tower room?
“It’s larger and more comfortable for two.”
“Two, sir? Are you going to remain here?”
“He seems to be able to outwit you both too easily. I’ll guard him, from now on.”
Seth shuffled his feet and Gus’s cheeks colored. I wondered if they would be in more trouble later or if that was the extent of it.
I hugged the book to my chest. He was right. I could trick Seth and Gus, but Fitzroy was too clever to fall for my ruses. On the other hand, he was only one man, and even he needed to sleep. He was not a machine.
He stepped aside and motioned me through the door. I entered and took in my surroundings. It was a large room with a sofa and leather armchairs at one end gathered around a fireplace, and a solid desk at the other. Paintings of country scenes hung on the dark green papered walls. A large freestanding iron candelabra was tucked into the far corner beside a bookshelf that took up almost the entire wall. It reached to the ceiling, and a ladder leaned against it. I stared at it in wonder, amazed at so many books under one roof. I hadn’t realized Seth and Gus had left until the door clicked closed.
Fitzroy locked it with a key that he tucked into his waistcoat pocket. “We sleep in there.” He indicated a closed door.
“We?” I said on a breath.
“I’ll have a trundle brought up for you. Unless you prefer the bed. It doesn’t matter to me.”
I blinked at him. “I…I am to be held prisoner in here now? With you?”
“I know it’s not ideal, but you’re too quick-witted for them.”
“You were present when I sent them away to shoot you. You fell for my ruse too.”
The corner of his mouth twitched, and I suspected he’d known that I was sending Gus and Seth away in order to escape. I suddenly realized how difficult it would be to get out of Lichfield Towers. He may be only one man, but he was efficient, clever and ruthless. I had no doubt he played jailor better than his men, and even better than those at Highgate Police Station. My escape attempts would need to become more sophisticated.
I sat on the armchair near the window and opened my book. Instead of reading, I thought of ways to outwit Death himself.