Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Madman's Dance Excerpt Two

Chapter One (continued)

Dr. Alastair Montrose gingerly splashed his face with cool water from the basin, cleansing away the soot. Then he leaned closer to the mirror, studying the effects of the warehouse fire. His eyes were puffy and bloodshot; his nostrils stung with every breath and his cheeks were splotched with red where falling embers had scorched them. The suit was ruined, the shirt as well. There were even abrasions on his palms, courtesy of his dive for safety when the rum barrels exploded.

Given the magnitude of the blaze, he’d gotten off lucky.

But what of Jacynda?

Even now, he could still hear her frantic cries from inside that warehouse as he fought to tear open the locked doors. Hours later, when the fire had died down, he and Reuben Bishop had found a charred corpse amongst the ruins. It was not that of a slender female: a fact that gave Alastair cause for rejoicing, although it felt heartless.

The question remained—what of Jacynda?

Reuben observed him from a nearby chair, his feet propped on another.

“At least your eyebrows are still there,” he commented casually. “I think your moustache took the worst of it.”

Alastair studied his reflection again. “Indeed.” It was a measure of his mentor’s decency that he was trying to lighten the moment.

“Personally, I would be devastated if anything happened to mine,” Reuben joked, running a finger along his upper lip. That was a given. Reuben sported a moustache that would turn any woman’s head, along with sandy hair that made Alastair’s brown hair seem dull by comparison. He cut quite a figure for a man who spent most of his time conducting post-mortems.

“I’ll loan you one of my suits,” Reuben offered. “It won’t fit, but at least you’ll not smell like one of those fellows in the Fire Brigade.”

Alastair delivered a wan smile. “I appreciate that.”

“Put some ointment on those palms,” Reuben advised. “They look rather nasty. I’d offer you some, but I don’t have any. The dead don’t seem to require that kind of care,” he added with a wink.

“No, I suppose they don’t,” Alastair replied, betraying a hint of a smile at his boss’ characteristic black humor. He took his time patting his face dry with the cloth. He knew Reuben wanted the whole story, but he didn’t know where to start. He dropped into the chair near the kitchen stove. The room was chilly, lit by a single gas lamp on the wall. He took a sip of brandy. The liquor burned his raw throat, making his eyes water. He blinked to clear them.

“In the past,” he began slowly, “I’ve spoken to you of Jacynda Lassiter.”

Reuben nodded, his face brightening. “Ah, yes, the adventurous American who has captured your heart.” His jubilance instantly withered. “Good God, she wasn’t in that blaze, was she? Was that why you were so keen to ensure the corpse was a male?”

Alastair nodded, shifting his attention back to the brandy. “The last I saw her she was inside the warehouse, near the doors. We’d discovered a body and I had gone for a constable.” He put the glass down, struggling to keep his voice from breaking. “I should never have left her alone.”

“You did everything humanly possible to save her. Your injuries attest to your courage.”

Alastair was not so sure.

“How did the fire start?” Reuben asked.

“I have no notion,” Alastair replied with a distracted shake of his head.

“There was a lantern in there, maybe it tipped over.”

His host put down his glass, then tented his fingers in thought.

“Hmm…Tell me more about the corpse you found.”

Alastair took a deep breath. “His name was Hugo Effington, a warehouse owner who lived in Mayfair. He’d been stabbed, a single thrust between the ribs that must have nicked the heart. When I returned with the constable, the doors were locked and the building ablaze.” He added, “Jacynda has been investigating Effington for some time.”

“Why would she do that?” Reuben asked.

“It all began with an attempted assassination at a dinner party earlier this month. Effington was the host.”

“Who was the intended target?”

“It’s hard to tell. The Prime Minister was in attendance as well as the Prince of Wales, amongst other dignitaries.”

“Why in heavens were they there?”

Alastair’s eyebrow rose. “I don’t follow.”

“You say this Effington chap was a warehouse owner, no doubt a prosperous one to live in Mayfair. While I understand that the prince loves a party as much as anyone, still it’s a bit…down market.”

“I hadn’t thought about that.”

Reuben chortled. “Of course, if Effington has a wife or daughter who’s a beauty that would explain it. The prince is always looking for a new conquest.”

Reuben tended to view most matters in terms of human frailty. “Mrs. Effington is quite handsome,” Alastair allowed.

“Aha!” his mentor exclaimed. “I knew it.”

“Jacynda foiled the assassin. From what Chief Inspector Fisher told me afterward, she just leapt on him before he could shoot. Knocked him to the floor. She has been involved in the case ever since.”

“You make her sound like a professional sleuth.”

“In many ways, she is. She told me that she works for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.”

It was a passable fib, one that he knew Jacynda used with others. Far better than attempting to explain to his mentor that she was a time traveler from the future.

“How did you meet this remarkable person?” Reuben quizzed.

“She was rooming at the boarding house for a time. I treated her for an illness. I found her quite…unique.” Irrepressible, quick-witted, and prone to occasional oaths.

Reuben’s face burst into a smile. “I must meet this woman. What verve!”

Then the smile dimmed as he added, “Of course, her boldness is what put

her in the middle of that fire.”

She’s not dead. She can’t be.

“I haven’t seen any mention of this botched assassination in the newspapers. Certainly such an event would have been hounded into the dirt by the Fourth Estate.”

“It was kept very quiet.”

“It won’t be when the fellow is brought to trial.”

“That may not happen. He…vanished from his jail cell the same night he was arrested.”

Reuben snorted. “Now you’re sounding like a Penny Dreadful.”

Alastair looked away, unable to explain further. He had no idea if his friend knew about the Transitives, the shape-shifters who could mimic any form. Or the Virtuals, who seemed invisible. How easy it would be to shift into nothingness, wait for the cell door to open, and take a quick stroll to freedom…

“What sort of man was this Effington?” Reuben quizzed.

“He was an arrogant bully, one of Nicci Hallcox’s paramours. From what I gather, he was being blackmailed by her.”

“Like most of London, it seems. She had a vast number of men in her bed. If the calling cards we found in her room are any indication, she was well connected in society.”

“No doubt blackmailing every one of the men she’d seduced,” Alastair added darkly.

Reuben shook his head. “I still do not understand why Chief Inspector Fisher summoned us to the murder scene rather than one of the Home Office coroners.”

“Sheltering my friend Keats, no doubt. He’s very fond of him. Fisher hopes that he will someday take his place at the Yard.”

“Well, that’s not likely to happen now,” Reuben mused. “Even if your friend comes forward and is found innocent, his behavior has tainted his reputation.”

Unfortunately, Reuben was correct. Keats’ decision to remain on the run was at odds with what was expected of a detective-sergeant of Scotland Yard.

“I am astounded at how his life imploded,” Alastair observed. “One

moment he’s a rising star, and then the next a wanted man.”

“Fate can be very cruel to the best of us,” Reuben observed.

Alastair had been so proud of his friend that night in Green Dragon Place. Keats’ daring attempt to arrest a dangerous Fenian anarchist had resulted in his recovery of a wagonload of stolen gunpowder. The papers had lauded his triumph. Now he was known as the Mayfair Slayer.

How quickly they’ll turn on you.

“It’s pure fiction to believe that he would spend a night in sexual congress with that Hallcox woman and then strangle her in an insane rage,” Alastair protested. “Keats would never do such a thing.”

There was the creak of the kitchen door. A woman in a navy blue dressing gown entered the room, her hair lying across a shoulder in a long black braid.

“Reuben?” she said. “I didn’t hear you come in.” Then she stared at Alastair, mouth agape. From what he’d just seen in the mirror, he couldn’t fault her.

“I’m sorry we woke you. Sometimes I forget how loud I am.” Reuben gestured toward Alastair. “This is Dr. Montrose, my new assistant, the fellow I’ve been telling you about. Alastair, this is Mrs. Henrietta Forrest, my housekeeper.”

“Madam,” Alastair replied politely, rising, though it wasn’t required. The housekeeper quickly regained her composure.

“Dr. Bishop has spoken very highly of you, sir.” Before Alastair could respond, she asked her master, “Do you wish me to light a fire? Perhaps some tea?”

“No, I think we’re just fine. The brandy is sufficient to cure our ills.” He turned his attention to Alastair. “You, however, are running on sheer nerves. I prescribe rest and a good meal. I have a comfortable guest room that you are welcome to use. When you rise, we will have a hot breakfast. Henrietta is an excellent cook.”

“I don’t wish to be a burden,” Alastair began, touched by the offer.

“If you were, I’d just chuck you out the back door. Besides, my guess is your day is going to be a full one. If you return to your boarding house now, you will get no peace until the coppers have asked every question they can put to you.”

“I suspect you are correct.”

Reuben clapped his hands together. “So that’s the plan. Henrietta, please light a fire in the guest room and, ah, leave him one of my suits, will you? His appears to be a loss.”

“Certainly, sir.” Then she was gone.

Alastair opted for praise. “A very handsome woman,” he remarked.

Reuben stared into his drink, his expression melancholy. “She is.” He blurted, “We are lovers. Does that arrangement shock you?”

Alastair finished off the liquor before answering, taken aback at Reuben’s personal confession. “I had a similar arrangement when I was in medical school, though we were not in love. We saw it as being to our mutual benefit.”

“Precisely! Unfortunately, being smitten complicates the issue.” Reuben rose in a fluid motion. “Now come along. I’ll show you the way. Sleep as long as you like. I’m sure if the coppers want to find you, they’ll pound on my door.”

(Copyright 2008 - Jana G. Oliver)

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