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‘Yes, yes,’ said Daunt, raising his hands placatingly. He turned back to Charlotte. ‘Where we can even identify their ramblings, the dialects and languages being spoken are very old. I’ve been recording the words phonetically in the hope of having them translated.’
‘And what does this have to do with me?’ Charlotte demanded. ‘Do I look like a professor of ancient languages?’
‘In truth, you’re barely old enough to have matriculated, Damson Shades. But there are certain words that we do recognize. People’s names being shrieked out in the dark of the night. Your name, as a matter of fact. As well as Nancy Martense’s. Andrew Dunsey’s. Emma Osgood’s.’
Those names sounded familiar. Charlotte raised an eyebrow inquiringly.
‘You’ll find them all laid out on the mortuary slab, Damson Shades. All very pale, as you would expect for a body totally drained of blood. Little more than empty sacks of flesh.’
The newssheets. I’ve read those names in the Illustrated.
‘You’re the only name we’ve managed to trace who is still alive.’
As he stopped talking, the three girls started shaking uncontrollably, and as one they began chanting: ‘Shades. Shades. Shades. Charlotte Shades. Mistress – of – Mesmerism. Mesmerism. Mesmerism. Shades. Shades. Shades.’ Charlotte recoiled physically at the unholy wailing, her name passing across the lips of these three restrained banshees. As quickly as it started, the noise fell away to be replaced by a guttural alien chanting, unknown words hanging in the air like intruders in the calm sanctuary of the Circlist church.
Beneath Charlotte’s dress, the gem around her neck was burning cold again, just like it had been when she had met the mysterious Mister Twist and his pet thug, Mister Cloake.
‘That demon song,’ said Boxiron, ‘told us where we could locate you.’
‘I don’t suppose their rants have given you the name of the lunatic running around Middlesteel with a taste for human blood?’
‘I’m working on translating it,’ said Daunt, tapping an open notebook on a bedside table, full of shorthand scribbles of the girl’s mad ramblings, ‘with high hopes. In the meantime, I would like you to accept the protection of Boxiron. I would not be here if it was not for my friend’s rather direct methods, and I would like to offer his talents for your service also.’
A copper’s bloody nark following me around while I housebreak into Parliament? I don’t think so.
‘That would not currently be convenient, Mister Daunt. I have professional obligations to keep. After I have fulfilled them, your metal friend may burn his coal outside my bedroom door if it suits you to do so.’
‘Please,’ Daunt pleaded, pressing his card into her hand. ‘Reconsider. The murderer –or murderers – behind this wave of slayings may be privy to your engagements. They could well be counting on you fulfilling them.’
‘I’ve been looking after myself for a lot longer than the Illustrated has been scaring the city with vampire tales.’
Besides, there are plenty of thugs in the pay of the flash mob who can match any madman in town with their taste for blood, butchery and fancy knife work. Charlotte had to resist the urge to skip happily out of the room like a little girl, suppressing a sneer at the much-overestimated abilities of these church-trained meddlers. Read me like a book, indeed. Please. My body language couldn’t have been guiltier when I was hauled in here by that iron brute, and those three buffoons have nary a clue.
Boxiron watched the young girl leave the church, his neck joins juddering intermittently as if he was inflicted by palsy. ‘She is only a child – she failed to take your warnings seriously.’
‘Oh, I think she took them seriously enough, old friend,’ said Daunt. ‘But not as seriously as she takes her living. Driven to it, wouldn’t you say?’
‘You read her body’s cues, didn’t you?’ said the vicar. ‘There wasn’t much she said that was true.’
Daunt shrugged. ‘Yes indeed, I did read her. Still, she is old enough to decide to put her living before her life, whatever that living may be.’
‘You’d know all about that, Jethro.’
‘That’s hardly fair, Fidelia. I’ve been putting my mind to the best use I can, since the Inquisition revoked my parsonage and tossed me out of the rational orders.’
‘Do you still hear the old gods?’
‘Actually, not for some time now.’ Daunt glanced back to the three sisters, their synchronized ranting rising and falling with an almost hymn-like quality. At least, not directly. And not until I came back here.
‘Why didn’t you tell her what you’ve already discovered, you and that filthy book of yours?’
‘It’s the Inquisition’s bestiary,’ said Daunt. ‘Not mine. It’s merely on loan to me.’
‘Semantics won’t help the sisters recover.’
Sadly, not much will. ‘One thing is true, however. Damson Shades certainly believes she can handle herself. Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Fidelia.’
‘I am sorry?’ said the vicar.
‘And that is not something the Mistress of Mesmerism learned while being groped in music hall dressing rooms by over-eager stage managers,’ Daunt continued, half talking to himself. He popped a sweet from the bag hidden in his pocket and rolled it around his mouth. ‘It is a curious thing, but many of the grand houses that young lady has entertained have exhibited an unfortunate tendency to fall victim to housebreakers. Either during or shortly after her performances at them. Who would suspect such a young flower, eh? But then, perhaps that is the point.’
‘Is it possible she’s connected to the killings?’ Boxiron asked.
‘In this instance, I think not. Damson Shades is guilty only of being reckless and impulsive. Youth personified. Were we ever that guileless at the seminary, Fidelia?’
‘Not you. You always were a queer fish,’ said the vicar. ‘Even before the gods sent you insane with their mad whisperings.’
‘I’m recovered now,’ said Daunt.
‘They are sulking,’ Boxiron explained to the vicar. ‘Your people’s ancient deities. Jethro softbody upset them.’
‘I know how they feel,’ sighed the vicar.
‘Look after the sisters, Fidelia. No more sedatives. Tonics and herbs won’t suppress what these poor girls are channelling. The Mistress of Mesmerism is my problem now.’
The vicar jerked her head towards the infirmary door. ‘If Charlotte Shades is murdered, will the sisters get better?’
Jethro Daunt shook his head. ‘Goodness, no. The sisters will, I suspect, only recover when we find and defeat the dark force their possession is attempting to warn us of. And as far as deaths go, I fear we haven’t even begun taking a true tally yet.’
Dick removed his hand from the bell pull, the peels still echoing on the other side of the tower-like building’s front door. After a minute there was a slow, heavy shuffling on the other side and the door swung open to reveal Jared Black, the bear-like man in the unbuttoned jacket of a civilian u-boat captain.
‘Blacky,’ said Dick. ‘Answering the door yourself these days are you? Hard times is it? Where’ve all your metal servants got to?’
The submariner scratched at his unkempt forked beard and eyed his unexpected visitor with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. ‘Dick Tull come visiting. Is the board out to disturb an old man’s rest again? Can you not let me have any peace? I’m done with the great game and all your lies and your schemes.’
‘That, we can talk about,’ said Dick, entering the grand hall of the tower. Iron drones stood like sentries around the sweeping walls of the oak-panelled staircase, powered down. Warm in here. Decadently warm. Your boiler chewing its way through a couple of normal men’s salaries. Not shivering like me, are you? What have you ever done that I haven’t, to end up here in this bloody grand palace of yours? ‘Your steamman friend is out of the house, then? And the writer girl who lives here? They finally got tired of your whining and complaining?’
‘Coppertracks and Molly are away in the colonies. Off on an archaeological dig accompanying an old friend of mine.’
‘Looking for old bones,’ grinned Dick, ‘while your old bones rest here. But you’ve been keeping busy, Blacky, haven’t you? And not just on keeping the town’s vintners solvent. Give me a spot of the good stuff, then. Let me drink just a little of your unexplained wealth.’
The commodore reluctantly led Dick through to the kitchen and pantry, coughing and complaining all the way.
That cough. I have heard that kind of sodding chest before. Yes, indeed.
Sitting down at a long oak table, its surface a battlefield of chopping knife scars, Dick watched the commodore’s chubby fingers pouring a measure of wine into a clear crystal glass, and Dick kept his fingers raised until the glass was sloshing with the thick, ruby liquid.
‘Drink up,’ said the commodore. ‘And I’ll tell you what I told Algo Monoshaft last time I saw the old steamer. I’m done with the blessed board. I’ve put my carcass in the way of assassin’s blades and foreign powers’ bullets for the last time for you and yours. I have lied and fought and spied in foreign fields from Cassarabia and Pericur through to the black shores of Jago and I am too mortal old for the great game anymore.’
Dick sloshed the wine about the glass, watching the liquid run slowly down the sides of the crystal. Good legs on it. Expensive. ‘You don’t need a board pension, Blacky. Not sitting in this pile. And we don’t give them out to royalist turncoats anyway. Here’s the thing, I think you’re still in the great game, but playing for whom, that is the question?’
The commodore started to cough, slugging a measure of wine to still his hacking. ‘I’m out of it.’
‘Is that what you told Symons when he came visiting?’
Watch his face closely now. See how he reacts to me knowing about his late night royalist visitor.
‘Did you catch him, then? Poor old Rufus. How many of his fingernails did you have to remove before he blew on me?’
He’s already dead, you old pirate. Did you kill him? Let’s see how much you spill when you’re on the defensive and shook up. Let’s press my advantage. ‘No more than he deserved. But you know how it is. I need your story to match Symons’. Come on, I need to know you’re still on Parliament’s side.’
The old man’s face flushed redder still with anger. ‘I’ve never been on Parliament’s side. Your people winkled me out of hiding and strong-armed my poor carcass into your service. Anything I did, I did for the people of Jackals, not your parliament of shopkeepers and mill owners. The Lords Commercial have paid for your wicked soul, not mine.’
‘What did Rufus Symons say to you last night?’
The commodore folded back into his chair, toying wistfully with a plate of cold sliced beef sitting between them. ‘There’s been a split in the cause. A dividing of the ways over how the rebels should seize the Kingdom back from Parliament.’
‘That we knew,’ Dick lied. ‘Why did Symons come to you?’
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