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The Eterna Files
By Leanna Renee Hieber
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2015 Leanna Renee Hieber
All rights reserved.
Harold Spire had been pacing until first light, crawling out of his skin to close his God-forsaken case. The moment the tentative sun poked over the chimney tops of Lambeth—though it did not successfully permeate London's sooty haze—he raced out the door to meet his appointed contact.
Conveniently, there was a fine black hansom just outside his door. Spire shouted his destination at the driver as he threw open the door and launched himself into the carriage. He was startled to find that the cab already had an occupant: a short, balding man, immaculately but distinctly dressed; as one might expect of a royal footman.
"Hello, Mr. Spire," the man said calmly.
Spire's stomach dropped; his right hand hovered over his left wrist, where he kept a small, sharp knife in a simple cuff. Surely this was one of Tourney's henchmen; the villain was well connected and would do anything to save his desperate hide.
"Do not be alarmed, sir," the stranger said. "We are en route to Buckingham Palace on orders of Her Majesty Queen Victoria."
"Is there a problem?" Spire asked, maintaining a calm tone, relaxing his hand but offering up a silent prayer to whatever God was decent and good that the queen would not have interceded on the wretch's behalf....
"No, sir. You are being considered for an appointment. I can say nothing more."
"An ... appointment."
"I'm afraid I cannot attend to this great honor at present, sir."
The man arched a preened brow. "Beg your pardon?"
"With all due respect," Spire continued, not bothering to hide the earnest desperation he felt, "I am a policeman at a critical juncture, awaiting receipt of vital material without which a vicious criminal might walk free—"
"And what shall I tell Her Majesty? That you're too busy for her?"
Spire set his jaw, looking anxiously out the window, seeing that they were heading in the opposite direction from where he needed to be at precisely seven. "Please tell Her Majesty that I'm about to stop a ring of child murderers and resurrectionists. Burkes and Hares. Body snatchers—"
"That will have to wait. Mere police work does not come before Her Majesty."
"I think highly enough of Her Majesty to think she'd deem this important."
"I am under orders to take you to the palace regardless of prevarication—"
"I wouldn't dare lie about a thing like this!"
"Once Her Majesty has determined your suitability, you'll be returned to your duties."
"You'll have to give the empress my sincere regrets. She may be able to live with one more child dead in her realm but I, sir, cannot."
With that, Spire opened the door of the moving carriage and cast himself onto flagstones slick with the foul mixture of the London streets. His heel turned slightly under him and he came down painfully; his elbow jarred against stone and his forearm cut against the brace that held his knife sheath. He jumped to his feet and ran—with a slight limp—veering onto a bridge across the busy, teeming, brown Thames and onward to a life-or-death rendezvous.
He'd likely be arrested for his evasion, but his conscience was utterly clear.
* * *
Spire's right hand hovered over his left forearm as he entered the damp brick alley, which was lit sporadically by gas jets whose light was dim behind blackened lantern glass. Even though the world was brightening with the gray of morning, sunlight didn't penetrate into these drear, winding halls of sooty brick, London having its labyrinthine qualities. He made his tread soundless on the cobblestones, his eyes aware of every shadow and shape, his ears alert, his nostrils flared.
While he doubted his informant was dangerous—it was all bookkeeping, really, he imagined the source was a bank clerk or the like—what the ledgers revealed was something else entirely. The proof itself was dangerous and many men would kill with far less provocation. If "Gazelle" proved trustworthy, Spire would recruit the man for his department.
He palmed the key Gazelle had left in the drop location at Cleopatra's Needle. If all had gone according to plan, Gazelle would have left enough evidence at this bookstore to prove without a shadow of a doubt that Francis Tourney was bankrupting charitable societies in a speculation racket that would make any betting man blush. That he was also involved in a child-trafficking ring of both living and dead young bodies was harder to prove, but far more damning.
The key opened the rear-alley door of the bookshop. A small lantern was lit somewhere within, casting a wan yellow light over stacks of spines. Spire knocked on the wooden door frame: three taps, a pause, and two more.
A quiet rap in response, from somewhere within the maze of books, confirmed that his informant was waiting. Spire edged his way through boxes and stacks—one stray limb could cause the whole precarious haphazard system to tumble—toward the source of the light.
He turned a corner of books and stopped dead in his tracks. There sat a woman who had gotten him into a good bit of trouble—the prime minister's best-kept secret, his bookkeeper, one Miss Rose Everhart. Poised as ever, seated at a long wooden table; the lit lantern cast her scowl of concentration into sharp relief as layered bell sleeves spilled over a stack of thin spines. One ledger lay, open, under her hand; she ran ungloved fingertips over the pages.
She wasn't stunning, but unique; her full mouth, set now in a frown, gave her a gravitas offset by the few loose brown curls around her cheeks, an almost whimsical contrast to her fastidious expression. When she looked up at Spire, the intensity and razor-sharp focus of her large blue eyes made her intriguing, magnetic.
"You're surprised to see a woman," she said. It was not a question.
"Yes." Spire spoke very carefully. "Especially one I recognize." At this, she smiled, a prim, self-satisfied smile. "You made quite an impression, Miss Everhart. A cloaked female figure glimpsed wandering the halls of Parliament, only to disappear into a wall? I didn't buy the story that you were a specter."
"The too-curious Westminster policeman. So we meet again," she said with an edge. "The eager dog sniffing out a fox. My employers, who were granting me the easiest access to my job while hoping to avoid any national outcry, were not fond of you. And I confess, nor was I. It was bad enough to have to sneak about, then to be thought suspect for it when I am a patriot? Horrible."
"Yes, I was quite chastised about that by your superior, Lord Black," Spire muttered, "so you needn't pile on." He wondered with sudden fear if that's why the queen wished to see him: more scolding. Spire's purview was Westminster and its immediate environs. When he'd stumbled upon Miss Everhart, he'd merely been doing his job. Tourney's speculation ring involved members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so it was perhaps not surprising that Spire had thought that the prime minister's bookkeeper had access others did not.
At the mention of Lord Black, Miss Everhart smiled and warmed. She stood suddenly, as if on ceremony, gesturing for Spire to sit at the bench opposite. While she was primly buttoned in dour blues and grays, her skirts and bodice were tailored in unique lines and accented with the occasional bauble that made Spire think a subtle bohemian lived somewhere deep beneath her proper corset laces.
"We have enough on the racketeering for a compelling case," she said, handing several ledgers across the table.
"Good," he said, nodding.
"But it's this that will deliver the decisive blow," she murmured, and shuddered. She passed him a narrow, thin black book that she didn't seem eager to touch. The cover said, "Registry."
"What's this? Did you collect this from the banks?"
"No. From Tourney's study." At Spire's raised eyebrow, Miss Everhart clarified, "After I showed him the numbers, Lord Black arranged for Sir Tourney to attend some sort of speculators' gala. Black stamped a warrant and found this."
"Himself?" Spire asked, incredulous.
"Lord Black had been feted at the Tourney estate, so sending him in was the most efficient. He knew to look for anything out of the ordinary. And this is hardly ordinary."
Shocked by a lord's unorthodox method but impressed by the man's initiative, Spire opened the book. Small, dark marks and round smudges marched down the pages in boxes made up of thin graphite lines. A few letters—initials, Spire guessed—were penciled above each dot.
On one side of the page, the dots were dark red. On the other side, the small marks were black. At the top of each page was a single large letter: "L" above the red marks and "D" above the black.
Horror dawned, slow and sick, as Spire stared at the lines of dots and initials. Dots the size of a child's fingertip.
"Living." Spire's finger hovered over the "L."
Then he moved to the "D." "Deceased"
Oh, God. They were children's fingerprints. Swabbed in their blood. Or, if their bodies had been stolen when dead, their fingers dipped in ink and pressed to the page.
A registry of stolen children.
Used for God knows what.
"I ..." Spire stared at Miss Everhart, whose face was unreadable. "I'm sorry you had to see this."
Her jaw tensed, pursed lips pressed thinner. "I am thirty and unmarried. I doubt I'll ever have children, so I do whatever I can. I owe it to those poor children not to flinch."
Spire nodded. He hadn't thought to place any women assets in his police force. But women could keep secrets, tell lies, deceive, and connive with an aptitude that frightened him. Women made bloody good spies. He knew that well enough.
Spire rose, sliding the ledger, breakdown, and "registry" into his briefcase. "Thank you, Miss Everhart. Please give Lord Black my regards, I was unaware he was involved. I'm not wasting any time on the arrest."
"I didn't imagine you would." Everhart rose and wove expertly through the labyrinth of books. As she disappeared, she called back to him. "Go on. I'll alert your squadron. I doubt you should go there alone."
He stared after her a moment, resentful of initiative taken without his orders ... but it would save him valuable time.
* * *
Spire and his squad descended upon the decadent Tourney estate; a hideous, sprawling mansion faced in ostentatious pink marble, hoarding a generous swath of land in North London.
His best men at his side, Stuart Grange and Gregory Phyfe, Spire stormed Tourney's front door, blowing past a startled footman.
The despicable creature was having breakfast in a fine parlor. The son of a Marquis, descended of a withering line, seemed quite shocked to see the police; his surprised expression validated Spire's existence.
Spire was tempted to strike the man across the jaw on principle but became distracted by the thin maid, in a tattered black dress and a besmeared white linen apron, who cowered in the corner of the parlor. Entirely ignored by the rest of the force, she was shaking, unable to look anyone in the eye. Her condition was a stark contrast to her fine surroundings, which valued possessions higher than humanity....
Shaking his head, Spire instructed his colleagues to secure Tourney in the wagon.
"I've all kinds of connections," the bloated, balding man cried as he was dragged away. "Would you like me to list the names of the powerful who will help me?"
"I think you're in too deep for anyone but the devil to come to your aid, Mr. Tourney," Spire called as the door was shut between them. Silence fell and he turned to the woman in the corner.
At his approach, the gaunt, frail maid began murmuring through cracked lips, "Please, please, please." She lifted a bony arm and the cuff of her uniform slid back, revealing a grisly series of scars on her arm. Burns. Signs of binding and torture.
"Please what, Miss?" Spire asked gently, not touching her.
"S—secret door ... Get them ... out...." She pointed at the opposite wall.
A chill went down Spire's spine. He studied the wall for a long time before noticing the line in the carved wooden paneling. Crossing the room, he ran his hand along the molding, pressing until something gave. The hidden door swung open and a horrific stench met his nostrils.
The maid loosed a wretched noise and sunk to her knees, rocking back and forth. Spire raised his voice, calling to his partner and friend, a stalwart man who played all things carefully and whom Spire trusted implicitly, "Grange, I think there may be a ... situation down here."
Without waiting for a reply, Spire was through the door and descending a brick stairwell, fumbling in his pocket for a box of matches. A lantern hung at the base of the stair; he lit the wick and set it back upon the crook. The flame, magnified by mirrors, cast a wan light over the small, windowless brick room.
It was everything Spire could do to keep from screaming in horror.
Six small tables, three on each side of the room. Each bore the body of a child clothed in a bloodstained tunic. Spire could not determine their genders due to their unkempt hair, pallor, and emaciated bodies. Strange wires seemed to be attached to the children.
Nothing in his investigation, even that dread register, had prepared him for this: these poor, innocent souls, helpless victims of a powerful man who was viciously mad.
He raised his gaze from the children to an even greater horror, if a worse nightmare could be imagined. An auburn-haired woman in a thin chemise and petticoat was lashed to a crosslike apparatus, arms stretched out and sleeves torn away. Streams of dried blood from numerous puncture wounds stained her clothes, the cross, and the walls and floor. Below each of her lashed arms sat large bronze chalices, there was a basin at her feet. Spire knew in a glance that these were to collect the woman's blood. What horrific sacrifice was this?
Spire turned his head to the side and retched. His mind scrambled to block out the image of who that woman reminded him of, the reason he'd become a police officer. The trauma of his childhood sprang back to haunt him at the sight of that ghastly visage in a blow to the mind, heart, and stomach. How could the world be endured if such a thing as this had come to pass? He'd asked the same question when the victim had been his mother. Nothing answered him, then or now, but sorrow.
"I never believed much in the devil," came a soft, familiar voice near his ear, "or hell, but if I did, it would be this." Spire spun to see a cloaked figure at his side, the solitary lantern casting a shallow beam of light upon the face of Rose Everhart.
"Miss Everhart, you should not be here. I don't know how you got past my men," Spire murmured, thinking it an additional horror that she should see this. "This is hardly the place—"
"For a lady? Even for the lady who handed you the critical evidence needed to arrest Tourney? Do I not wish to see him marched to the gallows as much as you do?" she replied vehemently. "Don't I have a right to see my work completed? Don't try my patience with references to 'women's delicate sensibilities.' I've seen more death and tragedy than I care to relate. But, admittedly ... never like this. Never like this." She raised a handkerchief to her nose.
Spire suddenly wondered whether she had heard or seen him retch. It would be embarrassing if so.
"What are those wires?" she asked. "What are they for? Is this some sort of terrible experiment or workshop? Ritualistic, yes, but ..."
Spire stepped forward, preparing however reluctantly to examine the bodies, when something lurched out of the darkness behind him with a clatter of chains and an inhuman growl. It grabbed him around the neck, grunted as it tightened its grip, and dragged him backward.
"Grange!" Rose shouted as Spire gasped for air and struggled to reach his knife. "If you're a victim, we don't want to hurt you," she called in a softer tone, lifting her lantern and directing its light toward the scuffle. "Let the officer go, he's with the police, here to help—" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee Hieber. Copyright © 2015 Leanna Renee Hieber. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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