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London Shadows (Penderry's Bizarre, #1)

A Penderry’s Bizarre Mystery

LONDON SHADOWS

J. L. Weaver

 

Flight of Fancy Books

Text copyright © 2014 J. L. Weaver

Cover artwork copyright © 2014 J. L. Weaver

 

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced without prior written consent from the author.

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favourite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

September, 1872

Brown’s Bakery, East London

 

Alfred Westman browsed the fresh bread and pastries in the lantern-light, waiting while the baker’s wife served another customer.

“You be careful out there, young lady,” she told the girl at the counter, handing over her change.

She must have been around eleven or twelve years old, Westman guessed. He kept his back to them, perusing a choice of pies, but it was impossible not to overhear their conversation.

“Yes, Mrs Brown,” the girl replied.

“It just ain’t safe out there at night.”

“I know, the monster, Creeping Clem. I’ll be careful.”

Creeping Clem?

Monster?

Westman glanced up at the mention of the supernatural.

“They say he has glowing eyes of orange, wings like a bat and breathes fire,” Mrs Brown continued. “Those poor girls he attacked. Vanished. Never heard from again.”

An inquisitive little boy – most likely belonging to Mrs Brown – appeared behind the shop counter at that moment and poked his nose over a basket of Eccles cakes. He peered up at Westman who, likewise, peered back at him. Westman moved away to inspect the pasties. All he’d come in for was a plum pudding, but he now found himself listening to a witness account of the criminal, Creeping Clem; the rumoured demon that had been terrorising the city for the past three months.

Westman felt a movement and found the nosey boy no longer behind the counter, but in the act of drawing back his frock coat. The child looked startled by what he uncovered there and then doubly startled when he saw Westman glaring down at him. He caught the little pickpocket’s hand as it hovered by the occult equipment on his belt. In Westman’s job, a sharp stake and crucifix were just a fraction of his arsenal. He rarely went anywhere without them.

A finger to his lips warned the child to keep quiet about his discovery. With a wide-eyed blink, the boy nodded and fled back behind the worktop.

“Can I help you, sir?” asked Mrs Brown, wiping her flour-covered hands on her apron. He was the only customer left.

“A plum pudding, if you please,” he answered. “And what can you tell me about Creeping Clem?”

 

***

 

A short while later, Westman stepped out into the dark evening with his plum pudding wrapped in paper and tied with string. His carriage waited outside the shop where he found his servant, Blinks, reclined in the driver’s seat. Soft snores drifted from beneath the hat pulled over his face.

The evening was young, he decided, so he whistled quietly to the dog sitting beside his servant. “Come along, Jack. There’s investigating to be done.”

Gently swinging the parcel in his hand, Westman took a left and continued along an ominous-looking route. If the baker’s wife was to be believed, this was the demon’s favourite haunt; a quiet little thoroughfare; dark and foggy. Indeed, with its many unlit alleys, shooting off into blackness and fog, it was perfect for illicit activities like robbery, kidnap or murder. Above the echo of his shoes and Jack’s clawed feet padding over wet cobblestones, he noticed a third set of footsteps ahead of them. As he suspected, it wasn’t long before the figure of a girl emerged into the lamplight on High Street, carrying a basket on her arm.

It was the same girl from the bakery.

With a demon on the loose and three women missing, this little girl’s safety was an extra concern Westman didn’t need. Fortunately, she glanced over her shoulder at the sound of his approach and ran towards the church where a policeman walked his beat. With any luck the constable would escort her safely out of this part of town.

A sudden clicking and whirring made Westman stop in a shaft of moonlight. He drew close to a slimy-looking wall and pushed up his coat sleeve. The leather encased detector strapped to his forearm had sprung to life, ticking and humming while the needle rose to warning level.

This meant only one thing.

Danger.

At that same moment, Jack growled.

Who needs all this new-fangled gadgetry with Jack around? he thought to himself.

The dog could always sense evil when it was present. And without a doubt, there was something paranormal in the close vicinity.

“Good boy,” he murmured, patting the animal’s head.

A scream pierced the night and Westman looked up sharply. Without hesitation, he hurried onto High Street, but froze in his tracks at the spectacle ahead. Cape spread wide like a pair of black wings, the policeman roared and fire poured from his mouth while the girl stared in horror, eyes bulging in fright.

Creeping Clem!

In the next moment, she fled and the beast gave chase. With a muttered curse, Westman broke into a run, his coat beating wildly around him. He began to gain on them, but to his frustration, the girl changed direction and ran deep amidst the monuments that populated the graveyard. Determined not to let the creature get away, he dodged headstones and leaped over wooden grave markers, keeping them in sight. The girl ducked back and forth between graves and statues, trying to evade the monster. She shrieked when the demon swung its arm and smashed through the marble angel which stood between them.

The pursuit continued. But Westman saw his chance and raised the plum pudding by the string like a lasso. Momentum gathered quickly and he took aim before letting the pudding fly straight for the demon’s legs.

Bullseye!

The package caught between Clem’s feet and the demon lost its footing, tripping and crashing to the grass. For a moment it lay sprawled on its back, groaning, but a moment was all Westman needed. Jack raced ahead, barking, and clamped his teeth around Clem’s arm. When Westman reached them, he threw his full weight upon the unholy thing.

At last, he saw the demon’s face and the eyes like furnaces that betrayed its true identity. “Creeping Clem, I presume?” he asked, out of breath. “I know what you are, demon. Where are the missing girls?”

Clem laughed. “What is this, here cometh a hero? Oh, how entertaining!”

“The girls?” Westman repeated fiercely.

“You’re too late for them.”

He had feared as much.

Swiftly, he slid the crucifix from his belt and held the ancient symbol in front of Clem’s face. The demon stopped chuckling.

“What are you doing in the human world?” Westman demanded.

“I was summoned.”

“By whom?”

“I cannot speak my conjurer’s name. I answer only to the one who summoned me. You should know the rules, hunter.”

Westman began reciting the incantation that would seal the monster’s fate. “Revertere, malus bestia-”

“Wait,” Clem hissed. “Let’s not be hasty. Rules can be bent. Let me go and I’ll tell you where the girls are. I can tell you secrets. I can tell you anything you wish to know.”

Never trust a demon. That was a rule he’d learned early in his career. But if there was a chance to help the girls, he had to find out.

“Tell me where they are,” he ordered.

But Clem merely grinned and seized the opportunity to throw him several feet across the cemetery. The monster’s strength was incredible and Westman smashed into a headstone, pain shooting up his shoulder and through his head. With a growl, he shook off the dizziness and focused on the advancing demon. Its human features morphed while green scales tore through the constable’s uniform.

Still clutching the cross, Westman stumbled forward and grappled with the strong creature. He started the mystical words again, but he’d barely begun when a spiny tail shot up and coiled tightly around his throat. The crucifix fell and he pried at the snake-like appendage instead, wincing when the creature roared. Fire gushed from its mouth and flames licked the air, drawing nearer until the heat became unbearable.

With one hand, Westman reached down and felt round his belt for the stake. But suddenly, just when he was certain he was about to be burned, the roaring, the fire and the pain stopped. The tail released him and he dropped to the ground, coughing and wheezing as he dragged in deep breaths of air.

Clem lay limp on the grass beside the cracked marble head of an angel. Remarkably, the girl stood over them, her eyes round and transfixed on the crippled beast. Westman gathered his strength and got to his feet, joining her, and together they stared at Creeping Clem. She had quite commendably knocked the creature senseless with the lump of marble, but the job wasn’t over yet.

“Stand back,” he told her while he retrieved the cross and kneeled next to the demon.

She obeyed and Westman uttered the magical Latin words once more. An eruption of fetid green gas followed before Creeping Clem shrivelled up and turned into a heap of vivid dust.

“What was it?” she finally asked, her voice small and trembling.

“Just another folklore tale that nobody will ever believe.”

He produced a glass phial from inside his coat, thankful it had survived the skirmish, then filled it with the green powder. When he rose, he kicked the remaining pile of ash to the wind.

“You killed him. You killed Creeping Clem. What are you doing with that bottle? Who are you?”

He looked at her and realised that she was shivering. Whether it was from the cold night air, or the shock of what she had seen, he couldn’t tell.

“Westman.” He pocketed the sample. “I’m a journalist.”

“It tried to get me.” She stared once more at the spot where Clem had been and hugged her arms around herself, teeth clattering.

In the end he took pity on her. “Well, you’re safe now.”

She stared at him and concern drew her brows together. “That’s a knock and a half.”

Westman touched his right temple and then looked at his fingers to find them glistening with red. “Head wounds always look worse than they actually are.”

“Hold on,” she said and darted to a basket that lay upturned on the ground. “I’ve got just the thing.”

She dragged the spilled contents back into the basket – a tape measure, pins and cotton reels – then pulled out a length of fabric and tore off a generous strip. Westman cocked an eyebrow when she returned bearing the rose printed cotton.

“It’s not really my colour,” he said, refusing to bend to her level.

With a tut, she pulled him down by his tie. “This should stop the bleeding, sir.”

Despite his reluctance, he allowed her to wrap the makeshift bandage around his forehead. She tied it tight and dusted off her hands with a look of satisfaction. Then her gaze wandered over his shoulder.

“Is that your dog, sir?”

Westman remembered Jack and looked behind to see the black and white collie eating the remains of the smashed plum pudding off the grass. Anyone might think he’d starved the animal for a week.

“Jack!” he called sternly. “I was being mauled by a man-snake and you decide to slip away and eat our supper? Man’s best friend indeed.”

Obediently, Jack abandoned the scraps and returned to Westman’s side, wagging his tail.

“I’m Tabitha,” said the girl.

“Well, come along, Tabitha,” he said, turning towards the path. “I think we could both do with a hot cocoa.”

CHAPTER TWO

 

Westman found the carriage where he’d left it and banged on the side of the vehicle.

“Wake up, Blinks,” he called.

His gangly driver awoke with a start, almost falling from the box. He made an admirable recovery, though, and sat up straight, wedging his old tri-corn hat back on his head.

“Mr Westman, sir, you didn’t half make me jump.” With a squint of his good eye – the other covered by a black patch – Blinks stared at his master’s grass-stained suit and the flowery bandage around his head. “Blimey, what happened to you? I thought you were buying a plum duff.”

“That particular quest took an unexpected turn. In fact, I regret to tell you that the plum pudding was forced to make an honourable sacrifice for a greater cause.”

Blinks was partial to a slice of plum pudding. The news crushed him – at least it seemed that way by the sagging of his shoulders and the look of sheer disappointment on his face. Then he noticed the girl.

“What’s this, sir? She looks white as a sheet. She’s not going to faint, is she?”

“I should hope not.”

Westman opened the door and ushered the girl inside, shaking her off his arm since she was reluctant to let go. Jack preceded her into the carriage, still licking his muzzle clean.

“We’ll be making a detour through Commercial Street. And try to avoid the pot-holes this time.”

He always made the pot-hole request, but Blinks never seemed to listen. After a bumpy, but short, drive they found a street vendor and bought cocoa which they drank in the shelter of the carriage.

“Are you really a journalist?” Tabitha asked, scratching behind Jack’s ear.

“Yes.”

“Well, you don’t act like one.”

Westman wondered how she thought reporters should act, but she started talking again before he could enquire.

“Have you killed many monsters?”

“No.” He answered this carefully – it was only a white lie – and regarded her over the rim of his cup. “Now, drink up, then you’d best be off home.” As far as he was concerned, she was quite recovered from her ordeal.

“What sort of journalist hunts monsters?”

“What sort of little girl wanders the streets at night?”

“I ain’t little. I’m twelve years old, I is.”

Vaguely amused by the girl’s obstinate tone, he decided to humour her. “Twelve, hm? Well, I had no idea you were so ancient. My apologies.”

Tabitha continued to press the subject of the monster. “What was those words you was saying? They wasn’t English. And what happened to that monster? He turned to smoke and dust! Do they always do that when you kills them? How exactly do you kill a monster? Can you teach me?”

Westman’s head ached; partly because of his injury, but mostly because of Tabitha’s interrogation. Good lord, she didn’t even pause for breath.

“Slow down, will you? You talk uncommonly much.”

“You frown uncommonly much,” she retorted. “Are you always so grumpy-looking?”

He knitted his brows again for good measure. “Yes, especially when I’ve just been walloped, half strangled and almost roasted by a beast from the underworld. This isn’t the best time for so many questions.”

“Which newspaper do you write for?”

“Have you considered joining the Spanish Inquisition?” he suggested, holding his poor head.

“The what?”

“Never mind.” He opened the bag beside him and handed her a magazine, hopeful it would answer all her questions. “Penderry’s Bizarre. It’s a monthly magazine commissioned by an acquaintance of mine, Professor Broom Penderry. It leans towards the supernatural. I often contribute.”

“I only looks at the fashion magazines, for the latest styles. Very nice drawings. Mrs Toop recommends it.”

“And Mrs Toop is?”

“My employer, sir, at Toop’s Fashion Emporium in Cheapside. I’m a seamstress there. If you ever need a nice gift for a lady, come and see me. I’ll sort you out with a good price, sir.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Finished?” He indicated to her cup and held out his hand.

She drained the rest of the drink and he returned the battered tin cups to the vendor. When he came back, he found her with her nose buried in his magazine.

“Lawks! These sketches are horrifying,” she exclaimed.

He leaned over to see that she was staring in fascination at an article about Werewolves. The grisly looking creature – skilfully drawn in ink – was tearing into the throat of some poor fellow. He plucked the magazine from her fingers and tucked it under his arm.

“Enough to give you nightmares, I should think,” he said.

“After what happened tonight, I don’t think I’ll ever sleep soundly again.”

“That’s all over now. Tell Blinks your address and we’ll see you home safely.” He climbed into the carriage.

Tabitha curled up beside Jack, rubbing her cheek against his fur. Her lodgings weren’t far – in a poor part of town – and when they arrived Westman got out. He cast a critical eye around the damp, stinking street with its dark and dubious looking back alleys.

“Thank you for the cocoa, Mr Westman. I’ll buy your magazine next month.” She gave him a wide smile.

He doubted she could afford a copy. “Sounds like a fair deal.”

“Nobody ain’t ever bought me cocoa before.”

“I can tell. You’re as skinny as a dockside cat.”

Unfazed by his remark, she giggled and her scrawny shoulders bobbed beneath her shawl. “Thank you for saving my life.”

Westman wasn’t sure how to respond to a statement like that, especially when it was she who had saved his neck. “I helped you, you helped me. That makes us even. Just keep out of the alleys when you’re walking home.”

“Will I be in your magazine?”

“Possibly. Do you wish to comment on this evening’s events?” He reached into his coat for his notebook and pencil.

Tabitha looked thoughtful. “All I have t’say is this; it was the most terrifying thing I ever saw, but at least I got a hot cocoa at the end.”

Westman paused mid-scribble and gave her a cynical look. As witness statements went, it was hardly sensational. “Cocoa,” he finished writing. “Noted.”

“And my name’s Tabitha Nethercott, sir.”

“In cases such as this, it’s better for the witness to stay incognito.”

“You mean a fake name? Can I pick it, then, sir? I always liked Marie.”

“Hm. I think Gertrude suits you far better.” An awful sounding name in his opinion and to his satisfaction, a sentiment apparently shared by his young acquaintance.

Tabitha’s expression contorted in displeasure. “Oh no, that’s an ugly name. You wouldn’t be that cruel, sir?”

Westman smirked to himself and got back into the carriage. There was no need to tell her that she would be known by her initial, Miss T; this being the usual practice within the world of the press.

“Go home now, Gertrude,” he teased. “Blinks, let’s go.”

She looked reluctant, but managed a glum smile. “Goodbye, Mr Westman.”

When the cab finally rolled away, Westman turned his thoughts to the glass phial of green dust in his pocket. Tonight he had almost met his Maker hunting down that vile monster. There was no room for blunders in this business – focus was imperative – and after this evening’s slip up, he’d be more careful in the future. He lifted the magazine off the seat and read the familiar heading.

 

PENDERRY’S BIZARRE

An informative journal sponsored by a leading oxford professor. Research of a scientific nature, exploring myth, legend and the supernatural.

 

The magazine contained all manner of articles; some genuine fact; others speculative. The professor’s nephew, Jim, usually produced impressive evidence about the paranormal and his latest piece on the Werewolf was rather compelling. Westman and Jim had worked together on many occasions – one might have described them as best friends – but a quarrel had led to a breakdown in their friendship. Indeed, those glory days were now in the past. They hadn’t spoken in two years.

He took the glass phial from his coat pocket and held it up to the dim carriage lamp. Professor Penderry would be delighted with this new addition to his collection. The scientist paid Westman well for his reports on popular myth, especially well if he offered up a strange specimen to back his findings.

The roof hatch slid open and Westman heard Blinks’ distinctive voice, softened by a hint of the North, calling to him. “What happened out there tonight, sir?”

“Never fight a demon with dessert. It’s most ineffective.”

“A demon?”

“Two words, Blinks. Creeping blasted Clem.”

The servant cleared his throat. “That’s three words, sir.”

Westman gave the phial a little shake, examining the ashes closely.

“Another story for the professor’s magazine?” Blinks asked.

“Indeed. But I will likely leave out the part about the plum pudding.” Westman slipped his watch from his waistcoat pocket and consulted the face. It was nearly eleven o’clock. “The hour grows late.”

“Home is it, then?”

“Yes, home. I have an article to write.”

The hatch was letting in a draught, prompting Westman to pull his coat tightly around himself. His muscles ached in protest. No doubt he would find numerous bruises on his body from the fight with Creeping Clem.

“Close the hatch, would you, Blinks? It’s freezing.”

The servant complied and a short while later they entered Hanover Square, drawing to a halt outside a handsome town house. Westman bid Blinks good night before the servant drove off toward the fog-shrouded carriage house on the North side of the square.

“Come, Jack,” Westman said, making his way up the front steps.

The housekeeper anticipated their arrival and opened the door. “Good evening, Mr Westman.” She assisted him out of his coat.

“Good evening, Mrs Wickspittles.”

She quirked an eyebrow at the bloodied rag around his head, but made no comment. After six months in his employ, she had come to realise that he was not a conventional person. She withdrew a folded sheet of paper from her apron pocket.

“A letter came for you while you were out, about a half hour ago.”

He frowned. “At this hour?”

“An errand boy delivered it.”

Red wax, stamped with the Penderry family’s distinctive ‘P’ insignia, sealed the envelope.

“Thank you. Good night, Mrs Wickspittles.”

He dismissed the housekeeper for the evening and went into his office. When he broke the seal and removed the letter, a blood-red feather fell out. It spun to the floor and he picked it up, regarding it for a moment, then read the letter. His eyes narrowed at the words inscribed in bold.

“Damnation,” he murmured.

 

WESTMAN,

 

JIM IS MISSING. YOUR HELP IS URGENTLY REQUIRED.

 

SINCERELY,

PROFESSOR PENDERRY

CHAPTER THREE

 

Half Moon Street, London

 

Sophie Penderry pressed her forehead to the cool windowpane and peered at the quiet street below. A lady and a gentleman took a morning stroll under the lilac trees, engaged in happy conversation. When they walked out of sight, the view was still once more. There was no sign of traffic, pedestrians or the postman. Sophie’s sigh fogged the glass.

“It’s been two weeks now, Harry. Where is he? Oh, I know what you’re thinking. My big brother is an independent man, with a job and his own house, he can go wherever he pleases. And why should he tell me if he plans to go away?” She pulled a face. “But he’s only twenty one. And if he was going travelling he would tell us. That’s the sort of considerate brother Jim is. He wouldn’t let us worry like this.”

Harry didn’t make a sound. With a louder sigh, Sophie turned away from the window and looked at her grandmother’s cat. Harry lay on the bed, paws tucked neatly in against her chest with her eyes half closed. Sophie wandered over and sat next to the cat, running a hand down her soft back. “I do hope he’s all right. Come on, girl. Let’s go and have breakfast.”

With Harry in her arms, she made her way downstairs and found her grandmother, Primrose, taking breakfast in the dining room. A medley of food greeted her on the sideboard, but even the mountains of grilled bacon, devilled kidneys and kedgeree couldn’t lift her mood. Primrose, however, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying her morning meal.

“Good morning, Grandmother,” she said, putting Harry down to fill a saucer with cream.

The cat meowed excitedly and began lapping the milk the moment the dish was placed on the floor. Sophie poured herself a steaming cup of Darjeeling and joined the old woman at the table. Perhaps the tea would help raise her spirits.

“Good morning, Sophie.” Primrose devoured a mushroom and then raised an eyebrow at her. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m still concerned for James.”

“Of course. It is a worry, lamb. Such a worry. But he is a grown man now. Here, have some prunes.”

“No, thank you.” Sophie stirred a spoonful of honey into her tea.

“It’s still early. He may return today.”

“Perhaps. I’ll send a servant to his house again.”

Primrose offered her a sympathetic smile. “Have faith, my darling.”

“I do try, but it’s so unlike Jim not to send word of his whereabouts. It’s been a fortnight now. What if he’s been involved in an accident?”

“I’m certain we would have been informed by now if that were the case.”

Sophie’s spirits sank lower. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. But then, where can he be?”

At that moment, an urgent knocking sounded at the front door and Sophie jumped to her feet. The butler, Ebony, answered the door and raised voices ensued, followed by determined footsteps.

Sophie and Primrose turned their eyes to the door and a stern looking lady appeared, closely followed by a boy with a wailing infant in his arms. The boy was thirteen year old George Penderry, to be precise – Sophie’s younger brother – and he was carrying Jim’s ward, Felicity.

Harry abandoned her breakfast, thoroughly offended by the baby’s cries, and shot out through the door.

Ebony was on the woman’s heels, looking apologetic at his failure to hold her back. “A thousand pardons, Misses, she wouldn’t wait.”

“It’s alright, Ebony,” Primrose reassured him over the sound of Felicity’s crying. “George, this is a surprise.”

He answered with a grin and a bow of his head. “Dear Grandmother, good morning.”

Sophie freed him of the copper-haired baby. “There, there, Felicity.”

She rocked her gently. Fat tears rolled down the child’s red cheeks and Sophie mopped them away with her handkerchief. “Goodness me, you poor thing. George, I thought you were at boarding school?”

George cleared his throat and examined his fingernails. “Oh, that.”

“Young Master Penderry was expelled from boarding school last week for an extremely naughty prank,” the woman enlightened them.

Their snowy-haired grandmother gasped and shook her head in disappointment. “George, really. Whatever will your brother say?”

When not at boarding school, George lived with his brother – an arrangement made several months ago when Jim had turned twenty one and taken control of his inheritance. While her brothers resided in their late parent’s property, Sophie had remained with their grandmother. Jim was the closest thing to a father figure that George had.

“And who might you be?” Primrose asked the woman.

“My name is Miss Harris. I’m the baby’s nanny. That is to say, her former nanny.”

“What do you mean former?”

“Mr Penderry has failed to return,” Miss Harris answered sharply. “Which is why I have no choice but to quit my position. My salary has not even been paid.”

“Your salary, oh heavens.” Sophie turned to Primrose. “Can’t we sort this out?”

She nodded without hesitation. “Of course we can. Dear little Felicity must have a nanny. How much are you owed?”

Miss Harris looked grave. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. The household staff have not been paid either and the money Mr Penderry left for bills has been spent. Two of the staff left earlier this week and the other leaves today to find work elsewhere. There is no food, no coal, no cook, and no maid to clean the rooms or wash the clothes. In short, I alone can’t meet the children’s needs so I’ve brought them here to you.”

Sophie looked at her grandmother, equally shocked by the turn of events.

“The boy has the keys to the property and their belongings are downstairs by the entrance,” Miss Harris told them.

George confirmed his possession of the keys by proudly swinging the bunch on his finger.

Primrose protested. “You’re not leaving, are you? What of the baby’s needs? James didn’t rescue her from that wretched orphanage just to see her passed around like a parcel.”

“And what of George and his studies?” added Sophie.

Miss Harris heaved an impatient sigh. “I refuse to work for an unreliable employer. I suggest you make enquiries with the local schools. They don’t look favourably on troublemakers, I must say, but if you’re lucky, one of them may take him. As for the baby, she’s content enough now. This young woman looks capable enough.”

Sophie looked up when she realised the nanny was talking about her. “Me? Oh no, I don’t have any experience with babies.”

“You’ll manage.”

“But-” Sophie began to object, but the other woman cut her off.

“If Mr Penderry should return any time soon, please remind him to forward my salary. He has the address of the agency. Good day to you.”

With that, Miss Harris left the house just as swiftly as she had breached it, leaving the poor children alone with the two astonished women.

Primrose sighed. “Well, this is unfortunate timing. I’m expected at Crowthorne Towers this weekend for a party. Lord Crowthorne has a ghost hunt planned.”

Sophie groaned. “Not another ghost hunt. This is the third one this month.”

For reasons she couldn’t fathom, the supernatural had become very fashionable with the wealthy people of London. But Sophie found the idea of creeping around a dark castle – while a psychic called upon the spirit of someone’s long-lost Uncle Herbert – more than a little silly. And psychics always turned out to be fakes.

Primrose ignored her grumblings.

George shoved his hands into his pockets and grinned. “The supernatural is all the rage, Sophie. Why, everybody’s talking about it.”

“I’ll stick with the natural world, thank you,” she replied lightly.

“Sophie takes after your great-grandparents,” Primrose reminisced. “They were famous experts on plants, you know. Perhaps she could mind you and Felicity while I’m away.”

“We won’t be any trouble,” George reassured her. “In fact, you won’t even know I’m here. Is that ham?” He picked up a fork and plate from the sideboard before helping himself to the cold meats. “Bang up! I’m starved. Felicity is too, but she needs her sleep more by the look of it.”

The baby had indeed fallen asleep in Sophie’s arms.

Primrose sighed when she gazed at George. “You grow more like your brother.”

“Jim…” Sophie said, remembering. “Well, this settles it. I’m going to find a constable right this instant.”

“Sophie, you shall do no such thing,” declared Primrose.

“Why not? Jim must be in trouble. He never neglects his staff, especially when it concerns his family.”

George looked alarmed, but Primrose swiftly intervened.

“Do not panic, lamb. I’m sure nothing untoward has occurred. He’s been delayed, and his letter has simply been lost in the post, that is all. But it wouldn’t hurt to see if your Uncle Broom has heard from him. I’m sure George won’t mind escorting you to his house to find out.”

George forced down a mouthful of ham and smiled at her. “It would be my pleasure.”

He truly did grow more like Jim with every passing year. It made Sophie’s heart ache, but she managed a smile in return. “Very well, we’ll visit Uncle Broom this morning, but if he hasn’t heard from Jim I’ll be going to the police straight away.”

Primrose nodded. “Agreed.”

 

***

 

It was almost midday by the time Sophie had readied herself and climbed aboard the gig beside George. With Sally the scullery maid now looking after Felicity, Sophie took the reins and made herself comfortable. George, who’d been resting his chin in his hand while he waited, sat up straight and sighed.

“Why can’t we travel in the carriage?” he asked. “It would be much warmer.”

“The gig is faster.”

Sophie urged the grey horse onward, racing out of the street and ignoring the stares from pedestrians. After navigating the busy streets of Mayfair, they found themselves clear of the crowds and heading on course along an empty, tree-lined road. George held onto the hand rails.

“This is awfully fast,” he shouted over the clatter of hoof-falls.

“Just a precaution,” she said, snapping the reins. “Quiet roads such as these are often prime haunts for thieves and murderers. We shouldn’t dawdle.”

“It looks like rain.”

She glanced up at the darkening sky. The gig had no cover and all she possessed to shelter her head from the threatening rain was her favourite gold and black hat with the pink coloured silk roses. Even her autumn cloak was hoodless. Perhaps she should have chosen the carriage, but it was too late now.

“We’re going to get drenched,” he said.

With a glance his way, she noticed that he wasn’t even wearing a coat, only a simple jacket buttoned up over his shirt and waistcoat. “Not if we keep a good speed. Where’s your coat?”

He peered down at himself and shrugged. “I had to sell it to buy yesterday’s supper.” He turned to look at her, worry in his young face. “You know what you said earlier, about Jim being in trouble, do you really believe something bad has happened to him?”

“I – I don’t know. He should have written by now, don’t you agree?” She couldn’t bear to worry him, so she took a deep breath and forced a cheery smile. “His letter has probably lost its way, that’s all. It happens all the time. No doubt we’re worrying for nothing and he’ll return to us safe and sound. Then I’ll feel like a complete goose.”

George cast her a thin smile. “That’s what I thought… until I read his articles.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, everyone says he’s a journalist, but that’s not the case.”

As far as she was aware, her brother was indeed a journalist, working alongside Uncle Broom to report bizarre occurrences around London. Their uncle was a man of science, but even he couldn’t resist the lure of fashion, it seemed. Taking advantage of the country’s appetite for the supernatural was no doubt a profitable venture, but Sophie had never read his spooky magazine.

“He’s a reporter for Uncle Broom’s magazine,” she assured him. “But I must admit I’m not a follower of his stories.”

“Then, you don’t know what he does?”

“As I said, he’s a journalist.”

“No. He’s a monster hunter.”

An angry rumble of thunder sounded from the heavens and Sophie looked up with apprehension. “My goodness, a monster hunter?” She laughed at the idea. “Jim was never very good at hunting. He couldn’t aim to save his life when he went pheasant shooting in Hampshire.”

“It’s true, Sophie. If you read his reports you’ll see for yourself. Jim writes about ghosts, werewolves and vampires and all sorts of other strange things. Don’t you see? He must be in danger.”

“You don’t really believe in those things, do you? It’s just folklore.”

“His reports are true!”

A fat drop of rain struck her cheek and she cracked the reins again. The ground raced by beneath them with a roar, but when they rounded a bend, they saw a slow moving carriage hogging the road ahead.

George sat forward. “Shouldn’t you slow down?”

“No need for that. He’ll make way, I’m sure.” She raised herself from her seat and called politely. “I say, would you let us pass, please?”

The driver gave no response, although the dog beside him glanced back at them.

Sophie tried again. “Make way please!”

Still no response.

She sat down and focused on driving. “Oh, botheration. He can’t hear me over the rain. George, try to get his attention.”

“Very well.” George cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled: “Gangway!”

His rude shout earned a surprised glance from the coachman who swerved aside, letting Sophie pass. Dust and dirt from the road blew up in the gig’s wake, covering the poor coachman and his vehicle.

“Sorry,” she called over her shoulder, mortified by George’s manners and her own poor driving skills.

The coachman stopped the carriage, coughing and waving the dust away while the dog barked angrily at the retreating offenders.

“Oh dear.” She winced. “That’s never happened before.”

Suddenly, they hit a big pot-hole with a jolt and a splintering crack tore the air. To their shock, George’s seat tipped a foot closer to the ground and the gig wavered out of control.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

What the Devil?

Westman had been reading a newspaper in the comfort of his carriage when the vehicle suddenly swerved, sending him tumbling off his seat. The lantern on the wall swung wildly then slipped off its hook – knocking his hat from his head in the process – before smashing on the carriage floor.

Another pot-hole? Damn that careless servant.

It turned out, however, that it was not a pot-hole, nor his servant, that was to blame, but a reckless fool driving a one-horse gig. The other vehicle clattered past, spraying the window with dust and grit.

“Turf an’ thunder!” Blinks exclaimed, followed by a fit of coughing. Jack’s bark rang through the air.

“Blinks!” shouted Westman, pulling himself back onto the seat. The carriage stopped unexpectedly, propelling him forward again. With a scowl, he thrust open the roof hatch. “What the blazes is going on?”

“Sorry, sir,” Blinks wheezed. “They came out of nowhere. Belted past, they did. Hardly gave me a chance to make way.”

Westman closed his eyes and took a calming breath. There was no sense in being angry with the servant. “Compose yourself and drive on.”

“Aye, sir.”

At that moment, the rain began to pound hard upon the carriage roof and Blinks let out a groan of misery. Westman slammed the hatch shut before the heavy droplets could enter and returned to his seat with a scowl. While he retrieved his hat and newspaper out of the broken glass, he consoled himself with the thought that the driver in the open gig would be soaked to the skin. The lunatic deserved nothing less for such careless behaviour.

He went back to reading his paper when the carriage started forward. But it was not long before they stopped again and the roof hatch popped open to reveal Blinks’ dripping wet face.

“Yes?” Westman asked, peering over an advert for Kirk’s Toilet Soap.

Blinks wiped the rain from his good eye. “Looks like there’s been a wee mishap on the road. It’s that gig, sir.”

Instinctively, Westman turned to the window, but streaks of dirt and rain obscured the view.

Blinks looked over at the scene of the accident. “There’s a young lass who seems to be all right. Should I lend a hand?”

Westman gave a sharp sigh and put his newspaper down before picking up his umbrella. “Let me assess the severity of the crisis.”

He opened the door with a mighty push, for it often stuck, and descended the step. Blinks was already there, dutifully holding the door open for him. No sooner had he stepped out, Jack slipped inside – dripping wet – and flopped onto Westman’s newspaper.

“Oh for heaven’s sake. Blinks, get him off the seats, would you?”

“Aye, sir.” Blinks hurried into action.

Westman opened his umbrella and turned to find the gig parked on the grass verge. The axle appeared to be damaged and the young woman was examining the broken spindle.

“Botheration!” she exclaimed.

“Do you require assistance, madam?”

She spun around and squinted at him through rain-soaked lashes. “Oh! Thank goodness you stopped, sir. I feared we were stranded.”

He tipped his hat automatically, but scarcely looked at her while he wandered over to inspect the damage.

“Here, come and take shelter,” he said, extending his umbrella. “Hmm, a broken axle. It’s repairable, but your gig will have to be towed to a workshop. Where’s the driver?”

At the mention of the careless driver, he could barely keep the disapproval from his voice. The fool was lucky not to have killed his female passenger.

She stepped under his umbrella. “Oh, my brother is with me. He’s looking for my hat. But he wasn’t driving, I was.”

“You?” He turned and peered down at her, getting his first proper look at the maniac who had forced his carriage off the road.

She was younger than him – eighteen perhaps – with a soggy pile of dark hair and a pretty face. Bedraggled as she was, there was something incredibly familiar about the young woman.

She looked up at him and her blue eyes grew wide. “Heavens!” she exclaimed, a smile forming. “Alfred Westman?”

Her identity dawned on him. It was his old friend’s sister, and for a clutch of seconds he forgot to breathe. “Sophie?” The name slipped off his tongue and his back stiffened when he remembered his manners.

Damn social convention with its rules and faux pas. They weren’t children anymore, and they weren’t intimately acquainted. He really ought to address her the proper way.

“I mean, Miss Penderry,” he amended. “What are you doing tearing around the countryside?”

Her smile faltered. “We’re visiting my Uncle Broom. Family matters…”

Was she referring to Jim’s disappearance? A voice called out and Westman glanced to see a boy retrieving something from beneath his carriage. He held up the muddy, crushed object victoriously.

“I’ve found your hat, Sophie! But I fear it’s a little, um, horse-trodden.”

Upon seeing the bonnet, Sophie sucked in a breath and lifted a hand to her mouth in horror. “My best and dearest hat. Oh no, it’s ruined. Mr Westman, didn’t your driver see my hat in the road?”

“Well, he does have only one eye.”

“I loved that hat. How can you joke, sir?”

“I’m not joking. He really does have one eye. Look.”

“Well, if that’s the case, should he be allowed to drive?”

Westman had never known Blinks’ missing eye to cause a problem before. “Of course he’s fit to drive. You on the other hand…”

His reply seemed to offend her. “Me?”

“Admit it. You were driving like a bat out of Hades.”

“Perhaps I was travelling a little fast… But only to avoid the robbers and cutthroats lurking in the countryside.”

“And now your vehicle is in a ditch. You’re lucky to be alive.”

“There was a pot-hole. But what about my hat?” She took the crumpled bonnet from her brother and turned it over, looking pained at the flattened sight of it.

With a sigh, Westman held out his hand and she hesitantly gave him the accessory. The crown was squashed flat – nothing a bit of tweaking couldn’t sort out. He shoved his fist into the top, popping it back into shape. Well, almost. He patted off the mud with his coat sleeve and gave it a shake to plump out the torn silk flowers. Hmm.

He passed it back to her. “Good as new.”

“This will never do,” she cried.

“It’s just a hat.”

“Just a hat?”

“You can buy another.”

“You don’t understand. My brother gave me this hat.”

He fell quiet. Her brother, Jim, was missing, and his horses had just trampled to death a gift of sentimental value. Regret crept in, until he remembered he wasn’t at fault. Wasn’t it her reckless folly that had caused the accident to begin with? “Come, I’ll take you to your uncle.”

“Sophie, do you know this gentleman?” George enquired when Westman stalked back over to his carriage. He tugged the door open.

Gentleman? A gentleman would offer to replace my hat,” she answered, not bothering to lower her voice.

“The name’s Westman,” he said, pausing to shake the boy’s hand. Then he closed his umbrella and used it to sweep out the broken lantern. Glass and metal tinkled and clanked onto the road until he was satisfied that the carriage floor was safe.

“Blinks, secure the horse and gig. We’ll take them to the professor’s house and send for a wainwright.”

Blinks nodded and tipped his hat to Sophie in apology before he went to retrieve a coil of rope.

They took their seats – George claiming the space beside Jack – and Westman slammed the door on the inclement weather before sitting next to Sophie.

“I’m George Penderry.” The boy stuck out his hand enthusiastically, shaking Westman’s again.

He remembered the boy in front of him. Jim’s family had certainly grown since he’d seen them last. “You’re Jim’s little brother? Good Lord. You probably don’t remember me.”

The boy’s smile widened. “I remember you. My brother has spoken of you. Why, I feel as though I already know you, sir.”

Westman dreaded to think what Jim might have told his young sibling about him. After all, they hadn’t parted on good terms.

The boy had more to say and carried on eagerly. “I’ve read your articles in Uncle Broom’s magazine. Fascinating, especially the one about the sea monster in the Thames! I visited the location you described and tried to see the creature, but no such luck.”

“Did you hire the correct underwater equipment as detailed in my article?”

“Oh no, I just took a stroll along the river and watched the water for a good while with a telescope.”

“Well, that would be your error. The best way to catch sight of the creature is from below the surface, not that I would recommend it, mind you. Terribly hazardous. You might be drowned, or worse still, eaten alive.”

Horror filled the boy’s face.

Sophie – who appeared to be over the death of her hat – gave a short laugh. “Oh, Mr Westman, how absurd. Eaten alive by a monster in the Thames? Are you trying to scare the wits out of poor George? I told you, George, they’re just stories and nothing more.”

Westman raised an eyebrow. “Ah, a sceptic. How can you be so certain it’s all fantasy?”

She leaned away a fraction and looked at him as though he were mad. “Really, it’s quite unlikely that anything monstrous is hiding in the river. As a member of The Ladies Natural History Society, I know for a fact that a sweet little dolphin was stranded in the Thames just last year. Your sea monster is probably nothing more terrifying than a porpoise.”

Westman stared at her. “The Ladies Natural History Society?”

The loose coil of hair on top of her head wobbled when she nodded. “Yes.”

“Oh good grief,” he said dryly. “You’re one of those know-it-all bluestockings, aren’t you?”

 

***

 

Sophie didn’t mean to scowl at him – after all, this was her brother’s old friend, Alfred Westman, or Freddie as Jim used to call him. But what had he just called her? A bluestocking? Why, of all the cheek!

“What’s a bluestocking?” asked George.

“An impolite word for a woman who uses her brain,” Sophie answered, earning a smirk from Mr Westman.

He was as she remembered – handsome, jet black hair that brushed his collar, and a neatly tailored suit – but she didn’t recall him ever being quite so rude.

“Offence was not my intention,” he admitted.

There was a fleeting look of apology in his eyes, and a flicker of warmth that suggested he was telling the truth. That was the Freddie she remembered. At that moment, the hatch in the roof snapped open and the servant with the eye-patch peered through at them.

“All secured, sir.”

“Thank you, Blinks. Let’s proceed.”

A moment later, the carriage lurched into motion.

Sophie offered Mr Westman a small smile. “I fear we may have got off on the wrong foot. Please accept my apologies for the mishap on the road. And my thanks. If it were not for you we’d still be stranded.”

“Does this mean I’m forgiven?” he asked.

“Forgiven for what?”

“For ruining your hat.”

She hugged the soiled article. “Oh, that. Yes, of course.”

“Mr Westman,” George cut in, “do you happen to know what my brother is working on?”

“I’m afraid not. We used to work together, that much is true, but Jim and I haven’t spoken in a long time.”

George looked at the floor and sighed.

“He’s missing,” Sophie explained.

“Yes, I know.”

“You do?”

Hesitantly, he reached inside his coat for a folded piece of paper and handed it to Sophie. “I received this last night. It’s from your uncle.”

George sat bolt upright, listening to Sophie read the short transcript before she passed it to him. So Uncle Broom knew Jim was missing. This did not bode well.

George gripped the letter. “He writes that help is urgently required. I think we were right, Sophie. Jim is in peril, isn’t he, Mr Westman?”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” he replied.

Sophie twisted towards him. “Why did Uncle Broom send for you? I don’t understand.”

“I believe Professor Penderry requires my knowledge or assistance in some way.”

“If Uncle Broom is worried then – Lord, what if-” Sophie stopped herself and looked away from her companions, hiding the tears that sprang to her eyes.

“If it’s any consolation, I’ll do all I can to help find him,” Mr Westman told them. “Your uncle will know what to do.”

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Professor Penderry’s house had once been a gleaming white building, surrounded by trees and flowers and set back from the street behind elegant wrought iron. But now it was a grey and neglected sight. The paint was peeling and creeping ivy had taken over. Even the garden was overgrown, resembling a Bengali jungle painting in a travel encyclopaedia.

Thankful the rain had stopped, Sophie stepped from the carriage and into an eddy of rustling leaves. From the peaked roof, a crow stared upon them and issued a loud squawk. George, who had never visited the house, stared up at the grimy windows.

“Great-Uncle Broom lives here? What a shack!”

Sophie hushed him. “Don’t be rude. Uncle Broom is an extremely busy man, devoted to the pursuit of science.”

Mr Westman was already at the door, holding a brown paper packet in one hand and pulling the bell cord with the other. “Jack, stay there. Blinks, ask around and find out if someone can fix Miss Penderry’s gig.”

“Aye, sir.”

The front door swung open abruptly and the thin professor appeared in a stained lab coat. His frizzy, grey hair – attached to a pair of mutton-chops – was combed to the side and shot off at an odd angle as though the wind had blown it. His moustached upper lip twitched in surprise, and he peered at them through his spectacles with a beaming smile.

“Westman, I’ve been expecting you, dear boy, but not with my Sophie, by Jove. And young George too. What a treat! Come inside. Come, come.”

Uncle Broom rushed off towards the great staircase and left the door gaping wide behind him. He was already half way up the curving stairs when he called down from over the handrail.

“Good of you to invite my niece and nephew along with you, Westman.”

“I didn’t have a choice,” he replied, sounding rather displeased at her uncle’s suggestion.

Uncle Broom blinked in confusion.

“Oh, we met Mr Westman on the road here,” she explained. “George and I had an accident with the gig and Mr Westman stopped to help us.”

“Oh, well done, Westman. He can’t resist a damsel in distress, you know, my dear.”

At her uncle’s remark, she caught Mr Westman rolling his eyes.

George bounded between them, forcing the pair to stop at the foot of the staircase and make way. “Wait for me, Uncle Broom.”

“George, manners,” she reminded him. Mr Westman took off his hat and swept his hair neatly off his forehead. Sophie had to glance twice. “I say, that’s a shocking knock on your head!”

He touched the gash. “Oh, this? It’s nothing – a minor injury from a recent investigation, that’s all.”

“You poor man. Whatever happened?”

He raised his eyebrows and the corner of his mouth twitched in amusement. “Do you really want to know?”

She had the sudden impression that she was better off not knowing, but she nodded all the same. “Why, yes, of course I do.”

“The truth may shock you.”

“Go on.”

He leaned closer in a secretive way. “Last night I was attacked by a fire-breathing monster in Stepney Green. What do you make of that?”

She folded her arms and cocked an eyebrow. “I see.”

Apparently, teasing people was a habit he enjoyed. First the tale about the sea monster in the Thames and now this silly story. Couldn’t he be serious, especially when she was concerned about the injury?

“I think you must have bumped your head very hard,” she said, retracting her sympathy.

“Come along, you two,” her uncle called to them. “There’s much to talk about.”

Mr Westman started up the dusty staircase. “Professor, I’d like to discuss the matter with you in private.”

“Oh, no need for that. This concerns Sophie and George as well.”

 

***

 

Has he gone mad?

What was the old man thinking involving Sophie and George? It was clear to Westman that Jim had wandered into danger, probably the life threatening sort. But their uncle couldn’t tell them that. They were worried enough as it was. And they could hardly assist in the matter. Why, the boy was like an excitable puppy and Jim’s bluestocking sister was a complete non-believer.

He followed the professor into the laboratory which was in its usual state of untidiness; shelves crammed full of books; strange objects lining the walls; benches littered with glass phials and papers. An array of gyroscopes and scientific apparatus took up the centre of the floor, and a beaker of brown liquid bubbled and smoked at the other end of the room. George and Sophie stared around the lab in wonder.

“Look at this,” she said in delight.

While they were distracted, Westman drew the old scientist to one side. “Professor, I don’t think it’s a good idea to involve them in this,” he whispered.

Professor Penderry looked up at him. “Why ever not, dear boy?”

“What’s this?” George asked, stirring the contents of a glass beaker.

Sophie looked over at him as she pulled a book off the shelf. “George, don’t touch,” she warned him.

At that moment, the shelf broke sending the rest of the books tumbling like dominos. George’s mixing resulted in an eruption of foam and he leapt backwards. The steady flow of froth overflowed with no sign of stopping.

“Uncle Broom!” cried George.

Professor Penderry peered over his spectacles. “Oh, you’ve applied kinetic energy to the molecules resulting in an increased rate of chemical reaction. Watch out, that looks rather endothermic.”

Westman blinked at the chaos unfolding before his eyes. Sophie abandoned the falling books to pull George away from the steaming spume of suds.

“As I was saying,” Westman continued quietly to the professor, “I can’t see any good coming from their involvement. Why worry them with the details of Jim’s work?”

“They’re his family, Westman. I’ve tried to shield them from the truth, but how much longer can we keep them in the dark? No, they should know.”

“Well, trust me, your niece won’t believe a word of it.”

“Sophie will come to understand. Why, she and George may even be useful.”

Westman exhaled through his nose. “With respect, Professor, Jim’s research often involves an element of danger, and they know nothing of these matters.”

“Well, we’ll have to change that.”

He must have lost his senses. There was a dark world of demons out there. Terrible things lurked in the shadows! But before Westman could protest again, Professor Penderry escaped to deal with the mountain of foam.

“We’re awfully sorry, Uncle Broom,” said Sophie.

Professor Penderry smiled. “Oh, don’t worry about that. In science, this sort of thing happens all the time.”

The old man brandished a large set of pinchers and lifted another glass vessel – this one full of bubbling brown liquid – from the neighbouring tripod. “Now, would anyone care for some tea?”

They were quick to decline.

“Uncle Broom, where is Jim?” Sophie asked. “We’re quite worried about him.”

Professor Penderry poured himself a drink. “Well, I do believe an explanation is required. Where to begin, though? Let me see. For some time, Jim has been gathering research for my magazine. And I’m afraid this has resulted in his disappearance. I’m sorry to say that I fear we’re dealing with something supernatural.”

“I knew it!” declared George.

Sophie expelled a sharp breath. “Lord, Uncle Broom, not you too. Are you suggesting that the horror stories in your magazine are real? I’ve heard quite enough of that nonsense from George and Mr Westman today.”

“That is precisely what I’m suggesting, Sophie. And I’m perfectly serious. This is why I invited Westman here. Westman, do you have the feather I sent to you?”

Westman retrieved the ominous plumage from the pocket inside his coat.

“That,” the professor indicated to the feather, “is our only clue. Found at the scene of Jim’s last known whereabouts.”

“And where might that be?” asked Westman.

“Crowthorne Towers.”

“Crowthorne Towers?” Sophie exclaimed. “The home of Lord Crowthorne?”

“Yes, that is correct.”

“Grandmother is going there this weekend.”

“For a ghost hunt,” added George.

“What was Jim doing there?” she wondered.

“He was investigating the rumour that Lord Crowthorne is involved in more than just ghost hunts. Black magic to be precise. You see, two weeks ago the opportunity arose for Jim and I to attend one of Lord Crowthorne’s parties. Naturally, Jim couldn’t resist the chance to have a good nose around.

“I can’t say for certain that Lord Crowthorne is up to anything suspicious, but Jim’s poking about has landed him in a big spot of bother. He slipped off to the garden for some fresh air and vanished. I had so hoped to find him myself without involving anyone else, but I now fear I can’t do this alone.”

“You’re not alone,” she reassured him. “And what about this feather?”

She moved closer to study it. George followed and Westman found himself sandwiched between the curious pair.

“What sort of bird is it from?” asked George.

Westman had no idea. Birds were not his area. He twirled the plume between his fingers, examining the vivid red, edged with black that started at the tip and faded out towards the fluffy after feather. “Certainly not your common Trafalgar Square pigeon, we can assume that much.”

“Well, I’ve never seen anything like it.” George shrugged.

Sophie narrowed her eyes and regarded the feather. “I have.”

Westman looked at her, torn between the excitement of a potential lead and the dreaded possibility that Sophie was not just an authority on dolphins in the Thames, but now birds as well.

“It’s from a species of the Cotingidai family,” she explained. “Exotic birds are the latest trend. There was a talk on the subject at the Ladies Natural History Society. Apparently, the Duchess of Bexley keeps some, and Lady Newton. I even saw a lady in Hyde Park parading a parrot around on her shoulder – which I didn’t think was a very good look. If you ask me, parrots on shoulders should be restricted exclusively to pirate captains.”

Professor Penderry motioned to the feather with his tongs. “Well, I didn’t see a bird like that at the party, I must say. Of course, there’s no telling how long the feather had been there. It really isn’t much to go on, I suppose.”

“Perhaps not, but we know Jim’s last location. That’s a start,” said Westman.

Returning the feather to his pocket, he prepared to leave. Miss Penderry and George would just have to wait for the wainwright to repair their gig. He couldn’t afford to delay.

“I’ll make a start right away, Professor. You may rest assured that I’ll do my best to find him.”

“At last, a plan of action,” said Sophie. “We should make a thorough search of Crowthorne Towers.”

Westman sensed trouble in the air. “We, Miss Penderry?”

She looked up at him and blinked. “Why, yes. I’ll go with you.”

“Absolutely not.”

Confusion crossed her face. “I beg your pardon? Why not?”

“It isn’t safe. You’ve been helpful with the feather, but I can take it from here.”

She was right though, he had to admit, a thorough search of Crowthorne Towers would be needed. He turned away from her and found the professor up to his elbows in foam.

“I’ll need access to Jim’s research.”

“Oh, his private office, yes. You should find all his research there. He still lives on Jermyn Street.”

“The house is empty, but we can let you in,” she offered.

“That won’t be necessary. I require only the keys.”

“We can’t just give you the keys,” she answered in disbelief.

“Why not? Do you think I’ll run away with the silverware?”

“We might need them.”

“I told you, I can take things from here.”

George joined her corner. “I can show you to Jim’s study.”

Westman grew impatient and shot the professor a beseeching look, but the old man let him down by encouraging his young relatives.

“Oh, what harm could it do? Let them go with you, Westman.”

“For pity’s sake.” With a roll of his eyes, Westman submitted. “Very well, but just this once.”

“Huzzah!” George grinned.

“I’m certain we’ll find Jim much faster if we work as a team,” said Sophie.

“Undoubtedly.” Westman tried to muster some enthusiasm, but failed.

Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew another specimen that he had brought with him; A phial of green dust. He offered it to the professor who held it up to light for inspection.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Creeping Clem of Stepney Green.”

A smile broke across the professor’s face. “Oh, well done. You never fail to impress me, Westman. Was it a fire demon as we suspected?”

“Yes, the report is on your bench.”

“Very good, sir, very good. Just in time for this evening’s press.”

As Westman turned away, he met Sophie’s inquisitive gaze.

“Did you just say Creeping Clem of Stepney Green?” she asked. “The attacker in the newspapers?”

“Yes. I told you I had a run in with a monster in Stepney Green last eve.” He glanced at the phial in the professor’s hand. “I think old Clem came off worse. Now, shall we go?”

CHAPTER SIX

 

Jim Penderry had inherited a terraced house from his parents. The slim building stood on Jermyn Street, shoulder to shoulder with a restaurant and a taxidermist. In the distance, Big Ben chimed the hour and Westman checked that his pocket watch was running on time. Five o’clock in the afternoon and daylight had faded considerably.

The door into Plunkett’s opened and a patron staggered outside, followed by the sounds of chatter and laughter. The aroma of stew and dumplings, mingled with the smell of wet cobblestones and George held his stomach, looking pained.

“I’m starving,” he moaned.

Sophie shook her head. “After all that food this morning?”

“That was hours ago,” the boy declared. “I’m a growing chap, you know?”

In the neighbouring house on the left, an oil lamp in the downstairs window flickered, illuminating the placard that hung behind the glass.

 

R. Gabb. Taxidermist

 

Westman turned to Blinks and passed him a few coins. “Find somewhere for the horses to rest then meet me back here.”

When he faced the buildings again, a movement in the taxidermist’s window distracted him. The heavy curtain shifted as though somebody was watching them, then dropped back into place. Sophie unlocked her brother’s front door and Westman strode over to join her. A cold droplet of rain struck his cheek.

“Inclement weather,” he remarked.

She opened the door. “It is indeed. I think I should prefer to avoid another drenching.”

Darkness greeted them when they entered the house, accompanied by a chill that suggested no fire had been lit in some time. Sophie and George hesitated in the entry hall, forcing Westman to ease them forward so that he could close the door behind him. Silence descended upon them. The only noises detectable to Westman were the rhythmic ticking of a clock and the sound of his own steady breathing.

“Where are the candles stored?” he asked.

“In the drawer over here.” George felt his way through the gloom to a side table in the hallway.

Westman joined him by the table and struck a match. Soon they each held a lit candle and surveyed their surroundings.

“Well, this is it, Mr Westman,” said George. “I’m sorry it’s so cold, but we ran out of coal.”

“What about paraffin for the oil lamps?”

George shook his head before something occurred to him. “There may be some in Jim’s office.”

“We should check.” Sophie seized the lead and headed for a door at the back of the hallway.

Westman followed. He was quite happy for Sophie to go searching, after all, he preferred to work alone. Huge shadows danced on the walls when they entered what was unmistakably Jim’s office. Who else would keep a glass cabinet filled with such bizarre and grotesque souvenirs? Discretion had never been Jim’s forte.

Westman plucked a candelabra from the top of the cabinet and wedged the candle into the holder. Candle light was not ideal, but it would have to suffice for the time being. The curtains at the window were open, casting moonlight on the surfaces. Rain began to lash at the glass, adding yet more shifting shadows to the room.

“Where should we begin?” asked George.

Jim’s office was reasonably organised, but it would take time to go through everything.

“I’ll search for his notes,” Westman replied. “You look for a diary or calendar. Check the drawers. And try not to make a mess.”

A warm glow brightened the room.

“There, much better,” Sophie declared with a pleased smile. She replaced the glass shade over the oil lamp, turned up the flame, and stared at the artefacts in the glass case with wonder. “Do these belong to Jim?”

Westman turned his attention to the paperwork on the desk. “Yes. He was always an avid collector of… souvenirs. Mementos from his investigations.”

He scanned the papers in his hand. They were no help.

“What is that?” asked Sophie.

He looked over to see her examining a framed picture in her hand.

George glanced up and stopped what he was doing to join her. “That’s the sort of thing I was talking about. Do you believe me now?”

“That’s Jim,” she said, pointing to the photograph. “And you, Mr Westman. But what on Earth is that?”

Westman put down the papers and stalked over to them. He hadn’t posed for many photographs during his lifetime and only twice with Jim Penderry. The first occasion had been a rather dull portrait of them at college, but the second had been taken during an investigation in Scotland. He could guess which one Sophie had found.

Westman took a moment to appreciate the photograph which had captured the sea and craggy shoreline in the background. Wrapped in coats, scarves and gloves, Westman and Jim stood beside a mysterious creature on a rock. At first glance it appeared to be a wild-haired woman, but a closer look revealed the absence of legs and a fish-like tail instead.

“It washed up on the shores of Skelmorie, injured,” he explained. “We never did determine where it came from since it couldn’t speak.”

Sophie’s brow creased. “She has a tail.”

“Very mystifying, I know. Jim billed it as The Skelmorie Mermaid. We helped it back into the sea afterwards, of course.”

She lowered the photograph and pinned him with a sombre stare. “Is this some sort of hoax? Tell me the truth, Alfred Westman.”

“I’m completely serious. There are things in this world that we can’t always explain. Be it mermaids, the Loch Ness Monster, fire-breathing monsters or even black magic. The unexplained exists.”

Westman didn’t usually go out of his way to convert sceptics. It was a tiresome task and quite often the non-believers were better off living in ignorance. But for Jim’s sister he would at least try. A stack of magazines resided on the shelf and he picked one up to give her.

Penderry’s Bizarre. Here, you have some catching up to do.”

At that moment, a heavy thump sounded on the front door, followed by a second and a third. The noise startled his two companions. At first, Westman assumed it was Blinks, back from the carriage house, but he always recognised the servant’s chirpy knock. This loud, measured rap was different.

“Wait here,” he told the pair. “George, keep looking. I won’t be long.”

He took the candelabra with him and retraced his path to the entrance. Through the coloured glass in the front door, two silhouettes waited in the dark, rainy evening. It seemed somewhat suspicious to Westman that the master of the house was missing and a pair of strangers were knocking the door in the middle of a rainstorm. Granted, it could be a coal seller making his rounds, but Westman kept his guard raised.

When he opened the door to the clatter of rain on the road, he faced a stocky young man in shirtsleeves and a shabby brown waistcoat. His companion was taller and leaner, wearing a great coat and there was a large crate at their feet.

“Evening,” said the stocky man. Rain pelted his greasy pigtail while he peered past Westman and into the dark interior of the house.

Westman didn’t bother to hide his suspicion. “Can I help you?”

“The name’s Ben Gabb. Is Mr Penderry at home?”

Gabb? The name was familiar. Then it struck him. “Ah, you’re the taxidermist from next door?”

Gabb fished a calling card out of his pocket and handed it to him. “That would be my father. Out of the goodness of our hearts, we’re making a delivery for him.”

 

R. Gabb. Taxidermist. 61 Jermyn Street, Westminster, London. Skins dressed and mounted. Parcel to hand shall have our careful attention.

 

He put the card in his pocket. “Well, I’m afraid Mr Penderry isn’t here.”

The two young men exchanged a glance.

“Still away?” Gabb asked. “When will he be back?”

“It’s hard to say.”

Gabb regarded Westman with equal suspicion. “So who are you? I’ve not seen you before, what’s your business here?”

“Westman. I’m an old friend.”

The taxidermist’s son gave him an assessing look. “Well, Mr Westman, someone needs to take receipt of this here delivery.”

Westman pushed the door wide and moved aside. “You’d better bring it in out of the rain.”

Gabb and his associate lifted the crate over the threshold and manoeuvred it into the hallway.

“What’s in it?” asked Westman.

“I don’t know.” Gabb shrugged and withdrew a crumpled pile of papers from his jacket pocket.

“We’re just the delivery boys,” the other man added with an inane smile.

“Sign here, please.” Gabb handed Westman a pencil along with the papers. “I trust you’ll keep this safe until Mr P returns?”

“Yes, of course,” Westman said and signed the delivery record.

George’s voice and eager footfalls approached from the study. “Mr Westman. I think I may have found something.”

The boy stopped in front of him and glanced at the strangers and the crate before he handed the file to Westman. Westman exchanged the folder for the candelabra and flicked through the pages.

“Good work, George.” He patted the youth’s shoulder and tucked the file under his arm. A thorough check through Jim’s research would be required, but not until the delivery men had gone.

Just then, Blinks returned with Jack. A flash of lightning illuminated the hallway and the rain drenched pair dashed inside.

“Cats and dogs! Devil take this bloomin’ weather,” cursed Blinks.

The servant pushed Jack inside and struggled to drag in Westman’s heavy bag. He dumped it on the floor and shoved the door shut against the wind. When he looked around to find Westman, George and an unfamiliar pair of visitors staring at him, his face filled with shame.

“Oh, pardon me, Mr Westman, sir. I didn’t know you had visitors.”

“Well, never mind that, Blinks. You’re walking mud over Penderry’s carpet. Take your shoes off for goodness sake.”

“Oh, aye, sir.” Blinks quickly did as he was bid. “It’s bad out there, sir. We just passed a coach accident on Bury Street.”

George’s eyes widened. “What happened?”

“Not rightly sure, Master George,” Blinks answered, holding his buckled shoes in one hand.

The servant’s big toe was protruding from a hole in his muddy stocking and Westman rolled his eyes when he noticed it.

“It was turned on its side,” he continued. “Reckon it must’ve gone over when the driver took the corner. The rain’s turned the roads to sludge and you can’t see a thing. I don’t think we’ll be able to leave until it’s passed, Mr Westman, sir. It isn’t safe.”

Westman sighed heavily. “Very well. We’ll wait here until the rain stops.”

Trapped in Jim Penderry’s house with no heat, no food and no light – except for one paraffin lamp and a few candles. How marvellous.

Westman turned to Gabb. “I don’t suppose you have any coal and paraffin to spare? I’ll reimburse you, of course.”

It turned out that Gabb’s primary language was money and that his father did indeed have fuel to spare next door. The delivery men ventured out into the storm to get the fuel and left the three of them – four, if one included the dog – standing around the crate.

“What’s in the box?” George asked when Gabb had gone.

Blinks looked equally curious when he raised his good eye from the crate to stare at him. Westman contemplated opening it. He ought to check the contents to make sure that whatever was inside had been deposited into his trustworthy hands in one piece. Yes, he really should make certain.

“I don’t know. Let’s find out, shall we? Blinks, a hand, please.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Nails sealed the lid of the crate, but – between the two of them – Westman and Blinks managed to prize it open. For a moment, another flash of lightning filled the hallway, followed by a clap of thunder, and the three of them peered into the box. George drew a sharp breath and stepped back.

“Cats and dogs,” Blinks murmured, horrified.

From the depths of the crate stared the mounted head of the biggest and ugliest werewolf Westman had ever seen. It had long, silver fur, fiery yellow glass eyes and a snarling muzzle that revealed an incredible set of large, pointed teeth. George ventured forward again and looked with eyes as round as sovereigns.

“Jim’s recent report on werewolves. Good grief.”

“You won’t meet one of those in London Zoo,” said Blinks.

“I shouldn’t wish to meet one at all,” George assured him.

Westman replaced the lid and turned to Blinks. “Let’s move this somewhere safe.”

 

***

 

A draught sneaked in through the study window, passing through Sophie’s damp dress and making her shiver. She put down the magazine – which she had almost completed from cover to cover – and gazed once more at the photograph on the desk.

Jim. Where are you, brother?

Taking great care, she flipped the frame over and turned the clasps. The back lifted away and she peeled the photograph from the glass. Jim clearly valued this picture, but she was certain he would understand her borrowing it. She had no painting or photograph of him, other than the image of him that she kept in her mind. In this anxious time, she needed to see his face.

She tucked the photograph in her bag and rose from the chair to close the drapes. The smell of a newly lit fire tickled her nostrils. Had they found fuel after all? She picked up the paraffin lamp and made her way back through the dark corridor.

Light and voices drifted down the stairs and she followed them to Jim’s small library. In the room, she found the wall lamps lit and Blinks stoking the blazing coals in the hearth. The dog, Jack, stretched out in front of the fireplace.

“We have fuel?”

Mr Westman rose from his seat at the table when she entered. “Ah, Miss Penderry. I was just about to send George down to retrieve you. The library is far more comfortable than Jim’s office, don’t you agree?”

She glanced around the room. “Well, yes.” It certainly had more seating than the study.

George peered around a high-backed armchair facing the fire. “Hello, Sophie. It was a pair of fellows from next door knocking.”

“They were asking after your brother,” added Mr Westman. “They also provided us with the fuel.”

George snorted. “I can’t believe how much they wanted for it. They robbed you blind, Mr Westman.”

There was a note of warning in Mr Westman’s voice. “Never mind that. It was a small price to pay to keep the pair of you from freezing to death. As tempting as that may be, Jim would have my neck if I allowed it.”

“If I didn’t know better, I might think you cared about us, Mr Westman,” Sophie teased. She wandered over to the fireplace and enjoyed the warmth on her cold hands. What she wished, however, was to go home, shed the rain-ruined day dress and climb into her nice warm bed.

Mr Westman glanced up at her through his lashes and she saw the corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. “Please have a seat. We’re likely to be here for some time. Blinks informs me that we can’t travel in this storm.”

Sophie was about to sit, but straightened up sharply at the news. “How long will we have to remain here?”

“It’s difficult to say.”

“Not all night, surely?”

“Perhaps.”

“Oh my goodness. My grandmother will be distraught with worry if we don’t return soon.”

Her brother looked over at her from his seat. “Is anyone else hungry?”

Sophie stared heavenward and sighed. George was always thinking with his stomach. But to be fair, it had been hours since their last meal. She took a coin from her bag. “Mr Blinks, would you see if the supper-house next door has something you can bring over, enough for all of us, yourself included?”

“Very good, miss,” Blinks answered and traipsed out the door.

“I’m going to find a pack of cards,” George informed them and jumped up from his seat, leaving Sophie alone with Mr Westman.

She sat in the armchair by the fire and smoothed away a crease in her skirt. The rain had left her looking a fright. Several escaped tendrils of hair hung untidily around her face and she tucked a piece behind her ear – not that it helped.

And Mr Westman didn’t have a hair out of place, she noticed, feeling self-conscious all of a sudden – which was silly and nonsensical because she had no ambition to impress him. At least, she didn’t think so. Silence settled over them while Mr Westman worked at the table.

“So how have you been?” she asked, making conversation. “It’s been, what, over a year?”

“Two.” Mr Westman leaned back in his chair. “I’ve been well. And yourself?”

“Quite well, thank you. Aside from this terrible business.”

“I’m sure Jim will turn up safely. He was always good at taking care of himself.”

“Something happened between you and Jim, didn’t it? A disagreement?”

There was an air of hesitancy around him before he answered. “Yes, something like that. A clash of morals, you might say.”

“In what sense?”

“In the sense that I have some and Jim doesn’t.”

A small frown creased her brow. “You’re very hard on my brother.”

“Then I shall say no more. It’s not my place to speak of it anyway.” He turned back to the desk and resumed writing.

Jim wasn’t perfect, Sophie knew, he could even be foolish on occasion, but to label him immoral? She didn’t believe it.

“But I should tell you,” he added, “that when we last spoke, Jim expressly forbid me from coming anywhere near him, his home and his family.”

“Whatever do you mean he forbid you?” she exclaimed. “Why would he do that?”

“Perhaps you should ask him that when we find him. I dare say he’d be spitting feathers if he could see this.” He gestured around the room, pointing out the fact that he was in Jim’s house; with Jim’s sister; going through Jim’s things.

Sophie shook her head. “You were the best of friends.”

“Things changed.”

He didn’t elaborate, and Sophie continued to wonder what could’ve happened to spoil their friendship. After a quiet interval, she pulled up a chair and joined him at the table.

“Did you find anything yet?”

He tapped a date written on the front of a folder and then spread the file open. “Yes. It appears Jim kept his latest research in this file.”

Sophie looked at the handwritten notes, newspaper clippings and sketches. “Can you make any sense of it?”

George returned with a pack of cards and wandered over to join them. He leaned his elbows on the table and peered at the notes.

Mr Westman’s brow creased in concentration. “According to this, he suspects Lord Crowthorne is involved in a cult, performing black magic and secret rituals. Witchcraft. He also writes, while rumours of Crowthorne and the black arts circulate, city residents blame the disappearance of three local girls on the so-called Creeping Clem…”

“Creeping Clem?” murmured Sophie.

“Yes. As you’re aware by now, Creeping Clem was a demon, summoned by somebody to prey on young women.”

Sophie didn’t know the details of the incident between Mr Westman and Creeping Clem, but she was inclined to believe the criminal was flesh and blood – not a magical demon. Even after reading her uncle’s magazine, the idea of monsters and black magic still felt implausible, as far as she was concerned.

Mr Westman unfolded a news clipping for her to see. “Jim saved several articles about the abductions. And this, look.” He showed her an old document, worn and discoloured by time.

“What is that,” she asked, reading the print, “a court record?”

“Yes. It documents the trial of Mary Wilson, known by the locals as Mad Mary. The trial took place one hundred and fifty years ago in Scotland. She was found guilty and executed. Her crime was witchcraft.”

“And she is somehow related to Lord Crowthorne?”

“Not quite.” Mr Westman withdrew a newspaper clipping and ran his finger under a name. “It would seem that she was the ancestor of this young woman. Wendy Wilson. Creeping Clem’s first victim. If there’s a connection between Creeping Clem, Crowthorne Towers and witchcraft, I’m beginning to think Jim was on to something serious. Black magic and demon summoning should not to be taken lightly.”

“You think Lord Crowthorne summoned a demon?” asked Sophie, brow raised.

“Well, there can’t be that many dark magic cults in London. Jim seems to believe Lord Crowthorne is behind it, so why not?”

“Lord Crowthorne is a respected member of society,” she protested.

“The perfect facade to hide behind. You said yourself he’s interested in the supernatural.”

“A lot of people are. My grandmother, for example. It doesn’t make them all members of a demon-summoning cult.”

He ignored the remark and began scrawling something on a piece of paper.

“So where do we go from here?”

“I intend to question one of Clem’s victims, the one that escaped last night. Tabitha Nethercott. Perhaps she has a link with Crowthorne Towers.”

“I’d like to go with you.”

He cast her a cynical look. “I don’t think that’s wise.”

Sophie picked at a speck on her dress and decided not to push the matter further – for now, at least. Mr Westman went back to examining Jim’s research and she found an interesting book to read. Time passed and Blinks soon returned with a tray piled up with bread rolls, bowls, cutlery and a pot of steaming meat stew.

After they had shared the meal, George challenged Blinks to a card game. Mr Westman joined the game after a while and Sophie played one round before the clock on the mantelpiece chimed eleven o’clock.

George yawned and stretched. “Well, I’m exhausted. Has the rain stopped yet?”

Mr Westman went to the window and drew back one drape. Outside, the storm continued to batter the street. “No. Go and get some sleep, George. We won’t be leaving yet.”

“Very well.” George stood and scratched his head. “You’re welcome to use your old room, Sophie.”

Sophie stifled a yawn behind her hand, smiled, then stood. “Thank you, George. I need a rest.”

Mr Westman and Blinks stood, tipping their heads. She picked up the paraffin lamp – which was almost empty – and followed George along the corridor. From downstairs, the wind rattled the front door and howled through the cracks.

“Good night, Sophie,” he said when they reached the bedrooms. “Sleep well.”

“Sleep well, George.”

She entered the darkened bedchamber, placed the lamp on the chest of drawers beside her, and closed the door. Her old bedroom, now a guest room, had gathered dust since she’d last stayed at the house. The tester bed was where she remembered it – heavy velvet curtains drawn closed around it – and the ottoman filled with spare bedding still sat beneath the window. She opened the creaking lid of the chest and took out a woollen blanket before struggling out of her damp clothes.

The air in the room was chilled like ice and she was certain she’d need extra layers to keep warm in the night. Clad in her chemise and bloomers, she slung the blanket over her bare shoulders and turned to the bed. With each step, her feet sank into the Turkish rug. The lamp dwindled, almost out of fuel, but the moon outside the window – and the occasional flash of lightning – shed light upon the chamber.

Reaching the tester bed, she took a handful of drape in each fist, flung the curtains open and screamed.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Westman couldn’t sleep. He was tired, certainly, but his mind wouldn’t switch off, so he found himself back at the table, pouring himself a brandy from Jim’s decanter. Blinks was asleep on the sofa, his feet propped up, displaying his holey stockings. The servant had dozed off within seconds, but Westman was not so fortunate. Something troubled him.

Jim Penderry had dealt with werewolves, ghosts and demons and always emerged more or less unscathed after each encounter. The man hunted some of the vilest creatures imaginable, so what had gone wrong? What dangerous foe had he stumbled upon this time? A wealthy lord who dabbled in the occult hardly seemed a deadly threat.

Westman knew he must go to the source to learn more. Perhaps the answer lay at Crowthorne Towers, but tomorrow he would pay a visit to his skinny young acquaintance, Tabitha, at Toop’s Fashion Emporium. If she knew anything about the mysterious Lord Crowthorne, she would tell him. After all, he had saved her from Creeping Clem.

While he sipped his drink, he allowed his thoughts to turn to the other matter that bothered him; Sophie. She was very persistent, but there was no chance he’d let her interfere further in the investigation. It was for her own safety, never mind Jim forbidding him to step within a yard of her and George. Yes, there would be no more outings with Freddie Westman.

He became aware of Blinks’ grating snores, and considered throwing a cushion at him, when a sudden scream chilled his blood. On impulse, he leapt to his feet. Blinks awoke with a start and knocked a porcelain vase from its pedestal. It hit the ground with a smash.

“Damnation, Blinks. That’s coming out of your wage!”

“Sorry, sir.” The servant looked around in a daze.

In the next moment, Sophie Penderry came hurtling into the library – in her undergarments, no less – with a blanket billowing around her shoulders. Westman’s eyebrows shot skyward in surprise when she flung herself directly into his arms, rendering him speechless.

“In the guest room, in the guest room!” she cried into his waistcoat. “It’s hideous.”

“Steady on, Miss Penderry.” He recovered his voice and patted her back. She was hysterical. “What is it? A spider? A rat?”

She pulled her head back and peered up at him with wet eyes. “No! Nothing so trivial. There’s something in the bed. It’s huge and frightful. Some sort of hideous wild beast. You of all people must believe me.”

“I believe you.” He looked over at Blinks who was gawping at them. “Blinks, quickly, bring my things.”

“Aye, sir.” Blinks dropped his tatty old tri-corn onto his head and hurried warily down the stairs.

Westman arranged the blanket back around her cold shoulders. “A wild beast, you say?”

“Yes.” She sniffed and blinked, hugging him so tight he felt her heart racing.

“Don’t worry,” he said, keeping an alert eye on the corridor. “All will be well.”

The sound of his heavy bag being dragged up the staircase made him wince. “Wait here.”

He helped Blinks haul the bag up the last remaining steps and strode back into the library with it. Sophie watched him set the large holdall down then open it to withdraw his father’s naval sword. It had been forged during the reign of the Prince Regent – bordering on antique, he supposed – but the blade was still sharp and it had never failed him; or his father for that matter. After a rummage through spell books and other equipment, he found a second foil which he passed to Blinks.

Westman unsheathed the sword from its scabbard and turned to Sophie. “Which room is it?”

“The last door on the left.”

“Stay here with Jack. Blinks, with me.”

The two men stalked out of the library. When they reached the door, they found it shut. Westman put his ear to the wood, listening for sounds.

There was only silence.

He exchanged a silent look with the servant before turning the handle. Blinks nodded to confirm that he was ready and upon his signal, Westman threw the door wide open and moved in, sword raised and ready to strike. Blinks jumped in beside him, slicing the cutlass through the air.

Nothing greeted them but the gloom.

Westman saw the tester bed with its drapery pulled shut and signalled Blinks to go around one side while he took the other. A familiar sense of anticipation rose and he approached the bed; adrenalin, surging in his stomach and draining to his knees, making his heart drum and his body tense. Step by careful step, he moved around the bed towards the opening in the drapes. Then, without further delay, he grabbed the curtain and threw it back to reveal –

The mounted head of a werewolf.

Westman heaved a sigh; relief or annoyance, he wasn’t entirely sure.

How the devil did this get here?

Blinks pulled back the drapes on the other side. “Turf and thunder. We put that thing in the drawing room. What’s it doing here?”

“George!” Westman bellowed.

When he turned towards the door, Sophie was standing at the threshold with a lamp. She peered in cautiously.

“What is it? I didn’t imagine it, did I?”

“No, you didn’t imagine it. Blinks, go and find that little-” Westman held his tongue and continued more calmly. “Find George, would you?”

But before Blinks had a chance to fetch him, the boy appeared in the doorway beside Sophie, doubled up in a fit of laughter. “Oh Lord.” He gasped for breath and held his side. “I’m sorry, Sophie, but I couldn’t help it. It was just like Little Red Riding Hood meeting the big bad wolf.”

“Quite a sense of humour you have,” said Westman.

Sophie’s expression wavered between surprise and anger. “George, really, how could you? You never learn. This is precisely the sort of prank that got you expelled from school!”

He shrugged, still laughing.

Expelled? Sophie’s young sibling was apparently more trouble than he looked. Just like Jim.

Sophie ventured into the bedchamber. “Is it safe?”

“Yes. Come and see, if you wish.”

She hesitated and clutched the blanket tighter around herself. He reached within the bed and hauled out the trophy by the fur on its ugly head.

“There’s nothing to fear.” He shook the creature to illustrate its inertness. “It’s quite dead, I can assure you.”

Sophie looked appalled. “Stars above, what is it?”

“You mean what was it?” George corrected her with a grin and wandered in to get another glimpse of the trophy.

“A supernatural wolf,” explained Westman. “Some people call them werewolves.”

Sophie shuddered and stared at the trophy. “Lord, look at the teeth.”

Westman couldn’t resist prodding George in the chest with the werewolf’s snout. “All the better to eat buffoons with, my dear.”

George chuckled at the jest. “I think journalists are more filling than buffoons.”

“You’re right. Buffoons are mostly hot air.”

Sophie folded her arms and gave a weary sigh. “If you’ve quite finished, would somebody please remove this beastly thing so that I may go to bed?”

 

***

 

Morning arrived and with it came a fine mist and drizzle. Donning his hat, Westman left the house early with Jack and hailed a hackney carriage. He left Blinks behind with instructions to take Miss Penderry and George home before picking him up for their trip to Toop’s Fashion Emporium. Sophie and George were still asleep when he’d slipped out, which suited him splendidly for it offered them no chance to hamper his plans.

He returned home to wash and change his clothes. Later, when he entered the breakfast room, Mrs Wickspittles brought him a cup of tea and a plate of hot buttered toast. She also brought a dish of steak which she served to Jack at the table. Her disapproval of animals dining at their master’s side had withered over time and it was now the way of the things. Ordinarily, Westman wouldn’t have allowed an animal to dine with him, but Jack was not an ordinary dog, after all. Not by any means.

By eleven o’clock, Blinks returned and confirmed that Sophie and George had arrived safely at their grandmother’s home. “They were mighty disappointed you left, sir. Miss Penderry asked me to give you a message.”

“Oh?” Westman was curious, despite himself.

“She said would you please keep her informed of any developments.”

“I see. Have you eaten?”

Blinks nodded. “Aye, sir.”

“Good. Have the carriage ready within the hour.”

“Cheapside, is it, sir?”

“Yes. Let’s see what our young friend Tabitha knows about Crowthorne Towers.”

 

***

 

When the carriage neared the corner of Bread Street, traffic came to a standstill along the busy thoroughfare of Cheapside. Westman opened the door and peered out to see three omnibuses ahead, unmoving. A horse and cart blocked King’s Street while crowds of pedestrians fought their way to the various market stalls.

Blinks rose from his box and shouted at the driver of the cart. “God’s teeth! Shift your backside!”

Another impatient driver joined in and then another, until the harassed owner of the cart yelled back a string of insults.

“I think I’ll walk from here, Blinks. Wait for me outside the church. If you can make it there alive.”

Blinks grinned at him from the driver’s perch. “As you like, Mr Westman.”

The sky had cleared considerably and the sun was threatening to make an appearance in foggy old London town. He started through the chaos and found himself nudged into pedestrians, and each time felt obliged to tip his hat and apologise.

“Pardon me, Madam. Miss.”

“Hmf.” A matronly looking woman in a fur wrap tipped her nose three inches into the air while her younger companion blushed and smiled at him. Needless to say, the girl was swiftly dragged onward.

Westman scanned the shop-fronts beyond the costermongers and farmer’s stalls, searching for Tabitha’s workplace. Thankfully, the throng began to thin out when he approached Honey Lane and he soon found Toop’s Fashion Emporium. It looked like an ordinary sort of shop with black lettering slapped across the window. A young woman outside, who was browsing the hats displayed in the shop window, turned around and surveyed the street with pretty eyes.

Westman froze.

Oh no. What the devil is she doing here?

CHAPTER NINE

 

Damnation

It was Sophie Penderry outside the shop.

She was wearing a crisp white and red striped outfit, with her soft, dark hair pinned up elegantly. This was quite a transformation after the bedraggled state he’d met her in yesterday. Annoyingly, the sun decided to break through the clouds at that particular moment, banishing the gloomy fog and bathing everything, including Sophie, in golden sunlight. Westman had preferred the fog for it gave him more reason to be in a bad mood. Why did she insist on getting involved?

She noticed him and a lovely smile lit up her face. Gloved fingers clutched a pile of books to her chest and she freed one hand to wave at him, then called out sweetly, “Good morning, Mr Westman.”

His breath caught involuntarily.

Some young men may have turned weak at such a vision, or if they were particularly soft in the head, fallen head over heels in love. Westman was glad he wasn’t one of those sorts. He suddenly realised he was staring at her like a damn fool.

Regaining his composure, he marched over. “What are you doing here?”

Her smile faltered. “Waiting for you.”

“How in the blazes did you know I’d be here?”

“Your servant told me you were coming here.”

“Blinks told you?” He would have words with the servant later about a little thing called confidentiality. “Well, you’ve had a wasted journey. I told you, I will deal with this. You should go home.”

At first, she looked a trifle hurt by his moody tone, but soon set her free hand on her hip. “Pardon me, but what right do you have to give me orders?”

Westman realised how independent Sophie was, but she was still being incredibly naive about the situation.

“Do you not understand the dangers afoot? I thought bluestockings had good sense.”

“Please don’t call me that horrid name. It’s very boorish of you. And I’m perfectly aware of my brother’s work. The idea of the supernatural doesn’t scare me.”

“Have you forgotten last night so soon?”

“Oh, that silly wolf. I’ll confess it startled me, but a little scare now and then builds courage, don’t you agree? I’m ready to face whatever comes along, for my brother’s sake. Wouldn’t you do the same for somebody you love?”

Westman hesitated. Of course he would do the same. He risked his life all the time and not for the sake of love. The risks he took were for strangers like Tabitha; for knowledge; for the truth about magic and demons, miracles and angels; and worse still, for an audience of magazine readers. He was quite prepared to find Jim and face the dangers so that Sophie didn’t have to.

“That’s all very well,” he replied, “but Jim would see me hung, drawn and quartered if I let you come along.”

Sophie’s face softened. “Your concern is so thoughtful, but you needn’t worry about Jim. He had no business telling you to stay away from his family. Why, I can choose my own friends.”

“That isn’t my concern. You could get hurt.”

“In a dress shop? Pish posh,” she said, dismissing the notion.

For Westman, this was the final straw. “Now, see here, Sophie. This isn’t a lark. Your family might stand by and let you tear around London, but I won’t. If you keep following me I’ll-”

He scratched around inside his head for a suitable warning, but it turned out he wasn’t good at threatening young ladies. By chance, he spotted a long wooden trough full of water outside the pub across the street.

“I’ll be forced to pick you up and drop you in that horse’s drinking water over there,” he finally said.

“Oh, you beast! You wouldn’t,” she exclaimed, startled by his threat. She stared at the water trough for a long moment, then at him.

Yes, that ought to do it, he thought wickedly. Ladies hated getting soggy. He folded his arms across his chest and stared back.

“I won’t be shooed away like a common pest,” she said at last, squeezing her eyes shut and bracing herself. “Do what you must, Mr Westman.”

Unbelievable. He uncrossed his arms and his mouth fell open. She was calling his bluff. “Don’t you believe me?” he asked, astonished that he would now have to carry out his threat. “I’ll do it, you know?”

She cracked open an eye. “Yes, I know. Can we get on with it, then?”

For a moment, he wrestled with his decision then recklessly scooped her off the ground. “As you wish,” he snapped.

Westman was set on dumping her into the tub of water, until he sensed the disapproving stares he was attracting. Blast it all. He wanted to warn her away and protect her from harm, but not like this. Why, he felt like an absolute barbarian. This wouldn’t do at all. With a thwarted sigh, he put her down and rubbed a hand over his face.

“Come on,” he grumbled, turning toward the shop door, “before I change my mind.”

With the good grace not to gloat, she took his arm. “This is super. We can look at hats while we’re here.”

Unbelievable.

“Don’t push your luck, Bluestocking.”

 

***

 

The shop was quiet after the bustle of the street and Sophie glanced around the neatly arranged displays, looking for any sign of the shopkeeper.

She was still rather relieved that Mr Westman hadn’t thrown her in the horse’s water trough. For a moment, she’d thought he might do it, but he’d proven to be a civilised gentleman after all. Lord, how audacious she must seem to him. But he’d soon realise how useful she could be with her grandmother’s connections. If Mr Westman needed a way into Crowthorne Towers, Sophie was his ticket.

Just then, a young girl in an apron popped out from behind a stack of fabric bolts; a pin cushion tied to her wrist and a measuring tape draped around her neck.

“Good morning, Madam,” the girl said. When she saw Mr Westman at Sophie’s side a smile stretched her lips. “Mr Westman! I didn’t expect to see you again so soon, sir.”

“Tabitha.” He greeted her with a nod.

So this was the girl Mr Westman had apparently rescued from Creeping Clem.

“That cocoa done me the world of good. I’m feeling fit as a fiddle today.”

“I should think so. But you’re still as skinny as a dockside cat.”

“Mr Westman, that’s not nice,” said Sophie, defending the poor girl.

“I reserve nice for special occasions,” he replied, earning a giggle from the seamstress.

“Yes, I can believe that,” Sophie muttered and followed him to the counter.

Tabitha smiled knowingly and asked, “Did you decide to take me up on my offer?”

“What offer might that be?” he enquired.

“A nice gift for your sweetheart. Our prices are very reasonable.” She looked at Sophie. “Red suits you, Miss. Or how about something blue to match your eyes?”

Hot colour rushed to Sophie’s cheeks at such a suggestion. She and Westman? Sweethearts? He glanced over his shoulder at her and she blushed harder.

“No,” he replied, somewhat amused, before turning back to the matter at hand. “I’d like to ask you some questions.”

Tabitha lifted her eyebrows. “Is it about what happened the other evening? You know” – she glanced warily at Sophie and mouthed the rest to Mr Westman – “Creeping Clem?”

Casually, he leaned his elbow on the counter. “Yes. It’s all right, you can talk in front of Miss Penderry. She knows all about it. I don’t suppose you’ve ever been to Crowthorne Towers?”

“No. Why?”

“I’m trying to determine a connection.” He took the feather out of his coat. “Does this look familiar to you?”

She shook her head. “No, Mr Westman.”

“What about the missing girls, did you know any of them? Wendy Wilson perhaps?”

The seamstress blinked her large eyes and fiddled with her apron. Setting her mouth in a firm line, she said, “No, I don’t know any of them.”

Sophie found Tabitha’s behaviour suspicious. For the life of her, the girl seemed afraid. “Are you certain?” she asked.

Tabitha glanced around again. “Yes, I’m certain.”

“Well, then,” said Mr Westman, looking at Sophie, “we’re back where we started.”

“Perhaps you’d care to walk me to the library and we can discuss it on the way?”

“Very well,” he replied and lifted one of the books she was holding. He studied the cover. “Hmm. The Elements of Botany – a Guide to Plant Identification.”

Sophie rolled her eyes heavenward and waited for whatever tiresome joke followed.

“A little light reading before lunch?” he quipped.

Tabitha peered over the counter at the library books. “Are you a teacher or something?”

Mr Westman handed the guide back to Sophie, clearly entertained by Tabitha’s notion. “Miss Penderry is a pioneer of forward female thinking.”

“Don’t you mean a bluestocking?” Sophie retorted.

He smiled and his deep brown eyes twinkled. The man seemed happiest when he was tormenting people. “If you insist. It’s a shame George isn’t inclined to exercise his brain more often. I’m assuming he has one. Where is he, anyway, I thought he was acting as your chaperone?”

“He’s waiting for me at the library.”

At that moment, a woman with thick, chestnut curls emerged from the back room and looked at them each in turn.

Tabitha looked startled and turned her eyes to the floor. “Mrs Toop.”

“Tabitha?” the woman cast her a questioning look.

Mr Westman eased himself away from the counter and tipped his head to the other woman. “Thank you, Miss Nethercott. We won’t take up any more of your time.”

Mrs Toop arched a dark eyebrow.

“I’ll see you out,” Tabitha said and moved to the door. With a whisper, she added, “You will be careful, won’t you, Mr Westman?”

She looked awfully small and timid in the doorway.

“Of course,” he reassured her. “I’m always careful.”

They left the shop, swallowed at once by the cool September breeze and the sounds of the market.

Mr Westman strolled across the street. “This way. My carriage is waiting outside the church.”

“The girl seemed afraid of something,” said Sophie, troubled.

“I agree. She knows more than she’s telling us.”

“You do know my grandmother is acquainted rather well with Lord Crowthorne? If I ask, we may be able to join her at the party this weekend.”

He stopped walking and exhaled slowly. “Very well. But if you’re going to help there will be rules.” He raised a finger at her in a strict fashion.

Sophie nodded her head obediently, but Freddie Westman wasn’t a fool.

He recognised the smile she was struggling to hide and raised an eyebrow dubiously. “Jim is going to murder me.”

 

***

 

Tabitha stood at the front window, watching Mr Westman and the young lady disappear up the busy street. She twisted the fabric of her apron in her hands and fought away the feelings of regret.

“Downstairs,” Mrs Toop said gravely.

Tabitha winced, turning from the window. She followed Mrs Toop through the back room; past the work tables strewn with fabrics and ribbons, pins and baubles; past the other girls who were busy cutting and pinning, hemming and embroidering. Mrs Toop opened the door that led to the cellar and they descended the narrow stairs. It was dingy beneath the shop, lit by a few dripping candles on a scarred worktable. Tabitha stepped carefully through the slippery patches on the stone floor.

“He’s the one, isn’t he?” Mrs Toop muttered, shoving a pile of clutter off the table. The strings of beads and pearls at her bosom chinked with each movement she made around the room.

Tabitha knew better than to lie to her. “I didn’t tell him anything, I swear.”

The other woman picked up an old, framed mirror from a shelf and put it flat on the table, then threw handfuls of herbs at it. “They were asking a lot of questions.”

“They don’t know anything!”

“Control yourself, child,” she replied and poured a jug of water over the glass.

The liquid pooled, distorting their reflection while Mrs Toop chanted a series of obscure words. Tabitha stepped back nervously when a ghostly shape began to form in the mirror.

“Strangers were sniffing around,” Mrs Toop told the faceless shadow.

“What did they learn?” the figure asked in a rasping whisper.

“Nothing. But the man – he’s the one. The one who stopped the demon.”

“Follow them.”

“Me?”

“Send Didius to be our eyes.”

“Didius.” Mrs Toop echoed the name thoughtfully and went to the jars on a shelf. She rummaged through them, disturbing some of the captive creatures. Snakes hissed and frogs jumped anxiously, their webbed hands clinging to the glass walls.

A tingling sensation spread across Tabitha’s shoulders and the sense of being watched settled heavily over her. She looked behind, checking the gloomy corners of the room, but there was nobody there. Nobody that she could see, at least. Her heart beat harder when she ventured closer to the piles of junk and knick-knacks, then a chill swept through her.

“Tabitha,” the older woman snapped, making her jump. “Charcoal.”

She fetched the charcoal quickly and Mrs Toop set a jar on the table, drawing a symbol around it in black while she called out a summoning spell. The little brown mouse inside the vessel scurried from side to side, nose twitching. When her chant ceased, Mrs Toop tipped the mouse into her hand.

“This is one of our familiars. His name is Didius. I think he might like to play in the library today.”

CHAPTER TEN

 

While the carriage made the potholed journey to the library, Westman leaned back and listened to Sophie talk.

“I’ll speak to my grandmother this afternoon about the party. I see no reason why she’d say no. After all, she’s always trying to persuade me to try a séance.”

“It’s a good plan,” he admitted.

Sophie smiled at him. “There, aren’t you glad you didn’t throw me in the horse’s water trough?”

He scratched his sideburn. “Hmm… I haven’t ruled it out completely.”

She saw right through the hollow threat and continued to smile, spreading cheer like a contagion. Her disposition was enough to lighten even the heart of a beast, as she had called him outside the shop. She was more correct than he cared to admit – Jaded over time and worn down by the monstrosities he had seen in the world. Nobody could blame him for being cynical.

When they reached the London Library, he told her he’d wait. “George should be informed of the plan.”

“I’ll find him.”

“Be quick about it. I have other things to do today.”

 

***

 

Sophie entered the building, paid the entry fee, and returned her books before scanning the vast library. Shelves of books lined the walls from floor to ceiling. A staircase and walkway encompassed the entire room, allowing access to the volumes on the upper level. She peered through the balustrades and found George sitting at a reading desk, his head bowed over an open hardback. Her boot heels echoed around the quiet room when she mounted the stairs. Dust seemed to linger in the air on the gallery, accompanied by the familiar and comforting – if not somewhat musty – smell of tomes, old and new.

George noticed her approach and looked up from the book. “Hello.”

“Hello, George. What are you reading?”

“Well, you know what Mr Westman said about Lord Crowthorne and black magic? Well, I found some books about witchcraft.”

Surprised by his initiative, Sophie smiled and joined him at the desk. She studied the titles piled up on the surface. “The Witch Hunts of the North?”

“They were barbaric times. Tortured until they confessed. And then burned alive or hung. I almost feel sorry for the witches.”

“How awful.”

George stretched and leaned back in his seat. “How did you get on at the shop?”

“Not very well.” She wandered over to peruse the books on the nearby shelf. “Mr Westman arrived and we interviewed the seamstress, but she wouldn’t tell us anything. We think she’s hiding something. And there was no talk of a new hat, which was rather disappointing. Oh, Mr Westman is waiting outside. He wants to tell you about the plan.”

A surprised shout made her turn sharply.

“Are you all right?”

George was on his feet, staring at the book on the table. “Did you see it? A blasted mouse. It was sitting on the book.”

She looked under the desk, but found no sign of a rodent. “Oh, I shouldn’t worry. These old buildings are full of them.”

George shuddered, staring at the open volume where the mouse had been. A sudden breeze flipped the pages, blowing them back and forth while the wind tousled George’s hair and tugged Sophie’s dress.

“Where is that wind coming from?” George asked with a frown.

There were no open windows in the library. Perhaps it was coming from the entrance, Sophie thought. This seemed unlikely, though. The strange rush of air turned ice cold and a book fell from the shelf behind them, landing on the walkway with a thud, followed by another, and another.

George backed up against the desk, hair whipping in front of his wide eyes. “I don’t like this.”

“Perhaps we should leave,” Sophie agreed. The sight of a white, papery hand bursting out of the book on the desk sent fear skittering along her bones and she screamed. “George!”

Before he could move, the hand grabbed his wrist. Sophie dove forward and threw her arms around him, mustering enough strength to pull him free from the frightening thing’s grip. They tumbled backwards and landed on the floor amidst the other books. Without warning, more hands tore up from the surrounding volumes. White parchment hands, covered in black print, spawned from the very pages of the books themselves. Fingers reached out blindly, claws finding the floor and latching on while the paper beings hauled themselves out of the tomes. First emerged the long, thin arms, then the horrifying heads; devoid of hair and entirely faceless.

Terror paralysed Sophie where she sat. “This has to be a trick. This cannot be real.”

“Run,” George shouted and yanked his sister off the floor.

Shouts and screams arose from the room below and they looked over the balustrade to see more paper monsters. The terrified public fled the building in panic, pushing and shoving through the exit.

“Oh Lord.”

“Sophie, we have to go,” George pleaded.

Sophie’s wits returned and they broke into a run along the gallery, heading for the stairs, but they soon discovered their route blocked by three of the creatures. George stumbled to a halt and Sophie shielded him behind her. They had no choice but to back away. A glance over her shoulder confirmed her fears. They were surrounded.

 

***

 

It was more than a little disconcerting to see a panicked mob emerge from the library – screaming and running like the devil, no less. Westman opened the carriage door and stepped onto the street. With a frown, he glanced up at Blinks who was watching in equal confusion.

“Fire?” suggested the servant.

Westman couldn’t smell smoke in the air. Determined to know what had instilled such chaos, he intercepted one of the men escaping the building. “What’s happened?”

The man stared at him in horror. “Monsters, dozens of them. By God, run while you can.”

Westman stepped aside to let the man pass, then leaned inside the carriage to rummage in his bag. He took out the professor’s detector and swept it through the air. The gadget whirred into life, the needle spinning wildly.

He turned to Blinks, his voice dark with purpose. “Come on.”

Blinks understood and hopped down to join him, but not without a disconcerted look. “Dozens?”

“An exaggeration, I’m sure.” Westman returned to his bag just when Jack awoke and sprang out onto the pavement. He hoped it was an exaggeration. “Can you see Miss Penderry and George?”

Blinks shook his head. “No, sir. They must still be in there.”

He dug within the bag and pulled out his belt of equipment then fastened it around his hips. God only knew what was running amok in the library, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He snatched up a handful of other items and shoved them into his pockets before passing a sword to Blinks.

“The usual plan, Mr Westman, sir?”

“We usually have a plan?” he asked, picking up his own sword.

Blinks grinned at him. “Aye, we go in and mill those demons ’til they’re brown bread.” The servant thrust a fist in the air.

Westman could rarely keep up with Blinks’ slang, but he presumed the servant had the right idea; destroy the demons. “Yes, well, let’s just concentrate on finding Miss Penderry and George first.”

“Oh, aye, sir, aye. They’re first priority, understood.”

Crouching, Westman slipped a crucifix on a silver chain over Jack’s furry head. “Be careful.”

Jack barked and wagged his tail.

Armed, they hastened to the entrance, dodging the last of the stragglers. Westman pushed the door open and led the charge inside, but stopped in his tracks at the sight before him. Monsters – some roaming aimlessly while others climbed the shelves, walls and stairs to the upper gallery.

“Blast,” he muttered. This was worse than he’d expected. Several of the creatures turned their featureless faces in their direction. “Blinks, flank the right.”

“Aye, sir.”

A monster lunged and Westman brought his sword down, slashing easily through its shoulder and causing a shower of parchment to erupt.

“Bloomin’ hell, sir, they’re made of paper!” yelled Blinks, fending off two demons at once.

Westman dodged a side attack and put his foot in another monster’s back. To his surprise, his shoe ripped straight through the thin material, but glory was brief. He wrenched his foot out and watched in disbelief. The fibres of torn paper wriggled unnaturally and wove back together. Clearly, the monsters had been summoned by black magic, but the how and why could wait. It was plain that swords were useless against a conjuring spell of this sort and there was only one solution Westman could reach.

“Swords won’t destroy them,” he shouted to Blinks. “We need to send them back to their own realm.”

“How are you going to do that?”

“White magic.”

Jack jumped at the demon behind Blinks and took hold of the creature’s neck, snarling and shaking savagely. Papery fodder flew into the air. Westman moved through the monsters, waving his blade fiercely while avoiding the talons that swiped at him. Voices shouting from the gallery caught his attention and he looked up to see Sophie and George. They were unharmed, thank goodness, but he quickly realised they were trapped on the walkway.

Damnation.

Sudden pain seared through his hand when a demon caught him off guard. He stumbled back with a cry and glanced at the deep slash across his knuckles. The creature lashed out again, pressing its advantage. This time its claws ripped through his coat, skimming his skin. Another demon sprang forward, fingers outstretched, and Westman felt a maddening stab in his side.

Despite the pain, he steeled himself and shoved the creatures away, striking back angrily. Jack bounded past and dragged a monster to the floor.

“I think this was one of Edgar Allan Poe’s,” Blinks called over to him.

Westman stole a look at the dishevelled servant who was standing on the reception counter, holding a dismembered arm and reading the print on it.

“I never liked Poe,” Westman growled.

The reading desks offered a far better vantage point and Westman mounted the nearest table, cutting down the sudden onslaught of soulless abominations. Pain mixed with adrenalin was always a potent cocktail.

“Blinks. Miss Penderry and George-”

“Help them, sir. I can handle this lot.”

With a leap, Westman jumped through a gap in the creatures and ran the remaining few feet to the stairway, taking the steps two at a time. A demon waited at the top, but he grabbed it by the wrists and threw it down the stairs.

On the gallery he found Sophie brandishing a broken chair leg like a club and George watching the battle on the ground floor. He strode over to them, shoving a monster from behind and sending it over the balustrade to the polished floor.

“Nicely done, Mr Westman!” George applauded him.

Westman was in no humour for a standing ovation. “Are you both all right?”

“Yes, I think so,” Sophie replied breathlessly.

Westman pulled George out of harm’s way and put him against a bookcase, arching an eyebrow when he noticed the book of witchcraft in his hands. “What have you been up to this time, George? More mischief?”

“It wasn’t me.” His eyes darted over Westman’s shoulder and he sucked in a breath. “Look out!”

With quick reflexes, he snatched the book from George’s fingers and launched it. The hardback smashed the head clean off the monster behind him.

Heart pulsing in his throat at the close encounter, Westman turned his attention to Sophie and grabbed her hand. “Come on, both of you, let’s go.”

They reached the ground floor and stepped over the broken bodies. Some were dragging their healing forms across the floor while others had already woven back together. George dashed ahead to the safety of the entrance where Blinks and Jack stood guard, but Westman slowed, hindered by his injury.

“What happened?” Sophie asked.

“A scratch.” He couldn’t leave yet, and reached into a pocket on his belt for a piece of chalk. “Go with the others,” he told her and kneeled to draw a large white circle on the floor.

He hoped the incantation would work. It had been successful in the past, but he’d never attempted it on a scale as large as this.

Sophie’s voice trembled when she spoke. “I would, but I fear we’re being surrounded.”

He glanced up and realised she was right. The circling monsters were closing in for another attack. With a muttered curse, he hastily finished sketching the ancient seal on the floor. Blood ran down his fingers as he gripped the stick of chalk, and he took a deep breath, fighting a wave of dizziness. He wasn’t sure what had happened beneath his shirt, but the throbbing pain was affecting his senses.

Sketch complete, he stood and pulled Sophie inside the safety of the symbol. The paper demons tilted their heads, sensing the power of the chalk seal, but they continued to edge as close as possible.

Sophie backed away from one and turned to face Westman. “I’m sorry for doubting you and George. I believe everything. Please, do something.”

“Believe me, I’m trying. Here, hold on to this with me.” He pulled a talisman free from his waistcoat and lifted it over his head. “The energy of two is better than one.”

She put her hand over the pendant and he clasped his fingers around hers. “What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I’m invoking the power of the envoys. A force that will drag those demons back to the lower realms.”

He closed his eyes and searched his foggy mind, trying to recall the words of the ancient scripture. When they came to him, he uttered the words under his breath. “Angeli de bonus… salvum nobis…”

The air stirred around them in warm currents, swirling at their feet and rising in force. Web-like energy brushed his face and he opened his eyes, reciting the remaining lines of spell.

A sudden burst of light flooded the library, shining like a beacon from their entwined hands. White rays stretched out, reaching like fingers and picking out the cowering monsters. Finally, in a flash of divine illumination, the creatures exploded.

Paper debris erupted around the library, raining down upon them like twinkling confetti. When the light faded and the air grew still and cool, Sophie lifted her head from his chest. Dusty paper fibres and torn pages drifted in the air, falling to the marble floor amongst the books and broken furniture that littered the library. Blinks hastened over to them.

“You did it, sir! I knew you could.” The servant slapped him heartily on the shoulder.

Westman wished he could share in the victory, but his body was in agony. He released Sophie’s hand and pressed his palm over his ribs to find his clothing torn and soaking wet.

Sophie gasped and stepped away, her eyes wide. “You said it was a scratch.”

He peered at the blood welling up between his fingers. The demon hadn’t struck that deep, surely? He soon understood that it was not the pain dulling his senses, but the loss of blood. Weakness crept up on him and he lost his balance, toppling to the side. Jack barked a warning and someone caught him before he hit the ground.

“Get him into the carriage, quickly,” Blinks instructed. The servant hooked his arms under Westman’s while George struggled to hold up his feet.

“Blinks?” Westman groaned, trying to keep his eyes open.

“I’m here, sir. We’ll get you patched up. Don’t you worry. You’ll be right as rain.”

“Yes,” he murmured. “It’s not as bad as it looks. Why, I can’t even feel the pain anymore.”

Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that was not a good sign. He felt cold and numb and all he wanted to do was sleep.

Sophie’s face appeared above him, her eyes shining with tears. “Stay awake, Freddie. Don’t close your eyes. You’ll be all right.”

No, I won’t. But he was too tired to argue. He slumped to the carriage floor and blackness closed in on him.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

He was dead and in hell. He had to be if the throbbing ache in his head and the stench of carbolic acid was any indication.

Please, not a hospital.

Westman cracked an eye open and awoke to moonlight streaming in through a dusty window pane. No, it was neither hell nor a hospital ward. And he was still very much alive. A sharp stabbing sensation in his hand made him suck air through his teeth and he sat up with a start, regretting it when more pain tore through his side.

“You’re awake. Oh, but do be careful, the needle is sharp.”

He turned his head to find Sophie smiling beside him in the glow of a lamp, a needle and black thread poised between her bloodied finger and thumb. As he sat up in the unfamiliar bed, the sheet slipped down to expose his bare chest and bandaged torso.

“Who undressed me?” he demanded, then winced and put a hand to his temple.

Her face flushed with embarrassment. “Well, it wasn’t me, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m merely here to sew you up.”

“Where are my clothes?”

“Mr Blinks took them away to burn them. They were soaked with blood. Truly, there was no hope of saving them.”

To his relief, he still wore his talismans. He never took them off, after all, one never knew when a simple protection charm might be needed. He tried to relax while Sophie worked on the seam of sterilised, stitched skin.

“I’m almost finished,” she reassured him.

A look around the sparsely furnished room revealed a bowl of bloody water, a glass bottle of the wretched carbolic and a red-stained cloth on a dresser. “Where are we?”

“My uncle’s house. It was Mr Blinks’ idea. He said you’d murder us if we took you to the hospital.”

“He was right. I think I’d rather take my chances with Blinks playing surgeon.”

She raised her eyebrows doubtfully. “And here I was, convinced that Freddie Westman was a fearless knight in shining armour. You can’t be afraid of hospitals.”

She was teasing him, he thought sulkily. But he most likely deserved it. He had, after all, made fun of her intellect and bookish hobbies. “Clearly, you’ve never been to one.”

“I hear that most of London’s hospitals are very clean and efficiently maintained.”

“Is that what you hear? Well, it’s not the soap or efficiency that concerns me. The selling of corpses to local anatomists is a lucrative market, don’t you know?”

“Mr Westman, what are you talking about?”

“Foul play.” Ever since he’d read an article about a respected London surgeon’s underhand dealings, he had carefully avoided calling upon the services of any medical professional. “The poisoning of patients, then selling their bodies to medical students for a bit of extra coin.”

Sophie looked aghast. “Why, I never heard of such a thing. I think you’re being unreasonably suspicious.”

“Don’t you read the newspapers? It’s happened before and I’m not taking any chances.”

“Hold still please,” she instructed, and he felt another little jab of pain.

He watched the needle before his gaze wandered to her face. She was naive about the realities of life, but he found that strangely endearing. Then he recalled what she’d witnessed in the library and a wave of guilt ran through him. She’d glimpsed inside his world of darkness and monsters.

“I expect you’ll be avoiding the library for a while,” he murmured.

She lifted her eyes to his. “Indeed. I think it’s safe to say my life will never be the same again.”

“I warned you not to get involved.”

She ignored the remark. “What do you suppose they were?”

“Demons, summoned by dark magic.”

“Summoned? By whom? Why would anyone want to do such a thing?”

Westman wished he had the answers. “I don’t know. But it strikes me as an odd coincidence that we were there when it happened.”

“You think someone targeted us deliberately?”

“It’s a theory. Perhaps we’re getting close.”

At that moment, Blinks entered the room, whistling a jolly tune. “I thought I heard voices. How do you feel, sir?”

Westman scowled into space, silently cursing his own misfortune when Sophie pushed the needle through his flesh for another stitch. “Like a pin cushion.”

Blinks grinned and adjusted his hat. “Oh, that’s grand, sir, just grand. You’ve got your old wit back already. You’ll be up and about in no time.”

“I hope so,” said Sophie. “The party at Crowthorne Towers is in three days – if you’re well enough to go.” One more stab and then she tied off the final suture.

“Yes, I still wish to go.” He looked at the row of black knots across his knuckles, then at the bandage around his middle and heaved a sigh. The injuries would leave more ugly scars.

“Should I let your family know where you are?” she asked.

“No.”

“Someone might be worried about you.”

“There’s only the housekeeper. Blinks can tell her.”

The servant gave a nod. “Aye, I’ll be sure to tell Mrs Wickspittles all about it. Worst paper cut I’ve ever seen.”

Blinks’ remark held a little too much levity for Westman’s taste. He’d almost died, for heaven’s sake.

The bedroom door creaked open and George came in with the professor. Between the two of them, they carried food and refreshment.

“You’re awake,” said the professor, smiling and putting a tray on the dresser. He proceeded to pour tea into a set of chipped tea cups. “You gave us a little scare for a minute there, my boy. But as I told everyone, it will take more than a possessed library book to finish off Alfred Westman. He’s made of stern stuff, I said. Tea?”

Westman held up a hand in refusal. He was still nauseous from the ache thumping inside his head. “Not for me.”

George unwrapped a food parcel. “Would anyone like some cake?”

Blinks leaned forward to get a look. “Ooh, say it’s plum pudding.”

“Sorry, it’s fruit cake.”

“Yes please.” Sophie accepted a slice on a plate. “Mm, this is wonderful.”

“I love cake,” agreed George, his mouth full of crumbs.

“There’s nothing like a spot of tea and cake,” the professor said and raised his teacup. “Cheers, everyone.”

Cheers?

Sophie glanced over her shoulder at Westman as though he were an afterthought. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like some tea?”

“Quite sure,” he snapped. “Excuse me for not joining the tea party, but I’m trying to recover from a near death experience.”

He looked away, tensing his jaw. Indeed, he’d not long become conscious and he hurt all over. A little consideration wouldn’t be unwelcome. Judging by their behaviour, they seemed to believe this morning’s ordeal was nothing at all, and that he was some sort of fearless, unstoppable warrior. Well, he wasn’t – he was just a man. And at that moment, he decided he would rather be alone than listen to the prattle of a cake-scoffing social gathering.

Professor Penderry gathered the tray and cups. “You’re quite right, Westman. You need to rest. George, let’s eat the cake downstairs.”

George followed his uncle out and Sophie rose from the edge of the bed. “Well, I can tell when we’re no longer needed,” she said.

Westman looked around sharply, realising that he’d upset her with his surliness. “Where are you going?”

“Home, if I’m to persuade my grandmother to let you join us. It’s getting quite late.”

Not wishing to part on a low note, he lightly touched her wrist before she could leave. “Oh, Bluestocking?”

She exhaled a weary breath. “Yes?”

“Thank you. For taking care of me. The stitches, I mean.” He tried his best to show he meant it, despite his sore condition, and even managed to curl the corners of his mouth upward.

At that, a smile formed on her lips and she leaned down to him. “No, thank you. Get better soon, Mr Westman.”

He wasn’t expecting the kiss that followed. It was only a chaste little peck on his cheek, the way one might thank a relative, but it was enough of a shock to render him speechless.

“I’ll send you word of the party,” she said, departing the room.

Westman stared blankly after her, aware that his cheeks were growing warm. He barely noticed Jack’s wet snout, nudging its way under his hand for attention. When he dragged his eyes away, he found Blinks covering a smirk and clearing his throat.

Westman’s face darkened like a storm cloud. “Not a word,” he warned.

Blinks moved to Westman’s bedside. “There, there, sir. Best not to get worked up, what with the stitches and all that. Can I get you anything? Water?”

“A glass of brandy and a new body,” he replied, calming himself by stroking Jack’s head.

“I’ll see what I can manage.”

“Before you go,” Westman said and raised a straight finger at him. “I have a bone to pick with you.”

At the sound of the word bone, Jack sat upright.

“I know you told Miss Penderry where I’d be this morning.”

The manservant gave a rapid blink of his good eye. “I didn’t know it was a secret, sir. How was I to know she planned on ambushing you there?”

“Well, ambush me she did. And all of this-” he waved his hands over his bruised body- “might have been avoided if she hadn’t turned up.”

“You can’t say that for certain.”

“Maybe not. But one thing I can say is the Penderry family are trouble. I have a good mind to let them solve their own problems. None of you seem to appreciate what we were up against today. We could have died!”

Blinks regarded him for a moment, then lowered his half-eaten cake. “I know, sir. Don’t get the wrong end of the stick.”

At the sound of the word stick, Jack stood and wagged his tail.

Ignoring the dog, Blinks continued. “Those demons – the sheer number of ’em – I’ve never seen anything like that. It was a near thing. We’re just happy as Larry that you’re still alive, that’s all. For a while we feared the worst. Why, Miss Penderry was so distressed, she didn’t want to leave your side for a moment.”

Blinks’ sober words reassured Westman somewhat. “Well, we were damned lucky that nobody else got hurt.”

“Aye. Master George and Miss Penderry didn’t do too badly. They managed to hold off those monsters until we got there. It must run in the family.”

“What, reckless folly?”

“No. Fighting spirit, sir. Like their brother, Mr Penderry.”

“Blast that dunderhead for getting himself into trouble,” Westman muttered. Despite everything, he knew he would never abandon the Penderry family. “I must be a fool.”

“I’m sure they appreciate your help. Especially Miss Penderry.”

Westman’s thoughts drifted to a cloudy memory – sapphire eyes above him, shimmering – and his mood softened. “Yes, well, we can’t let her go charging off by herself.”

Blinks began to grin and Westman eyed him suspiciously.

“What the devil are you grinning at, man?” he demanded.

“You like the young lady, do you, sir?”

“What?” Westman rumbled, daring him to broach the subject. He knew precisely what the meddling servant was getting at.

“She’s a nice enough lass,” Blinks added. “Likes you too, I reckon.”

Westman grit his teeth, aware that Blinks was referring to the peck on the cheek from only moments ago. “I can assure you that was nothing more than a misguided gesture of thanks.”

Blinks sucked his top lip while he considered this, then shook his head. “No, she’s definitely taken a fancy to you. You could ask her to dance at that Crowthorne party.”

Westman’s eyes grew wide and heat returned to his face. He wasn’t sure what angered him more; Blinks’ nerve or the fact that his feelings had been uncovered. The servant had overstepped this time. He tried to lean forward, but winced at the pain in his side. Instead, he settled for a growl.

“You’re lucky I can’t move, Blinks.”

Blinks laughed and put the remaining wedge of cake in front of Westman. “Eat up, sir. You’ll be needing your strength this weekend.”

“Yes, for when I flog you for your impudence.”

Blinks knew Westman was not a tyrannical master and grinned again, pausing in the doorway. “I’ll go back to the house and fetch your things, sir. Now, should I pack your dancing shoes?”

“No dancing, Mr Blinks.” Westman ignored the discomfort and grabbed the nearest object – which happened to be the slice of fruit cake – and launched it at the servant. It missed and hit the door with a lame thud. When he was finally alone, his thoughts returned to Sophie. He couldn’t help it. Blinks had planted a seed.

It was true that he liked her, despite her stubborn streak. She possessed other qualities that eclipsed the negative; intelligence, courage and integrity. And of course, he’d developed a weak spot for pretty blue eyes. It was very likely that there would be dancing at Lord Crowthorne’s party. And suppose he did ask Sophie to dance, what then? A courtship? Walks in the park? Gifts? Marriage?

He considered what a life with him would entail – a world of nightmarish creatures and danger. A walk in the park could turn into a battlefield, just like the library.

Silly fool. Why would she want that?

Besides, Jim would likely shoot him if he attempted to woo his sister. It was better to remain focused on the job. At that moment, he spotted the cake mess and Jack licking the grimy floor clean.

“Jack, that’s disgusting.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

At closing time, Tabitha locked the expensive goods in the cupboard and made a final check around the shop. Mrs Toop had left early for an appointment, leaving her responsible for the lock up routine. The last seamstress to leave called good night over the tinkling of the bell on the door.

“Good night,” replied Tabitha.

The door closed on the cold night air and she fetched her shawl from the back room, turning off the oil lamps along the way. When she returned to the darkened shop front, she picked up her basket and the keys, ready to leave and lock up for the night. Just then, the bell jingled and leaves rustled into the shop. A figure filled the shadowy doorway.

“Sorry, but we’re closed,” she told the customer.

The man – for it was a man, with a clicking cane and a top hat – entered the shop. The door closed and he stood silently in the darkness, watching her.

Fear crept under her skin and she swallowed, the wicker of the basket handle creaking in her grip.

“Hello, Tabitha,” the figure whispered.

 

***

 

Three days later

 

Standing on the lamp-lit steps of Sophie’s home, Westman tucked his newspaper under his arm and combed his hair back into place with his gloved fingers. He was about to knock on the door when he heard a cacophony on the other side. The wails of an infant became clear, and he cast a confused look at Blinks who was ready to drive the carriage away.

“Hold on. Are you certain this is Miss Penderry’s address?”

“Aye, sir,” Blinks confirmed before he urged the horses onward.

The conveyance rattled off down the street, leaving Westman unconvinced. But taking Blinks’ word for it, he rapped several times with his good hand. No sooner had he knocked, the door was flung open by a harassed looking maid with a baby.

“Can I ’elp you?” she asked, blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes.

With a blink, Westman became more convinced that his servant had abandoned him at the wrong house. “Good evening. Is Miss Penderry at home?”

“Mr Westman,” a familiar voice called. He peered around the maid to see Sophie in the entry hall. “Oh my, you’re looking so much better. I’m so glad.”

For a moment, Westman forgot how to speak. Sophie looked lovely in an evening gown of white silk. More lovely than he’d ever seen her.

“We didn’t expect you so early,” she went on, coming to the door and inviting him into the house. “My grandmother is still getting ready for the party. You’ll have to excuse the noise. I’m afraid things are a little disorganised.”

“I hope I’m not inconveniencing you?”

“Not at all.”

“Did you see today’s paper?” he asked, unfolding the tabloid he’d brought with him.

“No.” Sophie stood beside him and peered at the newspaper.

He pointed to the article in question. “It’s not good news, but I thought you should know.”

Sophie’s brow wrinkled when she read, “Creeping Clem strikes again? The latest in a string of abductions occurred on Wednesday when local Stepney girl, Tabitha Nethercott, failed to return home from her place of employment. Miss Nethercott, twelve years old, is a seamstress by trade, employed at Toop’s Fashion emporium – Jupiter! The girl from the shop. She’s missing?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Although, this has nothing to do with Creeping Clem. Someone else is responsible for her disappearance.”

“Mr Westman, this is terrible. That poor girl.”

The maid at the front door interrupted and pushed the screaming infant into Sophie’s arms. “I’m sorry, miss, but I can’t take no more of it. I’m not a nanny, you know? All afternoon Miss Felicity’s been crying and nothing will pacify her, not even the laudanum what cook put in her milk.”

Released from her burden, the maid retreated upstairs, despite Sophie’s effort to call her back.

“Sally! Sally wait. Oh drat! This way, Mr Westman. I do apologise.”

“No need to apologise.”

They entered the drawing room where she promptly turned and held out the wailing infant in his direction. He looked at the babe’s face while it continued to offend his ears. Bright red cheeks matched its head of curls.

My God, to whom did this wretched cub belong?

Sophie took a step closer. Yes, as he feared, the child was definitely being extended to him.

“Mr Westman, would you be so kind?”

“I hope you’re not suggesting that I hold that howling bantling?” he asked, appalled by the idea.

“It will only be for a moment while I find my gloves.”

Reluctantly, he put the newspaper down and took the baby. It was heavier than it looked.

“Why is it crying?”

Sophie shrugged and headed for the door. “I have no idea. But I promise I won’t abandon you with Felicity for long.”

She departed the room, leaving Westman alone to his uncertain fate. He bounced the baby in what he thought would be received as an entertaining sort of game, but she wailed again, louder. Growing desperate, he adjusted her in his arms and paced the length of the room several times.

“So, who are you, then? One of the Penderry lot?” he asked and positioned the child so that he could see her face. “Well, you’re nothing like George. He was an agreeable baby, by all accounts. Certainly didn’t cry like this when I first met him. I’m inclined to think all this noise is simply a demand for attention.”

At the sound of his voice, Felicity stopped crying and stared at him, sniffing with each breath and beginning to settle.

“Ah, as I suspected.” He shifted her upright and patted her back gently. He allowed himself a smile, pleased that he had succeeded where all others had failed. “That’s much better. Well, you have my complete attention, what are your demands?”

But his satisfaction ended when Felicity rewarded him with a Vesuvius eruption of curdled milk – straight down his silk waistcoat.

Damnation!

He couldn’t quite believe it, and stared at the baby, feeling rather betrayed. Felicity, on the other hand, was cured of her discomfort and returned him a wide smile and a happy gurgle.

“Congratulations, Felicity,” he said softly. “You are the first lady to ever vomit on me.”

Sophie’s footsteps preceded her voice before she returned to them. “There, I found my gloves. George said he’ll sit with Felicity while we’re out. Oh, you managed to stop her crying. However did you do it? You must tell us the trick.”

“I’m sorry, but I haven’t the foggiest idea.”

With care, she disentangled the baby from his arms. “You should visit more often. You could be my secret weapon.” She giggled and peered down at Felicity.

Westman watched her with the baby, his gaze drawn to Sophie’s soft complexion, pink cheeks and smiling mouth. She had washed her hair in rosewater and the fragrance curled around his senses. Sophie was certainly lovely, but he could not visit more often, no matter how tempting the suggestion was.

A fire burned in the hearth, warming the charming room, and above their heads he could hear Sophie’s grandmother moving around, wittering on while she finished getting ready. Indeed, such a homely atmosphere was inviting when he recalled his townhouse – always draughty, he found. And deathly quiet with just himself, Blinks and Mrs Wickspittles rattling around in it.

“Oh no -” Sophie stared at his milk soiled clothing. “Is that - did she? I’m so sorry. I’ll have Ebony clean your waistcoat at once. There should be time before we go.”

“Ample time,” he reassured her and leaned in to meet Felicity’s alert eyes. “Perhaps I should have words with your parents, young lady.”

Felicity laughed and kicked her feet.

“Felicity is an orphan,” said Sophie. “That is, she was until my brother took her in some three months ago. You see, Mr Westman, Jim has a charitable heart. He was there for George and I when our parents died, and now he’s helping a dear orphan. Perhaps he is not so bad after all?”

He met her gaze.

Adopting an orphan? That didn’t sound like Jim at all. But she seemed so happy about her brother’s act of kindness that he didn’t dispute it.

“You know him better than anyone, so it must be true.”

 

***

 

The horses trotted along the moonlit lane, drawing the carriage through the mist that had drifted down from the wood on the nearby hill. The outskirts of London were quiet at night, and Sophie wrung her hands in her lap. There was always a niggling concern in the back of her mind that robbers and murderers lurked in the bushes along country roads, waiting to ambush passing vehicles.

Of course, if such a thing happened she was prepared to grab Primrose’s walking stick and clobber the villains over their heads. Then Mr Westman might join her. He was good in a fight, after all. She doubted her grandmother’s old servant, Ebony – to whom the task of driving the carriage had fallen this evening – would be much use. But if all else failed, Primrose was a force to be reckoned with. Yes, she was perfectly safe in her present company, she decided.

Wedged into the leather seat beside her lavender-clad grandmother, Sophie shifted, trying to get comfortable, but her bustle kept getting in the way behind her. Opposite, Uncle Broom polished the lenses of his spectacles while Mr Westman – neat and tidy in fresh evening wear – reclined into the corner with his chin on his fist. He frowned, staring out of the window, and Sophie wondered what heavy thought could be on his mind. Perhaps he was growing weary of Primrose and her loud complaints about the bad weather and the ill effect it had on her weak hip.

“Three large spoons of cod liver oil a day, that’s what he told me,” declared Primrose with disgust. “I would like to see him drink three spoons of the horrid stuff.”

“What do we know about Lord Crowthorne?” Mr Westman cut in when Primrose paused for breath.

Broom put on his spectacles and slipped the handkerchief away. “The eldest of five children. He has a brother and three sisters, I believe. He’s a respected local figure. Very interested in spiritualism.”

“Oh, he’s a charming man,” added Primrose, smiling. “Such good taste. And he hosts such wonderful parties. Why, there will be food and music and dancing.”

Mr Westman fidgeted and tugged his collar. “Really?”

“Yes. Are you all right, Mr Westman?”

“Yes. It’s this blasted shirt. Haven’t worn it in quite some time. Do continue.”

“Music and dancing. I do so enjoy watching the young people dance. And after midnight a select few are invited to tour the haunted rooms and attend a séance.”

“Yes, yes, he’s a fashionable host,” said Broom. “But let’s not forget that Westman, Sophie and I are here for Jim, not the party.”

“Of course,” Primrose reassured him. “But you must try to blend in. And do be discreet, Brother.”

Broom rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes.”

“I had no idea James was involved in such a dangerous occupation. Sophie told me everything, Mr Westman, and frankly I am shocked.”

“That is understandable,” he replied.

“And you, sir,” Primrose added. “I believe I owe you a debt of thanks for rescuing my grandchildren.”

“That isn’t necessary.”

Primrose lifted her hands in protest. “Oh, but it is. By all accounts you were almost killed! What a disaster that would have been. And just when my Sophie reacquaints with you.”

Primrose exchanged a glance with her that could only be described as mischievous. Sophie tried to ignore her grandmother’s secret nudge.

“To cut short my acquaintance with Miss Penderry would be a tragedy indeed. Do you believe Lord Crowthorne is involved in black magic?” he asked, steering the conversation back to the investigation.

Primrose chuckled and shook her head. “Not one bit. But I will introduce you and you can see for yourself.”

Broom leaned forward and looked from Sophie to Mr Westman. “May I suggest that we meet in the garden at midnight? Lord Crowthorne will be occupied with his ghost hunt and we can retrace Jim’s movements. There’s a summerhouse outside the ballroom, you can’t miss it.”

“What if someone asks after Jim?” Sophie replied. “What should we say?”

“Well, I suppose we should say that he’s away on business and we haven’t heard from him. If Lord Crowthorne is behind this, he’ll know that we’ve noticed Jim’s absence, but we mustn’t appear to suspect anything.”

Mr Westman nodded. “Very well. And if we should encounter any more supernatural activity, this should give us ample warning.” He pushed up his coat sleeve to show them a circular mechanism, encased in a leather strap and wired to some kind of battery.

Broom’s lips parted in delight. “Ah, my electromagnetic field metre. How did the trial go?”

“It appears your theory about spiritual activity producing high levels of electromagnetic energy is correct.”

Broom slapped his hands together. “Wonderful.”

“What’s that?” asked Sophie.

“In layman’s terms,” explained Broom, “it’s a supernatural detector.”

The carriage continued its journey and eventually drew up outside Lord Crowthorne’s sprawling abode. Ebony fought for a space amongst the other conveyances, determined, it seemed, to get as close as possible to the front steps. Sophie peered out of the window and saw a pair of carriages almost collide. Great burning torches illuminated the face of Crowthorne Towers, keeping in tradition with its medieval heritage. The mighty oak doors were open wide, spilling light and shadows across the steps. Gentlemen and ladies talked and laughed, making their way inside, each one of them dressed in their finery.

Primrose thumped her cane on the roof. “This will do, for heaven’s sake. Let us disembark before we all wither and expire.”

The carriage door opened to ribbons of orchestral music, drifting on the air, and the pungent smell of horses.

“This way,” beckoned Primrose, clearing a path to the doors with the aid of her cane.

Mr Westman pulled back his sleeve and frowned at the detector on his arm. In plain sight, he shook his wrist and tapped the mechanism a few times.

Sophie glanced at the spinning needle and took his arm, shielding the device from the other guests. “Careful, Mr Westman,” she whispered, “We don’t want to draw attention.”

“She’s right,” said Broom. “Discretion, my boy.”

“The confounded gadget is playing up,” he replied.

“Hm.” A crease formed between Broom’s eyebrows. “I wonder…”

All of a sudden, a sea of partygoers swept them along until the crowd trickled into the ballroom. Sophie gazed around in awe. She had never seen such a lavish hall. Festoons of crimson silk hung across the ceiling, fanning out from the subdued chandeliers, and heavy drapes concealed the windows that reached from floor to ceiling. Footmen lined the walls, silver salvers balanced on their palms, bearing goblets and canapés.

On a raised stage at the back of the room, an orchestra played a slow piece, drawing partners forth to dance in a tangle of colours. Sophie took in the sight of the rich guests in their opulent ball gowns and jewellery. Her own gown was a simple affair in comparison; snowy white with black accents and cut in the popular French style. When she turned around she found only Mr Westman with her, rubbing his hand through his glove.

She stretched up on the tips of her toes and peered through the crowd. “Where have the others gone?”

Mr Westman, who stood a good foot taller, located them. “They’re over there, talking to that gentleman. Shall we?”

They made their way over just when Primrose beckoned them with her fan.

“There you are, my dears. My lord, may I introduce my granddaughter, Sophie, and her friend, Mr Westman.”

The gentleman made a polite nod at Mr Westman and then turned to Sophie. He took her hand and stooped to place a kiss on her glove. “Randulf Crowthorne. Delighted,” he said with a rakish smile.

The nobleman was tall and splendid, with sleek, platinum hair that reached his shoulders.

“Your grandmother tells me that you have a great interest in the supernatural?”

Sophie was unprepared for the remark. She had never had any interest in the supernatural, at least not until the strange incident in the library. She was more wary than curious about the subject, but she supposed her grandmother was trying to be helpful.

“Yes,” she declared. “I do. We do, don’t we, Mr Westman?” She swung her face in his direction.

“It’s a fascinating subject,” he concurred.

“Well, then I’m certain you’ll find my ancestral home a treat. It’s the most haunted place I know.” Lord Crowthorne began to smile and aimed a finger at Mr Westman. “Now I recall your name. Westman. You write for the professor’s magazine.”

“Indeed I do. You’ve read the magazine?”

“Of course! I’m interested in all aspects of the paranormal. That’s how I came to meet the professor and his family. I would invite you to join us for a séance later this evening, but, alas, the table is full. I do hope you’ll forgive me?” He all but bowed, directing his overdramatic apology to Sophie.

Sophie offered a polite tip of her head. “Of course. Another time, my lord.”

Just then, the arrival of an auburn-haired, young woman by Lord Crowthorne’s side caught the nobleman’s attention. She stepped forward with a beautiful red bird perched on her arm. It was no small specimen, with large talons and a thick beak, secured to its mistress by a golden chain.

Lord Crowthorne smiled brightly. “Ah, I don’t believe you’ve met my sister, Henriette.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

The feather, thought Sophie. It must belong to Lady Henriette’s bird. The colour is a perfect match.

When Lord Crowthorne made the formal introductions around their group, Sophie tore her gaze from the bird and bobbed a short curtsey to Lady Henriette. She was a pale and fragile looking young woman with a crown of copper ringlets.

“My lady. Such a beautiful bird.”

Lady Henriette smiled. “Thank you. My brother had an aviary installed in the grounds this year. Birds are a little hobby of ours.”

“How delightful.”

“Are you fond of birds, Miss Penderry?” she asked.

“Why, yes. I was just telling my uncle and Mr Westman the other day that everyone keeps birds these days.”

Mr Westman gave her a wry glance. “Do not fret, Miss Penderry. I’ll get you a canary for Christmas,” he pledged.

“How kind, Mr Westman.”

At that point, Primrose stepped into the conversation and Sophie leaned towards Mr Westman. “I’d much rather you get me a new hat.”

“I’m sure you would.” He glanced at his arm. The detector was clicking and spinning again. “Blasted thing. What can it be?”

“Perhaps we’re being surrounded by ghosts,” she whispered, only half serious. The notion sent a chill skittering up her spine.

“Well, it’s either broken or there’s something here, very nearby.”

Sophie pulled her arms tight to her body and scanned the surrounding strangers, but she couldn’t find anything to cause concern.

Crowthorne spoke up and gave a clipped bow. “If you will excuse us, I fear we have many people to greet this evening. Miss Penderry, perhaps you would do me the honour of dancing later this evening?” he asked, smiling hopefully.

Sophie searched for an excuse to decline, but failed to find one. She accepted with a nod and a forced smile.

Drat.

Lord Crowthorne’s eyes sparkled with anticipation. “Splendid. I look forward to it.”

Lady Henriette took her brother’s arm, and they wandered off into the crowd.

Primrose clapped her hands together. “Refreshments. I’m parched.”

“Allow me, Sister,” offered Broom.

Sophie tugged Mr Westman’s coat sleeve, and they followed Broom across the room to one of the footmen holding a tray of drinks.

“So what do you think of Lord Crowthorne?” asked Broom.

Mr Westman selected two goblets of punch and passed one to Sophie. “He seems like your average sort of rich man.”

Sophie stared at the punch in her goblet. “Yes, he’s a pleasant young man, but I don’t trust him.”

“Why ever not?” Mr Westman’s smirk didn’t quite reach his eyes while he sipped his drink. “He seemed to like you.”

“That’s what concerns me. Did you see the way he greeted me? I daresay the scoundrel is too friendly.”

To her surprise, Mr Westman let out a soft laugh and the unfamiliar sight warmed her mood.

“As I said, your average sort of rich man,” he said.

Agitated, Broom looked around and gestured at them to lower their voices. “Sophie, you can’t go around calling our host a scoundrel.”

Sophie glanced at Mr Westman who was concealing his amusement behind his goblet.

“Well, aside from learning that he’s rich scoundrel, I saw nothing suspicious,” Mr Westman added. “But his sister may explain the feather you discovered in the garden, Professor.”

Broom put his empty goblet on the tray and picked up a drink for his sister. “Lady Henriette may have been the last person to see Jim that night and not even realise it.”

“Or she may have seen nothing at all,” Sophie reminded him.

He considered the matter while they made their way back to Primrose. “Perhaps we should ask her.”

“How? It’s near impossible to speak to her while Lord Crowthorne keeps stealing her away to greet the other guests.”

“You’re right,” said Mr Westman. “We’ll have to wait until Crowthorne is busy dancing. Miss Penderry has agreed to provide that distraction.”

“Against my will,” she snorted. “I have a rule never to dance with scoundrels.”

“Do you want to find Jim or not?” Mr Westman asked impatiently.

“Yes, more than anything.”

“Then stop complaining.”

Her uncle offered her a look of sympathy. “There’s no going back now, Sophie. We must do whatever it takes to find him. Let’s hope we’re not too late.”

The gravity of his words sank in like icy claws and Sophie bolstered herself with courage. “Don’t worry, I’ll play my part. And we will find Jim.”

The evening progressed slowly, and it seemed as though Lord Crowthorne had forgotten about their dance. Primrose mingled with the guests while Broom helped himself to the canapés. Mr Westman remained quiet, surveying the ballroom.

Sophie tapped her fingers together for a while, listening to the orchestra, then turned to Mr Westman. “Must we stand here all evening in this dull way?”

“We can’t begin the search until Lord Crowthorne is occupied with the séance.”

“I know, but we look silly just standing here in silence. Shouldn’t we blend in? We should dance.”

Mr Westman straightened up tensely. “With each other?”

“Well, yes.”

He scratched the stitches through his glove. “No.”

“Oh. Does your injury still restrict you?”

His gaze flicked to hers, but he looked quickly away. “Yes.”

Mr Westman was not very good at lying to her. She had the strong suspicion that he could dance if he wanted. “The music isn’t very lively. The next slow dance perhaps?” she suggested.

“I don’t dance.”

“I promise I’ll be gentle with you,” Sophie teased.

With an increasing look of discomfort, he met her eyes and snapped, “No, Miss Penderry. I do not wish to dance.”

Sophie’s heart sank. Did he find her such a tiresome bluestocking that he couldn’t bear the thought of dancing with her to pass the time? She felt foolish for daring to ask. Whatever the case, she wouldn’t let it trouble her. There were more important matters to consider.

With only a half hour until midnight, she finally spotted Lord Crowthorne making his way in their direction.

With a smile, he held out his hand. “Miss Penderry, I believe you promised me a dance.”

With a final glance at Mr Westman, she took Crowthorne’s hand and went with him.

“I do hope I’m not making your friend Westman jealous by whisking you away from his side,” Crowthorne joked and took up a dancing stance. He placed a hand lightly on her waist.

Sophie rested her hand on his shoulder before he led her into a waltz. “I very much doubt it, my lord.”

“Then he’s a fool.” Crowthorne grinned, making her blush. “Shall I tell you something outrageous?”

“If you wish.”

“I think it’s simply shocking that your grandmother never told me you were so enchanting.”

“Thank you,” she uttered, trying not to step on his feet. This was turning out to be worse than she’d expected. The scoundrel seemed intent on charming her. “So my lord, tell me more about the restless spirits that plague your haunted home.”

“My goodness, you really are keen on the subject, aren’t you? But that’s all right, so am I. We have so much in common, my dear.”

 

***

 

Across the ballroom, Westman located Lady Henriette and her bird; alone and pensively watching her brother with Miss Penderry. With a glance back at the waltzing couple, he felt a pang of remorse for his harsh refusal to dance. Sophie’s look of disappointment hadn’t escaped him, but after the way she had kissed his cheek he knew he couldn’t encourage her further – even if he did like her. And if his coldness drove her away, well, it was for her own good. Wasn’t it?

He caught the helpless look Sophie shot him while Crowthorne continued to talk and smile, and a thought moved to the front of his mind. He wished that he were the one twirling her around the floor instead of an over-groomed peacock like Crowthorne – a man who could very well be dangerous, he reminded himself. But would she be any safer in his company? The thought only angered him and he pushed his feelings aside. Crowthorne was fully distracted as planned and Westman had a task to do.

“Lady Henriette,” he said.

She turned and smiled weakly. “Mr Westman. Are you enjoying the party?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“My brother has taken a shine to Miss Penderry.” She stared in their direction.

“It would appear so.” He paused prudently before following with a question. “Do you know the Penderrys well?”

“We’ve met a few times.”

“Then you’re acquainted with Miss Penderry’s brother, James?”

For a moment, Lady Henriette remained quiet, facing the waltzing couples, then she pivoted to face him. “No, I haven’t had that pleasure.”

“Really? I’m surprised. He was here at your brother’s party two weeks ago.”

“Two weeks ago? Yes, I do recall that party,” she mused. “I was ill in bed all evening and missed the entire thing.”

Westman believed her. There was a frailness to the young woman, and even now her complexion was pale and sickly, although she tried to hide it with powder. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Mr Westman,” she said with a sudden, quiet urgency and stepped closer to him. The bird on her shoulder tilted its head in quick movements, assessing him with alert, bead-like eyes. “I hate to speak badly of my own flesh and blood, but I feel I must warn you. Miss Penderry should not pursue an acquaintance with my brother.”

She had nothing to fear on that score, but he pretended ignorance, hoping she would tell him more. “I’m not sure I can help you, my lady. Miss Penderry doesn’t welcome others choosing her friends.”

“For her own sake, Mr Westman,” she implored him. “My brother is not good for her. He’s not good for anybody.”

Westman was silent for a moment, absorbing her statement. Just what was Crowthorne’s sister implying? “Well, that is strong censure, indeed. Is there something I should know?”

“We have only just met, Mr Westman, but you must trust me about this.”

This was all the explanation she seemed willing to give.

He offered a polite bow of his head. “Of course, I won’t ignore your caution, my lady.”

 

***

It was close to midnight when Sophie managed to slip away. Milky moonlight bathed the dark garden, and she kept to the darkened terrace, surveying the sculpted shrubs and tall stone statues that adorned the eerily beautiful gardens. The ballroom doors were open for air, and it wasn’t long before Mr Westman appeared.

“I couldn’t see your uncle inside,” he said when he reached her.

“Perhaps he’s already at the summerhouse.”

With a nod, he indicated to a tree-lined path, lit by lanterns. “It must be that way.”

He started along the path and Sophie followed, passing Grecian sculptures while she tried to keep up with him. In the dark, the looming shapes could easily be mistaken for the living.

Sophie shuddered. “I don’t like these statues. It feels like they’re watching us.”

“They’re only statues,” he said and peeled off his tight white gloves.

He scratched his sutures and she winced. “Be careful, you’ll break the stitches.”

“Stop fussing,” he said sharply.

Sophie felt the knot between her eyebrows tighten. It was not the first time he’d spoken harshly this evening, and it confused her. How could he go from laughing with her one moment, to burning her the next? They continued along the pathway in silence until she could bear it no longer.

Halting beside a statue, Sophie clenched her fists and drew a long breath. “Mr Westman.”

He stopped and turned. “What is it?”

“Have I offended you in some way?”

“What? No.”

“Then why do you snap at me like a crocodile with a toothache?”

He looked around impatiently. “Is this really the best time?”

Sophie hesitated, considering his point, then backed down and stepped past him. “You’re right. It’s not important.”

His conscience seemed to get the better of him and he exhaled a deep sigh before capturing her arm. “Wait. I’m sorry.”

It was an honest apology, but she was still confused. Something obviously weighed on his mind. “What is it? The girl in the newspaper you showed me this evening?”

“No.”

“Something Lady Henriette said, then?”

“No. She warned be that her brother can’t be trusted, but wouldn’t say why. Apart from that, I learned little from her.”

“I see.” She lowered her face, disappointed. They had hoped for a new lead. “Well, there are still the grounds to search. Maybe that will bring more success.”

Whatever troubled him, she didn’t expect him to confide in her. She had learned that Mr Westman was the kind of man who kept his defences raised. But when she glanced back up, her heart stumbled. He wore an expression she’d never seen him use. Perhaps it was the way the moon beams fell on his face that made him look vulnerable.

“What’s wrong?”

“Well… I…” He searched the air as though he might find the words there. “I know I’m not as pleasant as you remember, but it can’t be helped.”

“You’re not entirely unpleasant,” she said, a wry smile forming.

“No, you were right. I’ve been offhand with you, but you must understand why. The demons you saw in the library… my world is full of dark things like those demons. You can’t begin to imagine…” He trailed off and his thick eyebrows drew together in frustration. “I shouldn’t encourage any sort of friendship with you. Not with anyone, really. I can’t guarantee your safety.”

So this was the cause of his brooding; the reason he refused to dance with her. Was the kiss to blame? She recalled the bold way she had thanked him, but felt no regret. She liked him, and his way of thinking struck her as a great pity – to push people away because they might be hurt by knowing him. A life without friendship or loved ones, only dark things, what kind of life was that?

“I understand,” she replied. “But I don’t care about monsters. I’m not afraid.”

He turned away and shook his head with a despairing laugh. “You’re as stubborn as Jim.”

“I think you’re being very unfair, especially to yourself.”

“Oh, don’t make this worse.”

“Everyone needs friends.”

“I don’t.” But he didn’t look fully convinced. The statement hung in the air for a long, awkward moment before Sophie broke the quiet.

“Mr Westman.” She took a hesitant step towards him and saw him tense.

“I’m trying to spare you,” he admitted.

“You can’t protect everyone.”

“Not everyone, that’s true. Just the ones I care about, Sophie.” He lifted his stitched hand and stroked her face.

She froze when bare fingers brushed her cheek, but soon found herself leaning into his touch. Just then, the leaves at her feet rustled, and she glanced down in time to see something small and furry scurry over her slippers. Startled, she gasped and jumped aside, only to bump into Mr Westman and find herself in his arms.

“It’s just a mouse,” he reassured her.

The little brown rodent climbed up the legs of a statue and perched on the figure’s upturned hand. In a shaft of silver light, it cleaned its whiskers with its paws. Sophie looked back at Mr Westman and realised he hadn’t let her go. When it came to matters of the heart, Sophie was not an expert – she had never had an admirer. But if a gentleman was thinking of kissing a young lady, she was positive he would look at her just like Freddie Westman did at that moment.

 

***

 

Broom Penderry had made a discovery. Within the summerhouse, he found the aviary that Lady Henriette had spoken of, and amongst the twittering birds were three beautiful red Cotingidai species.

He peered through the mesh of the cage and scoured the dusty floor, eyes skimming bird seed and droppings before falling upon a red feather. It was too poorly lit to tell if the feather matched the one he’d found in the garden. Perhaps if he could get closer.

Broom stepped back and assessed the aviary.

“Ah ha,” he said, smiling when he found the door latch.

He slid open the catch and ducked inside the aviary to retrieve the feather for evidence.

 

***

 

Lady Henriette handed her bird to one of the servants in the ballroom. “Please return her to the aviary,” she instructed before turning to the small group of guests waiting to attend the séance. Primrose talked excitedly to another guest before Lord Crowthorne joined them.

He checked his timepiece. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to assemble in the séance room.”

The ornately carved clock at the back of the hall began to chime midnight, but the sound was suddenly eclipsed by Lady Henriette’s bird.

“My goodness,” exclaimed Primrose when the bird went berserk. The unfortunate servant charged with taking the bird to the aviary ducked to avoid its beating wings and sharp beak.

“Be careful,” cried Lady Henriette, but the servant was unable to control the distressed creature.

In the midst of the commotion, he let go of the chain, allowing the bird to soar across the hall. Without slowing, it hurtled over the heads of the shocked guests and out through the terrace doors, escaping into the night.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Somewhere in the distance, the clock struck the midnight hour and Westman gazed at Sophie. Her eyes grew a little wider, and he was certain she must have seen inside his mind and read his thought. Yet she didn’t move away. In fact, it seemed like she wanted him to do it. The realisation made his heart beat twice as fast.

If Jim didn’t desire to shoot him before, he certainly would after this. But despite Westman’s misgivings, his gaze settled on her lips and he began to lower his face to hers. A sudden commotion from the banquet hall wrenched him back to reality, and he looked around, astonished to see a bird careering up the path towards their heads.

“Look out!” he shouted and shielded Sophie from danger.

The bird missed them by inches and swerved up into the air before swooping once more – this time towards the summerhouse. With an unnerving shriek, it smashed through the glass.

“What the devil?” he whispered, exchanging a look with Sophie. “Come on.”

He took her hand and led the way to the scene of the accident. When the tinkling of shattered glass had faded, they discovered a jagged hole in the window of the summerhouse.

“Uncle Broom,” she remembered.

“Professor?” Westman called.

From within the damaged shelter, they heard his voice. “I’m in here. I think you should send for medical assistance.”

“Are you hurt?” Sophie asked.

Without waiting for a reply, she hurried into the summerhouse. Westman followed, almost slamming into her when she stopped in front of him.

She gasped. “What happened?”

Professor Penderry knelt beside the limp body of a young woman.

The bird forgotten, Westman strode forward to help. “Is she alive?”

“Yes, just unconscious.”

Westman sank to one knee and shoved aside the thick blonde hair that covered her scratched face. “My God,” he murmured and felt a weight drop to the pit of his stomach. “Tabitha.”

“You know her?” the professor asked in surprise.

“Yes. How did this happen?”

“I wish I knew. I was examining the birds in the aviary over there when I heard an almighty smash. That’s when I turned around and found the girl. It was as though she’d fallen through the window.”

“The bird broke the window,” explained Westman.

“What bird?”

“The one that almost took our heads off a moment ago – out in the garden – before it flew into the glass. Tabitha must have already been here.”

But why? What on Earth was she doing here? To Westman, it made no sense.

“My dear boy, I can assure you there was nobody here.”

“Look,” said Sophie.

She pointed at the floor and Westman’s gaze followed. A golden chain shone in the moonlight. The same chain that Lady Henriette’s bird wore. With a frown, he picked it up and followed the length to Tabitha’s ankle. Realisation dawned upon him.

“Damn me. It was Tabitha. She was the bird.”

The professor’s brow cinched. “Whatever do you mean?”

“It must be some sort of enchantment.” Westman turned to the sound of distant voices. Several guests strode towards the summerhouse. “Quickly,” he said and winced when he lifted Tabitha’s wilted body. Despite the discomfort in his side, he hoisted her in his arms. “We need to take her somewhere safe.”

With the professor and Sophie following closely, he crept out of the shelter. They took cover behind a clutch of conifers while a group of guests and servants – led by Lord Crowthorne – rushed past them. Several onlookers gathered on the terrace outside the ballroom doors, cutting off the way they had come.

“Well, that’s torn it,” he muttered. “We’ll have to go the long way round.”

“I’ll go ahead and fetch the carriage,” whispered Broom. “Meet me at the front.”

He hurried off, keeping to the darkened gardens and taking care not to be seen. Westman followed his lead, ducking behind bushes with Sophie in tow. When they were a good distance out of sight, they cut across the lawn towards the house and rounded the building. As agreed, the professor was waiting near the front steps with their carriage.

“Ebony will take you home,” he told him. “I’ll stay to explain the situation to your grandmother. And if Lord Crowthorne should ask, I’ll tell him you had a headache, Sophie, and Mr Westman took you home.”

“But how will you get home?” she asked.

“Don’t worry about me. Ebony will return for us when the party is over. Now hurry before someone sees you.”

Heeding Broom’s advice, they set off with Tabitha at once. The coach travelled with haste through the night, rumbling along the isolated country road. Mr Westman folded his jacket and Sophie placed it under Tabitha’s head. The girl lay safely across the seat opposite them, but showed no sign of waking.

“I know Lord Crowthorne is rumoured to be involved in the occult, but this?” Sophie shook her head. “Is such a thing even possible?”

“It appears so.”

Her delicate features hardened into a scowl. “Why is he doing this?”

“We’ll know more when Tabitha wakes up.”

“I can’t stand this. First my brother, now this poor girl, and-” She paused and looked at him, her eyes widening. “Oh no. Mr Westman, we have to go back.”

“Why?”

“It just occurred to me. The other birds in the aviary – they could be the missing girls, under an enchantment like Tabitha. We need to go back and help them.” She stood and reached for the roof hatch, but Westman caught her wrist and stopped her.

“We can’t go back,” he told her.

“We can’t leave them behind,” she protested.

She reached for the hatch again and he pulled her firmly back to her seat. “You’re being impulsive.”

She glared at the fingers around her arm. “We’ve come barely a mile. It won’t take long. We can sneak back in and-”

“And then what?” he asked, cutting her off before she could run away with the reckless idea. “How do you propose we smuggle three birds off the premises? Do you have a birdcage stashed under your petticoat?”

“We’ll think of something!”

“Settle down.”

“Don’t tell me to settle down, sir,” she replied, snatching her arm from his grasp and standing. She set her hands on her waist, swaying unsteadily as the coach continued over uneven ground.

“Sit down.”

“I can’t. Not when there are innocent girls in danger and we have the power to save them!”

Here we go again. He leaned back and groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. “Listen to me, Bluestocking. We’re not abandoning them, but we must get Tabitha to safety. Have you forgotten our agreement? The only reason I’m allowing you to help is because you promised to abide by my terms.”

Raised voices arose from outside and the carriage came to a sudden stop, tossing Sophie onto his lap. He caught her just before the door flew open and a masked man thrust a pistol in their direction. Sophie gave a short scream beside his ear.

“Don’t move,” ordered the robber. Eyes fixed on them, he called over to an accomplice. “Looks like a toff and his strumpet. Right, you two, give us your money or your lives; your choice my darlings.”

“Strumpet?” Sophie breathed, incredulous.

There were only two men, but both brandished pistols. One had his weapon aimed at the driver while the other bandit pointed his gun in their faces. Westman remembered he’d left his bag of weaponry back in the city with Blinks, and all he had with him was a crucifix and a memory full of incantations. There was nothing remotely helpful in the carriage, apart from the burning lantern. But by the time he’d reached for the fire he would most likely find a bullet in his back.

Tackling the robber for his gun was the only option. Unless they simply did as he said and handed over their money. Damn, he really despised being backed into a corner.

Sophie’s small hands curled around his arms, but he quickly realised it wasn’t fear driving her tension or rapidness of breath. It was anger.

“Strumpet?” she said again.

To his utter disbelief, she clenched a fist and landed a surprisingly hard punch on the robber’s nose, sending him reeling backward. The pistol fired, missing them and shattering the window. On reflex, Westman pushed Sophie to the carriage floor and jumped out, prying the gun from the bandit’s grip.

The accomplice took aim, but hesitated to take a shot – afraid of shooting his friend during the struggle, Westman supposed. The bandit gave up the gun in favour of holding his bleeding nose.

“She bloody punched me,” he exclaimed, staggering away towards his partner.

Sophie poked her head out. “I’ve had quite enough of bossy men and-”

Westman put a hand on her head and forced her back inside. With the door acting as a shield, he trained the pistol on the armed robber. “You won’t find easy pickings here. Turn around and leave now, unless you wish to find out which of us is the better marksman.”

Neither petty criminal wanted to take the risk. They turned, scarpering into the dark, wooded area at the roadside. When Westman was certain they had gone, he lowered the pistol and pivoted slowly to give Sophie a long stare.

“Have they gone?” she asked. “Is Ebony all right?”

The driver offered him a nod.

“He’s fine,” replied Westman.

“Oh, thank goodness. Quickly, get in before they come back.”

Westman climbed into the carriage, speechless. Where in Hades had that punch come from? Penderry fighting spirit indeed. Unbelievable.

 

***

 

By the time they arrived at Half Moon street, sleepy silence cloaked the neighbourhood. Tabitha remained unconscious, and they carried her into the safety of Sophie’s home.

“Put her in my room, Mr Westman,” said Sophie, swiftly leading the way upstairs.

Despite attempts to be quiet, their footfalls on the creaking steps threatened to wake the whole household, but Sophie was more concerned for the unfortunate girl. She was beginning to fear Tabitha would never wake. The door to the spare room, currently a nursery, opened and George peered out through bleary eyes.

“What’s going on?” he asked, then his posture stiffened at the sight of the injured girl. “What happened?”

“It’s nothing to worry about, George,” said Sophie. “You can go back to bed.”

“Well, I can’t possibly sleep now,” he declared, shoving an arm into his dressing gown while he followed them. “Is she all right?”

They entered Sophie’s room and Mr Westman set Tabitha on the bed. “The impact knocked her out,” he told George.

“Impact?”

“Her name is Tabitha Nethercott,” explained Mr Westman. “She went missing last Wednesday. The newspapers blamed the abduction on Creeping Clem, but that’s not the case. Creeping Clem is gone. I dispatched him. But there is definitely a connection. Just as I suspect Clem is linked to Lord Crowthorne, so was Tabitha’s abduction. We just found her at Crowthorne’s home, under a spell.”

“What sort of spell?”

“Are you familiar with the principle of metamorphosis?”

George squinted while his sluggish brain stirred into motion. “You mean when something changes… like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly?”

“Yes, a complete change of physical form. Only Tabitha’s transformation, from human to bird, was accomplished through supernatural means.”

“Hold on, you’re telling me someone turned her into a bird?”

“Yes. It appears she was being held captive by Lord Crowthorne and his sister Lady Henriette. She escaped and flew into the summerhouse window. The force of the blow broke the enchantment.”

“Crikey.”

Tabitha groaned and they gathered around her.

Sophie expelled a pent up breath. “Thank goodness, she’s awake.”

“I don’t know why the Crowthornes had her,” whispered Mr Westman, “but it’s imperative that they don’t find out she’s here. When she wakes, we can’t let her leave. Not until we have some answers.”

They peered at her as she groggily opened her eyes.

“Where am I?” she asked, scanning their faces.

“Tabitha, it’s Mr Westman and I, Miss Penderry. Do you remember us? You’re safe in my home. Are you all right?”

“Miss Penderry,” she said weakly. “What happened? What am I doing here?”

“Don’t you recall?” Sophie asked and glanced over at Mr Westman.

He regarded the girl with concern. “You were abducted last week. Do you remember?”

Tabitha’s eyes began to glisten with tears and she shook her head.

“Tabitha, we found you at Lord Crowthorne’s house this evening,” he explained. “You were under a spell.”

Her forehead wrinkled anxiously then she scrambled off the bed in fright. “Oh no. Oh lawks. They’ll hear. They’ll see us!”

To Sophie’s surprise, Tabitha thrust open the dresser and rummaged through the drawer. She began to protest when the girl whipped out a nightgown and threw it over the mirror on the table.

“Cover the mirrors,” she cried, looking wildly around the room.

“That’s the only one,” Sophie assured her. “Tabitha, what’s going on?”

“Spying eyes,” she murmured and swayed off balance. Her eyelids flickered before she crumpled on the spot.

George, being the nearest, sprang forward to catch her before she hit the floor.

“Put her back on the bed,” said Mr Westman, striding over to help him.

Tabitha’s head lolled, but her mumbles were clear enough. “Mrs Toop… please… I need Mrs Toop.”

 

***

 

The grandfather clock in the sitting room ticked steadily while Mrs Toop stirred sugar into her cup of tea. She’d arrived with haste the next day, relieved to find Tabitha safe in their care. Now Westman and Sophie watched the older woman expectantly, the quiet pricked by the occasional carriage clattering past the window. When she’d finished stirring, Mrs Toop put the teaspoon on her saucer and took a sip.

“I reported her missing,” she told them and smiled tightly. “She doesn’t have any parents, you see, only me. She’s my apprentice.”

“Then perhaps you can tell us why Lord Crowthorne abducted her,” replied Westman.

She set her teacup down and fiddled with the beads that hung around her neck. “I know all about you, Mr Westman. You investigate the supernatural and write for a magazine. You know things – like how to fight demonic forces.”

Westman regarded her intently. “Did Tabitha tell you that?”

“Yes. I’m also aware of what happened to you in the library. Someone sent trouble your way because you interfered. The same person who sent the demon after Tabitha, and abducted her.”

“Crowthorne,” Westman told her.

“We’ve suspected him for a while. But did Tabitha tell you why he came after her? Your expression suggests not.”

“She’s been asleep all this time,” replied Sophie. “She hasn’t been able to tell us anything.”

“When Tabitha first told me about you and the attack that night,” began Mrs Toop, “I felt it time to tell her everything I knew. It seems that the demon they call Creeping Clem was summoned to collect the living female descendants of a witch called Mary Wilson.”

“Mad Mary?” asked Westman. “Miss Penderry’s brother was researching this. We came across a transcript in his notes of the court trial of Mary Wilson. She was found guilty of witchcraft one hundred and fifty years ago.”

“Yes, that is her.”

“One of Clem’s victims was a direct descendent of her.”

“All of his victim’s, Tabitha included, are her descendants… distant relations… the families never strayed from London. And whoever summoned the demon wants the girls for one horrible purpose.” She clutched the string of pearls tightly to her chest and her eyes hardened. “Sacrifice.”

“How do you know all this?” Westman asked.

Mrs Toop released her necklace and exhaled. “You’re a reporter, Mr Westman. You must understand… some things just cannot be exposed to your readers. There are reputations to consider.”

“Madam, the investigation into Creeping Clem and Lord Crowthorne is not mine to expose. This isn’t work. There are lives at stake and my primary concern is finding Miss Penderry’s brother. Believe me when I tell you that you have nothing to fear from me.”

“I do believe you can trust Mr Westman,” Sophie assured her.

Mrs Toop chewed her lip before reaching a decision. “Just as there are cults affiliated with black magic, there are also groups dedicated to the power of good. There is a secret organisation within London called The Shadow Assembly, sometimes known simply as the London Shadows. It’s their duty to watch and protect. I am what you might call a friend to them.

“When Creeping Clem first appeared, the Shadow Assembly were quick to work out the connection between the missing girls and Mary Wilson. I was asked to give Tabitha a job and discreetly keep an eye on her, but I couldn’t keep her under lock and key.”

“I had no idea such an organisation was involved,” said Westman.

“Your friend Mr Penderry was aware.”

“Jim knew?”

“He found out, yes, but promised to keep the secret. Believe me, steps are being taken to investigate Lord Crowthorne. If he’s responsible, he will be stopped.”

“Well, this Shadow Assembly of yours aren’t doing a very good job.” Westman leaned forward. “It’s Crowthorne. What more proof do they need? I’d like to meet the leader, maybe we can help one another.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible. Nobody meets the leader of the London Shadows in person. We communicate through mystic channels and whoever he is, he always appears in darkness, his voice a whisper.”

“Then I strongly urge you to inform him that the person he’s looking for is Lord Crowthorne. There is no doubt.”

Mrs Toop answered with a nod. “May I beg a favour, Miss Penderry? Crowthorne found Tabitha twice before and I fear she will not be safe beyond these walls.”

“Of course,” nodded Sophie. “She is welcome here until it’s safe for her to leave. And you’re welcome to stay with her if you wish.”

“Thank you, but I must go. I have a message to send.” Leaving the rest of her tea, Mrs Toop stood and bid them good day.

Alone together, Sophie turned to Westman. “Well, we’re still no closer to finding Jim. Are we to leave the matter in the hands of a secret society? I’m not certain we can even trust Mrs Toop.”

“Indeed. At this point I don’t trust anyone. What if this Shadow Assembly abducted Jim when he discovered them?” He rubbed his chin when a thought came to mind. It was far from ideal, but they were running out of options. “There is something else we could try.”

“What is it?” Sophie asked with a glimmer of renewed hope.

Westman hesitated, aware that a can of worms was on the brink of bursting wide open. But what other choice was there? “I know someone gifted with the ability of clairvoyance. Miss Millicent Sinclair. Although, I haven’t spoken to her in quite some time. Two years to be precise.”

“The name sounds familiar. Do you think she can find Jim?”

“I’m hopeful she can, yes. The question is, will she want to help?” He observed Sophie’s frown and felt torn. “I fear the truth of your brother’s indiscretion may be mentioned if we pay her a visit.”

Her expression grew cynical. “Lord, what did he do? It’s no use looking like that. You may as well spill the soup.”

“It’s not my place. Perhaps it would be for the best if I went alone.”

“This again?” Sophie’s face fell and she cast a furtive glance at the hallway. Confident no one was there, she took his hands in hers and quietly implored him. “Freddie, let me help.”

He took a long breath, meeting her gaze, and thoughts of last night in Crowthorne’s garden came to him. He’d nearly kissed her. Confound it. Why had he let things come this far? He couldn’t help himself. Even now, he wanted to please her, but he was damned either way.

“No more secrets,” she insisted. “Please. I can’t stand to be in the dark any longer.”

“Tell me, would your feelings towards your brother change if I told you he broke Miss Sinclair’s heart in a most dishonourable way?”

Sophie stared back at him, considering his words for a long moment. “No. Whatever mess he made it’s not for me to judge. I know my brother – he has faults like everyone, but he’s kind and good at heart. I’m sure he’s sorry for whatever happened and that’s all that matters as far as I’m concerned.”

Clearly she was more indulgent in her love for her brother than he had given her credit.

“Then you’re a better and more tolerant person than I was. Very well, I’ll tell you.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

“You may recall the photograph of Jim and I in Skelmorie, with the mermaid.” Mr Westman led Sophie back to the sofa. “The person behind the camera was Miss Sinclair. Back then, we were employed as part of a team for your uncle’s magazine. But we were more than just colleagues, we were all friends.

“Your brother, it has to be said, had a habit of falling in and out of love on a regular basis. But with Miss Sinclair he went too far. Two years ago he asked her to marry him.”

Sophie blinked. “He proposed? But I didn’t know of their engagement.”

“It was a secret. A reckless, spur of the moment idea. Only Blinks and I were aware of the planned elopement.”

“You sound like you disapproved.”

“Of course I did. I advised him to wait and marry her properly, but he wouldn’t listen. He insisted I be a witness at the ceremony so I travelled with them to Gretna Green. Miss Sinclair and I arrived at the chapel on time, but your brother never turned up. He’d run away, abandoning her at the altar. At first, I hoped he’d decided to take my advice, but when confronted, he said their engagement was over. I felt it my duty to defend Miss Sinclair, since your brother had treated her quite badly. He was unreasonably angry with me for taking her side, and since that day he’s refused to speak to me.”

Sophie quietly digested the unpleasant truth. “How could he treat his friends so heartlessly?”

“He wouldn’t tell me his reasons. To this day I haven’t the faintest idea.”

“Perhaps he wasn’t ready to marry.” Sophie sighed with frustration. “Oh, I wish he had confided in you instead of quarrelling.”

After a moment of silence, Mr Westman stood up, dragging Sophie from her thoughts. “I’m sorry you had to hear of this.”

“No.” She shook her head. “It is better this way. We shouldn’t delay our visit to Miss Sinclair.”

Westman nodded. “I’ll send for the carriage.”

 

***

 

Miss Millicent Sinclair had a feeling, as she often did. She sensed that her afternoon of leisure would be interrupted by a face from the past.

So it came as little surprise to her when the butler announced that Mr Alfred Westman, had arrived with his valet and a young woman.

“Show them to the drawing room, I shall greet them presently.”

Millicent didn’t rush to finish her chocolate drink. Eventually, she rose from her seat and walked down the hallway, forecasting as she went. She already had an inkling why Westman had come. He had brought James Penderry’s sister with him, for James was at the heart of their call.

Millicent entered the drawing room and didn’t bother to disguise a sigh when her first prediction was confirmed.

Westman greeted her with a curt bow of his head. “Miss Sinclair. May I introduce Miss Sophie Penderry?”

Little astonished her these days. It came with the territory of being attuned to the world of spirit. Thoughts and information would pop into her head, sometimes at the most inconvenient times. Oh, what she wouldn’t give for a few genuine surprises in life.

“Freddie, it’s good to see you again,” she replied and scrutinized his two companions. Only one was worthy of addressing. “Miss Penderry. I’m happy to meet you. Please sit down.”

Her callers took their seats.

“Not you,” she told Westman’s scruffy servant.

Mr Blinks froze in a sort of squatting position, his backside just inches from touching her velvet upholstery. She could hardly believe Westman still kept him in his employ after all these years.

He wore grubby stockings and his shoes needed shining, but the worst offence was the bedraggled feather in his hat – originally white, she imagined. But it was hard to be certain when the thing looked as though it had been plucked from a drowned albatross rather than a majestic ostrich. Why, the manservant didn’t even possess the good manners to remove his hat in her home.

She made no attempt to mask her distaste. Blinks was a terrible disgrace, and she was more than happy to make her displeasure known.

“Blinks, perhaps you’d be good enough to stand by the window and keep an eye on the carriage?” suggested Westman.

“Alright, sir.” Blinks straightened up before looking at Millicent and tipping the offensive hat. “Ma’am.”

He moved to the window and leaned against the wall. Westman seemed to notice his servant’s fresh mistake and cleared his throat. But in the end it required one of Millicent’s practised looks of rebuke to make him repel from her fine French wallpaper as though he had been burned.

Westman covered his eyes with a hand, then gave Millicent a level stare. “I trust you’ll afford me the liberty of inviting Blinks to join our conversation. He’s involved in the matter.”

What an affront.

“It’s most improper, Freddie, to converse with servants as though they are our equals,” she said.

“Oh for pity’s sake, Millicent,” he retorted. “He’s lesser by social rank, perhaps, but in every other way Blinks is more than equal to the rest of us.”

At Westman’s unexpected defence, the servant’s good eye brightened, and he straightened up proudly.

Millicent rolled her eyes.

Westman had always been afflicted with a sort of empathy for the sub-standard dregs of society. It would one day be his downfall, in her opinion.

“Shall we get on with things, then?” she said. “Just what is it you want?”

“We need to locate a missing person,” replied Westman.

Millicent silently connected the facts. So that was it. “And why would I wish to help find that good-for-nothing rogue?”

Westman shouldn’t have looked so surprised at her deductive reasoning. After a moment, his features relaxed in graceful defeat. “Very good, Miss Sinclair. You still have the gift.”

“It never leaves me alone. And as I was saying, some things are better off lost.”

Sophie Penderry drew a breath and Millicent glanced at her injured expression. The hurt and worry churning around inside the girl was unpleasantly palpable and enough to make Millicent pause and reflect.

“I know you don’t mean that,” said Westman. “Two years is an awfully long time to carry resentment in your heart.”

Millicent stared at him. Those true words were like a mirror held up to reveal the soul. The fact was, she hadn’t quite realised that she was still holding a grudge. Perhaps it was time to forgive and forget. And as for Westman, he had supported her during that time, sacrificing a friendship in the process.

“I know better than anyone how you feel about Penderry,” he added with care. “But would you help us find him, for the sake of the good times?”

Millicent took a cleansing breath. “I certainly won’t do it for him, or even for the good times, but I will do it for you, Westman. And for his sister,” she added quickly.

With relief, Westman thanked her.

“Don’t thank me so soon. I haven’t found him yet.” Standing, she extended a hand towards the door which led to an adjoining room. “My reading room is through here. Do follow me.”

The curtains were closed in the reading room, shutting out the overcast afternoon.

“Please take a seat at the table,” she invited them. “Your servant may make himself useful by lighting the lamp.”

Blinks did as he was told whilst the rest of the group sat down.

“How long has he been missing?” she asked. The lamp on the round table cast a glow on their faces.

“Over two weeks,” Westman answered. “He was on an investigation and we suspect dark magic is involved.”

“Do you have an item belonging to James?”

Sophie reached into her bag, bringing out a photograph which she placed on the table. Millicent picked it up and her heart tripped. The Skelmorie mermaid. She remembered taking this picture. It had been freezing cold on the shore. Her gaze wandered over Jim’s handsome face and fair hair. This was one of the good times.

Closing her eyes, Millicent relaxed and opened her mind to whatever images or thoughts might come. Within seconds, there was a feeling of paralysis, like a dream where running is impossible, no matter how hard you try. Visions swirled out of the blackness and flickered by in fragments.

“A hall lit by chandeliers,” she reported when the images formed. “Cages of beautiful birds. Red birds. James is there, I can see him. But he can’t move. He’s trapped within stone walls.”

“Is he alive?” blurted Sophie.

Millicent deepened her concentration. “Yes,” she confirmed, surprised by the relief that settled over her. “Come along,” she appealed to her spirit guides. “Give me something more. Hmm. Oh my word. Jim isn’t alone. I see others imprisoned with him. Girls. Fire. They’re going to be sacrificed.”

“The girls,” said Westman. “Are they the descendants of a witch called Mary Wilson?”

In her mind’s eye, a sudden fog descended and she tried to search through it. A shadowy figure grew larger, then evaporated, leaving behind a sense of menace.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

The mist cleared to reveal the girls once more, encircling a blazing fire, prepared for sacrifice.

“A deal’s been struck,” she explained as the information channelled through her. “Yes, the descendants of Mary Wilson. It wants their souls to complete the ritual. But it’s still missing two.”

“Tabitha,” murmured Sophie.

The scene became more vivid until Millicent felt as though she were there, standing amidst the young women. The fire pit blazed hot and fear beat through her like a drum. On the other side of the licking flames lurked the menacing figure, hidden in a blur of gloom, but the baby in its arms was clear enough. The auburn-haired child wailed and Millicent backed away.

All of a sudden, Jim was beside her. “We can’t let them find the baby, Millicent.”

“Jim.” She stared at him, stunned. He was dressed for a cold day on the shores of Skelmorie, despite the roaring sacrificial fire. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing. Don’t you know it’s jolly rude to poke around in a man’s head?”

“Where are you?”

“Crowthorne Towers. Now, listen, Milly. We must protect the baby. I gave the London Shadows my word.”

“I don’t understand. You must explain.”

But Jim was gone, and the vision began to fade.

“Miss Sinclair,” came Sophie’s voice, dragging her back to the quiet reading room. “Are you all right?”

Millicent put down the photograph, dizzy from the rush of insight. “There’s an old and powerful demonic entity at work. It wants the souls of Mary Wilson’s descendants and someone is helping it achieve this goal.”

Westman leaned forward. “Who?”

“I was given the name Crowthorne.”

“I know him,” he said, getting to his feet. “We’ll go and put a stop to this right now.”

Millicent held up her hand. “Wait. There’s something else. I think it’s important. I connected with Jim.”

Slowly, Westman sat back down. “What happened?”

“A possible future. A sacrifice at Crowthorne Towers. Jim told me the baby must be protected.”

He frowned. “What baby?”

“The red-haired child in his care.”

“Felicity?” asked Sophie.

“She is the missing piece, another descendant of Mary Wilson.” A creeping sense of foreboding crawled over Millicent’s skin. “And wherever she is at this moment, she’s in extreme danger.”

Westman and Sophie exchanged looks, and were on their feet in an instant.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

“Snap,” declared George, slapping his card down on the pile.

“You win again,” said Tabitha with a sigh. “It’s hardly a fair game, though. I’m still feeling rough.”

George smirked and scraped up the deck of cards. “You surrender, then?”

“One more round if we can have a warm drink,” she replied then glanced at the crib beside them. Felicity was holding onto the wooden rail and laughing at them through the cot bars.

“That’s not a bad idea.” He checked his pocket watch. “It’s nearly four o’clock. Do you remember anything yet?”

Tabitha shook her head, frustrated by the veil of amnesia that cloaked her memories.

He stood up from the floor where they’d been playing the card game. “Well, maybe tea will help.”

Felicity gurgled, her eyes scrunching up when she gave another squeal of laughter.

Propping his hands on his waist, George stared at the baby. “And I suppose you’ll want something too.”

A ragdoll flew over the rail and landed on the floor.

With a light-hearted roll of his eyes, he wearily picked up the toy and returned it to the cot. “Not that game again. I never knew being an uncle was such hard work.”

“You’re her uncle?”

“Yes. Well, in a manner of speaking. My older brother took her in. Saved her from some horrid orphanage.”

“I can keep an eye on her,” she offered.

“Thanks. I’ll go and see about the tea.”

Jack, who’d been sitting with them on the rug, wagged his tail and followed George out of the room.

His grandmother’s house was quiet, except for the clock ticking in the downstairs hallway. Poking his head round a doorway, he found Primrose dozing in a chair.

Without disturbing her, he headed for the kitchen to find the maid or the cook. But no sooner had he entered the deserted kitchen, the door slammed shut behind him. With a start, he spun around and twisted the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. On the other side, he could hear more doors banging shut.

Jack growled and sniffed the gap beneath the door.

What on Earth’s going on?

A draught?

He recalled the last time such a breeze had appeared out of nowhere and his stomach turned with alarm.

“Hello,” he shouted through the wood, continuing to shake the handle. “Grandmother, can you open the door? It’s stuck from this side. Ebony? Sally? Hello?”

The fur on Jack’s neck bristled, and he barked before scrabbling furiously at the threshold.

 

***

 

Tabitha looked towards the commotion with unease.

Doors banging and Jack barking? Something isn’t right.

A draught was building. She felt it enter the nursery and snake across the floor. Her fingers pressed into the rug and she shivered when cold air crept over her knuckles. Quickly, she got to her feet.

They’d found her. Maybe she hadn’t been quick enough to cover the mirror earlier. That’s how they saw things. Mirrors were like windows, showing whatever they asked to see.

Fear squeezed her heart while instinct urged her to escape, but she hesitated and looked at the baby. She couldn’t leave her here alone, especially if something was wrong. And Tabitha had the inexplicable feeling that something dark and dangerous was closing in on the house, seeping through the walls. It might let itself in through the front door, like it had at the shop, breaching the place with a chill breeze and skittering of dead leaves.

She remembered!

Lifting Felicity from the crib, Tabitha used the blanket to fasten the baby to her body. She wrapped the sheet around them in a crisscross pattern until it felt secure enough then hurried to the window and pushed it open.

Looking out, she found a ledge overhanging the front door. It was only a short drop from the top of the door to the ground. She could make it. She just needed something to hang onto for balance.

Turning her eyes to the long curtains around the window, she followed them up to a metal rail.

“Hold on,” she told Felicity and dragged a chair across the room. Standing on it, she lifted the curtain pole out of its cradles and lowered the whole thing to rest on the window sill. With a handful of drape, she climbed into the window frame and peered down.

The sudden crash of the nursery door slamming against the wall sent her heart pounding in her throat. She screamed at the sight of a familiar cloaked figure in the doorway.

Before she knew it, he was lunging forward. Tabitha wasted no time in jumping out the window, narrowly escaping his clutches.

The curtain pole held firm against the walls and Tabitha dangled helplessly for a moment before her feet found the ledge.

With a frightened glance up, she saw the figure had gone, but this only fuelled her fear. He was probably coming downstairs.

She slid down the drapes, her feet taking the impact when she landed on the stone steps in front of the open entrance. She barely glanced inside the house, aware of pounding footsteps on the staircase. Instead, she hugged the crying baby to her chest and ran.

 

***

 

With Blinks at the reins, the carriage hurtled towards Mayfair, hitting several pot-holes on the way.

Millicent grabbed the seat for support and scowled each time the vehicle rocked violently. “Must he drive so carelessly?” she said loudly, staring at the roof hatch. “If we crash and die at least I can say it was all for a no-good philanderer like James Penderry.”

“Nobody forced you to come,” Westman reminded her.

Millicent assumed a superior look. “You may still need my help. Despite my feelings on the matter, I’m not the sort of person to turn my back on friends in need.”

Sophie twisted to face the other young woman. “I know what my brother did, Miss Sinclair, and I don’t blame you for being angry. He did a foolish thing. But I do hope that one day you can forgive him for it.”

Millicent fell quiet and her brow creased in thought. When she looked back at Sophie, a calmness settled over her features. “My spirit guide warned me about him. She predicted that James would let me down, but I chose to block her out, hoping she was wrong. So you see, I already knew it would happen, but I let James sweep me away all the same. Now I ask myself, who was the more foolish?”

The carriage drew to a sudden halt and Westman looked out the window. “We’re here,” he said, getting out. “Hurry. The front door is open.”

The women followed him up the steps and into the house, growing more concerned when they discovered signs of an intruder. Paintings hung askew on the walls and a potted plant lay overturned at the foot of the stairs. At the sound of thumping and shouting, Westman rushed to the kitchen door and found it jammed.

“George,” he called, recognising the boy’s voice. “Stand back.”

Having given ample warning, Westman slammed his shoulder against the door. The wood splintered, then, on the second try, the door burst open. A relieved, but shaken, George surged out with Jack.

“What happened?” asked Westman.

The drawing room door opened and Primrose emerged, confusion clear on her face.

“I don’t know-” George began, but paused when Sophie and Millicent dashed down the stairs.

“She’s gone,” cried Sophie. “I checked the nursery and Felicity is gone. Tabitha too. The window is wide open.”

Westman looked over at Millicent who was rubbing her temples, eyes closed. “Miss Sinclair?”

“The girls tried to escape.” Millicent’s brow creased deeply then she opened her eyes and stared back at him. “The park at the end of the street. That’s where they went. Green Park.”

“Thank you,” Westman said and strode to the door. “No, George, stay here. All of you, wait here.”

Blinks was waiting outside the house. “Will you need this, sir?” he asked and indicated to the bag at his feet.

“Unfortunately, yes.” Westman took his equipment out and unsheathed a sword. Who knew what tricks Crowthorne had up his sleeve? “Will you stay here and look after the others?”

“If you’re sure, Mr Westman.”

He nodded, then ran in the direction of the park.

The street was quiet at sunset, growing gloomy beneath a sky bruised with purple rain clouds. Black railings enclosed the common, and he soon found the gate. Entering the park, he stopped to find his bearings and scanned the trees and neatly landscaped lawns.

“Tabitha?” he called towards the shrubbery, hoping to draw her out of hiding.

The sound of a baby crying alerted him to their position and he started toward the sound, but stopped when he saw a man leaning against a tree. With a thin cigar poised between his fingers, he blew out a cloud of violet smoke, tinted by the retreating sun.

Felicity’s muffled cries continued, but Westman couldn’t see her or Tabitha. The man casually pushed himself away from the tree and turned to face him. When he emerged into the patch of smoky light, Westman’s blood turned cold in his veins.

“Hello again, hero,” came the mocking words from the demon’s mouth. Creeping Clem’s eyes ignited like hot coals. “I expect you’ve come for the girls.”

Westman pointed his sword at the scaly creature, unable to find words.

Clem’s lips stretched. “Oh, come now, don’t look so surprised. You didn’t really think you’d got rid of me for good, did you? All it took was another summoning and Ta-Da, I’m back.” The demon’s smile dropped and its gaze glinted dangerously.

“Where are they?” said Westman. “Hand them over.”

“Well, isn’t this familiar? Here we are again. The girls. Oh yes, the girls. They’re in the hands of my conjurer now and my part of the bargain is almost fulfilled.”

Westman’s eyes darted around the park, looking for the girls and Crowthorne. They were here somewhere. He could still hear Felicity.

“I see you came prepared for a fight,” said Clem. “I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

Westman tightened his grip on the sword handle, remembering what the demon was capable of, and steeled himself. This seemed to please Clem. It smiled again and flicked away the burning cigar. Taking off its hat and cloak, it dropped them to the ground.

Westman cursed silently. Creeping Clem was a distraction, designed to keep him busy while Crowthorne escaped with the children.

“Stop hiding behind your demon, Crowthorne, and come out,” shouted Westman. “Face me yourself, man, or are you a coward?”

The foliage to his left rustled and Tabitha emerged, a hand clamped firmly over her mouth and tear-streaked cheeks. Felicity, bound to the other girl with a sheet, continued to sob.

“He isn’t here, Mr Westman,” a woman’s voice informed him. She dragged Tabitha out of the shady trees. “It is my demon that stands between us.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

“Lady Henriette?” Westman stared at her.

The pale pallor of her face glowed in the impending dusk. Henriette might have been quite a beauty once, but her complexion was drained by sickness and marred by the dark smudges beneath her eyes. Heavy rouge on her lips and cheeks only drew attention to her poor health.

“What are you doing?” he called. “Let them go. Tabitha are you all right?”

“It would be wiser to worry about yourself,” Henriette replied.

Tabitha gave a muffled shout, alerting Westman to Creeping Clem’s attack. He swung his sword at the charging demon, missing when it jumped into the air and soared over his head. It landed behind him, sharp teeth bared. Clem chuckled, wispy fire on its breath.

With another strike, Westman aimed for its neck, but the demon’s reflexes were fast. It dodged and whipped its strong tail with a crack, slamming into Westman’s chest and knocking him backward. He landed on his back, skidding to a stop, and sat up to see Clem lift his fallen sword off the leaf-strewn lawn. Westman narrowed his eyes and got to his feet. Fighting a demon with bare hands was never a very good idea – almost as bad as using a plum pudding.

“I’m sorry things have to end this way, Mr Westman,” said Lady Henriette from the path lining the grass. “But I can’t let anyone get in my way.”

Creeping Clem’s tail writhed like a serpent while it approached. Just then, Westman became aware of shouting. It was George – angry and brandishing an iron poker from his grandmother’s fireplace. Blinks and Sophie followed, frantically trying to call him back. Clem continued to circle Westman, slicing the blade through the air with a look of menace.

“Stop playing around and finish your job,” Henriette ordered the demon before pulling Tabitha along the path. The girl resisted, slowing Henriette’s escape.

Clem lunged, sword extended, but Westman dived aside swiftly. With a roar, fire dripped like lava from its jaws, fizzing on the grass. Clem slashed the air again, this time missing Westman’s face by a fingerbreadth.

Damnation.

His heart raced while he ducked and sidestepped, trying not to step in the pools of fire.

“Mr Westman, catch,” yelled George.

Westman chanced a glance at him and deftly caught the fire-poker that came hurtling his way. Without a second thought, he thrust it into the monster. An ugly grimace twisted Creeping Clem’s face, and the sword fell from its grip. With inhuman strength, it grabbed the lapels of Westman’s coat and threw him to the ground.

Westman hit the turf, winded, and tried to catch his breath while the demon stood over him. Its breathing was jagged and features contorted as it yanked the poker out of its abdomen. Black ooze flowed out and hit the grass with a wet slap.

“Well played,” Clem panted and tried to laugh. “But I’m the one still standing.”

 

***

 

Sophie slowed down when she realised it was futile. George was much too fast. He’d outrun both herself and Mr Blinks and she didn’t dare venture any closer. Freddie’s demand that they stay at the house was still fresh in her mind. But at this close distance, she could see him embroiled in a fight with an opponent that didn’t appear to be from this world. Her pulse beat hard in her throat while she watched, helpless.

Stars above. What is that thing?

At that moment, a woman came round the corner of an adjoining path, roughly hauling a child and baby with her. She stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of Sophie.

“ Lady Henriette?” said Sophie with a blink. “What are you -?”

“’Elp us, Miss,” cried Tabitha, struggling.

“Be quiet,” Henriette whispered harshly through yellow teeth. When she stared back at Sophie, her eyes took on a preternatural shine.

Sophie sucked in a startled breath. Lady Henriette didn’t look well. In fact, she didn’t look human.

Sophie clenched her fists. “What’s the meaning of this? Release the children at once.”

“Get out of my way,” said Henriette.

“No.” Sophie strode forward to free the children.

She had barely taken two steps, when Henriette thrust out her hand, fingers curled rigid like claws. A string of foreign words passed her lips and, to Sophie’s disbelief, she felt her throat tighten. She put a hand to her neck and struggled for breath, the airway shrinking smaller and smaller.

“Stop,” she gasped, bending double. “Stop it. Lady Henriette, stop this.”

 

***

 

Despite the demon’s attempt at indifference, Westman could tell it was badly injured. But that made little difference now that he was the one prone on the floor with Creeping Clem poised above him with the fire-poker. With nothing left in his arsenal but the power of magic, he freed the jangling amulets that hung inside his shirt and recited an old incantation. Clem looked down at its wound and the green smoke escaping the puncture mark. A howl of anger split the air.

Westman rolled out of the way and sprang up, reciting the spell with more confidence. The demon slowly deteriorated and toppled over, squirming in a cloud of smoke.

“Sophie!” George shouted.

Westman’s head snapped in their direction and his heart dropped like a lead weight.

Sophie.

She was on her knees, clutching her throat and gasping for air. Westman abandoned the pile of dust and sprinted after his friends. Blinks and George were by her side, trying to help. He urged them back and kneeled next to her, tugging loose the buttons of her high-necked collar. With a look of panic, she shook her head, unable to speak, her lips turning blue. Westman clutched her shoulders.

“Sophie,” he said firmly, trying to hide his fear. She was in such a state of distress that she couldn’t focus on him. “Sophie, look at me and calm down. You must breathe slowly.”

“Sir,” called Blinks, pointing behind them. “It’s witchcraft, sir.”

Westman followed the manservant’s finger and saw Lady Henriette backing up the shadowy pathway with the girls. One hand was outstretched while she muttered a hex.

“I’ll stop her,” declared Blinks. He strode in her direction, but an invisible force rooted him to the spot.

Westman had always avoided falling victim to simple witchcraft by using protection charms. Without a moment to spare, he lifted a talisman over his head. The moment he slipped it around Sophie’s neck, she gasped and dragged in a deep lungful of air.

“Thank God,” he breathed, every muscle in his body aching with relief.

George kneeled to support her and Westman stood, meeting Lady Henriette’s stare across the park. She lowered her hand and began to smile, blood-red rouge rubbed onto her teeth. There was no way to stop her escape now, and she knew it. With effort, Sophie got up and came to his side, her fast breaths forming clouds in the damp air that was rolling in from river.

Beyond their control, Henriette and the girls disappeared into the shadowy mist. The only trace of their escape was the dwindling cry of Felicity, then the rumble of a horse-drawn carriage, until silence descended on the park.

 

***

 

George squeezed the fire-poker in his fist and followed Westman into his grandmother’s drawing room. “We have to go after them,” he declared.

“I know,” replied Westman, rubbing his forehead.

Millicent was waiting for them, holding Jack on a leash. At the sight of the restrained dog, Westman exhaled through his nose.

“Why is Jack wearing a rope?”

“It was the only way to control the hairy beast,” Millicent answered.

“You know he hates that. Remove it at once.”

Sophie sat down. “What are we going to do?”

“Everything we can,” Westman reassured her. “Your grandmother has sent for a police constable, but I can’t see them arresting someone as high-ranking as Lady Henriette on a kidnapping charge. We have no evidence.”

“And they won’t believe a word about spells or witchcraft,” added Blinks. “You know what the police are like, sir. They think it’s all a lot of nonsense.”

“Yes, you’re right.”

“But we know what we’re dealing with and I suggest we act now,” said Millicent, unfastening the rope from Jack’s neck. “Lady Henriette can’t have gone far. She needs all the girls for her planned ritual and the rest are at Crowthorne Towers, caged and under an enchantment.”

Sophie nodded. “Indeed, we saw the birds in the aviary for ourselves. She must have gone back there.”

“Then that’s where I’ll go,” decided Westman.

George gripped the fire-poker with purpose. “I’m coming with you.”

“No,” said Westman. “Lady Henriette is dangerous-”

“I know. That monster of hers would’ve killed you if it wasn’t for my help.”

Westman hesitated, surprised by the boy’s nerve, but aware that he was right. Perhaps he would have found a way to beat Creeping Clem without George’s aid, but he couldn’t deny the truth. George had helped him – just as Tabitha had the first time he’d taken on the demon. But dragging others into danger was not something he consciously did.

Ever since he, Millicent and Jim had parted ways, Westman had resolved to work alone. And until this case, he’d never had a reason to involve anyone else. He’d never had a reason to ask for help. But this evil he now faced was like nothing he’d ever encountered. It had certainly been too powerful for Jim.

“You’d be a fool to go there alone,” Millicent told him.

It was true. But what other choice was there?

“You need a team.” She put the leash on an end-table and spread her hands around their group. “And at such short notice, we will have to do.”

Westman scanned their party, meeting Sophie’s gaze. “Think about what you’re saying,” he advised them all. “Jim was no match for Henriette’s black magic. I confess, even I may not be up to the task.”

Sophie stood and approached him. “Alone, perhaps not.”

She knew his feelings on the matter. He’d been quite clear about things yesterday evening at Crowthorne Towers. But there was fortitude in her face and his objection stalled.

“As Miss Sinclair says,” she continued, “you do not have to go alone. There is strength in numbers. I’ve seen you fight to save others and I would trust you with my life, Mr Westman. But who will defend yours? I’m afraid you’re going to have to put your faith in us.”

Westman peered down at her and swallowed. They looked so determined.

“I’m with you, sir.” Blinks bobbed his head. “You know I’ll always fight beside you. Now, shall we go and get the young ladies and Mr Penderry?”

Westman accepted that there was no deterring them. After all, they were perfectly entitled to make their own choices. If loyalty to family and friends was the choice, who was he to deny them? And if Sophie wanted his trust, he would have to give it.

“Very well,” he murmured then cleared his throat. “We’ll need to take precautions against her witchcraft. Sophie, keep the talisman. The rest of you-”

“I am protected,” Millicent assured him and placed a hand over her heart.

Westman nodded. “Fine. Blinks, George, take one of these.” He handed them each a protective amulet from his bundle.

“What about weapons, sir?” Blinks asked.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, but bring everything just in case.”

Blinks gave a nod and went to prepare the equipment and the carriage. When they left the house, Westman stopped Sophie by the door.

“Sophie, if anything should happen… Jim would…”

She looked up at him, resolute, but then softened and smiled. “Don’t worry. We won’t let you down. Besides, bluestockings are tougher than you think.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.” All trace of humour evaporated from her face. “After everything she’s put my family through, Henriette won’t get away with this. We’ll see her stopped one way or another.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

Swords sheathed at their sides, Westman and his team marched to the front door of Crowthorne Towers and banged the iron knocker. Night had fallen, but lights burned brightly in several windows. Movement caught his eye and Westman looked to the side. Sitting on the short pillar beside the door was a brown mouse, cleaning its face with its paws.

“I swear it’s that same mouse again,” he muttered.

“What’s that, sir?” Blinks glanced around them.

The mouse stopped washing and scurried away through a gap in the masonry.

“Never mind.” Westman turned back to the door when it opened.

The butler appeared. “Are you expected, sir?”

“I should say so,” Westman replied and forced the door wide.

The butler’s protest died as they filed in after Westman. Blinks tapped the handle of his sword threateningly while Jack growled low in his throat. Millicent and Sophie strode in, armed with blades, and George followed last, arms folded and a scowl like thunder darkening his face.

Lord Crowthorne emerged at the head of the staircase and a delighted smile stretched his lips. He descended the steps to greet them.

“Miss Penderry, what a pleasant surprise,” he gushed and boldly swept up her hand. His mouth barely brushed her glove before Westman seized him by the shirt-front.

“Don’t touch her,” he warned the lord and shoved him up against the banister, crushing his neatly tied cravat in the process. With a backward glance, Westman caught the butler sneaking out of the hallway to raise the alarm. “Blinks, subdue that man.”

Quick off the mark, Blinks tackled the butler from behind and put a cloth over the man’s face. “Don’t worry, it’s just a bit of chloroform,” he told him, grunting when the other servant struggled. “Won’t hurt. You might wake up with a stinking headache, though.”

The fumes took hold and the butler slumped against Blinks, unconscious.

“George, help tie him up,” Westman instructed.

Wide-eyed, Crowthorne looked at the group and their weapons. “Is this a robbery?”

“Hm, so that’s how you want to do this, is it?” Westman narrowed his eyes. “Let’s not pretend, Crowthorne. You’re in on your sister’s plot. Now, where is she hiding?”

“Henriette?”

“You’d best tell us, your lordship,” Blinks added, leaving George to finish binding up the butler. “I never did like spilling blood in front of ladies.”

Crowthorne tensed in Westman’s grip and recoiled further against the wooden stair rail. “What’s this all about? What do you want with Henriette?”

Westman grew impatient with Crowthorne’s pretence and thrust out a hand. “Blinks, rope.”

“Aye, sir.” Blinks handed him a coil and Westman tied Crowthorne to the Banister.

“You don’t have to tell us,” Westman said, tugging the knots painfully tight. “We can just search the house. Every square inch. And believe me, we’ll tear this place apart to find her.”

“And when we do find her ladyship,” said Blinks, drawing his glinting blade, “we won’t be sitting down for tea and cakes.”

Westman fixed the lord with a hard stare. “I suggest you drop this charade and tell us where she is.”

Crowthorne’s chest rose and fell nervously. “Well, Mr Westman, I can say with certainty that I’m crossing you off the Christmas ball guest list. This is outrageous.”

“Come on.” Westman signalled the others and started for the nearest room. “Ransack the place from top to bottom. Blinks, take Jack and Millicent to check the aviary. Sophie and George, with me. If Lady Henriette resists do whatever is necessary.”

“Wait!” Crowthorne called out, making Westman pause. He sagged against the banister, his hair falling in front of his face. When he finally found the will to look at them again, it was with a defeated plea. “I’ll tell you. Just… please… don’t hurt my sister.”

Westman waited. “Well?”

“It’s not her fault,” he said. “It was never supposed to be this way. She can’t help it. You must understand, Henriette is not herself.”

Westman approached him gravely. “Your sister is practising witchcraft and intends to kill five innocent girls. Now, tell us where she is before it’s too late.”

Crowthorne exhaled. “Henriette is dying, Mr Westman. She’s dying and she’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

“Possessed?” exclaimed Sophie in disbelief.

“She’s been unwell for quite some time,” he explained. “It’s her lungs. We called upon the best doctors in the country, but it was hopeless. Every treatment failed. She was growing so weak, we didn’t know where to turn – until a spirit came through during a séance. She said she could heal Henriette.”

“What spirit?”

Crowthorne wet his dry lips. “She called herself Mary Wilson. I had no idea at first what she was or what she intended to do. By the time I found out, she’d become too powerful to stop. She’s evil. And she’s using my sister to carry out a ritual that doesn’t bear contemplating.”

“What does she want?” Westman asked urgently.

“My sister will be healed as Mary promised. But Henriette will be gone forever. Mary Wilson will live again in her body.”

That is not going to happen,” Westman assured him.

“I’ve tried to end this madness,” said Crowthorne, “but you have no idea what that witch is capable of.”

“I have a fair idea.” The injury under his ribs still ached in reminder. “I’m sorry to learn of your sister’s condition, but she has to be stopped. No one is going to be sacrificed. If we can save Henriette we will, but this must end. Blinks, I need my things.”

A moment later, Westman’s bag dropped to the polished foyer floor with a thud and he kneeled, opening it. He took out a tattered old book and turned it in his hands, revealing an ancient symbol on the cover.

“If Crowthorne is right and his sister is indeed possessed, we have to find her and exorcise the spirit.”

“How do we do that?” asked Sophie.

“Incantation, spiritual mediation. The talismans I gave you all will protect you from basic negative energy – psychic attack and hexes, that sort of thing. They also strengthen the link to a preternatural force that we can use.”

Millicent glanced around their circle. “It’s the world alongside us that we rarely see,” she explained. “We’re surrounded by the pure light of the spiritual realm. It’s always there to assist us. Any one of us can summon the power to force Mary Wilson’s spirit from Lady Henriette’s body.”

Sophie nodded in understanding. “But how do we summon the power? What do we say?”

“There are traditional scriptures and spells, depending on the circumstance,” replied Westman, opening a bookmarked page. “This incantation will invoke an envoy to escort Mary’s soul out of our world. Remember these words. Angeli boni salvate hanc animam.”

“Sounds simple enough,” said George after repeating the sentence.

“I doubt it will be easy,” replied Westman. “Mad Mary is an old spirit and empowered by dark witchcraft. She’ll fight back and we’ll need to get close to Henriette to force the demon out. But white magic is a powerful thing.”

Still bound to the stairs, Crowthorne nodded somberly. “She’s under the house. It used to be a prison down there, centuries ago, with one of those ghastly oubliettes.”

“A what?” George asked with a frown.

“A deep, dank pit in the ground where the worst offenders were thrown and left to die,” Crowthorne explained. “I said this house was haunted by tormented souls. It’s used as a wine cellar now, but I don’t go down there unless I have to. The entrance is through the kitchen. I can show you-”

You can stay here,” Westman told him, standing. “We’ll find the kitchen ourselves.”

“Miss Penderry,” Crowthorne called before they left.

Westman held back, just within earshot, and waited for her.

“I’m truly sorry,” the lord told her. “Your brother was a good man.”

Sophie froze, the colour draining from her face and she stared at him for several long seconds. “Do you mean…?”

Crowthorne nodded ruefully.

Was?

Was a good man?

Westman felt sick.

Sophie pivoted and marched after the others, avoiding Westman’s concerned gaze when she passed him.

“I’m sorry,” Crowthorne called again.

Grief hung heavily in Westman’s chest. After everything they had endured, it had all been for nothing. But he knew better than to let sorrow cloud his judgement. There were still the girls to rescue so he focused on the task ahead and proceeded to the cellar. They left Crowthorne bound and slumped against the wooden rail.

“Miss Sinclair,” said Sophie, matching the other woman’s brisk strides along the hallway. Her voice threatened to crack with the emotion she was holding back. “You told me Jim was alive.”

Millicent’s pace slowed and she looked at her. “Yes. That is the impression I received.”

“Well, you were wrong.”

A crease formed between Millicent’s fair eyebrows and Sophie swallowed hard before pushing on in front.

“I’m never wrong,” she replied, but Westman detected uncertainty in her voice.

They reached the kitchen, startling the cook and a pair of servants. The staff stood back at the sight of their weapons and let them pass without a word. At the cellar door, Westman stopped and turned to his team.

“Remember the spell. And stay together.” He opened the door and peered into the draughty depths. The way was lit by torches and a warm current stirred up the steps, accompanied by the distant smell of fire. “Follow me.”

They made the descent, arriving at the bottom to find a large, gloomy room lined with racks of wine bottles, crates and empty pallets. A narrow passageway in the far wall appeared to lead further beneath the building.

“Is any of this familiar?” he asked Millicent about her vision.

She looked around thoughtfully and paced beside a shelf of wine. “No, but we’re close. The atmosphere is so oppressive down here.”

Blinks was also drawn to the wine racks, but for a different reason. “Blimey. These look old,” he remarked, admiring the rows of fine wine. Picking up a bottle, he wiped off a thick layer of dust and read the label. He followed with a low whistle which irritated Millicent.

“Would you please not make that sound,” she snapped. “I am trying to concentrate.”

“Sorry, Miss, but Lord Crowthorne’s reserve is mighty impressive.”

“I couldn’t give a lick about Lord Crowthorne or his wine. And I suggest you put that bottle down before you break it.”

“I’m only looking at it, your ladyship,” said Blinks, his voice edged with defiance. He shoved the bottle back into the rack.

“For heaven’s sake,” whispered Westman. “Be quiet both of you and follow me.”

He entered the long, unwelcoming passage in the wall with Sophie and George, glancing back to catch Millicent and Blinks collide when they entered the narrow entrance at once.

“Ladies first, of course,” Blinks murmured and bowed with a hand flourish.

Millicent made a sound of disgust and unsheathed her sword before marching fearlessly into the tunnel. The passage soon spilled out into a huge cavity where the walls and ceiling were crude, bare rock. Ducking back into the shadowy cover of the tunnel, Westman raised a finger to his lips and the others gathered close. More torches burned around the room, sending shadows dancing across the floor. Iron rings and chains hung from the walls and ceiling of what had once been a place of imprisonment. And in the centre of the dungeon was the oubliette, choking out smoke like a chimney while a fire blazed in the bottom of the pit.

Through the hazy firelight, Westman could see the abducted girls, no longer under the guise of birds. Their hands were bound with ropes fastened to rings set into the floor. The baby, Felicity, was held in a crate-like cage, but there was no sign of Lady Henriette.

“This is my vision,” whispered Millicent, peering through the opening.

Westman scanned the dungeon, formulating a plan. Should they move now, leaving their hiding place and storm the dungeon to free the girls? Perhaps Henriette was waiting for them to do just that.

“What shall we do?” asked Sophie.

“The witch isn’t here,” whispered George. “Let’s get Felicity and the others now.”

Westman raised a hand. “We need to be vigilant. It could be a trap.”

A wine bottle thudded and rolled passed his feet.

Millicent swung around and whispered sternly at the servant. “What are you doing? Stealing wine?”

“It wasn’t me. I’m not a thief,” Blinks retorted.

Sophie pulled George to her side protectively and Westman looked round at the sound of another bottle rolling up the passageway from the wine store. The sudden clink and rattle of dozens more bottles filled the tunnel, rolling past their feet and into the dungeon. Westman reached for the pistol in his belt, adrenalin flooding his body. In front of their eyes, wine bottles flew up into the air, clashing together like they were magnetised. Piece by piece, the bottles climbed and fused, taking on an unmistakable form. Heart thumping, Westman stared up into the jaws of a glass abomination.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

A resounding scrape of steel sounded around him as the others snatched out their blades.

“What’s the plan, sir?” asked Blinks.

“We’re not leaving without the girls,” Westman replied, holding his ground. No amount of talismans were going to stop a collision with a walking collection of bottles, but they couldn’t turn back now. “Wait here. Blinks, with me on my signal. Now!”

They raced into the dungeon just before the supernatural monstrosity brought its fist to the ground. Bottles exploded behind them on impact, sending a shower of wine and glass shards in every direction. Master and servant narrowly escaped the monster when it lifted its shattered paw and swiped the air. Wine dripped from the sharp and jagged limb as it lumbered after them.

Jack’s barks rang around the prison walls while the monster charged, swinging its bottle-heavy arms. A ruby-coloured trail splattered their clothes as they darted back and forth to evade its punches. The young women imprisoned around the oubliette cried out in terror at the sight.

“Draw it away. I’ll help the girls,” shouted Westman. He dove behind a stack of oak barrels as the monster slammed its other hand into the wall. Glass rained down, tiny fragments landing in his hair and coat, then he stared up at a metal cage dangling from the ceiling. The monster was standing directly beneath it.

Perfect.

He pulled the pistol from his belt, gaze travelling the length of rope that kept the cage suspended, and he took aim. The old flintlock pistol had only one shot, and he couldn’t afford to miss. With the gun trained on the rope, Westman carefully squeezed the trigger, and the shot rang out in a burst of gunpowder smoke. The bullet struck the target, singeing the rope, but it was only grazed. The cage swung a little, stubbornly refusing to fall.

Westman muttered in frustration and tossed the spent gun away. Millicent, Sophie and George unexpectedly landed in a tumble beside him. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“We’ll distract it,” Millicent replied. “At this rate, that thing will smash itself to pieces.”

“I’m counting on it.” Westman, peered over the keg. “These barrels won’t offer any cover. Go. Quickly.”

They abandoned their position and Millicent dropped to the floor to avoid the arm that suddenly veered past her head. Blinks ran behind the monster’s back and attacked with his sword, steel striking glass with a smash, but he hardly made a dent in the brute. It swung around in their direction and Sophie swiftly helped Millicent to her feet.

“Keep it distracted,” Westman said, doubling back to the barrels.

The pile of kegs rolled, knocked over by the hulking fiend.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” George asked, sticking by his side. The boy’s grin stretched in an impertinent way that reminded Westman every bit of Jim.

It was a fleeting vision and Westman smirked back. “Would you care for a game of skittles?”

They clutched an empty barrel each and positioned the heavy containers in line with their target. With a hard kick, the kegs went rumbling across the dungeon, gaining speed until they smashed through the legs of the monster. Blinks leaped out of the barrel’s path as glass flew and wine washed across the floor. The thing collapsed, several feet shorter than before, but not defeated. It leaned on its broken wrists and made a clumsy charge, hobbling on its stumpy limbs.

“That should slow it down,” Westman said and turned to George. “With me. Come on.”

Together they picked their way through shards of glass towards the captive girls.

 

***

 

With a fierce cry, Sophie hurled a piece of wood at the monster, distracting it long enough for Mr Blinks to get out of harm’s way. Their plan to lure the monster in circles seemed to be working quite effectively, but they were all beginning to run out of steam. Millicent rolled another barrel at the monstrosity while Sophie leaned on her sword to regain her breath.

She hung back out of the monster’s reach, and movement in the shadowy passage caught her eye. A figure turned and ran into the tunnel; a blur of red hair and crimson skirts.

Sophie’s heart lurched.

It was her, it had to be; Lady Henriette, or Mad Mary; whichever was in control. Without a moment to lose, she dashed into the dark passageway after the figure.

 

***

 

Westman and George ran through the acrid smoke that threatened to choke them, reaching the pleas for help. Heat wafted from the burning pit and they crouched beside the crate where Felicity was held. Tears streamed down the baby’s red cheeks while she cried with all her might.

“It’s all right, Felicity,” said George, trying to comfort her.

Westman grit his teeth and wrenched at the cage door. With a splintering crack, the catch gave way and he reached inside, lifting the child out and into George’s arms.

“Get her out of here,” he told the boy. “Don’t look back – just get her to safety. I’ll release the others.”

George nodded, determination hardening his young eyes. “All right, Mr Westman. Good luck.”

“Jack, go with him,” Westman commanded. “Protect them.”

The dog tilted his head, comprehension in his intelligent stare, then he turned and ran by George’s side. Westman began the task of freeing the other young women.

 

***

 

Sophie moved through the gloomy passage, the noises from the dungeon fading when she reached the wine reserve. Around her, the stillness grew thick and she braced herself for any sudden movement.

She has to be here somewhere.

Heart beating hard in her chest, she readjusted her grip on the sword handle, palms sweating. Just then, rapid footsteps echoed up the stone steps and she broke into a run, following the sound. The flickering torches lit the way to the kitchen, and she burst from the cellar, catching a glimpse of crimson flying out through the doorway. Footfalls in the hallway betrayed the figure’s escape route and Sophie steeled herself before giving chase once more.

Her boot heels beat against the waxed floorboards, skirts thrashing around her shins, until she slowed to round a corner, ready to confront the figure. But the corridor was empty. Silence crept over her and she turned around, coming face to face with Lord Crowthorne. A gasp caught in her throat and she raised her sword in defence.

Crowthorne threw his hands up in surrender. “No, no. Miss Penderry. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“How did you escape?”

“A servant untied me. Listen, you must believe me. I only want to help,” he said, looking towards a set of doors. “I saw Henriette come this way.”

A ladylike laugh echoed from the nearby room, chilling the blood in Sophie’s veins. She had the distinct impression that Mad Mary was toying with her. Undeterred, she ignored Crowthorne and trailed the laugh to the ballroom.

“Mary Wilson?” she called out cautiously.

Lady Henriette stood unmoving at the back of the room on the orchestra stage, her body half in shadow.

“Did you know your ancestors were tyrants, Lord Crowthorne?” Henriette asked, fixing her gaze on the nobleman who stood in the doorway. “That was a long time ago, of course, when I was incarcerated in the prison here… Before they turned me over to witch hunters in the North Country to stand trial.”

“Henriette…” Crowthorne replied, his gaze beseeching.

“That is not your sister,” Sophie reminded him. It looked like Henriette, and sounded like her to some extent, but the witch, Mary Wilson, had finally revealed herself.

“You don’t know how cruel those hunters were,” Mary continued. “The tortures they carried out to make women talk. Even the innocent confessed to witchcraft just to make the unbearable suffering and pain stop.”

Sophie pointed her sword in warning at the woman and stepped towards her. “It’s time for you to move on now, Mary. You had your chance at life. Now it’s over.”

Mary’s gaze held a sour glint as it narrowed. “It will never be over; not for me. I want my life back; the life they stole. You may take my girls and try to hide them, but it matters not. I will find them again. You cannot hide them forever.”

She took a step forward and Sophie drew a fortifying breath. “But you don’t have forever. Henriette is dying. Leave her body or-”

“Or what?” asked Mary, her top lip peeling back as she smiled at the sword. “What do you plan to do with that weapon? Kill Henriette? I’ll just find another willing host. You, perhaps. I’m sure I can persuade you to let me in. Everyone has their price. What’s yours? Henriette just wanted to live.”

Sophie sheathed the blade at her side and curled her fingers around the talisman at her neck.

“I don’t need to harm Henriette,” she told her. “There are other ways to make you leave.”

“Troublesome child,” snapped Mary. “If only my creatures had killed you in the library when they had the chance.”

“Enough,” Crowthorne shouted, moving towards Mary. “This has gone on far too long. Get out of my sister’s body!”

Mr Westman had prepared them all for this moment. Sophie knew what had to be done and began the incantation. “Angeli boni-”

“No!” Mary yelled.

In a flash, the witch bolted across the platform and flung the terrace doors open. Sophie pursued her into the gardens, gravel crunching beneath their shoes. The pathway was familiar, and she recognised the summerhouse ahead. A full moon flooded the estate, lighting the way. From behind, Lord Crowthorne ran after them, calling to his sister.

“Henriette, I know you can hear me. Fight her. You have to try.”

Mary paused long enough to turn and thrust out a hand. Sorcerous words hissed from her lips and Crowthorne flew backwards at an alarming rate. He let out a surprised cry before plunging into a nearby ornamental fountain with a splash. This was the first real test of the protective talisman Mr Westman had given her, and thankfully it worked. Untouched by the spell, Sophie took advantage of Mary’s pause and covered the distance between them. The witch spun on her heel and sprang forward, but Sophie stretched out a hand, fingers grazing Mary’s back.

By the time they reached the summerhouse, Sophie seized a fistful of the other woman’s gown, dragging her to a stop.

“Angeli boni salvate hanc animam,” Sophie chanted.

Mary staggered around, facing her with fury. “You will wish you had never interfered.”

 

***

 

Westman sawed through the ropes with a knife, releasing the girls one by one. Behind him, his friends continued to fight off the glass giant, although actual fighting had given way to evading the swings and punches.

“Millicent! Blinks!” he called, loosening the ropes around the second young woman’s hands. The girl trembled and rubbed her sore wrists, thanking him.

Millicent crept over to him while Blinks had the monster’s attention. “I’m not sure we can hold that thing off for much longer.”

“You won’t have to,” he replied. “Take the girls and show them the way out.”

She nodded and urged the young women to follow her. “This way, ladies.”

Westman moved around the oubliette to free the last girl, Tabitha, then realised that he couldn’t see Sophie anywhere. Had she followed Millicent?

The moment the rope fell to the ground, the young seamstress threw her arms around his neck. “Oh, lawks. Thank you, Mr Westman.”

His concerned gaze returned to his servant and the monster. “Blinks,” he yelled and the servant looked in his direction. “It’s time to go. Quickly, man. Come on.”

Blinks dashed over, out of breath. “Sir, I don’t know where she is.”

Dread crept under his skin. “Who?”

“Miss Penderry. She was here one minute, gone the next.”

Damnation. That woman. He knew it!

“Take Tabitha to safety.” Westman stood up, urging her towards Blinks who took her hand. “I’ll be right behind you.”

With a nod, Blinks led Tabitha into the tunnel while Westman held back, scanning the dungeon. He couldn’t leave without Sophie. What if she was injured? His gaze settled on the overturned crates and barrels in the far corner. It was an ideal place to crawl for cover if she had been wounded.

“Sophie?” he shouted. But his voice drew the attention of the glass monstrosity that continued to prowl the dungeon.

It charged, and Westman abandoned the plan to search behind the barrels. It was too late. The stampeding glass wreck was almost upon him, anticipating every route he might take to escape. There was little time to think or react. Westman glanced over his shoulder at the blazing pit in the floor.

The monster hurtled closer, clinking and clashing, and at the last possible moment, Westman turned and launched himself over the inferno. With barely a chance to gauge the distance, he hoped to the heavens that he hadn’t just committed himself to a fiery death. Behind him, the monster lost its balance and toppled into the hole. Glass and alcohol smashed into the fire, raising giant tongues of flame.

For a few weightless seconds, Westman fell through the air, then his palms and chest slapped painfully against the stone floor. Relief was short-lived, however, when he felt himself slipping uncontrollably over the side of the oubliette. His hands scraped and scrabbled across the rough floor until he found purchase on the lip. He grabbed on, feet dangling above the blazing fire.

“Damnation,” he wheezed in shock, and tried to escape the blaze, but his shoes slipped against the stone.

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

Sophie caught Mary by the wrists and fought desperately to hold her back. The witch’s dark strength channelled into Henriette’s frail body, making it almost impossible to keep her at bay. Mary grit her stained teeth, growling, and pressed her fingers – rigidly curved like claws – closer and closer to Sophie’s face.

“Angeli boni salvate hanc animam.” Sophie forced the words out, appealing to the angelic envoys Mr Westman had spoken about. She recalled the powerful white light she had seen in the library, and continued to call out the incantation. “Angeli boni salvate hanc animam.”

Mary’s hands shook with force and she won the battle, slamming her hands over Sophie’s mouth. With a muffled protest, Sophie reached for the talisman and pressed it to the exposed skin of Mary’s wrist. She hoped the contact would do something; weaken her perhaps; anything! Skin began to sizzle, giving rise to smoke and the smell of burning flesh, and Mary screamed, loosening her hold.

Sophie shoved the witch away and kicked her into the bushes, catching her breath when Mary fell hard against the base of a statue, hitting her head. With a groan, the witch turned slowly onto her back, but before she could recover, Sophie slipped off her talisman and rushed over to kneel next to her. She forced the pendant over Mary’s head and recited the spell again. Instantly, Mary’s eyes flew wide and she clawed at the talisman pressed to her body. To Sophie’s astonishment, light from the pendant began to seep between her fingers.

She chanted louder, emboldened by the glowing talisman. It was working, just as Mr Westman had said. Mary screamed and twisted her face away from the light. The power emanating from the amulet intensified and illuminated the garden around them as brightly as daylight. Sophie knelt on the witch to stop her struggles. With every utterance of the spell, Mary grew weaker.

“Angeli boni salvate hanc animam.”

Finally, in a shaft of misty light, the envoys pulled Mary’s spirit out of her host and dragged her into the white radiance. The body beneath her went slack and still. Then the light receded and the familiar moonlight coated the garden once more.

Heart still racing, Sophie peered cautiously at the young woman in front of her. Her eyes were closed, but her deathly complexion looked warmer, at least.

“Lady Henriette,” she said, gently shaking her shoulder. “Can you hear me?”

A small crease formed between Henriette’s eyebrows and she moaned quietly. When she opened her eyes and blinked groggily up at her, Sophie knew it was over.

“What happened?” asked Henriette.

A relieved smile tugged up Sophie’s lips. “It’s all right. She’s gone… she’s gone.”

Sophie stood shakily and turned when Lord Crowthorne spoke behind her.

“Thank goodness,” he said. His wet clothing dripped after his tumble into the fountain. But Sophie’s attention was drawn to the figures accompanying him. There were five of them. Masked figures, wearing scarves or handkerchiefs to hide their lower faces. Archaic pendants hung around their necks, glinting in the dark, and they were armed with guns and daggers. It dawned on her that two of them held Crowthorne’s arms behind his back, restraining him.

Sophie stared, a fresh chill creeping over her skin. Who on earth were these cloaked militants? One of the men strode past her and kneeled beside Lady Henriette. Taking her chin in his hand, he tilted her head back to peer into the eyes.

“She’s released,” he reported to his accomplices then glanced at Sophie. “This young woman expelled the spirit.”

Another member of the group approached her, his eyes visible and shining above the scarf. “Nicely done, Miss Penderry.”

“Who are you?”

The man at Henriette’s side called over before his associate could reply. “The exorcism lifted Mary’s spells. Look at this.”

Brows knitting together, Sophie turned and froze, her eyes widening in disbelief. The statue in front of the summerhouse shimmered in the night, glowing with an eerie iridescence that gave way to cloth and flesh. With a thud, the spectral form dropped face down in the dusty gravel.

 

***

 

Westman clung hopelessly to the edge of the oubliette. The much needed blood to his muscles had drained downward, leaving his arms and fingers screaming with the pain of hanging on for so long. Clouds of hazy heat billowed around him, burning his throat and lungs, and a trickle of sweat rolled down his temple.

“Blinks,” he croaked, releasing one hand to ease the pain. He shook his arm by his side, trying to regain the feeling. “I could use a little help right now!”

The soles of his shoes slid once more on the smooth stone, unable to gain a purchase. Nobody was coming, he realised. Calling for help wasn’t doing an ounce of good. And to make matters worse, he felt his grip sliding against the stone floor, but he was too exhausted to reach back up with his limp arm. Inch by inch, he was slipping toward a fiery finish.

With one last effort, he swung his other arm up, but missed the ledge and the ground disappeared from beneath his hand. He sucked in a shocked breath, falling, and the sickening punch of alarm slammed into the depths of his stomach. His luck had finally run out.

Oddly, it wasn’t a lifetime of memories that passed before his eyes as he fell to his death, but sorrow over a single missed opportunity. A man shouldn’t die with regrets, he reflected. But it was too late now. Sophie was his final thought.

From out of the air, a hand suddenly shot forth and grabbed his wrist.

“Hold on!” a voice instructed.

Westman’s head snapped up and he peered in astonishment at the familiar figure above him.

The strain showed in Jim Penderry’s face as he clenched his jaw and dragged him out of the pit. Westman struggled the rest of the way out and rolled onto his back, thankful for the cool air outside the oubliette. He lay there for a long moment, breathing the smokeless air, then recovered enough of his senses to realise he was surrounded.

Jim offered him his hand and tugged him to his feet. Sophie’s brother was flanked by Lord Crowthorne, Blinks, Sophie and a quartet of outlandish-looking individuals; each masked behind hats and scarves, and equipped with all manner of weaponry to battle the supernatural.

“Jim,” said Westman, blinking in confusion. “You’re all right? Thank God… How did you… what are you doing here?”

“I’m a bit confused myself,” he admitted and scratched the back of his curly, blonde head.

“What happened to you?” Westman asked, taking in Jim’s neatly tailored evening wear and white bow tie. “We’ve been to hell and back looking for you. And who are these people?” He thrust an aching finger at the shifty strangers.

Jim’s eyes sobered and he glanced briefly over his shoulder.

One of the men stepped forward. “I’m McKusky. We’re from The Shadow Assembly, Mr Westman. I believe you’ve heard of us.”

“The London Shadows,” he murmured.

“I should thank you for your assistance in procuring a confession from Lord Crowthorne.”

Westman frowned. “How do you know about that?”

“We’ve been watching you for a while now.” He indicated to one of the group who was holding a caged brown mouse. “Didius has been our eyes.”

Westman recognised the creature instantly. “You’ve been spying on me?” he exclaimed.

“For your own protection, Mr Westman, and in the hope of gathering evidence against the perpetrator. It paid off, too. As soon as we heard the truth from Crowthorne’s mouth we mobilised at once.”

“Well, that makes it perfectly acceptable then,” he growled sarcastically. “Where’s Lady Henriette?”

“We have her. Mr Penderry’s sister managed to exorcise the spirit from the young woman. It should be all over now.” McKusky glanced around the dungeon. “God, this is a bloody mess and a half. I’m glad I’m not the one who has to clean it up.” He picked up a piece of bottle and regarded the label. “Hm. Good year as well. Pity about that. Well, let’s not hang around down here. Bring his lordship for questioning.”

The Shadow Assembly turned at McKusky’s instruction, two men grabbing Crowthorne by the arms.

The nobleman resisted and wrenched his arms free. “How dare you treat me like this; like a common criminal off the street? I’m not to blame for any of this. Do you have any idea what I’ve been through? Look at what these ruffians have done to my home.” He pointed at Westman and the broken bottles. “A fortune in wine. Irreplaceable. Who is going to pay for this? That is what I would like to know.”

“This ain’t our fault,” said Blinks in protest.

Crowthorne backed away from his captors when they attempted to escort him out once more. “No. Don’t touch me. I am perfectly capable of walking without your assistance. Lord knows I’ve been through enough without being pushed and shoved in my own home. I’ve been assaulted by this man,” he declared, aiming a finger at Westman. “Tied up and threatened.”

Jim glanced at Westman and cocked an eyebrow in surprise.

Westman shrugged.

“There’s a history of weak hearts in my family,” Crowthorne continued, growing more indignant. “My father and my grandfather were both struck dead by heart failure. To put it plainly, I cannot endure anymore trauma. I demand some courtesy, do you understand me?”

Nobody expected the sudden snapping of a singed rope, or the crash of a metal cage hitting the floor mere feet behind Lord Crowthorne, least of all the nobleman himself.

Crowthorne clapped a hand to his chest and staggered away from the mangled pile of metal, sucking in several deep breaths.

McKusky seized him by the arm and dragged him towards the tunnel. “Come on.”

Clearly, he wasn’t going to offer the lord any sympathy. The Shadow Assembly followed him out, weapons jangling about their persons, and boots crunching in the glass. Westman and Jim regarded each other for a long awkward moment. Two years had passed since their quarrel and Westman wasn’t sure where they stood.

“Henriette trapped me in a statue,” said Jim, breaking the quiet.

Millicent had been right, then. She’d seen Jim imprisoned within stone walls. He shook his head with incredulity. “I suppose the exorcism broke Mad Mary’s enchantment.”

“It seems that way. Mad Mary, indeed.”

Westman exhaled, grateful that his old friend appeared unharmed. “I’m glad you’re all right.”

“Are you?” Jim wasn’t convinced.

“Of course,” he affirmed, weary of past differences.

Jim turned to his sister. “Sophie. I declare that you are my favourite person in the world. I’m not sure where you learned how to perform an exorcism, but I can’t complain. You saved my skin.”

“Why, it was Freddie,” she said happily. “He taught me.”

Westman’s back stiffened. His involvement with Sophie and George went implicitly against Jim’s wishes.

Jim glanced at Westman suspiciously. “Did he, indeed? What else has Freddie taught you?”

Westman rolled his eyes and folded his arms. Surely by now, after all this time, Jim would consider a fresh start between them?

Sophie shrugged. “That there’s a whole new world to explore.”

“I was afraid you’d say that. Did I mention I was a statue?” he went on, fair brows raised innocently. “A Greek statue,” he elaborated, striking a ridiculous pose. “Out in Crowthorne’s garden. You know the spot, next to the summerhouse.”

Sophie looked appalled at the idea and took his arm comfortingly. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Oh, Jim, you poor thing.”

Unlike Sophie, Westman caught his meaning and his mouth opened like a fish. A blush heated his face and he uncrossed his arms, mortified. The idea of Jim witnessing his conversation in the garden with Sophie was too embarrassing to contemplate. Not to mention the fact she had ended up in his arms that night. Twice.

“I know. It was awful,” Jim lamented.

Sophie offered an expression of sympathy. “Thank goodness the ordeal is over.”

Jim smiled weakly. “It wasn’t all bad. Being a statue afforded me plenty of time to contemplate things, you know? Like replacing the leaky kettle in the kitchen – The maid is always complaining about that – and which colour waistcoat to buy next – the blue or the russet – oh, and the meaning of life, and all that.”

“All vitally important considerations, I’m sure,” agreed Westman.

Hesitantly, he extended his hand to Jim and waited, hoping he would accept the handshake. “Thank you for pulling me out of the pit.”

Jim Penderry had saved his life, there was no doubt about that.

He looked at Westman’s hand for a moment, then clasped it and shook it firmly. “Well, I couldn’t very well let you fall to your death, could I? I’m sure you still owe me a shilling.”

Sophie urged them both to follow her. “I think you two have much to talk about, but can we please get out of this horrible place?”

“You’ll hear no objection from me,” said Westman, following her.

The three of them passed Blinks at the tunnel entrance. He was surveying the dungeon sadly.

“What a senseless waste of wine,” said the servant.

Westman clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on.”

Blinks turned, spotted an undamaged bottle on the floor, and picked it up with a grin. “I found a survivor.”

“Lord Crowthorne will be pleased,” Westman replied over his shoulder.

Blinks’ smile fell. “Oh, but, Mr Westman, sir,” he whined.

Westman wasn’t without compassion for his longsuffering servant, but he drew the line at pinching another man’s wine. “Put the bottle back, Blinks.”

Blinks took one last look at the unattainable prize and slipped it into the nearest wine rack. “Cats and dogs.” He sighed and trudged after his master.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

 

Two weeks later

Jermyn Street, Westminster

 

“Listen, Jim, it’s been a long time. I don’t know why things ended the way they did, but-”

Jim’s tone hardened. “Oh, really? After all this time, you still don’t understand?”

“Understand what?”

“You stole Millicent from me, man.”

Westman blinked, stunned by the accusation. It was the most absurd thing he’d ever heard. “What?”

“I never had her heart. Not completely.”

“Are you addled in the head? Millicent loves me about as much as she loves the small pox. You idiot.” Westman clenched his fists in frustration. “Do you really mean to tell me that you cut me off for two years because of a woman? Millicent was all set to marry you. She waited all day at the chapel for you.”

“Of course she would have gone through with it. She’s too good to go back on her word.” He didn’t need to say what he was thinking. His expression alone said, ‘Unlike me’. “Don’t you see? I couldn’t go ahead and marry her, not when I doubted her love.”

“Madness.”

“We worked closely, the three of us. There were times when she looked at you… Well, the evidence was there.”

“In your imagination perhaps,” he retorted, but then sympathy for his friend surfaced. “Millicent loved you. Only you.”

Jim was silent for a long moment, absorbing his words. “Well, I know that now. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Still,” his mood lightened, “I’m over her now. It was a long time ago, as you said.”

Westman stared at him, amazed by his fickleness. Resentment was swept away like an oppressive curtain. But then, being unpredictable had always been Jim’s nature. He watched him adjust the trophy on the wall above the library fireplace and folded his arms.

“There,” said Jim, stepping back to join him. He set his hands on his waist and admired his achievement. “Stunning. I knew it would fit perfectly in here. Look, Freddie. I’m sorry, truly I am. What are your thoughts on second chances?”

“I’m open minded. But Millicent is the one you should be apologising to.”

“You’re right, and I shall apologise to her. Can we put this behind us?”

“Nothing would please me more.” Westman agreed, then he stared at the mounted wolf head on the wall and wrinkled his nose. “I hope you aren’t planning to entertain female company in here. That thing will put them in a dead faint.”

“Nonsense. Besides, I never entertain ladies in the library. What a suggestion.” Jim grinned and picked up a pile of letters from the desk. “Look at this. I’m away for a couple weeks and every leech in London is claiming I owe them money. And someone’s been drinking my brandy.” He shot a look at the decanter on the sideboard. “Barely a drop left. Blasted servants. While the master’s away, eh? And one of them broke a vase.”

Westman took a seat. “Was it expensive?”

“Worthless. No, wait. Or was it priceless? I don’t recall.”

“How is your ward?”

“Felicity? It was a temporary arrangement. I was asked to keep her hidden. And now the danger has passed, the Shadow Assembly have taken her back.”

“What will become of her?”

“She’ll be provided for. They’ll find her a good family. I’m the worst sort of person to raise a child, you know that.”

“How is George getting on at the new school?”

“No news is good news as far as I’m concerned. I warned him if he ever shuts another goat in the headmaster’s study there will be hell to pay. Greedy beasts, goats, with a taste for important paperwork.”

Westman began to smile and Jim chuckled.

“Penderrys. Nothing but trouble,” he said as though he had read Westman’s mind. He put down the letters and regarded Westman closely. “A person would have to be mad to want to associate with this family.”

Westman sobered at the remark, reminded of the other reason he had visited his friend. He rubbed his bottom lip pensively before summoning the bravery to proceed. “I thought I might call on your sister this afternoon, to see how she is.” He stood and went to the unlit fireplace, kicking a stray piece of coal back into the hearth. “She went through quite an ordeal…”

Jim remained quiet for a moment before he answered. There was amusement in his voice. “As I suspected. You must be mad as a barrel of monkeys, Fred.”

Westman glanced round at him. Jim understood him well enough. Perhaps he was right and it was madness. After all, no sensible person would live the way he did; chasing the bizarre and the dangerous for a story and a wage. And setting his heart on the sister of an equally reckless individual wasn’t the most prudent idea either.

Mad as a barrel of monkeys?

“Completely,” he replied with a smile.

 

***

 

Sophie rushed into the corridor the moment she heard Ebony answer the caller. “Jim,” she called at the sight of her brother closing the door behind him. “I’m so glad you’re here. Come with me. Come on.”

She took his arm eagerly and he laughed at her.

“Steady on, Sophie. Good afternoon, Grandmother.”

Primrose greeted him and followed them into the drawing room.

“I have something to show you,” said Sophie, leading him to a small crate on the dresser. Inside were four extremely old and expensive bottles of red wine. She lifted one out to show him and then unfolded the accompanying letter. “It’s from Lord Crowthorne,” she explained. “He writes to express his gratitude for our assistance, and his regret over the whole incident. He hopes we will accept the wine as a peace offering. He also writes that he is taking Lady Henriette abroad to see a healer recommended by the London Shadows.”

“A witchdoctor, eh?”

“Isn’t that good news?”

“Excellent.” Jim grinned at her and shook a finger at the wine. “And very generous. I can think of someone who’ll be more than willing to accept Crowthorne’s peace offering.”

“Have you seen Mr Westman?” she asked. She hadn’t seen him since Crowthorne Towers, and thought of him often. Had his injuries healed well? Did he think of her, too?

“Such a handsome young man,” her grandmother whispered beside her.

Sophie dipped her head to hide her embarrassment.

“I have,” he replied and took up residence in a nearby chair.

“How is he?”

Jim brushed a lock of hair aside and selected an apple from the fruit bowl. “He was remarkably happy. In fact, he was smiling. Unusual, I know, but damn me if he wasn’t in a jolly good mood. And how are you, Sophie? Has everything returned to normal now your little adventure is over?”

Sophie sighed. “Yes. Quite normal. I’m presenting a dissertation at the Ladies Natural History Society next week. But truth be told, I fear my heart is simply no longer in it. How can one remain fascinated by plants and wildlife when there are far greater mysteries out there? My focus has always been on the natural world, but this is an exciting new field. The supernatural world. What inquisitive, scientific mind would not be intrigued?”

“Oh, don’t say that. It would be a shame to turn away from the Earth’s natural marvels, Sophie,” he declared, stroking their grandmother’s cat when she jumped onto his lap. “Especially when I have some wonderful news for you. As I was coming here, I spotted a remarkable looking fungus. I think it might even be a new species.”

Her interest rose. “Really? Well, what did it look like?”

“Well, it was pinkish in colour, I suppose, with a little black on the top. Why don’t you go and see it for yourself? It’s only down the street, on the corner by the lilac tree. You can’t miss it.”

“Very well, I shall go and see it.” Excited at the prospect of a new discovery, she called for Ebony to bring her coat and gloves. “Are you coming?” she asked her brother.

“Oh, no. I’ll wait here.” He casually took a bite from the apple and rubbed Harry’s chin.

“I won’t be long,” she called as she left the house.

She headed along Half Moon Street, wondering what variety of fungus her brother had come across. She wasn’t familiar with many that fit the description he’d offered, at least not any to be found in London town.

When she reached the lilac tree, she ignored the passing pedestrians and carriages and got down on her knees to inspect the base of the tree. Scratching about like a chicken, she frowned when she found no sign of a toadstool.

“There’s nothing here. What on Earth was he talking about?” she muttered.

A gentleman cleared his throat.

She glanced over her shoulder, startled by Mr Westman looming behind her.

Stars above!

She got off the pavement with as much dignity as possible and put a hand over her heart. “Mr Westman, you gave me a fright.”

He took off his hat. “Good afternoon, Sophie.”

“Oh, yes, good afternoon. I was just looking for something. My brother said there was an interesting species of fungus here.”

“Did he, indeed? That brother of yours is so full of charm that he never ceases to surprise me.” Westman smiled at her and she realised that he was holding one arm behind his back as though he was hiding something.

She regarded him suspiciously. “Whatever do you mean by that?”

He laughed softly and his cheeks dimpled in a way she hadn’t noticed before. “I was coming to call upon you with your brother. He insisted that I wait here and said that he would send you to me. In his words, to spare me the ordeal of your meddling grandmamma.”

Warmth swelled in her chest. “You were coming to call?”

“Yes, I have something for you.” He produced a round hat box from behind his back.

Heavens. He hadn’t?

“Open it,” he urged her. “Pink flowers, wasn’t it?”

She raised the lid and smiled at the contents. He’d replaced her damaged hat.

“It’s exactly like my old one. Thank you.”

He put the box and his own hat on the neighbouring wall and lifted out the Adelaide bonnet. “May I?”

Sophie’s cheeks bloomed at the kind gesture and she peered up at him, catching his eyes while he positioned the hat upon her head.

He picked up the ribbons and tied a bow beneath her chin. “Very pretty.”

“For a bluestocking,” she said mischievously.

“Even for a bluestocking.” He held her gaze for a moment before adding, “There’s more to you than that.” Then he put his hat back on and offered her his elbow. “Would you care to take a walk?”

Sophie linked her arm through his and they strolled across the road. “I thought I might never see you again. You were very clear at Lord Crowthorne’s party… no interest in friendship…”

“Forgive my rude behaviour.”

“You’re forgiven,” she said fondly. “So tell me, what escapade do you have planned next?”

“Well, since you ask, I’m about to embark on something new. And I honestly don’t know if I’ll survive it.”

Concern creased her forehead. “What is it?”

Mr Westman smiled. “A walk in the park with you.”

Sophie gazed at him for a moment before a grin broke across her face. She hugged his arm. “I predict it will end very well.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE

 

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favourite retailer?

Thanks!

J. L. Weaver

 

Discover other titles in the Penderry’s Bizarre Series

 

1.5. The Black Swan Ghost (Free Christmas Special. Only available to read at Wattpad)

 

2. Moonlight Secrets

 

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London Shadows (Penderry's Bizarre, #1)

Rule 1 - "Never use dessert to fight a demon." In Victorian London, monster hunting isn't just a job, it's a way of life. Freddie Westman, a reporter for a paranormal magazine, is one of the best in the business, but now it's personal. His childhood friend, Jim Penderry, has disappeared, and the signs point to sinister forces from beyond the grave. If Westman wants to save Jim, he’ll have to face his worst fear. No, not fighting a demon with only a cake to hand; something far more daunting… Sceptical Sophie Penderry doesn’t solve mysteries or go on adventures. She’s more at home in the library with her nose in The Botanist’s Guide to Plants and Fungi. But she puts the science books away to help Westman find her missing brother, whether he likes it or not; which he really doesn’t. Westman is a loner, reluctant to lead anyone into danger. According to him, the supernatural is not just the stuff of folklore and children's nightmares, and a world of kidnap and black magic await them. Now Westman must decide if he should push Sophie away for her own safety, or take a leap of faith and accept an offer of help and friendship. Either way, time is running out to find Jim, and worse still, they may not make it back in time for tea and biscuits. Winner of the 2014 Wattpad HQ Love award.

  • Author: J. L. Weaver
  • Published: 2015-09-22 13:05:13
  • Words: 47412
London Shadows (Penderry's Bizarre, #1) London Shadows (Penderry's Bizarre, #1)