The Devil's Advocate by Nene Adams ©1998 - All rights reserved
This on-line novel contains graphic violence, adult situations and language, and the depiction of a romantic relationship between two mature, adult women. Reader discretion is advised. No unauthorized copying or duplication or publishing in any format, electronic or otherwise, will be permitted without the express, written consent of the author.
Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals.
Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells;
Hail horror, hail Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new possessor; one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in its self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
-----Milton, Paradise Lost
Lady Evangeline St. Claire stretched luxuriously. A tall, hard muscled, ebony-haired and aristocratic beauty, she had foregone her usual household attire of battered men's trousers and a comfortable cotton shirt.
Instead, out of deference to the holiday, she wore a combing gown whose overlay of ivory lace allowed the forest green silk beneath to peep through; the sleeves were cut close to the elbow, then flared to cuffed fullness at the wrist.
The color made her sea-green eyes seem as dark as the magnificent square-cut emeralds that dangled nearly to her shoulders from the gold hoops that pierced her ears. Her midnight black hair was loose, however, flowing to her hips like a river of spilled ink, and her slender feet, tucked beneath her on the sofa, were hoydenishly bare.
She plucked a cigarette from her lips and blew a smoke ring with theatrical flair.
"Open the next one, my dear," Lina commanded her companion with an indulgent smile.
The rustle of wrapping paper being torn open by excited fingers was followed immediately by a squeal. "Oh! Lina! You shouldn't have!" The voice belonged to her secretary, housemate and lover of nearly three months, Rhiannon Moore.
Rhiannon was a petite, very pretty strawberry blonde, with a voluptuously plump figure and pale blue eyes the shade of fine Tibetan turquoise. Since the terrible affair of the Whitechapel Ripper - in which she nearly lost her own life twice - Rhiannon had lived with Lady Evangeline, who had gone from protector and mentor, to partner and lover, with a swiftness that still took her breath away.
Christmas had never been a happy time for Rhiannon; even before her mother's death and father's tragic suicide, the family had never been able to afford lavish gifts. Her father's tutor status in wealthy households was an awkward one; neither servant nor family, they had not been treated as equals by either. Presents had been few and far between.
After Henry Moore's death, Rhiannon had taken to prostitution to survive; penniless and deeply ashamed of her low state, she had seen no real reason to celebrate Christ's birth.
Lady Evangeline had suspected something of the sort. With her usual unhesitating flair for command, the beautiful peer had schemed to make this holiday a Christmas her lover would never forget.
Although not one for celebrations, Lina had ordered the entire house transformed into a Yule-tide delight, and had taken great joy in Rhiannon's astonishment and child-like appreciation.
The servants had worked like madmen for a month in preparation. The entire house in Grosvenor Square had been decorated with acres of holly, mistletoe and ribbon-wrapped ivy. In the front hall, a huge Yule tree had been set up; nearly twenty-five feet tall, its ornaments of German and Venetian glass, pressed tin, gilt stars and wooden soldiers, glittering crystal snowflakes and red-cheeked St. Nicholas', gleamed in the softly hissing gaslight like an Eastern treasure.
And presents! Lady Evangeline had feverishly purchased whatever she believed Rhiannon might fancy. Money was literally no object to the wealthy peer; and nothing, in her opinion, was too good for the strawberry-blonde woman she loved more than life itself.
Rhiannon gasped again as she lifted a length of shimmering fur from its heavy box. "Is this... ermine?," she asked breathlessly. Her eyes shone and she ran a trembling hand across the ice-white fur's softness.
"Of course, my dear. Sable is far too common, as is mink; fox was out of the question - I feared it would clash with your hair. I thought ermine might suit you admirably." Lina smiled at Rhiannon's expression. If she believes this is the cream, the peer thought with an inward chuckle, my poor sweetheart has not yet begun to discover the depths!
Rhiannon gaped at the swirl of ermine that foamed across her lap. "A stole? Oh, Lina! This is too much!"
"Not at all, my dear, not at all. Believe me when I say you are worthy of all the treasures of lost Egypt, and your humble servant would lay them at your feet herself if she were able." The ebony-haired peer gently took Rhiannon's hand and brought it to her lips like a gallant courtier of old.
Rhiannon flushed. "Really, Lina..." She hesitated. "This stole, the bracelet," - she indicated the flashing length of sapphires that encircled one slim wrist, "the opera glasses... even that clever writing desk! You must have spent a fortune!" She did not, however, withdraw her hand from the peer's grasp.
Lina reached her free hand to the table beside her and picked up a glass of champagne. "And the best is yet to come, my dear!," she said, kissing Rhiannon's hand again, releasing it, then taking a sip of sparkling French champagne.
"Now, there is one more box which I insist you open this instant," the peer continued, "and then I will open mine."
Hesitantly, Rhiannon laid the incredible stole aside and reached for the gaily wrapped package handed to her by a grinning Lina. It was somewhat flat and rectangular, but not heavy. Tearing off the paper, an ornately carved sandalwood box was revealed. Lifting it to her nose, Rhiannon inhaled deeply, reveling in the exotic scent.
"Mmmm," she said, "Delicious! Thank you. I think I'll keep my jewelry in it..."
Lina interrupted. "Before you think of uses for that box, Rhiannon, I suggest you open it." Her green eyes twinkled.
Carefully, Rhiannon opened the lid. Nestled inside the crimson velvet interior was a heavy envelope of cream vellum.
Wielding the silver letter opener handed to her by the smug Lina, Rhiannon carefully slit the envelope and withdrew a pair of tickets... and a hand-written itinerary.
"Oh!" Rhiannon's pale blue eyes flew open. "We're going to Cairo!"
Rhiannon threw herself into the laughing peer's arms, and, to her horror, immediately burst into tears.
Lina was nearly as distraught. "My dear, whatever is the matter?," she asked, concerned. "If a Cook's tour of the Nile is not to your liking, I can certainly change the plans..."
Rhiannon lifted her tear stained face and interrupted, "You will not! I want to go to Cairo with you," she said fiercely, "I would go anywhere with you! I'm just..." Her voice trailed off as she hiccuped.
Lina stroked her back with soothing fingers. "Shhh, sweetheart," she crooned, "It is quite all right. If you insist, we shall certainly go to Cairo in the fall. Please, my dear," she pleaded, "do not cry. I only wanted to make you happy."
With a final hiccup, Rhiannon withdrew herself from the taller woman's embrace. "I'm fine, truly. And I am happy." She gave Lady Evangeline a slight smile. "I've never been happier." She wiped her wet face with the back of one hand and sniffled.
"Well then," the dark-haired peer said with relief, "I am heartily glad to hear that!" Lina held out a linen handkerchief; Rhiannon took it and wished for the thousandth time that she were not so prone to tears.
Poor Lina, Rhiannon thought, she must certainly think I'm an hysteric!
Lady Evangeline looked at Rhiannon with appreciation, and felt a familiar tingling itch between her thighs. The strawberry-blonde woman wore a worsted wool morning gown of thick navy and white stripes, whose long sleeves boasted a waterfall cascade of tiered Irish lace. Unlike the barefoot Lina, Rhiannon wore white slippers with ribbons that criss-crossed her ankles and tied in a pretty bow. She looked fresh and young as a schoolgirl, particularly with the pair of juvenile braids that hung over each shoulder.
"My dear," Lina purred, her green eyes dark, "have I told you lately that you are more beautiful than Helen of Troy? More lovely than a summer's day? More desirable than life or breath?"
"Only last night," Rhiannon replied pertly. Her turquoise-blue eyes gleamed with mischief.
"Then I have been remiss," Lina said, raising one brow. "You must remind me, my dear, to tell you more often how beautiful you are. Preferably every quarter-hour or so."
"Shall I make a note of it in your social schedule, milady?"
"Do," Lina breathed. She had drawn closer to the other woman until they were separated only by the length of ermine that lay on the sofa between them.
Her lips met Rhiannon's in a soft kiss. The other woman whimpered a little, then shifted her body until it met her lover's. Rhiannon twined her arms around the peer's neck and ran her fingers through Lina's soft ebony hair. Desire made Rhiannon tremble; when the lady softly moaned into her mouth, Rhiannon nearly fainted with pleasure...
Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
The two women sprang apart. "DAMN!," Lady Evangeline roared, then immediately exercised her formidable self control when Rhiannon raised a mockingly disapproving brow. "I beg your pardon, my dear," the lady said contritely. "I had forgotten there was a lady present."
Rhiannon giggled. As a former streetwalker, she had been exposed to much worse language and it tickled her that the aristocratic peer insisted on treating the secretary as if she had never been exposed to life's more sordid side.
Running impatient fingers through her ink-dark hair, Lina rose. "Wait right there, my dear," she said, bending over to kiss the side of Rhiannon's neck. "Do not move a muscle. I shall deal with whomever has the temerity to interrupt our holiday, and I shall return forthwith... With my shield or on it." Her green eyes sparkled with good-humored mischief.
Lady Evangeline left the study, ruffled skirts trailing behind her. Rhiannon reached over and crushed out the cigarette the peer had left burning in the crystal ashtray on the side table.
After waiting impatiently for a quarter-hour, picking at her skirts and sipping lukewarm champagne, Rhiannon heard Lina returning. The pretty younger woman immediately perked up and smoothed her hair, biting her lips and surreptitiously pinching her cheeks to make them redder.
She adjusted her bodice with quick fingers, making more of her magnificent breasts visible. It's about time, she thought, her mind already awhirl with plans for a Christmas feast... with the unsuspecting peer as the main course.
In a moment, however, Rhiannon realized that Lady Evangeline was not alone. The peer was speaking to someone; as she reached the study door, Rhiannon realized, from the voice she heard murmuring a response to Lina's question, that this visitor must be a man.
"...quite all right," Lina was saying, "We are celebrating the season all alone today; the servants have been given a holiday as well. I assure you, Mr. Katchurian, you do not discommode us in the slightest."
Who could this be?, Rhiannon thought, somewhat disgruntled. And why on earth is Lina inviting him in? Curling her lip, she pulled her bodice back up with a tug, not caring if the delicate lace was rent.
Well, so much for my plans
for the afternoon, Rhiannon said to herself, then sat up into a more
proper position on the sofa as their visitor walked into the study on
Lady Evangeline's heels.
"Ah!" said Lady Evangeline, sweeping into the study. "Rhiannon, my dear, allow me to present Mr. Andre Katchurian, proprietor of Katchurian's Antiquities in Threadneedle Street. Mr. Katchurian, my secretary and dear friend, Rhiannon Moore."
The gentleman swept Rhiannon a bow. He was a short, plump man with pudgy hands and a handlebar mustache that hung limply on either side of his baby-soft mouth. His hair was as dark as his eyes, and he was dressed conservatively in a gentleman's morning costume of charcoal-gray pinstriped suit, vest, and dove-gray silk tie. His greatcoat and scarf, so necessary to the wintry season, had been left in the foyer.
A gold pocketwatch's chain glittered across his ample stomach, and the dangling fob was fashioned to resemble a tiny, elaborately enameled snuff box. He looked quite the dandy, and stood somewhat ill-at-ease, twisting his amber-headed cane between his gloved hands.
"Miss Rhiannon," he said, acknowledging Rhiannon's gesture of welcome. He rolled his "rrrr's" in a faintly Germanic fashion.
Rhiannon did not recognize his accent; no doubt Lina, with her superior knowledge of the world, had not only pinpointed his country of origin, but had also, by this time, ascertained what he had for breakfast that morning, whether or not he read the Times or the Daily Mirror, and that he belonged to the East Indian Headhunter's Club and owned a Pekinese who had recently been wormed.
Rhiannon sighed; in many ways, Lady Evangeline was remarkably similar in her thought processes to her mentor, the great "consulting detective," Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
At Lady Evangeline's invitation, Katchurian plopped himself down in an overstuffed chair. Leaning his cane against the side of the chair, he began to worry his hat, turning it around and around in his hands, the brim slowly being crushed beneath his fingers.
"Please, Mr. Katchurian. If you would begin your extraordinary story at the beginning so that Rhiannon might take notes," the peer said, crossing to the sofa and sitting next to the astonished strawberry-blonde woman.
Rhiannon said nothing; she knew that Lady Evangeline would hardly have interrupted their afternoon together unless the cause was an important one. So, without argument, she reached into her pocket for the mother-of-pearl traveling notebook and tiny automatic pencil made of silver that the peer had given her for "field studies."
"Er-hem!" Katchurian cleared his throat with an apologetic glance at the two ladies. "It is just as I have told you, milady. I am a dealer of antiques, Miss Rhiannon," he said, turning to speak directly to the furiously writing secretary, "and as such, I often deal with the peerage. Those members who have money needs, ja? They bring me their family heirlooms and I sell them; discreetly, of course.''
At Rhiannon's understanding nod, Katchurian continued. "I am Swiss and for some years I have lived in this country, doing business. Always I am discreet. My clients are many and my reputation good. But now I have troubles... I have come here because a policeman I consulted, Inspector Dorset, told me of Lady Evangeline's reputation and assured me she could help. So'', he concluded, spreading his hands, his much abused hat now balanced on one knee, "I listen and I here I am."
Lina began to pour herself another glass of champagne. Realizing the bottle was warm, she gave it a disdainful look and murmured to Rhiannon, "I will be back in a moment."
The ebony haired peer rose. "Mr. Katchurian, perhaps you will be good enough to continue your explanation of the matter that is troubling you while I bring us all some tea."
Katchurian nodded, "Ja, ja," he said, "I am sure the lovely young lady will keep me good company while you are gone." As Lady Evangeline left the room, the antiques dealer turned back to Rhiannon, who waited, pencil poised.
Running a gloved hand through his thinning hair, Katchurian said, "I have a customer who is, shall I say, very needful of my services. He brings me many good, wonderful things all of the time. I don't ask how he comes to have them, you understand. But I am an honorable man; I do not deal with thieves. Anyway, he brought me something special. A gold box and a deck of cards.''
"A deck of cards?" Rhiannon asked, puzzled. Surely no deck, no matter how old, could be worth much. The gold box, on the other hand...
Katchurian grinned, showing tobacco stained teeth. "Ja, you think it is only the box I am interested in. But the cards... they are the true treasure.''
Katchurian went on to explain that the cards were made of thin sheets of shaved ivory; seventy-eight in all, and each one hand- painted by the infamous Venetian artist of the 15th century, Josephus San Giacomo. They were considered the first set of what would become known as Tarot cards, made famous by the wandering Romany tribes, who used them for fortune-telling.
This set, known as the Madman's Tarot, was well known and its reputation dire. It had passed from hand to hand, leaving a trail of uncanny destruction in its wake, and had finally been lost in 1712 when the self-styled magician, Pietro Nostromo, committed suicide by setting himself on fire. Some believed Pietro used the Madman's Tarot to summon Lucifer himself and had been incinerated for his pains. The cards were considered cursed; yet that did not stop occult collectors from seeking them as if they were some demonic Holy Grail.
"You see, Miss Rhiannon, I had a client who wished to purchase the cards and the box. He offered a fortune and I could not say no. So, I sold them to him.''
At this point, Lady Evangeline came back into the room, carrying a Georgian silver tray loaded with tea things and a plate of crustless sandwiches. "Here we are. Rhiannon, my dear, do keep writing, and Mr. Katchurian, kindly continue your story. I believe I still remember how to pour."
Katchurian accepted a fragile, eggshell porcelain cup of steaming peppermint tea from the peer and sipped delicately. Then he resumed his story, "Two days after I sold the Tarot, another gentleman came to see me; he said he was interested in purchasing the box and its contents. I told him it had already been sold.'' Katchurian put down his teacup and saucer, spreading his hands wide. "What else could I do?"
The upshot of Katchurian's story was that the mysterious gentleman, who had given the antiques dealer the name of Lord Julian Baxter, had insisted upon knowing to whom the precious antiquity had been sold. Katchurian, with the understanding that Lord Baxter intended to make the buyer an offer, had given the gentleman the information he needed. Tipping his top hat in thanks, Baxter had left the shop and matters ran as usual for several days.
"Then, Lord Baxter came back. He was very angry and told me that I was a liar and a cheat. He was like a madman! I protested; he shouted and threatened me. Then he smashed up my shop! I could not stop him; he was insane with rage, ja? He told me if I did not tell him the truth, he would send the Peacock Prince to kill me!''
Katchurian pulled an immaculate linen handkerchief from his breast pocked and dabbed at his forehead. "I... I begged that schveinhund for my life. When he left, I of course called the police. They told me that Lord Julian Baxter was an old gentleman who died years ago! I gave them a description of the madman but they weren't very hopeful. One Inspector told me privately to come to Lady Evangeline.'' Katchurian spread his gloved hands apart again. "I am sorry to interrupt your holiday, but I am afraid of this man. Who knows what he will do? Maybe set fire to my shop next, ja?''
Lady Evangeline took a gulp of her cooled tea. "Your story is a strange one, Mr. Katchurian, but intriguing. Tell me, can you describe the gentleman's features enough to allow Rhiannon to make a sketch? And if you will be kind enough to provide me, as you did the mysterious 'Lord Baxter', with the Tarot buyer's name and address, I shall promise to do the best I can to get to the bottom of this matter."
For the next twenty minutes, Katchurian and Rhiannon worked on the sketch; the pretty red-blonde secretary had discovered an artistic talent she had never realized she'd possessed, and at Lina's insistence, had begun taking drawing lessons. In the end, the pencil sketch was complete; Katchurian swore it was an excellent license of 'Lord Baxter.'
"Excellent!," Lady Evangeline crowed in satisfaction. "As to the matter of your personal safety, Mr. Katchurian, perhaps you should hire a bodyguard." When the antiques dealer protested, she held up her hands. "I can recommend no man better than Mr. William M'Peace; he is a retired boxer yet his manners are pretty enough to satisfy even the most delicate sensibilities. We are old friends, he and I; if I give you a letter of introduction, he will most certainly be willing to take you on."
Katchurian nodded but he was still unconvinced. "Still...," he began, but broke off when Lady Evangeline smiled.
"Rest assured, Mr. Katchurian, M'Peace may not appear so, but he has the manners of a gentleman born. And he will most certainly see to it that neither you nor your shop come to any harm until I can investigate this matter."
"Very well," Katchurian replied. He stood, picking up his cane and clapping his battered hat upon his head. "Tomorrow, I will send you the buyer's name and address, as well as my manifest for the box. You will perhaps find the description and history helpful, ja?''
"Of course. I shall have that letter of introduction waiting for your messenger in the morning."
"Then, ladies, I will take my leave. My apologies again for disturbing you; good day and thank you for your time," Katchurian said, tipping his hat politely. Lady Evangeline herself saw the Swiss dealer to the door; returning, she looked at Rhiannon with undisguised delight.
Clapping her hands together, the peer danced around the study, giddy as a schoolgirl. "Wonderful! Just wonderful!," she crowed.
Rhiannon laughed. Lina was a never ending source of surprise for the secretary; she felt that there were depths to the woman she loved that she would never plumb. God help me!, Rhiannon thought, I'll never tire of her. Not if I live to be a hundred.
Lady Evangeline snatched at Rhiannon's hands and pulled her from sofa, then swirled her dizzily around the study in a wild waltz of triumph. "Oh, my dear!," Lina said, her beautiful face wreathed in an enormous smile, "Cursed Tarot cards, mysterious strangers and a possible murderer! What a wonderful Christmas present!"
Although she laughed at Lina's obvious delight, a feeling of foreboding welled up from the pit of her stomach. Rhiannon felt that this case would prove to be neither as simple, or as entertaining, as her lover believed.
The pretty secretary firmed her resolve.
I will let nothing happen to Lina!, she vowed. Nothing!
and she tightened her arms around the startled peer's neck in a stranglehold,
while Lina giggled and led her in another turn around the study, both
women dancing to music only they could hear.
The next morning, Rhiannon nervously smoothed the front of her brand new Liberty silk gown. The unstructured Wedgwood blue-and-cream dress, with its high Empire waistline and pretty lace collar and cuffs, suited her well.
"Oh, do stop fussing, my dear. Believe me, Holmes will hardly notice what you are wearing - he never follows ladies' fashions."
Lady Evangeline rapped briskly on the door of 221B Baker Street, remembering with a rueful smile what had happened the last time she had found herself at Holmes' door.
Believing the then-missing Rhiannon to be in hideous danger (and, as it later proved, she was), Lina - who was extremely well developed physically and as tall as most men - had battered down the door by main force rather than wait for Mrs. Hudson to answer.
Then, she had been dressed in her men's costume - stripped for action, as it were. This morning, the beautiful raven-haired lady was dressed far more conventionally in her own Liberty silk gown of Nile green and white.
Upon being admitted by a jovial Mrs. Hudson (who had apparently forgiven the contrite peer for the destruction of her front door), both women walked upstairs to the flat Holmes shared with his roommate and friend, Dr. John Watson.
Holmes, of course, was delighted to see them both. "Ladies!" he said expansively with a wide smile that would have shaken the phlegmatic Watson, "Do come in! Ah, I see you, too, have taken to rational dress! I must say, it suits you exquisitely."
Rhiannon gave Lina a look. "I thought you said he wouldn't notice," she murmured under her breath.
Lady Evangeline grimaced. "I swear, my dear, he does it just to provoke me!"
Drinking Mrs. Hudson's excellent rum punch, the three exchanged news, gossip and Christmas presents. Holmes gave Lina a custom-bound set of his monographs - which made the peer squeal in ecstasy; and to the strawberry-blonde Rhiannon, the detective presented a tiny, mother-of-pearl pistol, complete with a box of miniature bullets.
"It might not appear formidable," Holmes said gravely to the surprised secretary, "but I assure you that aimed properly, this toy can prove to be quite deadly. I suggest you ask Lina for lessons; I'm sure she will prove to be an excellent tutor in firearms."
"My word, Holmes!," Lina said with a smile. "What next? Will you be presenting my Rhiannon with an express rifle and sending her after criminally inclined elephants?"
Holmes let out a bark of laughter. "Somehow, I cannot see Rhiannon as a Great White Hunter, ala the famed Colonel Moran. Ah, my dear Lady Lina... can you tell me, does your secretary have a sister as pretty and intelligent as herself? I have lately begun to consider rescinding my bachelorhood - but only if the lady were as accomplished as your Rhiannon." His gray eyes sparkled with humor and mischief.
Overwhelmed by all this attention, Rhiannon blushed; then blushed more hotly when she realized that Holmes must know about her relationship with the beauteous Lady Evangeline. At the house in Grosvenor Square, all of the servants knew, of course; one could hardly hide anything of importance from those who lived "belowstairs." However, she hadn't minded that; it was the thought of what Holmes might think of the situation that mortified her. She cringed slightly, awaiting censure, ridicule... or cold silence - she did not know which would be worse.
Uncannily, the lean, saturnine detective seemed to read her mind. "It's quite all right, Miss Rhiannon," he said, leaning forward to pat her hand. "I have known Lady Lina for years, and I can say that I am truly happy for you both. However," he continued, turning to the smiling peer, "I caution you to conceal the true nature of your feelings for one another from Watson. He is, alas, somewhat conventional; one might even say provincial, in his beliefs, and I would not wish him scandalized to the point of apoplexy."
"Hmph," Lina grunted. "Have no fear, Holmes. Although there is little love lost between John Watson and myself, I would hardly endanger your friendship with the man... even if he is pig-stubborn and blind as a cave-dweller."
"Now, now," the detective chided, "You know that the majority of British subjects would condemn you both if they knew of your true relationship. Never mind that such things are far more prevalent then the ordinary banker, reading his Sunday Times over kidneys and eggs, might expect or even believe."
"True, Holmes." Lina sighed. "Nevertheless, I urge you not to make this matter common gossip. God knows I have no great love for my fellows, but I will not see Rhiannon hurt." She clenched her fists as if prepared to fight for Rhiannon's honor.
Holmes sipped his punch. "I shall be the soul of discretion, my word upon it." Then he grinned suddenly, and Rhiannon was struck by how young this expression made the ordinarily world-weary detective seem. "Now, ladies... Where are my presents?"
The tension broken, both women laughed. From Lady Evangeline, Holmes received a portable chemistry kit, packaged in a cunning silver-chased box small enough to slip into a trouser pocked. "For testing bloodstains and such at the scene," the peer explained.
"I see." Holmes appeared delighted, and nothing would do but to prick the peer's finger on the spot and try out his new "toy."
Next, the detective opened Rhiannon's gift. Inside a wooden box was a new pipe, the bowl carved of ivory into the shape of an open-mouthed Holmes himself. The detective exclaimed in surprise, "My word! Rhiannon, how on earth..."
The red-blonde secretary smiled, eyes glittering with glee. "I found an old toymaker living in Cheapside. Ever since Dr. Watson's stories appeared in The Strand, your profile has been immortalized in print, Mr. Holmes. It wasn't that difficult to convince him to carve the pipe in your likeness."
The detective smiled. "I shall treasure it always, my dear Miss Rhiannon," he said simply. "Now then, since I expect you did not come all this way merely to dazzle me with largesse, Lady Lina, perhaps you will be good enough to explain the other reason for your visit."
Lady Evangeline's lips stretched into a smile. "My dearest friend," she said, "I have come upon a little matter which requires your assistance."
Quickly, the peer explained about the antiques dealer Katchurian and the mysterious gentleman, stopping only long enough to allow a bustling Mrs. Hudson to enter and serve the three a hearty tea, complete with sandwiches, scones and small iced cakes.
"Hmmm," Holmes murmured. He had leaned back in his chair, and, eyes slitted, stretched his long legs in front of him. "Katchurian... Yes, I believe I know of him, although I have yet to make the gentleman's acquaintance. But... you said you have a sketch of the false Baxter?"
Rhiannon pulled the sketch from her reticule with a flourish. "Right here," she said, and handed the paper to the semi-recumbent detective. She held a small plate of sandwiches in her other hand; she might have been petite, but Rhiannon daily consumed enough food to put a stevedore to shame.
Holmes studied it in silence for a moment. "Milady, would you mind handing me volume 'C' of my reference?"
Going across the room, the peer pulled down a somewhat ratty looking file, stuffed with miscellaneous papers, from a nearby crowded shelf. Handing it to the detective, she sat back down and absently captured Rhiannon's free hand with her own.
Holmes, whose dark gray eyes noticed everything, hid a smile. Thumbing through the reference he himself had created, composed solely of articles and information on those subjects he found of interest, the detective soon came across an entry that sparked his memory.
"Just as I suspected. Ladies, meet Mr. Benjamin Culverton; an alias used by Lord James Escott, youngest son of His Grace William, Duke of Waring. It appears that young Sir James is a relatively high- ranking member of the notorious Hellfire Club."
Lina wrinkled her brows together. "The Hellfire Club, Holmes? I thought that went out of fashion after King Charles' Star Chamber!"
"True. However, there has recently been a resurgence in interest in that old black magic cult. Some of the wilder sons of the peerage have been observed participating in their dubious activities; it is rumored that membership in the Club grows stronger on a daily basis."
"Hmph. In this day and age, too. Well, spiritualism is all the rage, I suppose; one understands it is quite fashionable at dinner parties to turn down the gaslight and hold seances."
Rhiannon was puzzled. "What exactly is the Hellfire Club?," she asked. Although her father had seen to her education, some subjects he had considered far too indelicate to bring up to an impressionable female child.
Lina squeezed her lover's hand gently. "My dear," she replied, "The Hellfire Club was notorious during the reign of King Charles the First. They practiced occult rituals, held Black Sabbaths and, it is rumored, even resorted to human sacrifices. Many of their members were peers; it disturbs me greatly to think that such things might be occuring in this rational age."
"It disturbs Mycroft as well," Holmes said. "Two of the modern Hellfire Club's members are directly connected to the Royal family by blood; another by marriage. The possibility of scandal makes my brother's head uneasy on his pillow at night. I have thus far declined to offer my assistance, however, deeming such matters better off in the hands of government agents."
The two women looked at one another. It appeared that what they had thought of as a simple matter had turned suddenly more complex... and Rhiannon, for one, felt that ominous foreboding sense again.
Holmes looked gravely at Lady Evangeline and continued, "There have been several disappearances of late, in which the police have declined to take much of an interest. The vicims were all members of, shall I say, several brothels in the waterfront district which cater to clients of unusual tastes."
The detective looked uncomfortable. Now, it was Rhiannon's turn to pat Holmes' hand in comfort, setting down her empty plate to do so. "You needn't fear scandalizing me, Mr. Holmes," she said. "Considering my former profession, I sincerely doubt you can reveal anything that would shock me."
Holmes took Rhiannon's small hand and brought it to his lips. "Regardless of your profession, my dear Miss Rhiannon," he said gallantly, "You are nevertheless, in my estimation, a lady of quality. However, you have come to me for facts, and it is my duty to provide them."
Turning to the amused peer, Holmes said, "You are no doubt familiar with the term 'hermaphrodite'?"
Lina looked thoughtful. "If you are referring to persons possessing both male and female sexual characteristics, then yes, Holmes. Interesting as the subject might be, what has that to do with my case?"
"There are two brothels which cater exclusively to a clientele that prefers such persons as their partners. These brothels, The Enchanted Cat and The Triton's Club, are very exclusive and extremely discreet; that means they cater strictly to the wealthy... which, in turn, means power. Powerful men, milady, who would take is seriously amiss if their hobbies were to become fodder for public consumption."
"I take your warning to heart, Holmes. Do go on."
"Well then," the saturnine detective said, warming to his subject, "it is not commonly known, but many of the brothel's employees come from a small village in a remote part of Persia. I suspect that their isolation, and generations of inbreeding, are responsible for the plethora of such sports, although they are still relatively rare. The Enchanted Cat has eight such employees; The Triton's Club, being longer established, boasts no less than twelve. In the past two months, one employee from each of these brothels has disappeared without a trace."
Rhiannon snorted. "Perhaps they found themselves a more permanent situation, Mr. Holmes. Nothing sinister about that. It happened sometimes to girls I knew back in Whitechapel; they'd find themselves a man and get set up somewhere as his mistress."
Holmes smiled indulgently. "No doubt, Miss Rhiannon, you are correct. However, I have reason to suspect machinations at work here; such persons were well known to the small community they lived in and serviced, and even if they had settled abroad, the possibility of encountering one of their former clients is high enough that we must consider more than one explanation."
Rhiannon was embarrassed and felt she had spoken out of turn. "It's quite all right, my dear," Lady Evangeline said hastily, noting her lover's discomfort, "Holmes means no censure." Turning to the detective, the peer continued in a warning tone, "Do you, Holmes?"
"Absolutely not. I only point out that sometimes, the simplest explanation is, regardless of Occam's Razor, not the most likely one."
There was a pause while the two women, and the detective, refreshed their cups of punch. "Ah," Lady Evangeline said, "This is quite refreshing! Now, Holmes, do continue with your story, I beg of you. You have intrigued me."
Holmes smiled slightly. "Of course," he said, inclining his head. "Milady's curiosity must be satisfied. What takes these events beyond the realm of coincidence is the fact that both disappearances occurred three days before the full moon. Each time, the principals were spirited away from their living quarters, which, by the way, are kept guarded and locked. All their clothing, jewelry and 'presents' from grateful clientele were still there; there was no sign of a struggle whatsoever."
"How do you know all this, Mr. Holmes?," Rhiannon asked.
Holmes shrugged. "It happens that the proprietor of one of these brothels, a Mrs. Choi, doyenne of The Triton's Club, had occasion to call upon me a few days ago. She sought my help in obtaining the whereabouts of her employee but I refused. Frankly, the subject did not interest me."
"Woe betide the client who brings you a dull case, Holmes!," Lady Evangeline laughed.
"Indeed. The victims' bodies have never been discovered; there have been no ransom demands of any kind. However, I have reason to believe these personages were abducted by members of the modern Hellfire Club."
"Why?," Rhiannon asked.
Holmes grimaced. "There are sinister aspects of the case which I cannot, at this time, discuss. If you choose to investigate further, Lady Lina, you will have to discover them for yourself."
"Very well, Holmes, I accept your challenge," Lady Evangeline replied.
The detective looked at her with somber gray eyes. "If you require my assistance..."
The peer interrupted, "If I need you, I shall not hesitate. But... if it should come to pass that I should require Mycroft's aid..."
"Lina," Holmes replied, "You have but to ask. I assure you, if I summon Mycroft on this matter - and I should be forced to at any rate if you uncover anything of national importance - rest assured he will come with all the swiftness either of us could desire."
There was silence for a moment... a silence that was broken by the opening of the door.
"Holmes!" a familiar voice said, raised in astonishment... and perhaps a little anger. "What the Devil is going on here?!"
Holmes sat up, giving his wide-eyed guests a rueful smile. "Welcome home, Watson," he said.
The door slammed as the newly arrived gentleman strode purposefully into the room. John Watson, Holmes' chronicler, roommate and friend for years, stared down at Lady Evangeline with an expression approaching disgust.
"You! What do you mean by coming here, you damned adventuress?" Watson's normally phlegmatic face was florid with emotion.
"Watson..." Holmes voice carried a note of warning. "I beg to remind you, there are ladies present."
Watson's scathing gaze whipped around to Rhiannon, who sat perfectly still. The doctor's blue eyes softened. "I beg your pardon, Miss..."
Rhiannon extended her hand. "Rhiannon Moore, Dr. Watson. I am Lady Evangeline's secretary."
"Hmph. Honored, I'm sure." The doctor politely took Rhiannon's hand and shook it gently, then his face hardened and he turned back to the waiting peer.
"Will you hound him to his grave, woman?," he asked angrily. "Is it not enough that after your last bloody escapade, poor Holmes was in a stupor for days? I quite feared for his life!"
"Watson, will you cease fussing over me as if I were a child? I am perfectly capable of defending myself from unwanted attentions; it so happens that Lady Evangeline does not fall into that category." Holmes' dark gray eyes held a spark of anger.
Rhiannon felt uncomfortable. "Um, Lina, maybe we should leave," she whispered in Lady Evangeline's ear.
The peer shook her head, making the black curls that framed her face bounce. "Not on your life," she whispered back, "I will be damned before I show John Watson the white feather."
Meanwhile, the argument between the two men escalated. "Holmes, you will let that woman kill you if this goes on! She is nothing more than a common parasite - a thief of your time, your energy and your mentality!"
Holmes stood. He was a head taller than the doctor and he drew himself up, coiled like a cobra poised to strike. "Watson, I have nothing but the utmost respect for your abilities. However, the day has not yet come when I shall allow you to dictate to me whom I shall befriend, and whom I shall not!"
Watson recoiled. "Well, then, it is probably an excellent thing that you will not have to bear my presence much longer," he retorted.
"What do you mean by that?," Holmes replied. His face was drained of anger; for a moment he appeared stricken, then his face assumed a stony expression.
"I came here to inform you," Watson said angrily, "that I am getting married in May to Miss Mary Morstan. I had considered inviting you to be my best man, but in light of this situation, perhaps it is best that you do not come to the wedding at all."
"I see." Holmes turned his back and fussed with a limp sandwich while Watson stood there, his face a study in frustration.
Lina could stand no more. "Dr. Watson," she said, as Watson turned to face her with surprise; he had forgotten the woman was in the room. "Please, do not let my relationship with Holmes ruin your own friendship with him. I assure you, if my presence is so hateful to you, I shall give you my word never to darken his doorstep again."
Rhiannon held her breath. She knew Lina considered the detective both her mentor and one of her dearest friends; the peer would be giving up much by her willingness never to see Holmes again, if Watson demanded it.
Watson studied Lady Evangeline for a moment. The peer was beautiful, intelligent, wealthy... and distinctly unconventional. Truth to tell, the lady made Watson feel somehow inferior. Not deliberately, but... and then there was the matter of Holmes...
Finally, Watson sighed. "A noble offer, milady," he said mildly, "but unnecessary. Holmes, I apologize for my remarks. They were ill-considered and hasty. I apologize to you as well, Lady Evangeline."
Lina nodded gracefully. "I did not know you were ill, Holmes. Why did you not tell me?"
The detective sighed and turning back around, flopped back into his chair. "My dear Lady Lina, you are not my nursemaid, either. It was not serious..."
Watson interrupted, "Not serious! Holmes, you suffered a collapse that nearly put you in hospital!"
Lady Evangeline chimed in, "Hospital! Holmes, you bloody fool! You allowed me to drag you into danger when you were ill! You could have gotten killed!"
For once, Lina and John Watson were in complete agreement; poor Holmes suffered the brunt of their unexpected alliance. "My friends," he said, shifting in his chair, "please spare me your histrionics! Watson, my 'collapse,' as you choose to call it, had nothing to do with Lady Evangeline. And Lady Lina, I was not ill when you called upon me to assist you in Whitechapel. It was afterward that... well, that I made an error in judgment."
Lina's green eyes narrowed. "What sort of error?," she asked.
Holmes shifted again under the weight of two pairs of accusing eyes. "It seemed that I received a batch of contaminated cocaine from the chemist's. It was that injection which made me ill."
"Holmes!," Watson exploded. "I have told you again and again, your seven-percent solution will be the death of you one day! You must give up this habit of yours! Three injections daily is neither healthy nor normal. Please, allow me to help you!"
Holmes threw up his hands in surrender. "Very well, Watson. I bow to your superior medical knowledge. Perhaps heroin will prove to be a less addicting substitution."
Lady Evangeline motioned to Rhiannon and stood. "Holmes, it is not healthy to inject any substance into your veins. I do not believe in drugs; unlike many women, I do not even indulge in laudanum. Please, please, my old friend, let Watson help you. I do not want to outlive you, you know."
Watson gave the peer a kindly look. "Yes, listen to her, Holmes. The lady speaks sense."
Holmes rolled his eyes. "If anything, I will give up cocaine to avoid being hounded to the grave by two such fierce watchdogs."
Lady Evangeline and Watson exchanged a smile. "Well," the peer said, picking up her parasol, "Rhiannon and I must be going. Good day, Holmes, Dr. Watson. Enjoy your holiday. Oh, and congratulations on your upcoming felicity, Watson. If you do not invite Holmes to the wedding, I shall be seriously put out."
"Have no fear of that," Watson said. "His position as best man is already secured."
As the two women took their leave, Watson watched them appraisingly. Perhaps that blasted, opinionated woman is not such a bad creature after all, he thought.
And the beginnings of respect, and possibly friendship, bloomed in the doctor's breast.
After all, Watson thought, Holmes is the most unconventional person I know... and Lady Evangeline can hold only a distant candle to my friend. Turning back to Holmes, Watson asked, "Is there any more of Mrs. Hudson's punch, do you think?"
With a relieved smile, the detective
answered, "For you, Watson... always."
Returning home, Rhiannon was not surprised to see a uniform-clad messenger waiting for their arrival. In his gloved hands, the man held a brown paper wrapped package.
"From Mr. Katchurian, mum," he said respectfully.
Rhiannon exchanged the package for the letter she had written at Lina's direction and gave the man a coin. "Here's the reply. See that Mr. Katchurian receives this as quickly as possible."
The messenger tugged his forelock and sped away on his velocipede, a newfangled wheeled invention that had become quite popular in recent years.
"Was that Katchurian's messenger?," Lady Evangeline asked, running her hands through her loosened curls. The peer had rushed upstairs immediately upon returning to change into a loose robe and a pair of trousers.
"Yes. The package has arrived and I sent along the letter to M'Peace," Rhiannon replied, then took in Lina's costume with a glint in her pale blue eyes. "Are you planning to wear that all day?," she asked. She tossed the package on the table that stood in the front hall and, hands on hips, watched her lover with a sparkling expression.
The peer narrowed her own eyes and smiled. "Not unless you can convince me to take it off," she purred.
Rhiannon moved forward to take Lina's arm and began to pull her back upstairs. "I can be very convincing, you know," she said as she tugged the amused Lina to the master bedroom the two women shared.
As the door shut, Lady Evangeline's reply floated back down the empty stairs, "Yes, my dear. I know! Oh, how I know!"
Later, the two women lay side by side in the wide bed Lina had imported at great cost from distant Hong Kong. The four solid mahogany posts were intricately carved into writhing dragons, poppies and carp in a hallucinatory pattern that confused the eye. Antique tapestries from Fleming formed a comforting curtain of privacy around the two lovers; the deep feather mattresses and ivory silk sheets had come from France.
Lina traced lazy patterns with her forefinger on Rhiannon's stomach. "Tell me, my dear," she asked, "are you happy here?"
Rhiannon looked at her lover with wide turquoise eyes. "Lina, I am not happy..." The pretty strawberry-blonde waited a moment before continuing emphatically, "I am ecstatic!" She laughed softly as disappointment, then sheer bliss, chased each other rapidly across Lina's features.
Lady Evangeline leaned forward and kissed Rhiannon's neck gently. "Love, where would you like to dine this evening?"
Rhiannon shrugged. "It makes no difference to me. Is there somewhere particular you want go?"
"Well, the Maestro has opened a new restaurant just across from the Lyceum. It is called Le Coq D'Or, and one has heard of marvelous creations coming from the kitchens."
"Mmmm. Sounds wonderful. Just one thing..." Rhiannon's voice trailed off into a gasp as Lina's kisses against her neck became more passionate and the other woman's fingers moved downward with purpose.
"Yes?" The peer grinned against Rhiannon's flesh, then trailed kisses all along the strawberry blonde's throat, sucking and nipping gently. It was amazing how sensitive her lover was in that particular area.
Rhiannon arched her back as incredible sensations thrummed through her body. Sometimes it seemed as if Lina knew her own body better than she did. "Ahhhh... You know I don't speak French very well," she choked, then stopped altogether as she drew breath in a deep, shuddering gasp.
"Mmmm?" Lady Evangeline sucked gently on Rhiannon's neck, caressing her lover's sensitive flesh a little more rapidly.
"Ohhhh... Just don't let me order anything that comes from a cow's insides instead of his outsides!," Rhiannon managed to get out, then there were no more words from either of the women for a little while.
Snuggled together in the gently rocking carriage, Lina studied Rhiannon's features in the pale moonlight that flooded through the unfastened shutter. Rhiannon sighed and laid her head on the taller woman's shoulder, picking gently at a loose sequin on Lina's port-wine velvet gown.
"Something troubling you, my dear?," the peer asked, ebony brows raised.
"Nothing at all. Dinner was wonderful, you're wonderful... I just..."
"Well, I just can't help feeling that this life, us, the way you make me feel... is too good to last."
"Ah. The gods giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other."
Rhiannon stared out the window pensively. "Exactly. I keep waiting for something to happen. I feel I don't deserve all this happiness."
Lina hugged the strawberry-blonde woman fiercely. "You deserve every happiness, dearheart. I regret nothing that has happened between us; save only that I cannot give you children... or a legal marriage."
Rhiannon stared up at Lina's patrician features, dazed. "You mean..."
"Yes." Lady Evangeline's emerald green eyes held a touch of sadness. "If I were a man, Rhiannon, I would marry you. Your children would be both the heirs of my body and the heirs of my soul. You are my most precious possession, my chiefest treasure, and the last sight I shall carry with me when I leave this world will be of your sweet face. I love you," she concluded with a tiny smile, covering Rhiannon's lips with her own.
Rhiannon's lashes sparkled with tears, but she refused to shed them. Oh, Lina, she thought, I never knew what love was, 'til I met you.
Neither woman could have predicted that when they arrived home, their plans for the remainder of the evening would be shattered by the gravest news...
A friend was dead .
Lady Evangeline had, upon receiving the news, immediately changed into her men's costume and drove to the police morgue, accompanied by a white-faced Rhiannon, still in her evening gown.
The former boxer turned bodyguard lay on the cold porcelain slab. William M'Peace had been a giant of a man, fully broad as he was tall, bulging with muscle and ropy tendons.
His face was battered; nose flat from being broken once too often, ears misshapen with gristle, several front teeth missing altogether. In life, his dark blue eyes had held a mild expression; in death, they bulged from their sockets as if M'Peace's last sight had been one of sheer horror.
A stained sheet covered the body from the waist down. Raising it, Lady Evangeline let out an exclamation. M'Peace had been gutted, his abdomen ripped wide with considerable force and no little skill. The edges of the devastating wound were surgically clean, with no sign of tearing - whatever weapon his assailant had used, it had been as sharp as a scalpel.
Most horrifying of all, his manhood had been severed cleanly away.
Dr. Llewellyn grimaced. "The police were unable to find any of the missing, er, organs at the scene. Judging from the area, Mr. M'Peace was killed somewhere else and his body taken to the wharf where he was found." The doctor was an ordinary looking gentleman, with dark hair and eyes which showed no trace of the grislier aspects of his profession.
Rhiannon's nostrils were pinched and white. "Um, Lord St. Claire," she said to Lady Evangeline, who had introduced herself by that pseudonym to the doctor, "I think I'll go out and get some air."
Lady Evangeline turned to the other woman, noticing Rhiannon's sick expression. "Of course, my dear. Take a turn around the front, and return if you are able. Henry will keep watch over you; you will be perfectly safe."
Rhiannon swiftly fled the room, stomach already heaving.
The peer turned back to the doctor. "Now, Dr. Llewellyn, you said something about 'organs?"'
The doctor gave the peer a sharp look. "Yes. The heart is also missing."
"Lord St. Claire" looked thoughtful. "I presume his assailant must have reached up into the body cavity, since M'Peace's chest is undisturbed."
"That is so. Upon my examination, I found that the heart had been carved away from the inside. A rather good job, considering the murderer had to work by touch alone."
"As to the cause of death, I can find nothing to indicate that the man did not bleed to death when his, er, manhood was removed and his viscera exposed. I did find something odd in his stomach, though."
Lina's green eyes narrowed. "What was that?," she asked.
"Apparently, prior to his death, M'Peace drank wine laced with ivy and hemlock. The tests are unmistakable - if he had not been eviscerated, the man would have eventually died of the poison alone. It is a curious sort of blessing, in a way; he would have been in such an hallucinogenic state, he would have been incapable of feeling pain. I also found some wafer-like substance; it is difficult to tell with any degree of exactitude exactly what it was, but it appeared to have been dyed black."
Lina's ebony eyebrows rose to her hairline. "I see," she repeated. "Well, Doctor, you have given me a great deal to think about. If you will be so kind as to have Mr. M'Peace's remains released to my representatives, I shall see to his Christian burial."
"Of course," the doctor replied. "I must say, it is good of you to see to the arrangements personally, Lord St. Claire. M'Peace must have been considerably more than a casual acquaintance."
Lina looked down at the bodyguard's still form. "Yes," she replied simply. "He was my friend. Goodnight, Dr. Llewellyn."
At home, the peer stormed up and down the study, the picture of frustrated rage. "Damn those bloody bastards to uttermost circle of Hell!" she shouted, shaking a fist.
The first time Rhiannon had been exposed to one of the peer's monumental rages, she had been nearly frightened out of her wits. Now she had grown somewhat used to the occasional fit of temper. She sat on the sofa, dressed in a comfortable silk robe, red-gold hair swirling loosely to her hips, calmly embroidering a pair of gloves - a gift for Lady Evangeline.
Finally, after nearly a quarter-hour of spitting out every vile curse she knew, Lina's choler subsided, although her face was still red. "Tomorrow morning I am going to pay a call on Madame Choi at The Triton's Club," she said, hands on hips. "I am going to get to the bottom of this sorry business if it kills me!"
Rhiannon shuddered as a precognitive chill swept through her. "Please, Lina!" she begged, "Don't say that!"
Lady Evangeline looked down at the woman she shared her life with, and the last bit of her anger melted away. "Whatever do you mean, my dear?" she asked mildly.
Rhiannon shuddered again. "Don't talk about dying! Please!" The pretty strawberry-blonde was almost in tears.
Immediately, Lina crossed to the sofa and sat down next to Rhiannon, putting an arm around her waist and pulling her lover close. "It is only an expression, my dear. I have no intention of dying just yet."
The peer's tone was light, intended to comfort, but Rhiannon grew angry. "Death is nothing to joke about, Lina!" she said emphatically. "Especially yours," she concluded miserably.
Lina put a finger beneath Rhiannon's chin and tilted the other woman's sweet, heart-shaped face up; her eyes shimmered with tears. Kissing her softly on the lips, the raven-haired lady said, "Sweetheart, whatever is the matter? I have never seen you so upset over a trifle."
" I just... I can't explain it," Rhiannon said. "I just have this terrible feeling, that's all. Like something awful is going to happen to you, and I can't stand it!" She began to weep, tears cascading down her face like droplets of silver rain.
Lina put both arms around the smaller woman and gently pulled Rhiannon against her shirtfront, hands caressing her back. "Shhhh, my love," Lina said, "Please. You know I cannot stand it when you cry like this. It is quite all right, Rhiannon. I give you my word that I shall take the utmost care in dealing with this case. I love you, my wonderful, wild, Welsh beauty - and I intend to spend many more years at your side."
Despite the words of comfort, Rhiannon still felt sick to her stomach. She had sometimes had these feelings - like just before her old friend Black Janet had died last month. The strawberry-blonde woman had known something terrible was going to happen, and it had.
Poor Black Janet, Rhiannon thought, run over by a carriage on her way to a tavern, drunk as an earl on rotgut gin.
She snuggled her face into Lady Evangeline's neck. "Promise me you'll be careful," she insisted, wiping her wet cheek with the back of her hand.
"I give you my oath, sweet, as a Peer of the Realm and the daughter of a noble line. Will that suffice?"
Rhiannon looked up into the face of the woman she loved more than anything or anyone in the world. "Yes. I suppose that will have to do." Silently, Rhiannon renewed her own vow to protect the peer at all costs; it was only because of that vow that she had accompanied Lina to the morgue that evening; otherwise, no amount of wild horses could have dragged her into that terrible place.
Later that night, as Rhiannon lay curled in a sleeping Lina's strong arms, she thought fiercely, I must get her to teach me the use of that pistol Holmes gave me. Then, come what may, I will be ready!
Sleep was still a long time in coming... and when it did, dark dreams haunted Rhiannon until dawn.
Katchurian's face was a study in dismay. "I have no explanation, milady. One minute he was here and the next, poof! Gone. I was asleep upstairs when it happened. The police questioned me this morning and I told them all I know, which is not much.'' The interior of his shop was dusty, filled with the peculiar scent of crumbling books, gilt and old furniture, and crammed to the rafters with miscellaneous bits of this and that.
Lady Evangeline looked at the antiques dealer with slitted green eyes. "Perhaps you will be kind enough to relate all that you do know, Mr. Katchurian," she said in a dangerous purr.
Katchurian gulped. Lady St. Claire is a formidable woman, he thought, one very used to command... and having her commands obeyed.
Katchurian related his story while Rhiannon scribbled notes. He had obtained M'Peace's services via Lady Evangeline's letter of introduction. The bodyguard had stayed close to him all day, albeit maintaining a low profile in the shop.
M'Peace had eaten lunch with Katchurian, there had been a little business that afternoon, and the two men had shared a simple dinner. Then, the dealer had gone to his rooms (his living quarters were above the shop - a most convenient arrangement), leaving M'Peace to guard the downstairs.
Katchurian had slept soundly, save for a nightmare he now found difficult to recall. "It is not important," he said, waving one hand, "but when I woke up, I found something terrible. I did not even tell the police this...''
He handed Lady Evangeline a box. Opening it cautiously, the peer looked inside, then slammed the lid shut. She was white to the lips and her mouth was drawn into a tight line. "Thank you, Mr. Katchurian," she said, "With your permission, I will take this item with me for closer examination."
"Do what you wish," Katchurian said. His handlebar mustache seemed more limp than ever. "I do not want such things in my shop or my home!"
Lady Evangeline rose, adjusting her skirts with a gloved hand. She wore a charcoal gray skirt that fell in folds to her ankles; the hem was trimmed with ropes of black roccocco braid. A matching jacket allowed the lace trimmed bodice of her neat ivory shirtwaist to peep through. The hat that perched on her raven curls sported ostrich feathers dyed in graduated shades of gray, like a night sky increasingly diluted with cream.
"Let us go, Rhiannon," she said to her companion. "We have further business this morning."
Rhiannon closed her notebook and thrust it and her mechanical pencil into the beaded reticule that hung from her slender wrist. "Good day, Mr. Katchurian," she said politely. The dealer acknowledged her with a wave but said nothing; he was obviously extremely distressed by the events of the previous evening.
When they were in the hired cab (Lady Evangeline had declined to ask Henry to drive them to the seedy wharf district, much to the coachman's disappointment), Rhiannon asked, "Lina, what's the matter? What's in the box that's so distressing?"
Lady Evangeline stared out of the window. The box, with its mysterious contents, lay on the seat, as far away as the peer could place it. Looking at her lover with expressionless green eyes, the peer replied, "It is better you do not know, my dear. Leave it alone for a little while; I promise I shall explain later."
Rhiannon subsided. For their jaunt, she had selected one of her new dresses (or relatively new - Lina had been most generous regarding her secretary's wardrobe), a peach colored ensemble trimmed with row upon row of fluffy white feathers. The hat that tilted becomingly over one eye had been trimmed in white dove's feathers and dark peach braid.
She fussed with her reticule as they continued their drive. Finally, Rhiannon said, "Lina? I'm sorry about Mr. M'Peace. I know you told me he was a good friend of yours, and I'm also sorry I never had the opportunity to meet him."
Lina looked at the smaller woman, her face abruptly crumpling with grief although she did not cry. "He was considerably more than just a 'friend,' my dear," she replied. "William and I were... well, once upon a time, we were lovers."
Rhiannon was shocked. She had known the peer had not been a virgin but had assumed that marriage to the late Sir Albert had been responsible for that loss. "You mean, you..," she squeaked, then stopped.
The peer smiled sadly. "Yes. Shortly after my husband's death, I met William. In fact, it was Holmes who introduced us. He might have appeared to be a brute, Rhiannon, but William M'Peace possessed a poet's soul."
Rhiannon gulped. "Were you in love with him?" she asked, silently chiding herself for the nearly overwhelming sense of jealously that burned in her heart.
"No. We were lovers only briefly; I suppose I needed the comfort he was able to provide. I did not love my husband, Rhiannon; ours was a marriage of convenience, forced upon me by my family. Poor Albert! So eagerly anticipating the bridal bed - his lascivious nature proved to be the death of him. Yet, I felt... well, I felt some sense of guilt and responsibility for Albert's demise. After all, his heart attack was provoked by my 'charms' to a certain extent."
The two women were silent as long moments passed. Finally, Rhiannon said, "So your husband never consummated the marriage?"
"No," Lina replied flatly. "It is my greatest secret, Rhiannon. Should the news become common knowledge, it would endanger not only my position and my fortune, but my life as well. Albert's relatives, vultures all, would not hesitate to destroy me in order to get their beastly hands on his money. As it was, I was forced to go to court to prevent them from contesting the old man's will."
Rhiannon stared at her lover with wide, pale blue eyes. "Oh, I swear, Lina! I'll never tell a soul!"
Lina leaned forward and patted Rhiannon's hand. "I trust you, sweet. I would not have told you the truth otherwise."
"Does Mr. Holmes know?"
The peer sighed. "Yes. Holmes wormed the truth out of me after William and I went our separate ways. I was drunk at the time and I truly believe that man took advantage of my state just to satisfy his infernal curiosity! Nevertheless, I trust Holmes with my life; I know my secret, like so many others, is safe with him."
Rhiannon still felt a small canker of jealousy eating at her. "I suppose you and William remained very close... after?" Part of me's glad that he's dead, she thought, and the other part's horrified I would even think such a thing. Lord! I'm turning into a monster...
The strawberry blonde woman's tone finally registered. Lina realized that Rhiannon, never a paragon of self-esteem, must be feeling very insecure at the moment. My poor darling!, she thought. I suspect it never occurred to her until now that I have a past as well.
Abruptly, Lina shifted her seat so that she sat next to Rhiannon, and put her arms around the other woman. "Rhiannon, I have never, and shall never, love any other person the way I love you. I cannot say it often enough; you are worth more to me than all the gold of Agra, and if anything should happen to you, I doubt I should live a moment after."
Rhiannon, who had stiffened when Lady Evangeline had embraced her, relaxed into the strong arms she loved. "I'm sorry, Lina. I'm being stupid, I suppose. It's just that..."
"I understand. William and I were together at a time in my life when I required the comfort of someone's arms; he saved me from allowing guilt and self-recrimination to etch my heart too deeply; he saved me from bitterness and helped me understand myself more fully. I loved him like a brother and a friend; now, I seek his murderer, so William's soul can rest in peace."
Rhiannon leaned her head against her lover's broad shoulder. It never ceased to amaze her how much Lina's sense of honor and justice were as powerful as her views and opinions were unconventional. "I love you terribly, you know," Rhiannon said softly. "I can't help being jealous; the thought of someone else making love to you makes me want to howl. If this makes me a bad person, then perhaps..."
Lady Evangeline hugged the smaller woman more fiercely and kissed the top of her red-gold braids, neatly avoiding Rhiannon's hat. "My love," she said, "You are not a bad person for feeling jealous. How do you think I have felt, wondering about the men you must have encountered when you were a prostitute? Wondering if you are comparing my lovemaking to theirs? Wondering if you had felt anything 'special' for any of them, perhaps fallen in love with some unbearded youth, berating myself for even thinking such a thing. I, too, have felt the 'worm i' the bud', dearheart. It might not be pretty, but rest assured, it is a normal part of human nature."
Rhiannon sat up. "Oh, Lina! I had no idea you felt that way. Why didn't you tell me?"
The peer shrugged helplessly, ostrich feathers bobbing becomingly over one ear. "I did not want to hurt you, my dear. I felt you had been exposed enough to sordity and violence; I wanted to protect you from my darker self."
Rhiannon threw her arms around the astonished Lina and squeezed, burying her face in her lover's neck. "I love all your parts, Lina. Even the darker ones," she murmured into the peer's throat. "Don't hide anything from me, please. I want to know all of you, in every way I possibly can."
Lady Evangeline's green eyes filled with tears. This woman had touched her in ways no other person had, or ever could, and every day brought a new revelation. "My love," she whispered huskily, and said nothing more, merely hugging her lover closer to her as the carriage jounced and rolled its way to their destination.
The Triton's Club proved to be a dilapidated building whose every window had been boarded up; the only sign of occupancy were the linens that flapped in the river breeze, hanging from a line in the alley.
"Are you sure this is the right place?" Rhiannon asked, pinning her hat more firmly in place.
"Quite." Lady Evangeline consulted the small, gold edged card she clutched in one hand. "This is the address on the card Holmes gave me. Well, there is no use dawdling, my dear. Let us beard this lioness in her den, and perhaps we shall gain some useful information."
Entrance proved to be laughably easy. Lina put on her haughtiest aristocratic manner, and the doorman, a hulking brute with a patch over one eye, had been so overawed he had admitted the two woman without question, though with a tiny glint of speculation in his one good eye.
Madame Choi proved to be a willow-slender Oriental woman of indeterminate years. "How may I help you?" she asked in perfect English without a trace of accent. Keen intelligence shone in her almond shaped eyes, black as onyx buttons in a finely boned face.
Lady Evangeline silently handed the madame the card she had received from Holmes; the peer's face was expressionless. The card was Choi's own; the woman had left it with Holmes should he change his mind and wish to become involved in the kidnapping case.
Madame Choi obviously recognized it. "This is a card I reserve for special clients, milady." She regarded each woman in turn, a tiny smile curving her Cupid's-bow lips. "Perhaps you will be kind enough to tell me where you obtained it."
"From Mr. Sherlock Holmes, madame." Lina's voice was coldly formal. "He has spoken to me of your unfortunate situation; as I believe the kidnapping has aspects bearing on a case I am currently engaged on, I wished to speak to you without delay. Holmes was good enough to allow me the use of your card to gain entrance to your establishment."
"I see," Choi replied. Turning away, she gestured broadly. "Please, accompany me to my private parlor. I believe I can satisfy your desire... for information."
Rhiannon's eyes were wide as she took in the magnificently furnished rooms; some of the paintings on the walls she recognized as Old Masters. Although most of the walls had been papered in pale gold brocade, Choi's own parlor was done in every shade of blue imaginable. The effect was somewhat like being underwater; from the carpet to the ceiling, from the overstuffed divans to the curtains, everything was cool blue.
Rhiannon settled down on a fringed ottoman, resting her notebook and pencil on her knee. Choi regarded her with something approaching amusement in her dark eyes. "I see you have brought a secretary with you," she said to Lina, who was perched on the edge of a davenport upholstered in peacock-blue brocade featuring human figures intertwined in amazing, not to mention impossible, sexual positions.
Lina flicked a fold of her skirt. "Yes," she replied shortly. Taking her jade-and-platinum cigarette case from her reticule, she asked, "Do you mind if I smoke?"
Choi inclined her head. Her every movement was a study in languid grace; Rhiannon felt positively gawky in contrast. "Of course not," she replied. The Oriental woman's voice was as smooth and honeyed as Swiss chocolates. "Please do; I have no objection, milady."
The peer made a production of selecting one of the dark Egyptian cigarettes she preferred and striking a lucifer. The sulfuric odor of the match was a sharp contrast to the scent of exotic incense that hung in the air like a shroud.
Rhiannon wondered what Lina was up to. The other woman was behaving in a way that was totally at odds with her character; normally, she might have appeared friendly, formidable or challenging, whatever the situation required, but not so cold.
Her beautiful face wreathed in tendrils of smoke, Lady Evangeline said, "I understand that one of your employees disappeared a month ago, madame. What can you tell me about the matter?"
Choi leaned back and steepled her forefingers together. She wore jeweled guards on the fingernails of each hand; Rhiannon wondered how the woman ever picked anything up with such long claws to contend with. "First, my employee was named Naga; she was one of my best ladies and had been a favorite of my customers for several years. I suspect Holmes has informed you of the peculiar nature of my trade?"
"He has." Lina said nothing more; in the cool, blue light that permeated the room, her face had all the expression of a Grecian statue.
Choi smiled. "Then I need not explain how much Naga's disappearance has affected my business. Although I have eleven other ladies, none are as pleasing as Naga, nor as popular."
"Why do you believe Naga was kidnapped, rather than run away?"
"You must understand. My ladies come from foreign countries; although they speak English with varying degrees of competence, none would be comfortable living in London without assistance of some kind. Furthermore, Naga had only a few short years left on her contract; she had been saving her money with the intention of returning to Persia and her family. No, she would not have left such a lucrative situation, nor would she have left all her money and jewels behind."
Lina leaned back against the davenport and gazed at the Oriental woman stonily. For a few moments, she merely drew on her cigarette, clouds of smoke billowing from her lips.
Then, with the speed of a striking cobra, the peer leaned forward and hissed, "There is something else, madame. Something you are concealing from me... I know it."
For the first time, Choi appeared flustered. She ran one finger around the mandarin collar of her loose teal robe. "I... I do not understand," she began, but Lina interrupted.
"I believe you do. Perhaps you sold Naga yourself for an irresistible price. There are individuals of wealth and position whose baser inclinations might prompt them to such an action."
Now, Choi relaxed. "You are incorrect, milady," she said with a trace of smugness. "Why would I sell for a single sum what I could rent for many such sums?"
"True." Lina appeared thoughtful. "Then it must be something else. Perhaps you found something the morning of the disappearance. Something... unusual."
Fine beads of sweat pearled on Choi's upper lip. "I do not know what you are talking about," she replied flatly, but her hands clenched the folds of her robe.
"Was it evidence of witchcraft, madame? Was that what you found?" The peer's green eyes were intense.
For a moment, it appeared as if Choi were going to protest again; then her head bowed in defeat. Her blue-black hair, fine and straight as a bone, slithered over the shoulders of her silk robe. "It is even as you have said, milady. I did indeed find a terrible omen that morning. A sign from the Peacock Prince."
Rising, Choi crossed the room to a teak box that stood on a carved ebony stand. Taking it up, she walked back to Lady Evangeline and handed it to her. "The... object is within. I have showed it only to Mr. Holmes and the diviners; I had to pay much gold for an exorcism, to avoid the bad joss of hungry ghosts."
Lina did not open the lid. "Why have you kept it all this time? Would not the priests have insisted on burying or burning it?"
Choi shrugged. "I am only a simple woman, milady. The priest told me that the vessel of the evil spirits had been purified; it was only a relic now. Out of respect for the unfortunate person's ancestors, he told me I should keep it in a safe place until one should come to claim it."
Bowing from the waist, Choi continued, "It is yours now, Lady St. Claire. I give it to you freely."
Lina's face paled a little. "Thank you," she said politely, although her voice held a note of irony. She laid the box aside. "Where was it found?"
Choi coiled back into her seat. "Belowstairs, on the mantel in the common room. My guard was also discovered; he was fast asleep. I thought to punish him but the priest told me it was not his fault; he had been placed under an evil spell."
"Did anything unusual happen that night?"
The madame picked at the gorgeously embroidered phoenix on the front of her robe. "Only that all in the house, including the servants, suffered terrible nightmares, nightmares from which they could not awaken."
Lina relaxed a little. "Did Naga have any relatives in this country?"
"No. I remember that she told me once that her sister, a concubine of the Nassered-Din, had stayed for a little while in London while His Majesty was visiting this country. As far as I know, Naga's sister returned to Persia with her Lord and Master."
Lady Evangeline looked startled. "Did you say the Nassered- Din? The Shah of Persia?"
Once again, Lina's beautiful face bore a thoughtful expression. "This would have been approximately eleven years ago?"
"Indeed. Now, milady, you must excuse me. I have much to do to prepare for this evening's business."
Choi rose, and Lady Evangeline rose as well, gesturing for Rhiannon to follow. In silence, the Oriental woman led her unexpected and unwelcome guests to the front door. "I wish you and this pretty child much joy and happiness in my information, Lady St. Claire. And in my gift as well." Choi's gesture indicated the teak box clutched in Lina's hand and her voice dripped with poisonous sweetness.
The peer leaned forward until her face was mere inches from the madame's. Nostrils pinched in anger, Lady Evangeline said softly, "Do you remember what happened the last time you threatened me and mine, Sui Lee?"
Without another word, Lady Evangeline swept from the house, shoulders thrust back proudly, Rhiannon skittering on her heels. As they climbed into the waiting carriage, the strawberry-blonde woman risked a look over her shoulder. In the doorway, the slender Oriental woman leaned against the one-eyed guard, an expression of absolute terror on her golden face.
Lady Evangeline ignored all of Rhiannon's overtures in the carriage on the way home. The dark-haired peer said nothing at all; not even grunting in reply to Rhiannon's inquiries. Not only did she appear lost in thought, she also seemed on the verge of an explosion.
Finally, the smaller woman subsided. I'm not sure what went on between Lina and that Choi creature, but she'll tell me when she's ready, Rhiannon thought hopefully.
However, there was no further discussion that evening. Despite Rhiannon's efforts, Lady Evangeline refused dinner (which nearly caused an incredibly angry Cook to give notice on the spot), and remained locked within the study, staring broodingly into the fireplace and smoking cigarette after cigarette.
Even the redoubtable Jackson had refused to lend his aid. "When she gets in these black moods, Miss," the housekeeper/butler had said, a rueful expression on his face, "it's best to leave her be. Milady will get over it soon."
Cook had been a little more forthright. "'Ere, now, don't fret yerself inter a state, luv. Oi've known Milaidy fer years; she gets in a sulk sometoimes about one thing er ennother. Just leave 'er be, an' let 'er act loike a spoiled missy if she wants." It was obvious that Cook was still a little miffed over Lina's refusal to eat the dinner that the enormous woman had spent hours preparing.
Rhiannon was at a loss. The pretty secretary had determined to remain with the sullen peer but eventually stumbled off to bed, unable to keep her eyes open a moment longer. All of her hints about wanting company in bed had been brushed aside by a monosyllabic Lina.
The next morning, Rhiannon's turquoise eyes looked bruised and her heart-shaped face was pale and drawn. God help me! I've come to need Lina so much I can't get to sleep without her next to me, the bone-weary young woman thought.
Jackson confided at the breakfast table, "There's been no change, Miss. She spent the night in there; about an hour ago, she opened up the study and commanded Buttercup to bring tea, and to be, if you will excuse the expression, 'bloody quick about it.' I took a tray in myself, but Milady said nothing to me; indeed, she seemed not to notice my presence at all."
Rhiannon sighed. Another day like yesterday, she thought, and I'll end up in Bedlam! She couldn't eat; she stirred her food around the plate with a fork and numbly drank a cup of heavily sugared tea before she realized that she preferred her tea unsweetened.
The distinct rattle of the study's pocket door made Rhiannon look up sharply. Then, she heard Lady Evangeline's voice raised. "Jackson? Ask Rhiannon to step my study for a moment, if you please."
Rhiannon leaped up from the table, running her hands hastily over the red-gold braids that hung down over each shoulder, and straightening her dull tangerine morning gown of raw silk with nervous twitches of her fingers.
Jackson entered the dining room, a slight smile on his colorless face. "Milady desires your presence in the study, Miss," he said.
The pretty strawberry-blonde practically raced to the study, feet skimming over the broad, oak-planked floors. She paused to pinch her cheeks in the hopes of bringing some color to her pale face, then slid the pocket door aside and entered her lover's sanctum, her heart pounding against her chest.
Lina appeared much the way Rhiannon had left her; still dressed in disreputable black trousers and a soft linen shirt, unbuttoned at the neck and tucked in casually; rolled sleeves revealed her muscular forearms to the elbow.
The room was thick with a fog of stale smoke; Rhiannon immediately crossed the room and pulled aside a thick, crimson velvet curtain. Lady Evangeline winced and covered her eyes with one hand. "Close the curtains, Rhiannon," she croaked.
The smaller woman not only disobeyed, she pulled the curtains wider and threw up the sash of the window, allowing clean air to pull the stench of smoke out of the room. "I can't breathe, Lina. Good Lord! It smells like the entire peerage has been indulging in cigars and port in here! How can you stand it?"
Lina did not answer the secretary's pert question. Instead, she sat up with a groan and indicated an ottoman drawn up next to the sofa. "Sit down, my dear. We have serious business to discuss."
Rhiannon was apprehensive; the peer's green eyes were swollen and bloodshot, and she appeared listless and strained. She settled herself down on the ottoman and allowed Lina to take her hands. "Whatever is the matter, Lina?" Rhiannon asked.
"Please, love. Just listen. As you once told me the story of your past, I, too, have a tale to relate; at its conclusion, if you wish to leave, I shall not stop you."
Rhiannon could not imagine the circumstances under which she would abandon the woman she loved, but seeing the utterly serious expression on the peer's face, she swallowed her protest and allowed the other woman to speak.
"You may have wondered how Madame Choi knew my name without an introduction; you may also have speculated as to the meaning of my parting words."
Rhiannon nodded, and Lina continued. "I have spent the night in contemplation, considering whether to lie to you, to gloss over the true circumstances of my acquaintance with that woman, or to simply tell you the truth and suffer the consequences. As you may imagine, this decision did not come easily. In the end, I decided that I could not lie, nor could I sin by omission. You deserve to know the truth. Yesterday, you expressed your desire to know all of me, light and dark. Here, then, is the story of the darkest deed I have ever done, and the source of my eternal shame."
As Lady Evangeline spoke, Rhiannon's stomach twisted. Although she longed to throw herself on the other woman and stop her mouth, to cry and drown out the drone of Lina's voice, she could not - she was paralyzed with dread.
"Five years before I met you, my dear, I made the acquaintance of one Sui Lee Wan, a pretty Oriental girl who told me she was being held against her will by Tabitha Strong, a whorehouse madame with a vicious temper and a knack for punishing errant 'girls' without leaving visible marks.
"I shall not go into the circumstances which led me to Sui Lee; suffice it to say it was during one of my cases. At any rate, I soon determined to end Sui Lee's imprisonment. She was the most intelligent, beautiful and graceful woman I had ever seen, and frankly, I was enthralled by her. At the time, I did not realize that I was infatuated; I truly believed that I felt only pity that such a creature should be held captive by the sadistic Madame Strong, and my honor and sense of duty were engaged.
"I soon put my plan into motion. I obtained a plumber's rocket, and, disguising myself as an elderly clergyman, soon gained entrance to the brothel. I was forced to endure Strong's fluttering, sour-sweet attentions until my gorge rose, but I stood fast. I was thoroughly full of myself, and believed I was doing a great and chivalrous service."
Lady Evangeline paused a moment to sip the half-empty glass of brandy that sat on the floor beside her. With a sigh, she lay back and rested her head on the arm of the sofa, eyes closed but still clasping one of Rhiannon's hands.
"It was but the work of a moment to light the fuse of the rocket and conceal it within the brothel's common room. As I had explained to Sui Lee, the thick smoke would make pursuit impossible, and we could make our escape with no one the wiser.
"The initial phase of our plan went well. Both guests and ladies panicked and began running to the exits, screaming 'Fire!' Even Madame Strong deserted what she believed to be a sinking ship. I waited for Sui Lee by the kitchen door, as arranged... and waited. She never came. As the smoke began to thin, and employees straggled back in, I fled.
"That night, I lay in an agony. I believed that something had gone horribly wrong; perhaps Strong had suspected Sui Lee's duplicity, perhaps even as I tossed on my sleepless pillow, the gentle girl was being tortured, or worse.
"Three days past without a word. I was frantic; discreet inquiries had proved that Sui Lee had not been seen since the night of the mock-fire. Then, Holmes came uninvited to my door."
Lady Evangeline blanched a little, remembering how angry the detective had been. She had never seen Holmes in a true rage before; his murderous expression had terrified the peer. "Holmes was furious, and he threw down a copy of the Times. Madame Strong's brothel had been burned to the ground by unknown arsonists that very night; Holmes demanded to know if I had done the deed."
Rhiannon gasped. Lina squeezed the other woman's fingers and continued, "It had not been my hand that set the fire, that much I knew and explained to Holmes. He had known of my plan to rescue Sui Lee but feared it had gotten out of hand. We agreed that the matter was worthy of inquiry and went our separate ways."
"For two years - nothing. Holmes would occasionally bring me some bit of gossip, but no clues, nothing concrete. Sui Lee had vanished without a trace. Then, on a fine summer morning in June of 1885, Jackson admitted a woman into my study. That woman was Sui Lee.
"She was finely dressed, and appeared quite prosperous. I, of course, demanded to know what the Devil happened that night, why she had fled without me, what she had done for the past two years. In my nightmares, I still hear her answer."
Rhiannon listened in horror as Lady Evangeline spun Sui Lee's tale: a sordid one of greed, blackmail and cold blooded murder. The delicate Chinese girl had not been a prisoner of Tabitha Strong's - she had been a business partner. Much of the tale of woe she had woven for Lina's benefit had been lies.
Sui Lee had wished to become successful and very wealthy, and to do that, she needed to get rid of Tabitha Strong. That cunning old woman knew too many of Sui Lee's secrets - the Oriental had been blackmailing customers for years, threatening to make their sexual escapades public knowledge. So, Sui Lee had determined that Strong must die.
"She used me, Rhiannon," Lady Evangeline explained, "She waited, patiently as a spider in its web, for the right person to come along. That I was a woman mattered little; she told me in her cool, little voice that she would even have offered her body to me if that sacrifice had been necessary to obtain my assistance in her vile scheme."
Sui Lee had guided Lina every step of the way, pretending to be innocent, using the peer's unconscious attraction and sense of honor to further her plan. Then, the night of the planned escape, she had hidden belowstairs. "After I left," Lady Evangeline continued, "she crept down and in the confusion, cut Strong's throat. Then she set the fire with her own dainty hands; after, of course, taking with her the brothel's customer lists, money and jewels."
Rhiannon was open-mouthed. "B-b-but that doesn't explain...," she began, when Lady Evangeline waved her free hand for silence.
"Let me finish the tale. The more Sui Lee told me, the angrier I became. I felt betrayed; more than that, I knew that I had been made an accomplice to murder. But most of all, I felt a monumental fool. Sui Lee had damaged my ego; she manipulated me like a blind puppy, and that I allowed her to do so was almost more than I could bear.
"Then came the final blow. Sui Lee had come to inform me she needed my 'assistance' again, this time to punish an Earl who had failed to make his regular blackmail payments. If I did not help her, she said, she would tell the police everything about Strong; she would make sure I was ruined. And she further threatened to harm those who knew about the scheme; somehow, that bitch had discovered Holmes' knowledge of the plan."
Lady Evangeline paused again, and without opening her eyes, fumbled the brandy glass in her hand and gulped like a hardened drunkard.
Her voice harsh, the peer said, "I fell upon her in a rage. I beat her, Rhiannon; I beat her savagely and left her for dead, running from my own home like a madwoman. I eventually, by some miracle, found my way to Holmes'.
"I told him the whole story. He said nothing; he had Watson give me a sedative and I slept for two days. When I awoke, Holmes was there. He told me only that the matter had been resolved; I could not bring myself to press for details.
"I did not know until today that Sui Lee and Madame Choi were one and the same person. Imagine my shock when I saw her face for the first time in three years - I had thought her dead and buried.
"I sent a message to Holmes yesterday after we returned, demanding an explanation. His reply came last night. Read it for yourself." Lady Evangeline tossed a sheet of much folded foolscap into Rhiannon's lap.
With trembling fingers, Rhiannon unfolded the paper and read:
"Lina, some ghosts you must exorcise by yourself and for yourself. The past cannot be changed. It is time, and past time, for you to face this situation ON YOUR OWN. I am your friend, but even I cannot protect you from your own guilt. Your Friend, Sherlock Holmes."
Rhiannon laid down the paper. "So, Holmes chose not to tell you Sui Lee was alive in order to force you to face what you did three years ago."
Lady Evangeline sighed wearily. "Yes. I did a terrible and shameful thing, Rhiannon. Despite the fact that she was a criminal, she did not deserve what I did to her. That episode is the one and only time I have ever allowed my temper to overrule me. After that, I have exercised great care in controlling the violent side of my nature.
"Nevertheless, and despite what you may think of Sui Lee, I know you must harbor strong feelings against me. Who would not, knowing what I have done? Nor can I blame you if you find me intolerable now; I am not sure I can live with myself, either. Please understand, Rhiannon, if you find me hateful and unworthy, as I am sure you must, then I will bear you no censure if you wish to leave."
Tears began to flow from beneath Lady Evangeline's closed eyelids, and she stifled a sob. Then the peer began to cry silently; without a sound but in obvious agony.
Rhiannon sat still, her mind still reeling from Lina's revelations. She had known of the peer's violent streak - remembering the way Lina had attacked Jack the Ripper without hesitation was one of her fondest memories - but she was surprised by her lover's admission of brutality.
Then she recalled the day when she had first seen one of Lina's fits of temper; it had frightened her terribly. But the peer had told her then that she would never hurt someone she considered her friend...
Rhiannon remembered something else, too - Choi, or Sui Lee, had not shown fear. They must have recognized one another simultaneously, Rhiannon thought, and Choi did not seem afraid of Lina, until the end.
"Lina," she asked, trying to contain her instinctive urge to comfort the other woman, "Why did Madame Choi say she gave you that box freely and wished you joy in it?"
Lina sat up and wiped her face with the back of her hand. Her breast still heaved with silent sobs, but she managed to get out, "She... hoped... the evil... she still believed... that object contained... would fall... on me... and you as well."
Now Rhiannon understood. In giving Lina the box, with its frightening contents, the Oriental woman had hoped to curse the peer, to harm her. And Lina had accepted it without turning a hair... believing that whatever befell, it was only what she deserved. But for Rhiannon's sake, she had threatened Choi, willing to relinquish hard- won control to see her safe...
Without hesitation, Rhiannon threw her arms around Lady Evangeline. "What a wicked, spiteful thing to do!,"she exclaimed. "Sui Lee is a terrible woman, Lina. I wish you had killed her!"
"Please, Rhiannon!," the dark-haired peer said in agony, "Do not say such things! I cannot blame Sui Lee for wishing to harm me..."
"Nonsense!" The smaller woman was incensed. "If someone had hurt me as much as she did you, I would have been tempted myself."
"Yes, but would you have yielded?" Lady Evangeline's eyes were even more swollen than before and her nose was redder than a cherry.
Rhiannon considered the question soberly. "Yes," she said slowly, "yes, I would. Lina, if you were threatened, I would kill that person without hesitation, or yes, even beat them if I were able! You might think me a mere child, Evangeline St. Claire, but remember that I survived for years on the streets of Whitechapel. Every day I saw women beaten, mutilated, even killed by those who claimed to have their welfare at heart."
"But what I did! Even a monster deserves no such treatment!"
"You are wrong. Monsters deserve whatever they get, particularly monsters like Sui Lee Wan. Consider this: What if you'd yielded to her demands? You and I would never have met, and I would have become the first of the Ripper's victims. And if you'd refused? You would be a ruined woman, possibly even selling your body as I did to fend off starvation. And what of poor Holmes, whose only crime was his friendship with you?"
Rhiannon wiped the peer's wet face with her hand. "You lost control. You learned from that, Lina, and you have taken steps to prevent it ever happening again. I am not afraid of you, nor do I wish to leave you. I have never felt safer in my life than in your arms."
Lady Evangeline began to weep again, keening like a broken- hearted child. Rhiannon held her lover in her arms, rocking the bigger woman gently, stroking the ink-black hair that spilled down her back.
"I love you, Lina," Rhiannon whispered,
over and over, "I love you no matter what you have done, or what you will
do. Nothing will ever change that. Nothing."
After such an emotional morning, the two women had, by mutual consent, stayed in their bedroom the rest of the day.
Rhiannon set out to prove, over and over again with ferocious energy, the strength of her devotion to the still insecure peer. Finally, an exhausted Lina threw out her hands and cried, "Enough! I believe you, my dear! No more, I beg you!"
Rhiannon looked at her lover's body with satisfaction. Lady Evangeline was covered with a fine sheen of sweat; her jet-black hair clung in raveled strands to her curves. The alabaster skin so admired by Rhiannon was now blotched with love bites, and a spectacular bruise blossomed on Lina's throat.
"Are you sure?," Rhiannon panted. "I don't want to have to start all over again in the morning."
Lady Evangeline raised one ebony brow and laughed weakly. "Quite certain, love. If you continue in this vein, I fear I shall expire, though no doubt with an enormous smile stretched across my features." Lina pulled Rhiannon down on top of her and kissed the strawberry-blonde's forehead. "Nothing else need be said or proven. I am convinced you do not hate me, and mere words cannot express the depth of my feelings towards you, either at this moment or beyond."
Rhiannon snuggled into the larger woman's body, a tiny smile on her face. Even in the midst of a spectacular climax, Lina's language always held the formality of the upper class and she never failed to find that humorous.
They lay this way for some time, luxuriating in each other's closeness. However, even blissful moments must pass, and Lady Evangeline soon shifted her body beneath Rhiannon's. "I fear we must get ready for dinner, my dear. Cook will almost certainly give notice if we are late."
Rhiannon moaned in protest. "Must we?" At that moment, her stomach chose to emit a loud rumble and both women laughed.
"Indeed," Lady Evangeline said with a smile, "I fear if we do not satisfy the hungry beast within, my dear, you will resort to complete cannibalism, instead of only partial."
Rhiannon took in the peer's bruised body and snorted.
"Is this where the beastie lives, then?," Lina said with a wicked grin, poking Rhiannon's belly with one forefinger; Rhiannon retaliated with a giggle, and very quickly, a tickle fight erupted that ultimately burst one feather pillow and covered both wildly laughing women with feathers.
"Woof!," Rhiannon exclaimed finally, blowing lightly at a feather clinging to one rosy nipple. "I'm for the watercloset; I'm so full my back teeth are floating."
Despite her tired state, Lady Evangeline leaped from the bed and headed for the bathroom, calling over her shoulder, "Not if I get there first, my dear!"
Bits of down drifted in her wake as she ran; with a muffled curse, Rhiannon started after her...
And more giggles floated through the locked bedroom door.
Later that evening, over a dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Lady Evangeline said mournfully, "Our day's holiday, and my indulgence of guilt, has cost us time, my dear; a precious commodity of which we have only a little."
"Whatever do you mean?" Rhiannon put down a forkful of beef to stare at the peer.
The dark-haired beauty drank a gulp of wine and replied, "The full moon is in three days time. On the morrow, we shall surely discover another kidnapping has occurred and we must hasten our investigations. Otherwise, I fear, there will be murder afoot, and even fouler deeds than that."
Lady Evangeline's face held a haunted expression.
Rhiannon went to bed that night, but found sleep elusive; even curled up next to the warm body of the woman she loved, the strawberry-blonde woman was chilled to the bone.
I know something terrible will
happen, Rhiannon thought, and shivered again as the ghostly fingers
of presentiment trailed icily down her spine.
The following morning, Rhiannon awoke alone.
Dashing downstairs, hastily tying the belt of her amber dressing gown, the strawberry-blonde woman was somewhat surprised to find Bob the footman standing at Jackson's usual station in the dining room.
"Bob?" Rhiannon asked, red-gold brows raised, "What on earth are you doing here? Where's Jackson? And where's Lina?"
Bob was a tall, slender man with a puckered scar that twisted the left corner of his lip into a permanent snarl; despite his appearance, however, Bob had a gentle way about him that Rhiannon found endearing. "Per'aps you should step inter the study, Miss," he said, twitching his curly brown forelock with nervous fingers.
Rhiannon frowned. Turning on her heel, she stomped into the study, ignoring a gawking Buttercup, the Yorkshire parlor maid. As Rhiannon flung the pocket door wide, she heard Buttercup exclaim excitedly to James, the other footman, "Coo-ee! Didjer see t' look on Missy's faice? Milady'll be in fer it when 'er gets 'ome!"
James frantically shushed Buttercup as Rhiannon swept in the door, the skirts of her dressing gown swirling around her feet.
The study was empty. A creamy envelope lay in the center of the desk; trembling, Rhiannon walked softly across the room, as if she feared her footsteps would bring disaster, and picked it up.
It was addressed to her in Lina's distinctive handwriting.
With exquisite calm, Rhiannon used a silver letter opener to slit the envelope cleanly. Then, she removed the sheets of foolscap and unfolded them, sinking down on a tufted settee to read Lady Evangeline's note.
"My dearest, sweetest love,
Rhiannon refolded the note and slipped it back into the envelope, staring at nothing with pale blue eyes that shimmered with hurt. I can't believe it!, the strawberry-blonde thought, she left without a goodbye, kiss-my-arse, or anything!
For long moments, Rhiannon sat on the settee like a wooden statue, the envelope and its painful contents dangling loosely from one hand. Then she roused herself with a shake. Well, she thought, at least she has entrusted me with one task she thinks I'm capable of doing!
Her chin firmed. Directly after breakfast, she said silently to herself, I'll go to the Library and find this professor. And God help him if he refuses to cooperate!
Henry, too, had defected, no doubt driving Lady Evangeline and Jackson to their unknown destination. Rhiannon took a cab to the Museum, clutching her reticule in black gloved hands.
Professor Amos Woolbright turned out to be a somewhat vague, elf-like old man with the rounded shoulders and hunched posture of the lifelong scholar. Adjusting his round spectacles on his long nose, Woolbright looked Rhiannon up and down.
"So, Miss Moore," he said with a smile, revealing long, horse-like yellowed teeth, "you've come to ask me some questions, eh?" The remnants of his hair, long since gone from the top of his liver-spotted head, stuck out like two bunches of fluffy wool over his prominent ears.
Rhiannon nodded. She had donned sartorial armor for this interview: a wonderful dark red wool gown, the exact shade of ripe black cherries, with row upon row of bright gold brocade sweeping along the ruffled hem, bodice and sleeves. A black tri-corner hat with a sweeping cockade of gold and cherry feathers was been settled on her head, and Rhiannon's strawberry-blonde hair had been twisted into a trio of braids that had been looped up in the back with more ribbon and nestled charmingly against her neck.
She was certainly the prettiest picture in the great Library that December morning; most of the other inhabitants were stick-thin or paunchy scholars, muttering to themselves in incomprehensible phrases, or absently dusting crumbs from their somber black suits while they studied massive, gilt-edged tomes.
Professor Woolbright's smile grew broader. "Well, then, please Miss, do sit down. It's rare that a dry old man like myself has such a beautiful young visitor."
Rhiannon perched in the wooden chair Woolbright indicated and spent a moment fussing with her skirts. She felt distinctly out of place in this hall of learning. The place was a quiet as a graveyard on a rainy night. I hope I don't make a complete ass of myself, she thought. I'd hate to have to tell Lina that I couldn't interrogate one willing old man!
"Now, what brings such a pretty little wren into the Library on a nice sunny day like today?" Woolbright's eyes, the pale amber of gold seen beneath deep clear water, sparkled with good humor.
Rhiannon cleared her throat. "I hope you can help me, Professor. My friend, Lady Evangeline St. Claire, asked me to come here today and ask you some questions."
"Ah!" Woolbright seemed to perk up even more. "In that case, I am more eager to help you than ever, my child. Any friend of Lady Lina's is certainly a friend of mine."
Not for the first time, Rhiannon wondered about the scope and breadth of Lady Evangeline's seemingly endless acquaintances. I swear, that woman seems to know everyone in London!
With a start, Rhiannon realized that Woolbright was looking at her expectantly, head cocked to one side. Flushing slightly, Rhiannon drew Lina's letter from the reticule that dangled from one wrist. "I was to ask you about the Peacock Prince, the Madman's Tarot, and something called a Hand-of-Glory."
"Ah," the professor breathed. "Rather esoteric subjects, don't you think?"
Rhiannon shook her head, dark red feathers brushing against her forehead. "I'm not sure what to think, Professor Woolbright. I'm afraid these matters are a closed book to me."
"Well then, my child. I'll have to see if I can provide you with the keys to open that book. Did Lady Evangeline perchance tell you my area of speciality?"
"No. Only that I was to ask especially for you."
Woolbright took off his spectacles and polished them against one sleeve. "I have made the occult my life's work. Oh, yes, Lady Lina knew what she was doing when she sent you here to me."
"The occult? I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Would it help you to know that term, 'Peacock Prince,' is another name for the Devil?"
Rhiannon gasped, drawing disapproving looks from a pair of gentleman seated at another desk. More quietly, she asked, "You mean Lucifer?"
"The very one. The term originated in Persia; the 'Shaitan' of the Muslim faith has his own title and nicknames, just as he does in our Christian faith. We sometimes term him 'Old Scratch' or 'Jack Split-Foot,' so, too, do the Persians refer to Satan as the 'Peacock Prince,' possibly in the superstitious belief that to name a thing is to summon its attention to oneself."
"I... see." Rhiannon did not understand the connection with Lina's case, but the mention of Persia intrigued her. This was the third time that country had come up, and the pretty woman could not help but wonder if the seeming 'coincidence' was anything but.
"As to the Madman's Tarot... I believe you are looking for specific information? Not a general description or history?"
Rhiannon explained in low tones what they already knew of the infamous deck... and the golden box it rested in. Woolbright's amber eyes brightened.
"A box, did you say? Can you describe it in detail?"
Rhiannon took out her notebook; she had copied the manifest's description that Katchurian had provided, preferring to transcribe her notes all at once rather than refer to numerous documents. "Yes. Let's see... solid gold, six inches high and nine inches in length. The whole of the box is covered in repousee figures of unknown origin. It is set with numerous pigeon's blood rubies, black pearls and diamonds. The feet are intricately fashioned into a bird's claws covered with diamond and ruby chips to emulate scales."
She glanced at Woolbright; the old man's eyes were closed and his hands dangled loosely at his sides. When he spoke, Rhiannon started - she had thought he'd fallen asleep. "Anything else?," he asked.
The pretty woman glanced at her notebook. "No... nothing else. Do you wish me to describe the cards?"
Woolbright opened his eyes and sat up. "No. It is the box I find intriguing, not its contents. Pray, allow me to tell you a story..."
As the old man continued speaking, Rhiannon scribbled furiously, eyes widening as Woolbright spun a tale of a prince's gift to a beloved woman...
"So you see, my child," Woolbright concluded, "many scholars have speculated as to the whereabouts of the Madman's Tarot, and the story I have just told you has been circulating for quite some time. But your details about the box have confirmed what was mere speculation.''
"So, the Tarot never really disappeared... It was just... misplaced, in a strange sort of way."
"You put it quite succinctly, Miss Moore. The story of the Tarot's disappearance after poor Nostromos' ownership is an apocryphal one. Truth to tell, it's only the collectors who are after the thing, anyway. Serious scholars look upon it as a mildly interesting artifact of a by-gone era and nothing more."
"And what about a Hand-of-Glory?"
"Ah." Woolbright leaned back again. "Now you come to the most curious aspect of this whole business. Are you at all familiar with witchcraft as practiced in Renaissance Europe?"
"I'm afraid not, Professor."
"Well, a Hand-of-Glory is tool of the black arts. A magician takes the left hand of a murderer hung for his crimes and dug up from his crossroads burial; he also removes the corpse's fat, a lock of his hair, and some coffin nails.
"Next, after incantations and various other occult ritual, the hand is put away in salt and herbs and other nasty substances, in order to mummify it. During this lengthy process, the magician melts down the fat, along with more herbs and incantations, and makes a candle of it, using the hair as a wick.
"At the next dark of the moon, the Hand-of-Glory is assembled. The candle is fixed to the clutching hand with a coffin nail, and the whole of it is bound with thread and pierced with thirteen silver needles. More rituals, more magical incantations, and the magician's work is complete." Woolbright's eyes had closed again.
"But what is it used for?," Rhiannon asked, a tiny frown marring her features.
"According to the Malleus Maleficarium - that's a grimoire, my child, a book of spells - the Hand is a thieves' tool. Once lit, and while it burns, a thief can enter a house where all within are caught in a spell of slumber. No one will wake, dogs will not bark, and he can complete his criminal business in the surety that he will not be caught. Of course, one of the side effects of the whole business is that those held by the Hand's spell will suffer nightmares of vague yet terrifying force."
Rhiannon's red-gold brows raised nearly to her hairline. "This is fascinating," she said, remembering Katchurian's and Choi's stories of nightmares-without-waking while the kidnappers plied their trade. "Is there anything else you can tell me?"
Woolbright smiled and opened his eyes again. "Well, I did leave out one or two details, but I'm sure you don't intend to go into the Black Arts business yourself, so it hardly matters."
The strawberry-blonde woman returned his smile. "No, I certainly have no intention of plying my trade as a witch or magician anytime soon."
Woolbright sat up suddenly, his face utterly serious. "See that you do not, Miss Moore. The occult is not a realm for dabblers of any kind; evil, and more than evil, can come of even the most well- meaning act. I want your promise that you will not get involved in such matters."
Rhiannon replied, taken slightly aback, "I promise you, Professor, not to get involved with anything like what you've described."
Woolbright patted her hand, his face wreathed in a beatific smile. "Good girl," he said approvingly. "Now, I'm sure you have better things to do than sit here and listen to an old man dodder."
Rhiannon put her notebook away. "Oh, really, Professor," she replied anxiously, "if my presence is an imposition..."
"Not at all!," Woolbright interrupted. "But I'm sure Lady Lina waits eagerly for your information. Have a pleasant morning, Miss Moore. And please, do come back and listen to this old man natter another time."
Rhiannon laughed softly. "I'll come back as soon as I'm able, Professor. You've my word on it. Good day, and thank you for your time."
Safely tucked away into a cab, being whisked back to Grosvenor Square and home, Rhiannon shivered despite the thick woolen rug tucked around her. What in the world has Lina gotten into?, she thought, fingering the notebook in the pocket of her dress. And what good is all this nonsense about witchcraft going to do her?
From somewhere deep inside herself, the pretty secretary felt she knew the answer... and she was horribly, terribly afraid.