THE WITCH'S KISS
(Third in the Gaslight Series)
by Nene Adams ©2005 - all rights reserved
Late June, 1889
The house was unnaturally silent.
Sherrinford Pike, by his own consideration the premier consulting
detective in London (and the Continent as well, if not the world),
paused outside the baize-green door, his gloved hand poised
to take the brass knocker that was shaped like a heavy-breasted
mermaid. On either side of the door, heavy Mazerine-blue jardinières
were heaped with limp ivy helixes, and dying periwinkles and
petunias, their once-colourful petals seared brown and yellow
by neglect. No one had watered the plants in what Pike deduced
was a good long while (at least three weeks, he estimated),
nor had any servant seen to sweeping the threshold, scattered
with the curled husks of dead leaves. In a fashionable, respectable
neighbourhood of immaculately kept homes, this lack of care
Pike squared his shoulders, put on a brave face despite his
forebodings, then seized the mermaid doorknocker by its tarnished
brass fish’s tail, and beat a brisk tattoo upon the panel.
There was no answer.
Black brows drawn together in a frown, Pike tried the knob and
was not really surprised to find that the door was unlocked.
His frown became more thunderous at this further sign of carelessness.
Pushing the door open, Pike entered the darkened house and pulled
off his gloves at once, stuffing them into the pockets of his
jacket. The dragon-headed walking stick he carried concealed
a sword blade; a twist of his wrist, and a shining, sharpened
steel length slid partway from its concealing sheath. He did
not wish to fully draw the weapon unless it proved necessary,
however there was no telling what he might find inside, so some
degree of caution seemed to be prudent.
Inside, the rooms were dim, the curtains drawn, the gas-jets
unlit. The atmosphere was stuffy and oppressive; silence hung
over the house like a shroud. A quick check of the kitchen revealed
that the fires which ought to be roaring were merely ash, and
had not been lit in some time. Since June 12th, Pike deduced,
judging from the masthead on a scrap of unburned newspaper (The
Times, he noted) that he found in the cold firebox of the cooking
range (a ‘Birmingham’ model made by Hassell &
Singleton that had not been blacked in a fortnight, judging
from the speckles of rust creeping on the edges). There was
no sign of the servants; all the people who ought to have been
running the household appeared to have vanished, leaving little
trace behind. At least there were no signs of violence, although
the complete lack of noise was eerie and not a little unnerving.
Pike ventured out of the kitchen and made his way to the study.
The doors were closed but he slid them back, and almost reeled
as an noxious cloud of spilled liquor, unwashed body and worse
odours slapped him in the face.
Pike turned his head to the side, nostrils pinched, but that
did not help, so he deliberately took a breath to accustom his
nose to the smell. Silently, he reminded himself that it could
have been worse – much, much worse. At least it was not
the sickly sweet scent of decomposition that greeted him so
harshly. As he entered the study, broken glass crunched underfoot.
He glanced down and identified the detritus as the remains of
whisky bottles. Pike turned a large piece over with the toe
of his boot and read the label – Cragganmore, a twelve-year
old Speyside single malt. As he recalled, the taste was smoky
and peaty, smooth on the palate. From the amount of glass scattered
on the thickly carpeted floor, he estimated that there were
at least a dozen broken bottles. It was a shame to waste such
good whisky on a mindless binge, he thought. Pike bared his
teeth in a humourless grin. Cheap rotgut would have done the
job as well, if one sought oblivion in the grape and grain.
The exquisite Chinese screen that normally concealed a bookcase
had been knocked over but was, as far as Pike could tell, undamaged.
The broad flame-mahogany desk was piled high with crumpled foolscap.
Ink spots splattered a wall where a pen had been flung in what
he presumed to be frustration or anger, or possibly both, given
his knowledge of human nature. More aborted attempts at letters,
covered in blotches of ink and tear-faded lines, were piled
in the cold fireplace grate.
He found her unconscious on the settee, a wealth of dirty black
hair hanging over the edge of the scrolled arm in a tangled,
disordered mass. Her mouth hung open; there were lines of tension
and suffering in her strong-boned face that even sleep could
not erase. She reeked of vomit and alcohol, and had clearly
not bathed in days. Her silk dressing gown was haphazardly fastened
with a knotted sash; the garment was filthy, and gaped open
in the front, showing her breasts. A partially empty whisky
bottle lay on its side on the floor next to the settee.
Lady Evangeline St. Claire – the second best consulting
detective in London, as far as Pike was concerned – lay
snoring, dead drunk and oblivious to the world.
Pike sighed. Matters were not as bad as he had feared, but they
were dire enough to cause him great concern. He removed his
hat and left it, as well as his walking stick, in the outstretched
paws of the great, snarling stuffed bear that reared behind
the door. He exited the study and returned after a few moments
bearing a floral-patterned ewer. Without a moment’s hesitation,
he upended the ewer and dashed cold water into Lina’s
“Damnation!” Lina spluttered, going from horizontal
to vertical in a single jerk. Water dripped off her face. Her
swollen, bloodshot gaze fell upon Pike, and she grimaced. “What
do you want?” Lina croaked, not bothering to be polite.
“How’s your head, St. Claire?” Pike asked,
his voice sharp enough to make her wince. Some petty sense of
triumph that he would never have admitted aloud took satisfaction
in this proof of his friend’s delicate condition. “I’ve
complied with your wish for solitude long enough, for I see
that you’ve been over-indulgent to a fault. You’re
turning into a veritable Silenos, judging from the empty bottles
and the stench of drunken debauchery. Good God, woman…
have you been sober even a day since you returned from Paris?”*
Lina pushed dripping locks of hair away from her face. “What
business is that of yours?” she muttered, eyeing him sullenly.
“None, I suppose, except that due a friend from a friend.”
He stared down at her, his dark eyes hooded. “When will
you cease this abominable display of self-pity and cowardice?”
he asked bluntly. “It has been three weeks…”
“Three weeks and five days,” Lina replied, still
sounding hoarse. She reached for the whisky bottle on the floor,
either unaware of or not caring about her partial nudity.
Pike gritted his teeth, then reached down and yanked her dressing
gown closed. “For God’s sake, St. Claire! Miss Moore
is in London, comfortably ensconced in Swiftways Hotel, not
dead and buried!”
“She might as well be dead, Sherrinford, for she is not
here with me!” Lina roared, then turned pale, clutching
her head with both hands and whimpering.
“Go to her,” Pike urged.
Lina gazed at him with red-rimmed eyes. Her face was stark with
pain. “I cannot. Rhiannon has been painfully clear –
she does not wish to see me or have any contact with me. Every
day, I have a nosegay sent to the hotel, the only way I may
remind her of my continued existence, but she does not reply
or acknowledge my overture. I am reduced to donning disguises
and lurking about the Embankment in the hopes of catching a
glimpse of her. I dare not approach, do you understand? Not
until she gives me leave.”
“And in the meantime, you intend to kill yourself with
excessive drink. Bah!” Pike’s lips twisted, and
he stared at her in disgust. “Where are the servants?”
“A paid holiday.” Lina sounded sulky. “I wish
to be alone, Sherrinford. Go away.”
“Not until you solemnly swear to abandon this scheme of
yours to drain Scotland dry of its whisky supply. It will lead
to the grave, St. Claire. You know it will.”
Lina hesitated, peering at him sidelong. Pike went on, his tone
as unyielding as steel, “If you’ll recall, when
you thought that Victoire had died in the warehouse fire, misplaced
guilt drove you to embrace the bottle. Must I remind you of
the torments you suffered when you were forced to put drink
aside? The severe anxiety and agitation, the mental confusion
and hallucinations, the tremors and violent convulsions…
I could go on, St. Claire, but we both know the consequences
if you refuse to keep your demons leashed.”
“It is the only way I can forget her, though liquor is
not as effective as the mythical river Lethe in that regard,”
Lina said. She rested her elbows on her knees, her head bowed.
The half-empty whisky bottle dangled from her left hand. She
shrugged. “Perhaps I ought instead to drink of the Styx,
since I prefer death to abandonment,” Lina half-whispered,
staring at the balled-up papers in the grate.
“Oh, Lord… I have had enough!” Pike cried,
impassioned by fury. He removed a revolver from his jacket pocket
– a .45 calibre snub-nosed British Bulldog with a 2 ½
inch barrel and a rubber grip, the most reliable short-range
man-stopper produced by the Webley factory. He tossed the weapon
at her bare feet. “If you mean to die, St. Claire, then
you should go about it properly instead of wasting away by inches
and causing trouble for all concerned.”
Lina’s gaze transferred to the revolver, and she shivered,
her emerald eyes dull.
The tension broke when Pike blew out a weary breath, and scrubbed
a hand over his face. “Between our mutual histrionics,
St. Claire, I believe we comprise an entire amateur dramatics
society. Be so kind as to give me the Cragganmore, if you please.
I feel in dire need of a restorative for my poor shattered nerves.”
Lina raised her brows but gave him the whisky. Pike put the
bottle to his mouth and took several healthy swallows, not bothering
to take the time to savour the taste. A pity, really. It bordered
on painful, treating a twelve-year old whisky in such a cavalier
fashion, but sheer need overrode more aesthetic considerations.
Pike lowered the bottle. “These are the times that try
men’s souls, if I may borrow a phrase from our American
cousins,” he said, wiping his mouth uncouthly on his sleeve.
“I cannot fault you for showing some degree of heartache;
that is normal and natural under the circumstances. You love
Miss Moore, and the pain of losing her is extreme. I can only
imagine how I should feel if Ormond were to… well, that
is understood.” He paused, then continued, “Do you
truly believe that Miss Moore will never see you again?”
Lina looked more defeated than ever. She seemed to crumple in
on herself, and her face, already pale, turned an unhealthy
shade of grey. “I do not know,” she finally answered.
“What you mean, St. Claire, is that you have no faith
in Miss Moore’s ability to forgive.” Pike scowled.
“Look at yourself! You frankly stink. You haven’t
been eating properly, either, or taking care of yourself. I’ve
known beggars in Calcutta and opium eaters in Shanghai with
healthier habits. If I were not your friend, I should give you
the widest possible berth!”
For a moment, something of Lina’s old temper shone through
her grief. “And I have known men who were better able
to keep their opinions to themselves!” she snapped.
“Do you think your lady-love wishes to return to this?”
Pike swept a hand at the mess. “Or this?” A wave
indicated Lina’s state of dishabille and dirtiness. “Does
she want a snivelling coward who crawls into a whisky bottle
at the first sign of trouble? Or do you think Miss Moore might
prefer a strong lover and protector, one who does not crumble
in the face of adversity? Are you a woman of straw, St. Claire,
or flesh and blood?”
Lina did not so much as glance at him. “You do not understand.
I betrayed her, Sherrinford. I betrayed Rhiannon in the worst
way, and I do not blame her for hating me.”
Pike took hold of her upper arm and hauled Lina off the settee.
She was unusually tall for a woman; they were almost the same
height and build, both being slender, but Pike was stronger
by virtue of being a man. Ignoring the acrid, offensive odour
of stale sweat that poured off her skin, he shook her a little,
appalled by the wasted flesh beneath his hand. “Damn you!
I refuse to stand by and watch you destroy yourself again!”
he shouted. “You claim that I cannot comprehend the matter,
but here is a trifling bit of information that seems to have
escaped your notice – without you, without your love,
Miss Moore will surely perish.”
That statement caught Lina’s attention. Her head swung
up; she transfixed Pike with a glare. “Do not speak such
“It is true,” Pike insisted, releasing her. “I
speak not of literal death, but a metaphorical slaying of her
soul. You’ve broken her trust; that fact cannot be denied.
Nevertheless, she still loves you. I’m certain of it,
and you know that I never state a conclusion unless I can prove
my statements are true. The sort of devotion I have perceived
in Miss Moore’s character is not easily cast aside, regardless
of the provocation. Do you not think she will feel responsible
if you lose yourself to a drunkard’s folly? Guilt may
well drive her to desperation.” His voice lowered to its
most persuasive tones. “Go and see her, St. Claire, I
For a bare second, Pike thought that he had convinced her. His
heart sank when at last, Lina shook her head. “No,”
she said. “No, Sherrinford, I will not incommode Rhiannon
with my undesirable and unwanted affections.”
He decided to try the last ammunition in his arsenal. “It’s
just as well, I suppose,” Pike said in his most cutting
tones, shrugging a shoulder, “for I doubt she’d
much admire a craven who is too weak to curb her own self-destructive
Lina’s arm swung back and snapped forward; Pike easily
deflected the blow. Exhausted by that simple act, she stumbled
and fell back on the settee, her dishevelled hair covering her
face. His patience at an end, Pike went to collect his hat and
walking stick from the stuffed bear behind the door.
“Get out,” Lina rasped.
Pike could not resist a final sally. “Think of the woman
that Miss Moore fell in love with, St. Claire. Surely you can
recall her to your memory? It was not an abject crawling worm.
It was not an alcohol-ridden hag who reeks of her own vomitus.
The St. Claire with whom I have crossed swords many times in
the past is not in this room. She was a foeman worthy of my
steel. This pallid shade that you’ve become is but the
reflection of a disgusting indulgence, an unbecoming orgy of
self-pity, and I wish you the full, seething misery of it. I
shall refrain from bidding you good day, as I doubt you would
even take the sentiment under advisement. I will tell Ormond
that you send him no compliments. Adieu, St. Claire. Do not
bother to see me out; I know my way.”
Without a backward glance, Pike made his exit, drawing about
him the hauteur of a stage tragedian – which he had, in
fact, learned from a leading actor of the day. The stiffness
in his back and shoulders was, however, not entirely counterfeit.
He held himself rigid as he walked out of the house in Grosvenor
Street because he was not sure if he would ever see his friend
(closer than a friend, really, closer than a sibling; he could
admit that only to himself, only in the secret depths of his
soul) alive again.
There was not a thing he could do about it.
Behind him, Pike heard the crash of shattering glass, and supposed
that Lina had thrown the bottle of whisky at the wall.
He shut the front door behind him and made his way down the
street, not daring to look back lest his resolution be tested.
Lina’s survival was in her own hands now; he had at least
given her food for thought to counteract the poison that was
destroying her mind and body. The rest was up to the woman herself.
Pike was not a religious man, but he prayed that she would get
over her sickness; not only for her sake, but for Miss Moore’s
Rhiannon Moore stifled a yawn behind her hastily raised fist.
Dr. Ormond Sacker, the partner of the famous consulting detective
Sherrinford Pike, had graciously requested the pleasure of her
company at the Royal Adelphi Theatre in the Strand to attend
a performance of A Dead Shot, a farce written by John
Buckstone, as well as a revival of Dion Boucicault's popular
comic melodrama, The Shaughraun. Despite the impressive
spectacle of the second piece – including a marvellous
bit of coup-de-thêatre in which the hero swung across
the stage on a rope – Rhiannon found it difficult to concentrate.
The theatre’s newly installed electric lights were dazzling,
a far cry from the mellow warmth of the old gaslights that had
been such a fire-hazard to the building’s dried timbers.
This new illumination seemed overly harsh to her eyes, drawing
acrid tints from the actor’s costumes and the sets themselves,
or so it seemed to her aching head and burning eyes. Even the
box that she shared with Sacker was not dim enough or sheltered
enough to dispel the clashing light and stuffy atmosphere that
contributed to the migraine that was squeezing a steely band
of pain around her head.
Cognizant of Sacker’s kindness, however, Rhiannon forced
herself to endure until the end of the play, often taking restorative
sniffs from a little silver-topped bottle of lavender-scented
smelling salts. As soon as they exited the theatre and the crowd
on the pavement had thinned, the cool evening air was like a
balm on her flushed face. The tightness in her temples eased
a bit. She took Sacker’s crooked arm and allowed him to
lead her to a nearby restaurant, Romano’s. Its butter
yellow front made a splash of startling brightness in the gathering
Signor Antonelli (second-in-command after the ‘Roman’
himself, Rhiannon learned) greeted Sacker with happy cries;
it seemed that both he and Pike were well-known habitués
of the establishment. Antonelli showed them to a table near
the door, where a glass screen shielded the occupants from drafts.
The gilt-framed paintings that lined the walls of the dining
room featured seascapes, castles, islands and mosques, most
in shades of deep blue with touches of crimson. Burnished gold
ceiling mouldings reflected mellow candlelight and gaslight
from sconces, while the seats were upholstered in a plush wine-red
velvet that added to the sense of Byzantine décor. In
the front window sat an aquarium full of goldfish, flecks of
bright orange colour swimming amongst freshwater weeds.
The atmosphere was as Bohemian as the clientele. Rhiannon recognized
the portly, bespectacled John Corlett, the journalist who ran
the popular Sporting Times (called the Pink ‘Un),
seated in majestic splendour at the large table to the left
of the door, along with a group of men that she supposed were
on his staff. Sacker told her that it was to Corlett that Romano’s
owed its fame, for when it was a modest little place called
Café Vaudeville, the master of the Pink ‘Un
had taken a great fancy to it, and Romano’s fame had spread
until it became a kind of unofficial club for men and women
from every strata of London’s social scene, both high
and low. Glancing about the tables that formed a triple row
in the dining room, Rhiannon also saw actors and actresses and
other folk of the greasepaint crowd among the throng, seated
near prize fighters with battered faces; officers of the Army
and Navy; journalists and authors who ate with one hand and
scribbled with the other; and racing touts with betting slips
stuffed indifferently into their pockets.
Sacker excused himself a moment to visit the flower stall in
the hall; he returned with a nosegay of white rosebuds that
he gallantly presented to Rhiannon with a bow. No sooner had
he seated himself than another man appeared, taking a chair
at their table without a by-your-leave. It was Sherrinford Pike,
and the man was scowling fiercely, brows drawn into a ‘V’
above his aquiline nose. Gaslight struck vague red highlights
in his slick brilliantined hair.
“I take it that your mission was unsuccessful,”
Sacker said calmly, reaching for a dish of olives that formed
part of the hors d’oeuvres. The stocky, fair-haired gentleman
with the ginger moustache and the twinkle in his hazel eyes
made quite a contrast to his leaner, saturnine lover, whose
heavy-lidded, dark gaze seemed full of shadows and secrets.
“You may take it as you please,” Pike retorted,
then turned to Rhiannon and helped her to a portion of grilled
sardines on toast with anchovy sauce. He took some for himself,
as well. “Miss Moore,” Pike said more solicitously,
“how do you fare this evening?”
“I miss her,” Rhiannon said, staring at the sardine
on her plate; the fish stared back at her with its cold glassy
eye. Her heart was as heavy as a stone in her chest. She laid
down her knife and fork, certain that she would not be able
to eat a bite. “I miss Lina every day, Mr. Pike, but I’m
still so very angry at her...” Rhiannon took a deep breath,
forcing herself to relax. She was not going to make a spectacle
in public. Since she had moved out of Grosvenor Street and into
Swiftways Hotel, both Pike and Sacker had gone out of their
way to keep her company. It would not do to repay their kindness
with hysterics, no matter how badly she felt.
“I don’t know what will happen to us,” Rhiannon
continued, trying not to sound too woebegone. “I’m
miserable and yet, I can’t see her. I just can’t.”
“My dear Miss Moore, no one is urging you to undertake
any action which you feel disagreeable in any way,” Sacker
said, shooting a quelling glance at Pike. “You must do
as your heart dictates,” he went on, picking through the
dishes of almonds, celery and radishes on the table. “If
you require time to heal, so be it.”
Pike paused in the act of carefully conveying a dripping forkful
of sauced sardine to his mouth. “If you will be advised
by me,” he told Rhiannon, “you will not wait too
Instant alarm clamoured in Rhiannon’s mind. “What
do you mean?” she asked, her turquoise eyes slitted in
suspicion. “Mr. Pike, have you seen Lina? Is she alright?”
“I can’t say.” Pike returned her glare with
an innocent look that would not, in Rhiannon’s opinion,
have fooled a person who was both blind and devoid of all wit.
“You mean you won’t say.” Unbidden, Rhiannon’s
fingers clenched around the handle of her butter knife. Sacker
laid his hand atop hers, a heavy warmth that she welcomed to
dispel the sudden chill that ran through her.
“I beg you, Miss Moore…” Sacker paused to
wave away the waiter, who had approached their table laden with
bowls of soup. That done, he regarded her with a kindly expression.
“Do not ask either Pike or myself to become embroiled
in the difficulty between you and Lady St. Claire. Despite what
has happened, both you and she remain our friends. Can you understand
the position in which we may place ourselves if we convey information
about one to the other?”
“In other words,” Pike said, hastily wiping his
mouth with a napkin, “we’ve no wish to play favourites,
as we enjoy both your companies, and therefore we shan’t
be telling any tales. Placing oneself in the midst of a lover’s
quarrel is the surest method of alienating everyone concerned.
If you wish to inquire after St. Claire, you must apply to the
woman herself.” He signalled for the waiter to bring the
soup. “Ormond, do cease decimating the almonds, as you
know full well that you’ll suffer from dyspepsia for a
sen’night if you continue to devour them in that greedy
Sacker heaved a long-suffering sigh, and put down the almonds
he was about to eat.
Rhiannon pushed her bowl aside as soon as it was laid before
her, not at all interested in the crayfish bisque that was one
of Romano’s specialties. “Just tell me if she’s
well. That’s all I want to know.”
Pike shook his head. “I regret that I cannot say, Miss
Moore. Fortunately, your curiosity may be relieved by the simple
expedient of sending a note round to Grosvenor Street.”
He settled himself in his chair, called for a bottle of Rhenish
wine, and proceeded to eat his soup as though he had no further
Rhiannon bit her bottom lip and waited until the soup was cleared,
and plates of truite meunière – sautéed
trout in butter lemon sauce – had been placed before them.
“Mr. Pike,” she said, “if it was your intention
to pique my curiosity, you’ve succeeded. I don’t
mean to say that I haven’t worried about Lina; I think
about her every day. I wonder if she’s well, if she’s
eating enough, if she’s locked herself in that damnable
study to drink and smoke and brood the way she does when she’s
overcome with the blue devils. I love her. I never stopped loving
her. It keeps me awake at night, but she broke my heart, and
I can’t forgive her yet.”
Pike nodded, but his reply left no doubt that he was abiding
by his decision to reveal nothing. “Eat your dinner, Miss
Moore. The trout is excellent, and you’ve no wish to offend
the chef by returning a full plate to the kitchen.”
Since he had indicated that he did not wish to continue speaking
on the subject, Rhiannon took a few bites of the trout, more
out of politeness’ sake than any genuine hunger. She had
expected the fish to taste like ashes in her mouth, but the
dish was delicious, the sauce perfectly balanced between velvety
creaminess and a touch of acidity from the lemon juice. Her
appetite awakened with a vengeance; it was not that long ago
when she had known what it was to starve for a crust, in those
awful days when she had scraped a living as a prostitute in
Whitechapel. Rhiannon was nevertheless surprised to find that
she had finished the fish, her fork chasing cleanly picked bones
around the plate.
A waiter cleared the table. Red wine replaced white. The next
course was lamb cutlets with petits pois and pommes, followed
by a casserole of pheasant, and then artichokes with sauce hollandaise.
Rhiannon did not pick at her food anymore; she ate well but
refused dessert, nor did she wish to linger for coffee or cognac.
Sacker’s offer of champagne was equally undesirable. The
thought that Lina might be in trouble had been preying on Rhiannon’s
mind since Pike first made his enigmatic announcement. What
had he meant by that warning? Ought she to send a note to Grosvenor
Street? Or perhaps go herself?
It had been nearly four weeks since she had seen Lina –
four weeks of suffering, of nightmares and the pain of a broken
heart. Rhiannon had forgotten how horrible it felt to be utterly
alone. Of course, dinners and theatre nights with Sacker and
Pike helped alleviate some of the awful loneliness, but in spite
of the men’s friendliness, they were simply not Lina.
It was Evangeline St. Claire that she craved, and no substitute
Rhiannon sometimes caught a ghostly whiff of the woman’s
signature lilac scent, the barest trace of floral sweetness
in the air that made her breath catch in her throat - an illusion
brought on by absence and longing, she thought. She had told
the truth; she still loved Lina with all her heart and soul.
This enforced separation from her lover ranked among the most
agonizing times of her life, including her mother’s death
and her father’s suicide. Rhiannon would do anything to
relieve that hurt… anything except return to Lina, who
had loved her as no other, but who had also betrayed her with
a murderous madwoman. If Victoire Rousseau had been a less skilful
shot, Rhiannon would be mouldering in the grave instead of having
dinner at Romano’s. She found it hard to forgive. Impossible
to forgive, perhaps, but Rhiannon was not ready to even consider
the possibility that this separation from her lover was anything
but temporary. She had to believe that things would get better,
that the hurt would ease, that the memory of Lina being kissed
by Victoire would fade from her mind, because otherwise, she
might go mad.
After procuring a hansom cab, Sacker and Pike escorted her from
the restaurant to Swiftways Hotel, where she had been staying
since her return from that ill-fated journey to Paris. The green
painted door was flanked by tall stone urns that held bright
scarlet geraniums; inside the tiny lobby, the black-and-white
tile floor was marred with streaks of mud, no doubt the result
of a rain shower earlier that day. Rhiannon bid her escorts
good-night behind and went to the mahogany desk that stood next
to the steep staircase. She did not need to ring the brass bell.
The beaded curtain in the doorway behind the desk was thrust
aside, and a very tall, very rotund woman glided out, her fat
face wreathed in a smile. Her bright mauve dress fairly glowed
against the backdrop of theatrical posters that were pasted
haphazardly on the walls.
“Good evening, duckie!” The ‘woman’s’
voice was a deep rasp – far too deep and rough to be feminine
– and dark beard stubble showed beneath the heavy stage
maquillage that had been applied to his face The female impersonator’s
cheeks and chins and jowls quivered as he nodded in greeting,
as did the high mound of brunette hair on his head that was
precariously secured with Spanish combs.
“Good evening, Salome,” Rhiannon replied. She had
grown used to the man’s bizarre appearance; his surname
was Hodges, and he had been an actor who specialized in petticoat
roles before he had retired to run the hotel. “May I have
my key, please?”
Salome propped an elbow on the top of the desk and leaned in
closer to Rhiannon, using his height to good advantage. His
smile turned conspiratorial. “Enjoyed your evening with
your gentleman friend, eh? What would Gussie say, I wonder?”
Rhiannon rolled her eyes at Salome’s insinuation. The
persona of Augusta ‘Gussie’ Girdlestone was one
of Lina’s alter egos, developed specifically for Swiftways
Hotel, where she had a permanent room reserved – one of
the many bolt-holes that the woman had throughout London, in
case she needed a refuge during a case. This habit had come
in handy for Rhiannon; the room was already paid for, so she
need not feel guilty about being a drain on Lina’s resources.
Of course, Lady St. Claire’s vast wealth would hardly
be troubled by her modest expenses – the notion was laughable
- but Rhiannon was trying to be as independent as possible,
despite Lina’s offer to pay her bills. She still had the
salary that she had saved, as well as a tidy sum garnered from
her partner’s unthinking financial generosity. If she
was careful, Rhiannon would be able to survive for several months
on the cash she had at hand.
Would it come to that? Would she never see Lina again? Rhiannon
could not say. The future seemed bleak and uncertain. At this
point, she only knew that she was miserable without Lina, but
she knew that she would be miserable with her, too. The spectre
of Victoire Rousseau stood between them. Rhiannon had no idea
if she would ever be able to banish the Frenchwoman’s
memory. She needed more time.
Aware that she had hesitated long enough, Rhiannon shrugged
at Salome and forced a friendly grin. “Gussie’s
on the Continent,” she replied, “and what she doesn’t
know won’t hurt her. Besides, the gentleman’s a
friend, nothing more.”
Salome put the key on top of the desk, and tipped her a flirtatious
wink. His lashes had been darkened with lamp soot, and his eyes
outlined with kohl. “Don’t worry, duckie. I won’t
tell Gussie a thing, next time I see her.”
“Thank you,” Rhiannon said, picking up the brass
key. “Good night, Miss Salome.”
“Good night, Miss Moore.”
Rhiannon felt Salome’s gaze follow her up the narrow staircase.
The man’s gentle flirtations did not bother her; she knew
that he was harmless and meant nothing by it.
Number Five was small but clean, and neatly if sparingly furnished.
A bed was jammed against the wall, and an oak wardrobe had been
shoehorned into the space at the base of it, leaving room for
a dressing table on the opposite wall. An ormolu-framed mirror
hung above it, flanked by gas jets. The surface of the table
had once held a selection of pots, jars and bottles, mostly
theatrical supplies, but Rhiannon had asked Salome to store
the things for her. She had also gone through the contents of
the wardrobe, which had mainly contained second-hand clothing
and accessories in a variety of sizes and styles, useful for
the disguises that Lina enjoyed assuming. Salome had agreed
to put these things in storage as well, leaving Rhiannon with
enough space for her own garments and other impedimenta.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Rhiannon removed her
hat, threw the steel-headed hatpins and the key in the direction
of the dressing table, and sat down on the edge of the bed.
The springs creaked under her weight. Despair nibbled at the
edges of her barely contained composure. She put her head in
her hands, sniffed back tears, and wished, not for the first
time, that she and Lina had never gone to Paris.
Her feelings were a confused morass of jealousy and anger and
pain, created by the unwanted knowledge that Lina had loved
another. In the past tense, certainly; Rhiannon could not imagine
that Lina might want Victoire now, after all that had happened,
and after the woman had been revealed for the monster that she
was. Yet knowing intellectually about one’s lover’s
former inamorata, and watching said inamorata cling to one’s
lover’s lips in front of one’s eyes were two different
things. Her head understood that Lina did not love Victoire,
but her heart was having difficulty forgetting the image of
the two of them on the Eiffel Tower, in a fateful confrontation
that all but destroyed Lina, and Rhiannon, too. The kiss that
Victoire had forced upon Lina had been a hideous parody of true
love’s embrace, but it had hurt Rhiannon all the same;
at that moment, she had felt a sick, gnawing emptiness in the
pit of her stomach that had never gone away.
There was also the matter of her own betrayal of Lina, and that
hurt, too. Knowing that Lina had a real fear of being abandoned,
Rhiannon had sworn over and over not to desert her. And what
had she done, despite those extravagant vows? She had been foresworn;
she had left the woman alone, to bear the damnable weight of
heartache and loss without any support whatsoever. Rhiannon
had fled to nurse her own wounds, cherish her own injured pride,
and that selfish act – though necessary for her survival
– made her feel guilty. She despised herself, and was
ashamed of her cowardice.
Oh, God, love… what have we done to each other?
Rhiannon was concerned about Lina. Pike did not obfuscate unless
it was to the purpose, and as far as she knew, he had no reason
to lie. He had said that she ought to see Lina soon, implying
that something might happen to prevent it. She opened a drawer
in the dressing table and removed a sheet of foolscap, a bottle
of ink and a pen.
In the morning, after her morning tea was delivered, she would
ask someone to take a note to Grosvenor Street.
THIS NOVEL WILL BE PUBLISHED BY CAVALIER PRESS
PUBLICATION DATE TO BE ANNOUNCED