"My fingers have known every inch of your skin and my body has become one with yours, yet I have still to know your first name, constable," the Frenchman said, his long pale fingers resting against the low window frame.
"Arthur…" the other grumbled, right before a nasty coughing fit shook his lithe body under the covers. He resisted the need to pull them tighter around himself, his gaze never leaving the man standing at the foot of the bed.
"Well, then, mon cher Arthur, let me tell that you will not pull the trigger. And even if you do, the damage inflicted to my body will be minimal and easily remedied, thus the effort of your movement will be an utter waste."
Green eyes blinked sleepily as their owner struggled helplessly to focus, the hand holding up the pistol surprisingly steady, its aim still without flaw.
"You sir, are an abomination."
The next moment - barely registered by the smaller blond – the dark shadow lunged forward, over the bed and his free hand was gripped and pressed against the sheets. Francis leaned over, a few long and curly strands escaping from the midnight blue silk of the ribbon and their tips nearly brushing against the side of the detective's face.
"In this truly dark and unfortunate hour, I have a mind to ask of the ultimate forbidden pleasure, mon petit lapin. So… Arthur… would you give me your lips? Would you give yourself to me at last, completely, body and soul?"
Arthur moaned softly, a light scowl creasing his brow as his thumb pulled back the hammer and the muzzle of the pistol was pressed into the blonde locks, where the predator's temple would be.
"Give you, Monsieur Bonnefoy?!" He breathed hard, sensing he was about to choke again in another fit. "What is there left to give, have you not had everything already?"
Dark blue bore into light green as the Frenchman leaned lower, the tip of his nose nearly touching the other man's. Then he spoke slowly and softly, as if in confession. "I have indeed, mon cher. I have had almost all of my heart's desires and more than any man could ever dream of. But you see, everything I've had I have taken. Shamelessly so…" He chuckled at the last word, his cold breath adding to the lack of heat in the small room. "And now… I crave to be given… more. Will you give me what I crave, Arthur?"
"Monster… I swore to destroy you! I… "the detective shook his head weakly. "I cannot let you live! You must not live further!"
Teasing lips brushed against his ear as his words only seemed to bring mirth to the beast hovering above him. "But I am not alive at all. I haven't been in a very long time. Thus, you cannot hope to kill me with lead, only pain me with rejection. Will you truly do that?"
The Englishman somehow managed to yank his other hand free from the man's grip and his fingers shot up, clawing at the frilly collar and seeking to dig into the throat underneath. The muzzle of the pistol left Francis' temple and slipped down, under his arm and over his side, until it found its way right under his ribcage. A faint smile crept upon Arthur's dry, pale lips.
"I've nothing left to lose, sir, so I might just as well spare you of further pain as it is," he whispered. "You can have my lips, as well as my lead."
Three gunshots resounded in the small, cold room, muffled by the flesh they were directed at. Francis paled, his smile faltering as he gripped the offending hand, pushing it away from his injured body and intertwining his long, slender fingers among the smaller ones, such that the pistol dropped to the floor with a clatter. His other hand was used as support as he moaned in pain and leaned in lower, kissing at last – kissing and biting in the same time – the mouth at last offered to him. A trail of blood slid down the pale cheek from the corner of Arthur's lips, the Frenchman sighing against them as the body beneath him went limp.
A police report dated 18 December 1867 stated that constables Arthur Kirkland and Alfred F. Jones had disappeared somewhere in the underground place unofficially known as 'Little Underworld'. Their bodies had never been found.
The sickly sweet scent of decay filled the room – the body had been there a while. Though perhaps 'a body' was a bit of an overstatement. The gruesomely mangled remains were covered in dried, blackened blood and only a few pieces of the woman's silk garments were left, torn and sullied. Surprisingly, her head with luscious ebony curls was intact and severed neatly from the rest of her like a doll's, not a drop of blood smeared onto the pretty, youthful face with peacefully closed eyes and only slightly parted lips. A scarlet ribbon was still artistically tied around what was left of her throat, as if it were the wrapping of a present. But death had taken its cruel and sinister toll on beauty, turning pale skin to dark yellow parchment and sinking the orbs into their sockets.
"So this would be the… eleventh victim," detective Arthur Kirkland stated stiffly, turning slightly towards his younger colleague, Alfred F. Jones, who stood further away, the back of his gloved hand pressed tightly against his mouth. "The same appearance of the corpse as in the other cases, thus we can assume the same modus operandi."
Furrowing his thick eyebrows, the detective leaned over and picked a corner of the scarlet ribbon carefully between his fingers and gave it a light tug. The silk slipped from its knot and unfolded, revealing a few dried droplets of blood on the inside, which hadn't quite made it to the other side of the fabric. In the same time, the blond noticed small puncture wounds into the skin just below the jaw line.
"Bite marks…" he muttered to himself.
"You don't suppose she was smoking pipe, do you? Or whatever this thing is…" the younger constable asked, holding up an item which had been lying on the floor behind the sofa. "Maybe it belongs to the culprit, the landlady did say she was being visited by various men, and quite often too."
Arthur straightened his back, still holding the end of the ribbon pensively. "Anyone with a dog?"
"Wasn't mentioned. Why a dog?"
"A large dog presumably. My theory – by the look of things – is that she was killed, hacked and then someone (most likely the killer) allowed a dog to have its way with the torn body. Some parts indeed appear to have been devoured and there are distinctive teeth marks on the arm and on the neck as well," the green-eyed blond explained. "Dr. Braginski will probably be able to tell us more about it after the examination." He sighed. "And that is an opium pipe, so it could have been hers…"
Arthur took the long, thin object made of dark polished wood and with bronze bowl and mouthpiece and brought it to his nose. A vaguely sweet, flower-like smell still lingered on it, making its use beyond doubt. "Right. An opium pipe. A finely crafted one, rather expensive, I'd say. I doubt anyone would have left it behind, unless they were in a great hurry. But whoever produced this mess was obviously not in a hurry, so it's safe to assume it was hers."
"Excuse me, are you finished yet?" another policeman popped his head inside the room, looking questioningly at the two of them.
The detective nodded curtly. "Yes, for now we are. You lads can come in and gather up…"
Muffling a cough, he started down the stairs with Jones in tow, already composing in his head the introduction of the report he was to write when they arrived back at the station. Yet another one sans conclusion. A hand suddenly gripped the policeman's arm as he eventually reached the bottom of the stairs and he turned rather startled, to meet the creepy chuckle of the old landlady.
"Wait up a moment, sir!" she croaked, digging hastily in the pocket of her dirty apron.
"What is it? Have you remembered anything else, madam?"
The hag shook her head, but held up a worn card with yellowed, crooked fingers and grinned. "I have not but that poor deceased girl upstairs… she used to go down there, to that place, what's it called? 'Little Underworld' I believe, you must know of it, constable!" Saying that she winked, or at least Arthur thought so. "There's a fancy gentleman there who might help you!"
The green-eyed young man blinked and stared at her, taking in the woman's features thoughtfully – she couldn't have been really that old, but the decrepitude of her appearance was of a different nature, as if she had withered before her time in a foul fashion. He silently gathered that she must have been smoking opium as well.
"Well, thank you, madam," he replied with a small nod, pale fingers reaching up to the brim of his hat as he did so. Fishing a handkerchief out of his pocket, Arthur picked up the card with two fingers, examining it briefly as the hag promptly shut the door of her room in their nose.
"Monsieur Francis Bonnefoy, Baronet – Clairvoyant and Philosopher. Oh, jolly good. A frog with a crystal ball," he observed bluntly, flicking the card upwards with his thumb. Alfred caught it just in time as it flew and frowned at it, while the other constable proceeded to blow his nose loudly.
They stepped outside into the cold drizzle which had begun pouring incessantly since early morning and out of the way of the rest of the staff. Arthur threw a glance at the black wagon of the morgue waiting by the sidewalk and sighed deeply, feeling a sting as the cold air entered his lungs.
"But Arthur, you don't suppose… that we should go after this man, do you? The landlady said that he dwells in the 'Little Underworld'…" Jones began warily, still unwilling to show the full extent of his reluctance.
"I don't see why not, everyone knows where that damned place is. And I suppose that at least the weather is better down there for a change."
This weather was bad for him - he knew – and it was only bloody October. Right now he should have been resting in a soft armchair, in front of a blazing fireplace, with a cup of hot, strong tea by his side. But constable Arthur Kirkland did not have the means to afford this sort of lavish lifestyle, he had to work hard for a living. In all kinds of weather.
"But policemen never go there…" the younger insisted weakly.
The Englishman pursed his mouth in a pained grimace as he glanced at his younger colleague. Alfred F. Jones had had it hard enough already and had struggled hard to earn the life he was living now. He'd traveled from New Orleans to London with his mother in search of a new life away from a wicked family, only to lose her soon afterwards. The poor woman had been run over by a drunk carriage driver and the young American had been left alone in the world, with not a soul to care for him.
Arthur himself – coming from a numerous but now entirely departed family – entertained neither the desire nor the hope of being wed and having children of his own, but fate had decided to 'bless' him on several occasions with the task of caring for other people's children. A task which he had found endlessly annoying and troublesome until he had met young Alfred, freshly recruited with the force and rather helpless and unaware. He'd taken a fondness for the boy – although Alfred was only four years younger – and felt responsible for his wellbeing and safety. Admittedly, in this very moment, he wasn't doing a very good job at that.
"Alfred, I'm afraid we don't have much of a choice at this point, we still have no leads and the corpses continue to pile up. So we have to do something, even if it means talking to this man, whoever the hell he is."
The icy drizzle had intensified by the time they passed through the gates of the old cemetery, the wet tombstones looking more desolate than usual and the barely cobblestoned paths turned to mud. The two constables walked up the main alley in complete silence, only occasionally broken by Arthur's pestering cough. Hell, he did not yet dare think of wintertime.
"There! That's where the entrance is supposed to be!" Alfred's gloved hand pointed hesitantly towards a small mausoleum adorned with Greek columns, now cracked and covered in dry, blackened ivy strains. It had a simple, thick wooden door with rusty hinges in the shape of vine leaves, which was slightly ajar for some reason.
The two of them reached the indicated place and stared at it for a while, the blue-eyed blond warily and the other with an increasing scowl, before Arthur determinedly pulled out his truncheon and gave a firm push to the door. It creaked open, revealing a marble floor covered in dirt and dry leaves and a staircase spiraling down into the darkness below.
"Shouldn't we have brought lanterns?"
The green-eyed constable continued to scowl, this time at the depths of the well below. "Oh, to hell with it…" He pulled out a small flask from the inside of his coat and took his time unscrewing the cap, taking a hearty swig of scotch and screwing the cap back on. The strong spirit burned down his throat and brought some warmth into his body.
"Come now, Alfred, I'm sure we can do without lanterns."
They started down the treacherous spiral of worn and chipped steps cautiously, but it really was only a brief descent. A narrow corridor began at the bottom of the stairs, pitch dark, but the two still decided to push on. Unseen debris was crunching under their feet as they advanced, patting blindly at the wall. Arthur had expected solid stone, but instead he could feel the distinctive shape of bricks under his fingers. He decided to focus on the regular, familiar pattern, ignoring the stale smell of the place which had an odd tint of smoke in it.
The path turned a corner at some point and then opened into a surprisingly large hall – albeit with low ceiling. Niches and crypts could be seen everywhere, except in the far back where there was a large, rusty iron gate flanked by torches. The torches only cast a dim, flickering light and filled the room with a thick, foul-smelling smoke, but the constables were still able to see a hunched figure standing guard by the gate.
The figure stirred brusquely as the two walked up towards it, standing surprisingly straight and tall all the sudden. Arthur squinted a bit, his gaze trailing over the man's dirty face, forehead shadowed by unruly dark bangs, to the menacing glare of his eyes, all the way down to the wicked gleam of the blade in his hand.
"Now… wha' might ye two pretty boys doin' down 'ere?" the guard drawled. "Don't ye know the rule o' this place? No police!" The knife was weighed in the man's hand intently as he spoke, taking a purposeful step forward.
The younger constable's hand flew to his pistol on reflex, but the detective pressed down on his arm gently, shaking his head. "Sir, I assure you that we're not here to cause any inconvenience to this… establishment. We simply require the expertise of Monsieur Francis Bonnefoy – Clairvoyant and Philosopher and we were told that this is where we could find this fine gentleman," he said calmly.
The man's eyebrows shot up in surprise and he groaned, pondering as he gave the two a slow once-over.
"Alright…" he decided eventually. "But just ye keep in mind, there's only so many times ye can fire those lil' toy pistols o' yers before the rest of us jump ye and tear ye into very tiny shreds. So don't ye try anythin' funny, aye? Mr. Wang is sure to keep an eye on ye!"
The rusty gate was opened for them to enter, a surprising view suddenly opening to their eyes at the top of yet more stairs to descend. The 'Little Underworld' must have been the size of a small village, the system of crypts and catacombs run through by a multitude of narrow, poorly illuminated paths having an eerie atmosphere seen from above. Above, in the 'ceiling' there must have been several ventilation shafts, such that the smoke from the countless fires and torches did not become suffocating and there was a constant supply of fresh air. Arthur had been right about one thing – down here the weather was better, it didn't rain and it certainly was a lot less cold than outside.
As soon as the two constables reached the bottom ground, where the draft was less present, a wave of heavily scented smoke hit their nostrils. Everywhere there were rooms – some large, lavishly decorated and furnished with soft, pillow-laden sofas and oriental carpets, while others small and cramped, almost the size of a regular crypt, containing cots covered in rags – all serving a single purpose, for the richer and for the poorer customers alike.
"So this is, I presume, the largest opium den owned by the infamous Mr. Yao Wang," Arthur observed.
They did their best to ignore the suspicious stares and even murmurs stirred by their presence there and asked for directions as to where the mysterious Frenchman could be found as briefly as possible. But no one asked – as neither had the guard – why they were looking for the man. The pale, thin Chinese boy Alfred had first showed the card to had shied away from it and had let out what had sounded something akin to a frightened babble. An older man had answered instead, giving precise indications this time, but his reluctance was obvious.
"Arthur… you don't suppose that Monsieur Bonnefoy could be dangerous, do you?" the younger policeman voiced his concern in a whisper.
His green-eyed friend scowled and rolled his eyes openly at the suggestion. "For God's sake, he's a bloody fortuneteller!" he muttered humorlessly, feeling rather unsettled by the sight of the pale, haunted faces and glazed eyes of the people lying around on beds, sofas and cots, smoking and dwelling in a world of their own. Some were young, others old, but their withering was alike, albeit to various extents, their addiction all-powerful and consuming in the same time.
The smoke stirred his cough again, on top of causing a light dizziness to take over, thus Arthur resorted to covering his nose and mouth with his handkerchief. He coughed nevertheless and, as it happened often after a day in the cold, his chest eventually began to hurt and feel hollow. Damn. He checked his pocket watch – it was already five in the evening. After they talked to this man (hopefully it would not prove a complete waste of time), they would go home at last and he would lie down in bed for a bit before dinner.
A thick, dark blue velvet curtain was draped over the alcove where Monsieur Bonnefoy apparently resided, faint light flickering behind it. A small oil lamp burned outside as well, casting dancing shadows over the shapely form of a young woman who stood guard.
"Good evening, madam! We were wondering if we could have a word with Monsieur Bonnefoy?" the detective asked politely.
By his side, Alfred observed the black velvet-clad woman in awe, yet with a bad feeling in his gut. Although she currently held an opium pipe in her hand, a thin thread of smoke rising from the silvery bowl, she looked nothing like the poor wretches they'd seen along the way. Her long, black or maybe dark chestnut hair was rich and well-kept, her skin smooth and fresh (albeit of an unnatural porcelain whiteness), her green eyes bright and cunning and lips full, much too red.
"Just a moment…"
The brunette leaned and pulled open the curtain a bit, poking her head inside and whispering something. Almost immediately afterwards some stirring could be heard and Arthur straightened his back, putting the handkerchief away as the curtain was drawn aside and Monsieur Francis Bonnefoy, Baronet came into view.
Upon laying eyes on the man, the Englishman's first impulse, however unexplainable, was to turn around on his heels and march off, to such extent that he even caught himself mentally assessing how long it would have taken to get the hell out of that horrid place and reach the surface at top speed. Yet there was nothing repulsive about the fortuneteller's appearance, quite on the contrary. He was a strikingly handsome young man and, just like the woman, in surprisingly good shape for an opium addict. For the fact was beyond doubt – on the sill framing his lavish sofa placed in the alcove there stood a large, finely crafted hookah and several pipes, as well as supplies. Or maybe it was just that they hadn't been smoking long enough for the effects to become visible? Arthur resolved it wasn't any of his business – he had expected to see some decrepit, ruined noble selling artistically fabled stories to anyone who was either insane or stupid enough to come down here, heavily risking to be mugged or have their throat cut – and was simply surprised, that was all. Because everyone knew that Yao's underground den was far from being an 'idyllic', peaceful place of retreat and leisure.
"Bon soir!" the Frenchman said, greeting the two with a pleasant smile which showed beautiful, pearly-white teeth. His dark-blue eyes were taking in the pair observantly but with amused curiosity nevertheless. He didn't bother to sit up from his sprawled out pose on the pillows, merely raising a hand to toy with the long, silky blonde curls tied back with a bright red ribbon. His clothing – a frilly white shirt under a long, black velvet overcoat, white breeches ending just below the knee and silk stockings – was severely out of fashion, anachronistic even, but it was probably a sign of the man's eccentricity.
"Good evening, sir," the green-eyed blond replied, vaguely irritated by the French greeting. "I am detective Kirkland and this is constable Jones. We're here to ask you some questions, if you'd be so kind as to answer them," he said stiffly, holding his chin up.
The Frenchman rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a slender, pale hand adorned with a large sapphire ring on the index finger. His vague smirk never faltering, he graciously tilted his head to the side, raising a thin eyebrow. "Ah well, of course! How may I help you gentlemen?"
Bastard! He only afforded this nonchalant attitude because he knew that down here the two policemen could do nothing to him.
"We are investigating a series of murders occurred recently and we were told by a reliable source that you might provide us with some insights into the matter. All the more since the last victim was an opium user..." Just as he was saying the words, it dawned on Arthur that the salacious hag who had tried to flirt with him earlier was probably eager to win the favor of the beautiful Frenchman by bringing him more customers. Well, like hell they were going to pay!
"I see," Bonnefoy replied, "you were told that I sell information and indeed, it is one of my occupations. You must be referring to what the newspapers have described as 'the most brutal, barbaric homicides in the last half a century', n'est ce pas? All those lovely mademoiselles of delightfully dubious reputation… Well, I do not have anything on that. Yet."
Here it comes, Arthur thought, as for some unknown reason the man's smile widened.
"If it were possible for you to come back in two days' time, constables, I swear to make every effort to aid a noble cause," the fortuneteller declared smugly. "Oh, and do not trouble yourselves over compensation, among other things I feast on the beauty of this world and momentarily I find myself very pleased, ohonhonhon."
Alfred blinked, furrowing his brow and completely at a loss as to what to make of the thoroughly odd comment. The man wasn't by any chance flirting with them, was he? But the gaze of those mesmerizing blue eyes was trained intently and solely on his colleague, whose stiff stance was borderline hostile at this point. Nope, he was most likely mocking them.
"Well then, we greatly appreciate your willingness to help, Monsieur Bonnefoy. We shall be back in two days."
Arthur nodded briefly in salute and turned to leave, mentally swearing never to set foot in this godforsaken place ever again, when the Frenchman cleared his throat to draw their attention.
"I was thinking, since you bothered to come all this way, I might just as well give you a quick reading of your future, just by observing your auras," he said.
The green-eyed blond tsked when Alfred turned around, obviously intrigued and curious and crossed his arms. "Oh. Really?"
Bonnefoy chewed on his bottom lip sensually but with un-dissimulated mirth. "Quite so. For example, you, constable Jones, have a hard path ahead of you, but if you work hard and fight enough you shall prevail and know true happiness," he stated, then sighed dramatically, once more shifting his focus onto the Englishman. "But as for you, detective Kirkland… I'm very much afraid that someone with long fingers will get their hands on you soon enough…"