“Would you like to come to my room?”
He was a toff; she could see that much right from the get go. He was wearing a really nice coat, and a shiny top hat. She couldn’t see him clearly in the gloom of the alleyway, but she could see the glint of gold on his finger and hear the click of his expensive cane on the cobbles.
“I would pay you handsomely.”
Ah, she had got lucky tonight, no mistake. He must be a real gent to offer her a room and good pay. Normally it was a quick fumble against the grimy wall, and a penny thrown contemptuously at her feet after. She nodded trying not to appear too eager and she felt, rather than saw, him smile. The hand he offered was clean, nails sharp on her palm. He walked fast and she had to trot along after, as her legs were a little too short to keep up.
In the sudden flare of the gaslight she didn’t feel quite so lucky. He loomed over her, tall and thin, shoulders a little stooped, eyes as bright as diamonds under the brim of his titfer. A coach and its horses stood just a little way down the street and she balked, remembering tales of old Jack. Sure, it was eleven years since Jack’s spree but they never caught him, did they? Some had said he was royalty too.
“My dear,” his voice was silky smooth and he stroked a long nail across her cleavage. “You are perfectly safe with me. If I was going to gut you I would have done it by now.”
She felt the breath go out of her as she sagged against him. She could hear the clink of gold in his pocket and knew she would be mad to turn this down. He took her hand again and, this time, she didn’t drag her feet. As they approached the coach the door swayed open and he gestured inside. She gave a little flounce as she stepped up and in, a promise of what was to come. He put his hands around her waist to lift her and, suddenly, she was sitting comfortable on plush velvet, the soft whinny of horses in her ears. Her companion for the night climbed in beside her and settled his hand on her knee.
“Oh, we are going to have fun you and I,” he whispered. “It is going to be the most wonderful night.”
“What do you want of me, sir?” She played coy because she knew the punters liked it. “My mouth or my hands?”
“Neither,” his breath was oddly cold on her skin and she tried to suppress a shudder. “I want your throat, my dear girl. All I want is your throat.”
And the horses set up a gallop as the coach surged away.
Coney Island, New York – 1897
Ross sat on the wooden stool and wiped his knuckles. The crimson stain that came away wasn’t his own blood. He glanced across the ring to where his last opponent lay face down on the canvas, legs splayed, and hands limp. The roar of the crowd made it hard to hear anything so he didn’t know the man was beside him until a hand touched his shoulder.
“That was a very good fight my dear boy. Are you always so . . . how do you say? Thorough.”
Ross turned to see who had spoken and found himself face to face with a small, dark haired man who was perhaps a little older than himself. The man was expensively dressed and he was holding, what looked like, a real leather bag. The man’s eyes were dark and shrewd, and he was looking at Ross how one might view a prize stallion or bull.
“I’ve never lost a fight, if that’s what you mean. I usually have them on the canvas pretty quick,” he added and spat into the tin bucket at his side and rubbed his hands across his sweaty face. “Impressed?”
“Indeed, I am.” The man extended his hand and Ross shook it carefully trying not to squeeze. “Robert Downs, at your service.”
“And you are?” Ross realized that the man had a distinct accent, his vowels careful and clipped. He certainly wasn’t a native of Brooklyn, or any state for that matter.
“I am an agent for the Hellfire Club.” The man, whose name appeared to be Robert, handed him a card. Ross turned it over in his hand a few times and frowned.
“I don’t read,” the anger in his voice was enough to make Robert flinch, as indeed it should, as Ross had just knocked seven bells out of another man. “So this fancy bit of paper, don’t mean nothing to me.”
“I apologize.” Robert bowed his head for a moment and then continued. “The Hellfire Club is a . . . let me call it a gentleman’s club, in the heart of London. Men go there for various reasons. Some to forget the dreariness of their lives, others to exchange topics of interest, to play cards, to wager and to be entertained by . . . , ” he paused and attempted a smile. “A certain type of lady.”
“Sounds whoopee doo.” Ross could feel his muscles starting to seize, and his skin grow damp and cool. “But I don’t see what it has to do with me.”
“Your reputation precedes you Mr. . . .?”
“Ross – just Ross.”
“Ross. My employers have asked me to persuade you to come and fight at our club. They wanted me to find the best, and after travelling across America, I feel I have found it . . . in you.”
“You want me to leave my home, to up sticks and fight for limeys?” Ross wondered if he had been hit in the head. “Is that what you are saying?”
Robert patted the bag at his side. “I can offer you $500 now, and $500 more when we disembark. Rooms in a good area of town, good food and all you can drink,” he paused as he checked out Ross’s reaction. “You cannot say this is not a good offer.”
And he was right, Ross swallowed. In all of his thirty years he had never even touched that sort of money, let alone been offered it.
He was all alone in the world; parents long since dead, killed by some lone gunman who came to rob the little smallholding they had back in Texas. They had left him nothing but his charm and his good looks (red blond hair inherited from his father, jade eyes and sensuous mouth from his mother). He had no interest or skills in farming and had, instead, built up his muscles and his fitness. He had lived pretty much hand to mouth, doing odd jobs here and there while he travelled across country to New York, where he had found Jeff, his trainer. After that, things had gotten relatively easy. It seemed he was fucking good at bare knuckle fighting and now, he was King of all he surveyed.
“I don’t go anywhere without my trainer.” Ross stood up then, cracked his knuckles spectacularly. “So, I surely hope there is enough money in that bag for both of us.”
“There is, if that is part of the deal.” Robert looked as if he had been prepared for something like this. “There is a ship leaving New York in two days. I already have two tickets but money talks; I can soon make it three.”
Ross gazed down into the dispersing crowd, he had nothing to keep him here, nothing to anchor him to this place. His only loyalty was to Jeff and he was certain that his trainer would enjoy a little trip overseas. Perhaps in the past he had little sense of adventure, but now the future was calling and it might be time to move on.
He held out his hand to Robert and the man took it for a second time. Now the handshake was firm, and a little more confident.
“We have a deal then?”
“Yes, we have a deal.”
London – 1897
The snow fell heavy and thick carpeting the earth with white. Thomas bowed his head and felt the icy flakes fall onto the back of his neck. He took off his glasses and wiped at his eyes, tears and snow coming away on the back of his hand.
“Your father was a good man,” the priest spoke gently and gave his shoulder a little tug. “He was very proud of you.”
Thomas gazed over to the grave, it was covered now, only the very tip of the stone peeping out. He didn’t need to read the words because he had written them himself, but he felt strangely sad that his father’s last resting place was lost in this bleakest of winters and he wished, strongly, for an early thaw.
“He left me everything,” he said and put his glasses back on and the priests kind face swam back into view. “I’m an orphan now,” he swallowed, feeling foolish. At two and twenty he should be man enough to shoulder his grief. “I am all alone.”
“From what your father told me you have a great future ahead of you. He spoke highly of your intelligence. From what I hear, you have had more than one job offer.”
“Yes.” Thomas had the letters in his bureau at home, all of them offering him a good salary. “But, I know that my choice is something he would not have approved of.”
“And what have you chosen?”
“Chief Librarian at the British Museum,” Thomas replied and smiled. “He thought the position below me, but I love books. I just want to learn more about . . . well . . . everything.”
“You should follow your heart, Thomas.” The priest gave him one final pat on the shoulder.
Thomas considered himself to be fortunate. So many people in this teeming city were poor, sick, and homeless. From the top rooms of his house he could see the grey bricks of the workhouse, and the ragged beggars that wandered along the banks of the Thames. He had been scolded by his father on several occasions for giving the poor most of the money in his pockets. His father had been a cautious man and he guarded his fortune well.
Thomas’s father had been head of a very profitable bank right in the centre of Threadneedle Street. Its patrons were all incredibly wealthy men, politicians, minor royalty and members of the clergy. His father had wanted Thomas to join him and learn the business but Thomas had, politely, refused. He had no real love for money (although he wasn’t foolish enough to see what advantages it gave a man in these ‘hard times’). Thomas was a lively and curious child, and he always had his head in a book. His mother had indulged him in this and had bought him at least one a week until his father had been forced to turn their spare room into a library. When he reached the right age Thomas had obtained a place at Oxford University to study the classics and he had come away with a first class honours degree. Academia came easy to him and his thirst for knowledge never diminished.
He was the product of a happy marriage, a love match, which was unusual. His mother was the daughter of a duke and she brought with her a considerable dowry. His parents bought a house in the Strand and also had a small manor in the country. He had wanted for nothing and, as an only child, he had been spoilt and coddled. Thomas knew he was most fortunate to have everything he had always wanted, but things had changed following his mother’s mysterious illness and death; he knew that her passing was a turning point.
His mother had fallen sick just short of Thomas’s twenty-first birthday. She had become listless and tired, unable to stay awake for more than a few hours at a time. His father had enlisted the help of a top physician who attended daily. Thomas would watch, powerless, as the doctor hurried his father out of his mother’s chamber. The man would spend hours with his mother but there was no marked improvement, and Thomas had to watch as she grew weaker and weaker until, finally, she wasted away. The change in her had been quick and horrifying. She had gone from a tall, curvaceous woman to an almost empty husk. There was talk of disease and of blood loss but no one, not even his father’s eminent doctor friend, could give her family any explanation.
After her death his father changed; he became insular and secretive, creeping away two or three nights a week and not returning until the early hours of the morning. Thomas knew his father was grieving, but Thomas was wrapped up in his own pain, and trying to read to complete his study. By the time he reached his twenty second birthday his father had become a stranger to him, and the family life he had once treasured had fallen apart.
Now he was alone; rattling around in a house made for three with nothing but his books for company. He had no financial worries and his new job would give him the stimulation he needed, but he was totally and utterly alone and he wondered when he had forgotten to make friends, immersing himself in academia and wanting nothing but his family around him.
Thames Docks – 1897
Ross had never been happier to see dry land even if the land in question was dark, cold and smothered in thick, freezing fog. London was not how he had imagined it would be and, fuck, had he had time to use his imagination on the long, seemingly endless journey from his homeland to this strange and eerie place.
“Well I’m real glad you persuaded me to come along,” Jeff said as he stretched out his arms and cracked his spine. The older man looked tired and Ross swore there was more silver than before in his salt and pepper beard. Jeff was the nearest thing to a father he’d known since losing his own, and he was mighty fond of the man even though they never actually shared their feelings in the matter. “This looks like fucking paradise, don’t it?”
“You know I can’t do my job without you.” Ross punched him on the shoulder good naturedly. “They want me to fight, and I need you to train me.”
“Come on boy, you don’t need me anymore! Shit, you haven’t needed me since you beat Joshua Booth and became undisputed champion.”
“Not true, Jeff.” Deep down Ross wasn’t telling, but he was too scared to come all this way across the ocean on his own. He was a man out of place and he knew it. Sure he had confidence and sure he was good at what he did, but Jeff had been his wingman for far too long and he wasn’t sure he wanted to do anything without his help and unwavering support. “You keep me on my toes.”
“So this Robert guy . . . he tell you much about this, so called, sweet gig?”
“We talked, yeah. Do you remember when the Queensbury rules came into play?”
“Sure, but it’s not like we’ve ever used them that much,” Jeff chuckled and scratched at his
“Well, here they are the real deal. Bare knuckle fighting or Boxing, as they like to call it, is looked upon as a real, honest to God sport. They have three timed rounds and winner gets a purse for his trouble.” Ross shrugged. “Robert represents this Hellfire Club, and every Saturday night they have bouts in their headquarters. He says that the members are bored of seeing the same old fighters, and they want something different.”
“And let me guess . . . that something is you?”
“That’s how he sold it.” Ross wrinkled his nose as he stepped onto the cobbled stones of the dock, the scent of fish and rotting fruit assailing his nostrils. “I can’t help but think there’s something else he wants though.”
“Paranoid much?” Jeff put a finger to his lips as he noticed that Robert Down was about to join them.
Ross shrugged. Yeah, perhaps he was paranoid but 500 bucks was a fucking fortune, and he’d never been paid anything close to that for a fight before.
“Ah, Ross. Jeff.” Robert still looked a little green around the gills. He was clearly not a good sailor and had afforded them a lot of amusement during the voyage. “I have a carriage ready to take us to your new home. I’m certain you will like it.”
He hadn’t been joking; Ross stood in the doorway of his rooms almost afraid to take another step. The place was huge, clean and sweet smelling, nothing like the flop rooms and dives he’d stayed in in the past. He could see the long hall with its shiny tiles and doors leading off. He swallowed and turned to Robert.
“This is . . . .” There were no words, not even a smart comment. “This is too much.”
“You haven’t seen it yet, Ross.” Robert patted his shoulder indulgently. “It is one of our finest houses.”
“And it’s all for me?” Ross took a wavering step over the threshold feeling like a virgin bride on her wedding day.
“Yes, and for Jeff of course.”
“But why?” He was loathe to make a speech declaring that he was just some Texan who’d gotten lucky in the ring, that his knuckles scarred and swollen were the things that had made him his modest wage. Robert was staring at him now and his eyes were burning, his gaze intense.
“You are now one of our assets, Ross. The Hellfire Club treasures its assets and keeps them safe. You are of great value to us.”
“You’ve seen me fight once,” he was proud that his voice didn’t waver. “How can that possibly be, Mr. Downs?”
“All will be revealed in good time, Ross.” Robert Downs tipped his hat and handed Ross a set of keys. “Now I am exhausted, and I know you must be too,” he said and smiled. “We’ll speak again soon.”
As they watched Down’s retreating back Ross turned to Jeff, an uneasy feeling creeping into his veins.
“Still think I’m paranoid?”
Thomas rubbed his eyes and fidgeted with his glasses; everything looked blurred and it was obvious that he’d been reading for far too long. He put down the heavy tome and fumbled with the gas lamp. Bright yellow light filled the room and made it look more homely. He looked around him and sighed. It just didn’t feel like home anymore, and he was beginning to hate it.
He made his way to the kitchen, he had a housemaid and a cook but he had given them both the evening off. It wasn’t as if he didn’t appreciate them, in fact they often helped assuage his loneliness, but to them he was still the young master; a gauche boy who preferred books to people. He felt awkward giving orders or instructions to them, and it seemed almost pointless for them to be looking after just one person.
He knew what people thought of him. At his age he was considered more than ready for marriage and, when she was alive, his mother had tried her very best to find a good match for him, but it had all been in vain. He had been far more interested in his studies, and he had no idea how to communicate with women. In fairness he had not come across very many. There had been none at Oxford, and the only woman he knew well was his mother. He had no concept of what it might be like to feel love for another person, had never really looked at another person and thought them beautiful. Of course he loved his parents, but that was filial love and nothing like the sort of attraction he ought to have for the opposite sex.
He poured himself a glass of milk and stared aimlessly out of the window. Too much time in his own company made him maudlin and wistful, and he was wont to get lost in his own thoughts. Today was one of those days and he was angry at himself for letting himself get so low.
A rap on the door broke him quickly out of his internal monologue, and he hurried down the hall. Through the glass door he could see the silhouette of a man and he wondered who might be calling at such a late hour.
The man was small with dark hair and shrewd eyes, he took off his hat as soon as Thomas appeared, and he gave a little bow as if Thomas was royalty.
“Mr. Weaver? Robert Down, at your service.” He looked Thomas up and down as if he were examining him for something. “I am . . . I’m sorry, I was a friend of your father.”
“You should come in out of the cold.” Thomas stepped back and let the man inside. Robert continued to look around him, nodding once or twice as if he were having a conversation with himself. “The maid is not here, so all I can offer you is a glass of milk and . . . ,” he paused and felt himself flush. “A slice of fruit cake but I must warn you, it isn’t very nice.”
“Thank you, but no.” Without being asked Robert followed him into the study. Thomas turned up the gas lamps to bring in a little more light and Robert’s eyes took in the room, his eyes going instantly to the large bookcase in the corner. “Are all these yours?”
“These are just a few of my books.” Thomas couldn’t help but feel a stab of pride. “I have a small library here and another room that houses the rest of them.”
“Good, good.” Robert nodded as if Thomas had said something incredibly impressive. “I have come here to welcome you, on behalf of the committee, to the Hellfire Club.”
“What?” Thomas sat down in one of the lumpy easy chairs and gestured Robert do the same; the man sat opposite him and fumbled with a heavy leather case. He opened it and pulled out, what appeared to be, a letter.
“Your father was a good man, Thomas.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And he was determined that you should succeed in all things, even after his death.”
Thomas nodded not trusting himself to speak, his throat hurt and the overwhelming loneliness that had threatened to overtake him surged up and made his eyes sting.
“Your father left you everything; his money and his house, but he left you something else. Something very, very important.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your father was a very important member of our club. After your mother died he was determined to find out what killed her, and his investigations were almost complete.”
“The doctor who treated my mother did not . . . .”
“The physician who treated your mother is also a member. It is he who had been helping your father. We are so close, Thomas and we do not wish to stop now.”
“But I don’t know anything about the club. I only know my father was not present for the last few months, that he was out a great deal and that he was very preoccupied.”
“Indeed. Thomas, your father has left you his membership in the Hellfire Club. We wish you to take it up, as soon as possible.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The Hellfire Club is a gentleman’s club in the heart of London. Men go there for various reasons; to forget the dreariness of their lives, to exchange topics of interest, to play cards, to wager and to be entertained by a certain type of lady but it is so much more. There are geniuses in our club, Thomas. Authors, playwrights, politicians, explorers and men of great power. We want you to join us. We need you.”
“I am starting a new job soon, and I . . . .”
“Come to us on Saturday. You will not regret it. There will be entertainment on offer. We have a prize fighter from America who I have witnessed first-hand. He is very good. There is fine food on offer, and as much wine as you can drink.”
Thomas could not help but be curious, he had no idea that his father was researching his mother’s death; no wonder he had been so preoccupied. He had a sudden burning to know what had, to all intents and purposes, killed his mother and his father.
“Alright.” He accepted the gilt edged card that Robert handed him. “I will come.”
The smaller man smiled at him and his smile was so wide and so bright that Thomas could not regret. On Saturday he would finally get a glimpse of his father’s secret life.
Ross wasn’t quite sure what he was expecting when he arrived at this secret club. Maybe, he thought, it would be underground somewhere with passwords and cunning handshakes to let you in. So when he arrived at the doors of a large, anonymous looking building he was a little shocked and, until he saw Robert Downs nervously hovering, he thought they might have come to the wrong place.
“Gentleman.” Downs was dressed in a black suit and he even wore a necktie. Ross exchanged glances with Jeff; the two of them had worn clean denim pants and open necked shirts – the finest item of clothing they owned. “We have a room set aside for Ross to get ready. I can tell you that the men here are looking forward to seeing you fight. Your reputation precedes you.”
“I hope I live up to it then.” Ross replied and cracked his knuckles grinning.
“Of course, as you may well know here we do adhere to the rules set out by the Marquis of Queensbury.”
“Yeah, I anticipated as much.” Ross bounced on his heels. “It won’t be a problem.”
Robert nodded and gestured they come inside. Ross wondered what might lie in wait for them and
was still anticipating black robes and chanting as he entered the building.
The place was tastefully decorated in red and gold. As they moved slowly down a long corridor Ross noticed there were a lot of rooms either side of them. Some of the doors were resolutely closed, while others remained open, and Ross could see the plush velvet of the furniture and the soft tread of real carpet. The rooms that were open appeared to have people in them, all of them men. Some of them were reading while others were in deep discussion. There appeared to be music playing somewhere in the distance, a lilting, haunting sound. The corridor seemed to go on forever and then, suddenly, they were being led into their own room and even Jeff was speechless at the sight.
The room was huge. An enormous mirror stood in one corner and a window half hidden by large, red drapes stretched across the room. A table, groaning with food stood in the centre, and there were bottles of ale and a snifter of what looked like a ruby red wine at the side. There was a red chaise longue by the wall and two easy chairs in front of a roaring fire. Jeff flopped into one of the chairs, his mouth open, while Ross stood in the doorway unable to conceive what he saw.
“Do you do this for all of your guests?”
“Only our very important ones.” Robert smiled again, easy and casual. “We have Lords here and a Prince who will one day be a King. As I explained, this club is decades old, and each man pays his way.”
“Where will Ross be fighting,” Jeff was trying to keep the awe out of his voice and Ross wasn’t surprised. He had thought that their rooms were luxurious but this, this was a whole different level. For one moment he wondered what it would be like to be so rich and to afford such extravagance. Shit, he thought that earning $100 was something special.
“We have a particular room set aside for this sort of activity. When you are changed and ready, I will take you there. I have to say that many of our members have already wagered a considerable amount on you.”
“Then I hope I don’t disappoint them.”
If Ross thought the changing room was opulent then the ring where he was fighting was out of this world. It was raised above the crowd, a proper square with thick ropes around the sides and a clean, bright canvas. There were two stools in opposite corners and two pails full of steaming hot water. There was a flagon of cold water too and Ross gave Jeff a glance, a sudden burn of nerves in his stomach.
He hadn’t felt like this since his first fight; he was a greenhorn then, innocent but determined. He knew that he was strong enough and tough enough, but he had lacked finesse. He had beaten his first opponent into an inelegant pulp and he doubted he would be where he was now without Jeff’s intervention. He swallowed and looked down at himself. He was naked from the waist up, chest gleaming with the oil that Jeff always insisted he wore. There were tattoos on his chest and arms. He had dark lines illustrating skulls and roses, and a clenched fist dripping blood lay over his heart. He was aware of his newaudience staring up at him, their eyes on him, keen and sharp. He could barely see most of them as they sat around the ring in almost semi-darkness. The ring, however, was illuminated by new electricity and it was bright and harsh, the heat of it making him sweat through the oil.
He was aware of someone standing to his left and he looked across the ring to see a gangly boy leaning against the outside of the canvas, his hands on the ropes; he looked pale in the bright yellow of the electric lamp, and Ross wondered why he had been allowed to stand so close to the ring. For some unknown reason Ross couldn’t tear his eyes away from this boy, perhaps it was that he was exceedingly tall. He was one of the tallest men he had ever seen, inside or outside of the ring. Perhaps, it was how young he looked in comparison to all of the other men here. Too young to grow much of a scruff, Ross guessed. Or maybe it was that he looked so out of place. He wore a shabby waistcoat and trousers that appeared a little too short for him, his cotton shirt patched at the elbows. Slanting eyes peered out from beneath round glasses with a thin, gold frame and Ross found himself trying to work out what colour those eyes were as they seemed to shift from green to grey to blue and back again. The boy appeared to sense Ross was looking at him and those eyes met his, long lashes blinking confused. Ross gave the boy a quick grin and made a display of cracking his knuckles. The boy’s face flushed red then, cheeks glowing suddenly, eyes lowered.
Ross turned then and did his usual walk around the ring, marking his territory. He could hear the crowd clapping and it made him feel odd. He was used to cheers and jeers, not this polite applause. When he got back to his corner he noted that his opponent was in position. The man was broad and muscular, but there was nothing about him that concerned him. The man had a broken nose and one of his ears looked slightly askew. This usually meant that the guy had been beaten about some, and that usually meant he was going to be beaten about some more.
Another man had come into the ring dressed all in black, he clapped his hands and the crowd stopped clapping.
“Who’s that guy?” Jeff hissed
“I guess he’s the one who is going to make sure I keep within the rules.” Ross grinned.
“Well, you’d better be a good boy then.” Jeff gave his shoulder a quick squeeze.
“Aren’t I always?” Ross winked and moved towards the centre of the ring.
Thomas could feel the sweat trickle down his neck and into the collar of the shirt he wore. His mouth felt incredibly dry, and he took a swallow of the ale they’d given him. It was thick and malty and quite strong, and it did little to quench his thirst or quell his anxiety. He had been shocked when he had arrived at the club. He thought, perhaps, that they would show him the library or the room in which his father had done all this so called research, but instead he had been brought into this massive ballroom where a boxing ring had been set up in the centre and men sat all around it watching keenly, money changing hands swiftly as everyone tried to wager before the fight.
“You can stand here if you would like.” Robert led him to the ring and gestured to where the ropes and canvas met. “As our honoured new member.”
“I’m not sure if I . . . ,” the words got caught in his throat and he felt like a rabbit caught in a trap.
“Do not be so nervous, Thomas. You are here because we want you to be and, believe me, we do want you.”
“But what of my father’s research?”
“Later. You need to relax, my boy. Have some fun. You will enjoy this, believe me.”
Thomas nodded and leaned his arms against the canvas for a moment. Behind him there was a smattering of applause and he looked up to see one of the fighters standing in the glow of the electric lamp. Thomas’s breath caught in his throat, and he couldn’t tear his eyes away for a moment. The man looked like something out of a Greek myth. He was tall and broad, shoulders and arms taut with muscle. He glowed in the golden light, the oil on his skin making his body shine. There were tattoos that reminded Thomas of a book he had once read on Maori tribal rituals, and there was certainly something wild about him. However, it was the face that took his breath away; the bone structure, and the thick, sensuous mouth. It was as if he had been carved out of marble and Thomas could not stop staring.
“That’s the Yank,” a man near him spoke to his companion. “Seems he is quite the fighter.”
Thomas continued to stare. He had always wanted to travel, to see the world and yet he’d not gone further than his own backyard. Here was this magnificent specimen, an American no less and he suddenly had the urge to talk to the man, and to find out his history. Green eyes met his suddenly and the man grinned. Thomas’s face flamed, guilty at being caught staring so openly, and he lowered his eyes to stare at the canvas instead.
The fight itself was oddly anticlimactic. The Yanks challenger was given very little mercy, and Thomas found himself cringing at every blow; the sound of fist hitting flesh and the cracking of bone making him feel quite sick. It was over in a matter of seconds rather than minutes, the Yank’s challenger on the canvas in a splatter of his own blood. The Yank didn’t look particularly proud or even pleased. He allowed his trainer to lift his arm in victory, and then he retired to his corner of the ring to be cleaned up. Thomas watched the whole thing with a kind of morbid fascination, and he wondered if his father had watched these sorts of spectacles or if he had just stayed in his room mourning his wife and trying to find out what terrible disease had killed her.
“Ah, Thomas.” Robert caught his arm. “Quite marvellous, wasn’t it?”
“I suppose.” He rubbed the back of his neck embarrassed that he had found it so brutal. “But watching a fight wasn’t what I had come here to do.”
“Come with me to meet Ross.” Robert tugged his arm. “There will be plenty to eat and drink.”
“I am not sure.”
“Please, Thomas.” Robert’s tugs became insistent and he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to resist. He allowed himself to be pulled around the back and into another, plush, warm luxurious room, the sudden scent of food making him realize just how hungry he was.
The fighter was sitting on one of the plush chairs dressed in a thick red robe. He had a plate of food on his knee and a glass of red wine in his hand, but he looked as awkward as Thomas felt. There were well-dressed men milling around him talking excitedly but he appeared to be only half listening, his panicked eyes on the older man who sat next to him with a stunned expression on his face.
“Ross.” Robert was virtually dragging him over. “I want you to meet our newest member. This is Thomas. Thomas meet Ross.”
“Um, hello.” Thomas felt like a green boy as he held out a sweaty, rather unsteady hand. The Yank – Ross – gave him a wry grin and took his hand squeezing it firmly, bright eyes sharp on Thomas’s face.
“Thomas.” Ross let his hand go and put a finger to his forehead in a mock salute. “You don’t look exactly at home here.”
“No.” Thomas licked dry lips, he found himself perching awkwardly on the arm of Ross’s chair. “This is all new to me.”
“And to me,” Ross spoke with a slow, almost leisurely drawl, his tone low and rumbling. Thomas had never met an American before and he realized that he really liked the accent; it was thick and syrupy, nothing like the clipped tones he was used to. “I’m kinda’ new here too. Your friend Robert brought me over from the States and I arrived here a few days ago. I’m not really used to life here in England yet.”
“It was my father who was the member here. It is my first night too.” Thomas couldn’t help but warm to the man. “I’ve never seen a bare knuckle fight before.”
“Did you like it?” The older man behind Ross interjected and Thomas felt his neck flush again, heat spreading to his cheeks and pooling in the sweat on his chest and spine.
“Not really. I found it a little brutal.”
“Thomas is a scholar,” Robert interrupted. “And has just obtained a job in the British Library.”
“Good on ya’,” Ross’s response was tinged with an odd bitterness and Thomas wished Robert had kept his mouth shut.
“I just enjoy books,” Thomas knew how pathetic that sounded even to his own ears and he rubbed his neck again his hand coming away wet with sweat.
“Well, professor,” Ross’s voice was laced with sarcasm. “No wonder you found us a little physical.”
“I’m sorry. I really meant no offence.” Thomas licked his dry lips and took a large swallow of the wine which made him cough like the boy Ross thought he was.
“None taken son,” the older man intervened again. “Ross here is always like this after a fight. It’s the adrenaline.”
Thomas opened his mouth to speak but Robert raised a hand.
“I am sorry to interrupt you gentlemen, but when you have eaten and taken your fill of the fine wine some of the committee wish to speak with you.”
“And why is that?” Ross’s voice was laced with sudden suspicion and Thomas felt his heart quicken, his stomach twisting with something nasty.
“I would prefer not discuss it here.” Robert’s expression was shuttered. “It is something that is for your ears and eyes only.”
Thomas gripped the wine glass so tightly he thought it might snap in his hand. Beside him Ross was tense, legs shifting restlessly beneath the robe.
“I knew we shouldn’t trust the bastard,” he hissed under his breath to his companion and Thomas could not help but concur.
They walked along a dark, dank corridor totally out of character to the rest of the building. Ross could smell something odd, and he wondered if it might be some sort of narcotic. Beside him Thomas was silent and stoic but he could see the sweat glistening on his neck and chest. The boy kept toying with his glasses, pulling at them, tugging them off and rubbing them on his shirt.
“Do you think it might be some sort of secret ceremony that involves us getting naked with beautiful women?” Ross felt guilty about how he had spoken to the boy earlier. There was something soft and fragile about him and it made Ross feel oddly protective.
Thomas shot him a look of panic and Ross grinned back with a wink. He watched Down’s retreating back with some fascination. Really he was curious as to what was going to happen next because he was sure that he could handle himself, but the boy that was a different story.
At the end of the corridor were two heavy oak doors that swung open almost immediately. For a moment Ross wondered about his light hearted comment about secret ceremonies and his own fear ratcheted up a little.
“What the hell is happening?” Thomas hissed and he turned to Robert, his voice angry and frightened all at once.
“Do not be afraid, Thomas. Everything I have done has helped to lead you both here, but you are in no danger.”
Ross looked up to see that they were standing in the middle of, what appeared to be, an older part of the building. The ceiling was high and cavernous, heavy oak beams revealing its Tudor origins. There was a huge table at the end of the room and seven men sat at that table. They all wore red velvet coats and inky black cravats and they were all so old that it was difficult to even begin to guess their age.
“Welcome strangers,” one of them intoned. “Come to us to start your quest.”
“Quest?” Ross turned his anger onto Robert. “What the fuck?”
“Silence!” Another old man held up his hand. “You will listen.”
“The hell I will!” Ross whirled around but Robert stood behind him. The other man put his hand on his arm, hand firm. It would have been easy to shake him off but there was something about his manner, his demeanour that stopped Ross from doing that.
“Thomas,” the man who had spoken first continued. “I know you want to find out who killed your mother, and we are here to help you with your search.”
“Find out whom? My mother was killed by a wasting disease,” Thomas’s voice shook and Ross found himself moving a little closer to the boy.
“No, she was not. Have you not read about the killings in the poorer area of the city?”
“Yes, of course. They are calling them the work of a second Jack.” Thomas leaned in so that his shoulder brushed Ross’s. “What has that to do with my mother?”
“Your mother was killed by the same thing.”
For a moment there was silence and Ross wondered if everyone here was totally insane.
“But this person preyed on ladies of the night, and unfortunate women. My mother was neither of those.”
“There has been a spate of killings, far more than the papers or the police know. Women found drained completely of blood, bodies little more than husks.”
“But my father had a noted physician visit my mother daily.”
“Indeed, but he had no conception of what was happening to your mother. He gave her tonics and other medicines and she appeared to rally. However, when he returned to her she was worse. That was why he believed it to be a wasting disease, but further research has proven this is not the case.”
“What the hell has this got to do with me?” Ross couldn’t hold back a moment longer. “I was under the impression I was brought here to entertain, and to fight your finest champions.”
“That is what we told you, yes.” The old man turned sharp eyes onto Ross. “We sent Robert out to find you because we knew you were a very tough man, but not only that, we had also heard that you had tremendous strength of character. We needed someone who was not part of this world. We needed someone to protect the boy.”
“I’m not a boy!” Ross was surprised by Thomas’s anger. “I don’t need protecting,” his voice shook. “I do not understand what you want of either of us.”
“We want you to continue with your father’s research, Thomas. We want you to go out into the city, and to hunt down the person who is doing this.”
“Shouldn’t you be calling the authorities on this one?” Ross interjected. He felt stunned, shell-shocked and he was pretty damn certain that Thomas must be feeling the same. “We aren’t fucking detectives.”
“I do not believe that detectives would be of any help in this particular case,” the old man’s voice was calm and he seemed unfazed by Ross’s vulgarities and anger. “Whoever or whatever is killing these women has stepped up their game. We noticed that they started, as you say, with whores and addicts, but now they appear to be attacking the rich and the wives of important men.”
“So the whores aren’t important enough for you?” Ross felt sick.
“We need this person apprehended. We need this person gone.”
“Why me?” Thomas sounded as if he might weep and Ross had the overwhelming urge to hold him, an urge he tamped down, shoving his hands into the pockets of the robe he still wore.
“You are a scholar. Your father told us regularly how bright you were. He spoke of you often, he was so proud. We know you read, we know you spend hours with your head buried in a book. We will give you access to all of your father’s notes. We will let you talk to the physician who tended your mother and we will make sure you have everything you need. But you will have to go out on to the streets. You will have to go to places that you have never been to before; to the brothels and the opium dens and to the darkest parts of the city. It is for that reason that we brought Ross over. I have no doubt he will protect you from all that is to come.”
“And if we say no?” Ross wasn’t sure he wanted the answer. He wasn’t sure that he was gonna’ like what he was about to hear. Deep down he knew that there was no saying no to this, that there was no getting out of this. He had been played good and proper, and his fists were itching to break the skin on Robert Down’s face.
“You are not going to say ‘no’ though, are you?” The old man was staring at him with burning eyes and Ross swallowed, his mouth dry as dust. Beside him Thomas stood still and silent, and it was hard to know just what he was thinking.
“I guess not,” Ross didn’t think he had ever sounded so contrite and he didn’t know why he was agreeing to this.
“And you, Thomas?”
“If I can find out who killed my mother and obtain some sort of justice for her . . . then yes I agree to it.”
“Then let us begin.”
Thomas felt foolish. He believed he had been duped, but he could not hold back the burning urge to find out just what had happened to his mother. He was itching to get his hands on his father’s research but he had to admit to himself that he was scared, terrified even. The thought of trawling the streets of London at night made him feel more than a little uneasy and, despite his protests, he could not help but be thankful for Ross’s presence.
They had been brought to a small study where tea and coffee were laid out on one table and meat, bread and fruit on another. A quick glance at his pocket watch told him that it was early morning and that they had been here all night. He glanced over to where Ross was slumped in one of the chairs, eyes closed. He had fought before everything had happened, and he must be exhausted. Thomas sighed and sank into a chair opposite. He knew nothing at all about the man and he guessed that this little sojourn was happening so that they could rectify that.
“Ross?” He leaned forward and put his hand on the other man’s arm. Green eyes opened and regarded him fuzzily. Ross’s movements were sluggish and Thomas guessed he must ache from the night before. “Would you like some tea? Something to eat?”
“Coffee would be fine,” Ross’s drawl seemed more pronounced now and he rubbed at his face, fingers catching on red gold stubble. “Is that all those guys do? Feed and water us?”
Thomas laughed, he suppressed a yawn and reached for the coffee pot. He did not normally indulge in the morning but he needed something to keep him awake. He poured out a generous amount and handed Ross one of the large cups. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the other man’s fingers wrapped around it, couldn’t stop staring at the cracked knuckles and the dirty brown stains of another man’s blood.
“Have you been fighting long?” He lowered his eyes on the pretence of stirring his coffee.
“Since my parents died I guess, bare knuckle fighting pays better than fence mending, and I appear to have a natural talent for it – or so Jeff says. I wonder what they have done with Jeff, hope they haven’t killed him or something.”
“I doubt they would do that.” Thomas did not actually know what these people might do. His father had, apparently, been one of them but it was all very dark and much too mysterious.
“Yeah, do ya’? I don’t,” he said and sniffed. “They led me a merry dance, that’s for certain.”
“What did they tell you?”
“That they wanted me to fight their finest for wagers. I anticipated that I’d have a few bouts, make some money, and then go back home. I never figured that I’d end up playing nursemaid.”
“I don’t need a nursemaid!” Thomas felt a burst of anger which helped alleviate his fear. “Why don’t you just go home and get on with your life. Why stay here?”
Ross was silent for a long time and then he shrugged his shoulders, a puzzled expression on his face.
“I don’t know. I had a good childhood you know, like yours I’m guessing. My parents loved each other and they loved me but when they died I had to learn to make my own way in the world. It wasn’t easy, I was just a boy and I would have liked some help y’know.”
“I’m not a child,” the defiance in his voice was forced. “I can take care of myself.”
“How old are you?”
“I turned twenty-two a few months ago.”
“I was seventeen when I lost my ma and pa to a bullet. Seventeen with no one else to care.” Green eyes met his. “I’m thirty now, and I still wish I hadn’t had to cope alone.”
Thomas swallowed down the lump which threatened to choke him and he put his hand over his eyes for a moment breathing deeply while he controlled himself.
“I’m scared,” he admitted, finally. “I’m scared of what I’m going to find.”
“Then whatever it is, we’ll find it together.” Ross offered him a wan smile. “Deal?”
“Deal.” Thomas returned the smile and he realized that he felt better now than he had in months.
It made sense for Ross and Jeff to leave the accommodation provided by Robert and the Hellfire Club and move into Thomas’s house. Ross didn’t feel any regret; he barely trusted the bastards seeing how he had been used. Thomas didn’t look any happier, in fact he looked pallid with dark shadows beneath his eyes, testament to his lack of sleep.
Before they had, finally, left the club Ross had found two envelopes on the table. There was writing on them and he immediately handed them over to Jeff.
“What do they say?”
“Your name and Thomas’s.” Jeff turned them over in his hand. “Do you want to open yours?”
Inside had been a cheque. Ross had never seen one before and he didn’t actually understand what the figures meant. Jeff’s expression told him volumes though and he watched the older man’s face grow pale.
“One Thousand pounds,” Jeff stated. “And a note promising more when you apprehend the murderer. I’m guessing Thomas’s contains the same.”
“I don’t even have a fucking bank account.” Ross shook his head.
“This will make you for life, Ross. You will never have to fight again. You could buy some property, and maybe take yourself a wife.” he said shrugging his shoulders. “You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“I have the feeling that this job isn’t gonna’ be easy.” Ross couldn’t deny the vague excitement inside his gut at the thought of all that money. “This feels like blood money to me, Jeff.”
Now, two days down the line, he didn’t feel any different. The money was certainly an incentive, but he couldn’t help but wonder why it was so much and what he was gonna’ have to do to really earn it.
He glanced across at his new companion. Thomas was hunched over the table in his study, hair hanging limply in his face. He was still in that odd stage between boy and man, all long gangly limbs and soft, pale skin. Ross tried to remember being that young but he couldn’t, not really. All he did know was that he wasn’t so naïve and innocent at that age, and he was concerned for Thomas’s safety.
He liked this house, it was spacious and clean. A cute little maid came in every day to clean and cook for them. Thomas didn’t really eat enough for a kid of his size and Ross found himself nibbling on leftovers, wandering from room to room trying to get his bearings. Thomas had given both him and Jeff a room of their own so he had privacy for the first time in a long time, not that he could do much with it. He couldn’t read so he spent a lot of time staring out of the window taking in the view, familiarizing himself with London with its constant fog and unremitting rain. Sometimes he would strip down to his underclothes and exercise; bends and stretches, jumps and squats. He didn’t know what Thomas was doing, but Robert had given the boy all of his father’s notes and he guessed that he was now trying to make sense of them.
It was the longest he’d ever been inactive. He was used to travelling from place to place, used to fighting, to taunting his opponents, used to flirting with the women who hung around after, kisses and caresses sometimes leading to something more substantial. He’d never stayed with them for more than a night, he didn’t want any ties, felt he had nothing much to offer. Love was alien to him and the only person he’d become fond of since the loss of his parents was Jeff.
He couldn’t help but wonder about Thomas. The boy was studious and obviously intelligent. He appeared to spend most of his time with his head buried in written notes or text books and only came up for air when it was time to eat. His pallor suggested a boy who spent most of his days inside rather than out, and his unmade bed told Ross that he either slept downstairs at his desk or he didn’t sleep at all. Apart from the cute maid there were no ladies in Thomas’s life. There was a sepia photograph of an older woman who must be Thomas’s mother on the bookshelf but that was all. If there was anyone then Thomas must be keeping her a close secret.
It was late and his third week here, and he was going out of his mind. Robert called by on a regular basis with an invitation to come back to the club and spend some, what he called, quality time there. Ross had no desire to waste any more time on the limey liars and Thomas didn’t even give the guy the time of day. He knew that Robert Downs was simply fishing, and that he wanted to know if Thomas had gotten very far with his research. Ross didn’t know how far along Thomas was, but even if he had known he sure wasn’t telling fucking Downs.
He wandered downstairs, it was midday and almost as dark as night. Rain teemed down staining the windows and turning the streets greasy. Despite this Ross felt the burning need to go outside, and he wanted to tear open the door and just run.
“Are you okay?” Thomas appeared in the doorway. He looked like crap, with his hair mussed up, glasses askew, shirt untucked and trews wrinkled. Ross could smell him, sweat strong and musky.
“I am, but I’m not sure you are.” Ross shook his head. “I’m gonna’ go out and you are gonna’ come with me.”
“I need to work. I need to continue with my father’s notes. I’m so close.”
“You need to get out, and we need to talk. I know you are working hard but you need to stop for a minute.”
“Someone killed my mother.” There were tears wavering in those tip-tilted eyes and Ross, once again, felt the overwhelming urge to take the kid in his arms. “And it is our job to catch them.”
“Yeah, I get that. I get that we have no choice and that somehow we are members of this inclusive club. I get that they’ve paid us shit loads of fucking money to do it, but I don’t want to see you die before we even get to it. I barely know you kid, but I know you ain’t right.”
Thomas wavered then and Ross saw him sway on his feet, eyes fuzzy and confused, body shaking with ill-concealed exhaustion.
“It’s raining,” Thomas replied. It was a feeble, non-excuse and Ross felt a smile curve his mouth.
“Then we’ll get wet. The stench of you – well a little water won’t hurt.”
“Alright, let me get my coat.” Thomas swallowed and rubbed at his glasses.
“Sure.” Ross leaned against the door and crossed his ankles. “And I’ll wait here, make sure you don’t escape some other way.”
It was wet and cold outside but Ross tipped up his head to feel the cool water on his face. Beside him Thomas was silent, bundled up in a huge grey coat, head down against the wind. People rushed by them, the City teeming with life. In an odd way it reminded him of Coney Island and gave him an odd sort of comfort.
There was a coffee house on the corner of a long road and Thomas turned quickly and went inside. Ross followed, nostrils assailed with the strong scent of coffee, and the sweet smell of baking bread. Thomas took a table in the corner and hid behind a menu while Ross sat opposite staring out of the window at the bedraggled city dwellers.
A maid came and they ordered tea and a pot of coffee; Ross also ordered a plate of pastries and he watched the girl’s eyes grow big as she listened to him. He didn’t know if there were many Americans in England but he had noticed that his accent seemed to fascinate and he couldn’t deny he enjoyed the good natured flirtations.
“You’re working too hard.” Ross waited till the girl had gone before tugging the menu away from Thomas’s face. “I guess we are under a time limit here, but you don’t wanna’ kill yourself before we even get started. Besides, we’ve been kinda’ thrown together and I wanna’ know more about the guy I’m gonna’ be working with.”
Haunted eyes met his and Ross was alarmed at how dark they were, the shadows beneath them making them look hollow.
“There’s nothing much to tell in all honesty.” Thomas blinked owlishly and tugged the glasses off his nose to rub at his head. “I had a normal childhood. I was fortunate enough to have parents who loved me, and wanted me to be happy. My father did not force me into following him into banking and I was able to study at Oxford. I know that I am more than privileged, I have the house and I do not want for money. The check the Hellfire Club gave me is just a piece of paper. If we do this for them I will donate the money to the poor.”
“Wow.” Ross felt something shift inside of him and he found himself staring stupidly into those oddly exotic eyes. “You’re really something.”
“No, I’m really not.” Thomas’s smile was wan. “I have spent all of my life studying, and I just wanted to know everything. My best friends are books and, now my parents are gone, I have no one. My mother used to despair of me and try to get me to meet people . . . especially girls. I was of marriageable age, but I managed to avoid the interminable merry-go-round of suitable women. Now I cannot help but regret,” he said and sighed. “And there you have it. A couple of sentences and you know everything about me.”
“Don’t sell yourself short kid, at least you can read and you clearly have a good heart.”
“You don’t read?”
“No. I missed a hell of a lot of schooling due to helping out on the farm. Farmers don’t need to read much, and my pa had help with his ledgers.” He shrugged. “Fist fighters don’t have any need for books.”
Thomas was quiet, after a while the maid came and brought their tea and coffee. The pastries were sweet and thick with cream, the tart taste of jam almost sinful on Ross’s tongue. It seemed such a respectable thing to do here, take tea and chatter. There were so many well-dressed people in this small coffee house, chaperoned women, couples, men talking business. Hard to believe that there was darkness lurking somewhere, a darkness that they now needed to stop.
“So,” he felt the need to break the silence. “What do you have on the mysterious killer?”
“Not much.” Thomas’s expression was grave and Ross was sharp enough to see the misery in those oddly compelling eyes. “My father’s notes are confusing, and the physician who treated my mother is just as perplexed. It appears that she was losing blood at an alarming rate and that they even tried blood transfusion, which has only just been reintroduced. Every night they pumped blood into her and every day she was more and more anaemic. My father spent hours in the Club’s library but he could find no known disease that produced those symptoms.”
Ross was silent, he had no real knowledge of medicine beyond the simple mechanisms of mending a broken bone or putting salve on a bruise. Jeff had sewn him up on occasion, but he had been fortunate enough never to suffer too many illnesses.
“The other rich women, wives of club members, were affected in a similar way but the street women had been attacked quite violently. In some instances there was little of them left.” Thomas swallowed hard and Ross watched his Adam’s apple rise and fall. “But they were also bloodless. That is why the authorities called the crimes ‘the new Jack’ in reference to Jack the Ripper.”
Ross had heard about the bloody killer of course. Jeff had enjoyed reading the dramatic headlines out to him. They had had a few suspects but, as far as Ross was aware, no one had ever been caught.
“Could it be him?” He couldn’t help the burst of excitement that thrummed through him. “Do you think?”
“No, I’m 99% certain. The ripper only preyed on street whores and, although he often removed certain organs he didn’t leave them bloodless. No. This is something different.”
“Something?” Ross felt the excitement in his gut curdle. “Surely you mean someone.”
“You are going to think me very foolish, Ross,” Thomas’s voice was low and he took a large sip of his tea before continuing. “B-but I am unsure as to how a person could remove blood from another’s body so thoroughly without leaving any marks. Of course the whores were mutilated so it would have been hard to tell if they were marked or not, but my mother . . . s-she . . . ,” he paused and swallowed again, and Ross saw the moisture pool in his eyes. “There wasn’t a mark on her. I know, because I saw nothing.”
“So what are you trying to say?” Ross didn’t really want to know. He had been feeling uneasy enough as it was.
“That whatever did this might not be a normal human being.”
“Aw, come on Thomas. This is the new age. This is the age of electricity, the age of industrial power and new ideas. Men, like yourself, educated men who believe in science and rational explanations.”
“But I don’t have a rational explanation for what happened, I wish I did.”
“Maybe we should do what Robert suggested and go out into the city. We could talk to some of the other women out there, find out what they know.”
“Have you . . . have you ever been to a whore house?” Thomas’s voice shook and there was a smear of red across his cheeks. “Have you visited a . . . um . . . a lady of the night?”
“Yeah, I’ve shared a bed with a few.” Ross couldn’t help but grin at his companion’s naïveté. “I guess you just read about it in books, huh?”
The smear of red became a flare of scarlet and Thomas rubbed the back of his neck furiously. He really did look like a scared little boy right about now, and Ross had the wild urge to lean forward and hold him. It was weird and totally insane but there was something so fucking innocent about Thomas, something he couldn’t seem to ignore.
“You really are innocent aren’t ya’?” He was proud that he had managed to keep his voice so steady.
“I told you.” Thomas sounded angry and shamed all at once. “I-I . . . .”
“It’s okay Thomas.” Ross gave his shoulder a quick squeeze. “That’s what I’m here for. We should go out tonight, start our investigations. Do you know where to go at least?”
“Whitechapel and Soho.” Thomas rubbed his face again. “These were the ripper’s hunting grounds and, so it appears, the hunting grounds of this recent killer. But there have also been deaths, like my mothers, in Mayfair and areas like this one.”
“We should start at the bottom and work our way up.” Ross kept his hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “You okay with that?”
“Yes,” Thomas’s reply wasn’t too convincing but Ross could hear the resignation in his voice.
“Tonight then,” Ross pushed on.
It was bitterly cold. The rain had stopped and turned to fog, thick and cloying. Ross shivered and pushed his hands into the coat that Thomas had lent him. It had been his father’s and it was a little small but it was warm enough, and at least kept out most of the chill. Beside him Thomas was silent, head down, long hair hiding his pale face. His hands were shoved deep into the pockets of the great coat he wore but he was shuddering and Ross knew that it wasn’t because he was chilled.
The streets were dank and dirty, puddles already freezing over. The houses here were wrecked, doors hanging from broken hinges, windows broken, and some with no windows at all. There were drinking establishments on each corner; Gin houses and places selling ale and pies. Women wandered along the cobbles, their trade obvious. Ross noticed that Thomas kept his eyes averted from the swell of their breasts, the spill of white flesh from their bodices. Ross hadn’t tagged Thomas as a prudish sort but he had thought, for quite some time that Thomas was pretty innocent and now he was beginning to suspect that Thomas was a virgin and had no experience whatsoever with the opposite sex.
Ross couldn’t actually begin to formulate his feelings for this boy, someone he barely knew but had become embroiled with. He had to admit that he wasn’t a deep thinker. He rarely let emotions rule him and it was an attitude that had served him well over the years. He had mourned his family and moved on, he had become a fighter because he had little skill at anything else. He hadn’t formed any real attachments since their passing, Jeff being his only real friend. Yet since he had first seen Thomas, he hadn’t been able to get the kid out of his mind. There was something about him, something exotic and other-worldly, something that made Ross want to protect him, make sure he was safe, that he maintained that odd innocence that was strange in a man of his age. Even now he found himself walking close to the boy, bracketing him with his body, making sure he was okay.
As they walked through the fog Ross could smell something. It assailed his nostrils, sweet and cloying and he turned to his right to see a huge building, the scent getting stronger as he moved closer.
“Opium den,” Thomas’s voice was low and he raised his eyes for the first time. “That is where we are going. My father made a note that one of the victims was found here. He was going to speak to the man who sold the poppy and find out if he knew anything.”
“It stinks in there.” Ross could now see the inside of the building. It was dark and cavernous, bodies lying everywhere, piles of them like corpses, eyes glassy as they stared into nothing.
“It is the drug.” Thomas had his hand in front of his mouth and his eyes were wild with panic. “They smoke it, or inhale it, and it gives them . . . something.”
As they walked inside the smell became stronger. Ross, who felt he had seen a lot in his life, felt himself recoil in horror as he stared down at the throng of humanity within the den. Some were lying still, eyes closed as if dead. Some were sitting and smoking long white pipes, their faces blank. There were two women on a shabby mattress, their bodies’ naked, white flesh and pink nipples. A man was licking one of them, tongue brushing over exposed skin. Ross couldn’t tear his eyes away, the scene oddly erotic but disturbing. He glanced at Thomas who was shaking now, his distress obvious. Thomas’s eyes were fixed on the women, and his mouth gaped open. A quick glance elsewhere and Ross could see that, beneath his coat, Thomas was uncomfortable, his cock a hard line inside his pants.
At this juncture Ross was sure the scent of the drug was getting to them both. He felt oddly light-headed, felt as if he had consumed a vat full of whiskey. He felt the way he did when Jeff had to get him drunk to stitch him up, not quite in control of himself, legs wobbly.
“Help ya’ gents?”
The man who sidled up to them was thin and rat-like, eyes as sharp as tacks. He carried a small purse at his waist and his fingers were curled into his palms. He stepped through the pile of humanity as if it was just rubbish on the floor and Ross shuddered. He’d seen a lot of people in his time but this man was one of the worst.
“We’re looking for the owner of this place,” to his own ears his accent sounded odd and slurred. His brain felt fried and confused and he knew that Thomas must also be feeling that way, the boy leaning against him as if Ross might hold him steady.
“That would be me,” the man was virtually preening and he gave Ross an almost toothless grin. “You want the pipe, or something else?” He glanced down at Thomas’s groin. “Ladies too.”
“No! No,” Thomas said and shook his head as he swayed against Ross. His hands went down to pull his coat further around his body and Ross could feel the soft shudders that thrummed through him. “We’re not here for that.”
“Ya’ getting some free stuff here gents.” The man’s grin morphed into something more threatening. “I’m hoping that brass changes hands quickly.”
Ross knew Thomas had come prepared, he saw his companion fumble inside his pockets and pull out a few crumpled notes. The man’s eyes grew wide and Ross knew he hadn’t ever seen so much money.
“Whatever you want gents.” A clawed hand gestured to the naked women on the floor. “And better.”
“We need to ask you something.” Thomas was breathing deep and Ross realized he was trying to centre himself. “There was a woman killed here a few weeks ago. She was ripped apart.”
“Ay, fuck. She was one of my best.”
“She was a whore,” Ross attempted to keep his voice steady.
“She was a lady of the night, aye. We had an agreement . . . she pleasured my customers, and I fed her the poppy.”
“So she worked here?”
“Did you find her here, after?” Thomas’s face was pale in the dim light of the den and he looked like he might vomit.
“Nah. She went off with a man. A toff he was, dressed all in his finery with a top hat an’ all. They left this place and went who knows where. Then the next day we heard a carriage draw up outside. When one of my other ladies went out to see what was happening they found her, or what was left of her, out on the cobbles. Peelers thought it were the Ripper, but none of us were in agreement with that.”
Ross could see Thomas taking it all in, there was a furrow in his brow and it was obvious his brain was working through the fugue of the opium.
“Why didn’t you think it was the Ripper?”
“Jack took their organs and such. Sure, the poor bitch’s skin had been ripped from her body but it was the nature of it . . . she was blue lipped and blue tinged. The physicians said it was loss of blood but there was no blood, sir. Not a drop of it left in her corpse.”
“And the man?” Ross needed to ask the obvious question. “Would you know him again?”
“Yes, sir.” the man’s eyes were on Thomas’s hand, the hand that clutched the money. “He was a toff, he was here a lot and he always asked for Milly. Strange thing was, he came back the mornin’ after she went missing and he was asking for her. I know wot you should do, you should talk to Gen, she lived in the same doss place as the girl.”
“Is she here?”
“Nah, sir. She don’t frequent this place. She don’t use the poppy . . . gins her thing.”
“Where will we find her?”
“Won’t find her tonight. She’ll be a workin’ and she won’t want disturbance. You can try her in the morning. She lives down south of the river . . . place called, Bell Lane. Go tomorrow midday, you’ll find her then.”
Thomas nodded, he thrust the notes into the man’s hand and without a backward glance staggered out of the room. Ross followed, cautiously trying not to stand on any other human being, and he felt an awful relief when he got out into the fresh air again.
Thomas was leaning against the wall his nostrils flaring. He looked close to puking but he kept swallowing over and over, as if he was trying to hold it back. Ross put his hand on the kid’s shoulder and he jumped as if he’d been punched, eyes wild on Ross’s face.
“I want to go home,” he choked out and Ross bobbed his head and went out onto the main street to call a cab.
The hansom took them back to Thomas’s door and Ross had never been so glad to see anywhere in his entire life. Jeff must have been in bed because the house was in darkness, and Thomas staggered into his study reaching for the port with shaking hands. He slumped into the chair and his coat fell open. He looked terrible, his face white, his cheeks flushed pink, and his cock still a hard line against his thigh. Ross tried to imagine what he might be feeling right then, but he couldn’t and there was nothing he could say to make things right.
The opium den had been like a vision of hell, and Ross had no desire to ever go back there. The drug had smelt sweet and made his head spin but it had also made him feel strange and slightly out of control. He realized that the drug, combined with the sight of the naked women so obviously involved in sexual congress, had affected Thomas too and it was clear that the younger man had never had that sort of experience before.
“You need to take yourself in hand,” he was aware that he sounded harsh. It was late and he was exhausted, the memory of what he had seen stuck firmly in his brain.
“What?” Thomas had somehow lost his coat and his waistcoat, white shirt unbuttoned to show a long, thin throat. “I-I . . . ,” his voice faltered and he stared down at his groin as if he had never seen it before. “God,” he whispered. “It was so . . . ,” he paused and seemed to run out of words and Ross bit his lip, bending slightly so he could kneel beside the old stuffed chair and put his hand on Thomas’s shaking forearm.
“I know,” he kept his voice gentle, using the tone he hadn’t used since his childhood, the tone he’d used to calm a flighty horse, a cow that didn’t give milk.
“I feel sick.” Thomas’s eyes met his, desolate and fearful. “But those women. I’ve never seen . . . the drug . . . everything feels so fucking hot,” it was the first time he had heard Thomas curse. “My blood feels as if it is boiling.”
Ross couldn’t really say what happened then, perhaps he was still under the influence of the drug, and perhaps he had wanted to do this since the first time he’d laid eyes on this strangely exotic boy. He leaned forward and, gently, slowly undid the buttons on Thomas’s pants. Thomas made an odd noise and shifted, lifting his hips so that Ross could tug both rough tweed and soft cotton down. The material bunched at his thighs and Ross could see how hard Thomas was, cock standing out against the soft chestnut hair on his groin. It was clear that Thomas was such an innocent, he had probably never even touched himself there and Ross had certainly never touched another man in such a way, but now he didn’t hesitate. He wrapped his fingers around Thomas’s hardness and tugged.
The boy let out a throaty moan. He moved. His hips juddering and Ross was unsure if he was trying to move closer or further away. Ross screwed his eyes shut and just let his hand do the talking while Thomas grunted and groaned, words like, no and don’t stop jumbled up as they burst from his mouth. Ross ignored everything but the feel of hard flesh in his hand, the stink of Thomas’s sweat mingling with the lingering scent of opium, and the thick foggy smell of night.
Thomas’s release came hot and fierce over Ross’s hand. He withdrew instantly, standing to his feet, giddy with sensation. Thomas’s eyes were closed and his skin was red, mouth open. Neither of them spoke, neither of them moved and only the tick, tick, tick of Thomas’s grandfather clock told them time was slipping away.
Thomas awoke with a thick head and dry mouth. He was stripped down to his undergarments but he did not remember removing his clothing. His whole body ached and there was the distinct smell of his release on his skin. He swallowed hard to keep down the bile which thickened his throat and he sat up in the bed slowly and carefully, the jumbled memories of the previous night flitting through his confused mind.
Why had Ross done that? He rubbed his eyes and pushed a hand through his untidy hair distracting himself from actually thinking. It had been so odd and out of character. He could not deny that he had enjoyed it. No one had ever touched him like that before, and just thinking about it now made his treacherous cock twitch.
He was certain that Ross was not one of those men that preferred others of their own sex. It was not as if he was an expert on the subject, but he had read books about the Spartans and how they would lie with each other before going to war, about how they revelled in the flesh of another. He knew that there were men who found their pleasure that way, but he had seen Ross flirting with women, with the waitress in the coffee house, and with his own maid. Ross was a bare knuckle fighter and Thomas had been witness to how brutal he could be. The other man had never shown him anything else but casual concern, and there was no reason why he would have wanted to lay a hand on Thomas and yet he had.
Last night had been one of the strangest nights of his short life. The opium den and the people who frequented it, women with little or no virtue, rolling naked for the pleasure of others. He could not deny that the sight of them had made him feel odd, hot and out of sorts. He could not deny that his body had been awakened, and that his desires had come quickly to the fore. That, combined with the drug, had made everything different, had made him want things he had never wanted before. The thing that concerned him the most was the fact that he had enjoyed Ross’s hands on him. He had enjoyed the feel of that big, callused hand on his cock, the scent of sweat and masculinity. Thomas had never really considered another person touching him but he had thought it would be a woman, his wife no doubt (not that he’d ever thought he’d have a wife), yet last night it had been Ross who had helped him and today, despite himself, he could feel no guilt.
Perhaps, and the thought scared him, he was a man who preferred the touch of his own sex. When he considered it, he realized he had never really sought out the company of women. With the exception of his mother and the maid there had not been one other female influence in his life, there had been university and then the library and now there was the club. All of these places, every single one, were frequented by men alone and this terrible realization made him feel sicker and he laid back on the bed head spinning.
It was much later when he had bathed and felt better that he finally made his way downstairs. Ross and Jeff were in the breakfast room drinking coffee while the maid flapped around them. There was food on the table; bacon, eggs and soft white bread. Thomas’s stomach rumbled as it betrayed the sickness in his stomach and he swallowed hard before entering the room.
“Morning,” it was Jeff who spoke, the older man shifting seats so Thomas could sit. “Ross here tells me you had quite an adventure last night.”
He turned his panicked gaze to the American who shrugged and gave him a wry smile. Bacon was pushed towards him and he loaded up his plate, his mouth watering.
“We did find a few things out.” He chewed on his lip distracted. “But I believe we need to see the girl – Gen, that the owner of the den mentioned. She might be able to lead us to our man.”
“Yeah.” Ross’s green eyes were on his face considering and Thomas looked down swiftly preferring to stare at the bacon rather than consider his actions. “It seems like she might have had some dealings with him.”
“What do you think you are dealing with?” Jeff’s question was a welcome diversion. “Ross here says you think it might be some kind of monster.”
“I don’t know, his habits are so very random and the way he chooses his victims too. Then there is the fact that the corpses are either torn apart or slowly drained like . . . ,” he choked a little on the words. “Like my mother.”
“In some ways his kills ARE like your Jack the Ripper’s, but in others they are completely different.”
“At least we have some sort of description now.” Thomas pushed the bacon around his plate. He felt odd and displaced and horribly awkward. It was obvious that Ross was not going to talk about what happened, and he could not help but feel grateful for that. Perhaps it was best if they just forgot about it, chalked it down to the influence of the poppy. When this was over Ross would go back to America and Thomas would go on with his life and that would be that.
It was early afternoon when they finally got a cab into town, the area where this mysterious Gen lived was no better than the one where the opium den was located. Dark dank houses, litter strewn streets and whores on the corner plying their trade. The weather was terrible, wet and windy. The rain pelting their faces and clouds darkening the sky. Thomas shivered in the dampness of his coat and he wished, fervently, for sun.
“I hate your fucking weather.” Beside him Ross plodded through the relentless rain with his head down. “Ever since I arrived here, it has fucking rained.” He turned and gave Thomas a sharp glance. “Doesn’t it ever stop?”
“Yes. Sometimes it snows,” Thomas tried to keep his voice even. “In summer it can be pleasant, but then it gets too hot and, here in the city, it becomes oppressive and unbearable.”
“Have you never thought of leaving?”
“Not really. I lived in Oxford for a while, but it was much the same. This is my home.”
“You don’t wanna’ travel?”
“I’ve read about places in my books and that is enough for me.” Thomas felt embarrassed, like a child in the presence of an adult. Ross had not mentioned what had happened last night. He had not touched on the moment of intimacy between them and, despite his earlier relief, Thomas felt oddly miserable, a sudden desperation to clear the air burning hot in his soul.
They’d come to a halt under a thick metal railway bridge which offered some shelter from the driving rain. Ross faced him now and they were pressed close together. Under the sheen of water on the older man’s face Thomas noticed he had a smattering of freckles across his nose which made him look suddenly younger, more vulnerable.
“It has been,” he answered honestly. “My life might seem dull to some, but it was the life I wanted. Is was the life I chose. I loved my parents and did not think that they would both die so young, that they would leave me alone. I imagined working in the library and coming home to them, eating meals with them, and staying here until my mother finally won and found me a suitable wife. This man . . . this thing changed my whole world, and I don’t know how to change it back.”
“I’m sorry.” A flush stained Ross’s cheeks. “I was out of order.”
“No, I guess you didn’t see your life taking this turn either.”
“Nah. Like you I had the life I wanted. I figured I’d fight till I was too old, or too hurt to fight anymore, and then I’d take what money I’d earned and buy a small holding somewhere. Maybe take a wife, have some kids, and settle down.” Green eyes met his. “This wasn’t on the cards at all.”
“What’s happening here?” Thomas’s throat felt thick and he wanted to run away, to maybe turn back time. “What’s happening between us?”
“We’re trying to find a killer, and you are real close to what is happening because this fucking monster killed your mom so you need to find him. You need to get closure.”
“That’s not all of it.” Thomas reached out and grasped Ross’s shoulders. They were firm and taut beneath his fingers, proof of what Ross was, of why he was here as Thomas’s protector, nothing more nothing less. “And you know it.”
“Last night you were drugged up to the gills, and I wasn’t exactly myself,” Ross’s voice was oddly flat. “You needed help.”
“Ross!” Something snapped in him. “It had to mean more than that.”
“Thomas, stop being such a fucking scholar. Not everything has to have a deep hidden meaning. You needed help, and I helped you. We need to move on from that, do you understand?”
“Yes.” He let Ross’s shoulders go and hoped that the wetness on his face was just rain because he felt foolish enough as it was without adding crying to his problems. “Yes I understand.”
“Then let’s find this Gen bitch and get some answers because I, for one, want out of this rain, this place, and this fucking country.”
And with those words Ross began to walk away with Thomas trailing in his wake.
Perhaps it would be better, he mused, when this was over and things could go back to normal.
Gen lived in what could only be described as a hovel. It was tiny, a room with one small bed, a flickering gas lamp and dirt ingrained sink. As an odd contrast there were several gaudy coloured gowns hanging on a rail in the corner and they seemed out of place in the dim, dank place.
Gen herself might one day have been described as beautiful. She was small and slender with a tiny waist and large breasts that spilled out of the under slip she wore. Her skin was lightly tanned and she had dark hair and eyes, but already the ravages of her profession were telling upon her and it was hard to tell if she were young or old. There were shadows beneath her eyes and her teeth were beginning to rot and fall out, fake beauty spots made marks on her flesh and her eyes were dim with no spark about them. She smelt faintly of gin but she had tried to mask that scent with strong rose cologne which made Thomas’s eyes water. She seemed glad to see them, flirty and obvious, her hands skirting over Thomas’s forearms and making them prickle with goose bumps.
“What can I do for you gents?” Her eyes skimmed across to Ross and she grinned showing the gaps in her teeth. “I charge double for two of you, though you’re so very handsome I’d make an exception.”
“No. We just have some questions for you,” Thomas said and shook his head and gestured that she sit on the bed. Ross stood by the door watching the street and Thomas wondered if he were looking out for trouble. “It’s about another girl who used to live with you.”
“Milly? She’s dead gents, cold and dead.”
“Yeah, we know,” Ross’s voice was sharp and he stopped staring out onto the street to answer. “But we want to know about the gent she was seen with just before she died.”
“He wouldn’t have been the one who killed her.” Gen’s eyes softened. “He was so nice. A toff, and quite handsome. He came here lots of times.”
“You mean he saw her regularly?” Thomas couldn’t help but feel confused. “A toff, you say?”
“He took care of her. He was one of these – wot you call ‘em? Filanthropost or somethin’.”
“Philanthropist.” Thomas couldn’t hold back mild amusement. “Did he care for you too?”
“He gave me coins yes, but he didn’t love me like he loved Milly.”
Thomas exchanged glances with Ross, he could see that the older man looked as doubtful as he felt. It was clear that both of them were thinking of the opium den and the lure of the poppy. Neither of them knew Milly but they had seen the women like her, and it seemed outrageous to think that a rich man could find love with such a woman in such a place.
“He loved her?”
“Yes, he would come and take care of her. He promised he was going to get a physician to look at her, to help her to resist the poppy. He wouldn’t have killed her.”
“But he was with her the night she died.”
“That’s wot the others say. They say he brought a carriage for her, and she went with him. She trusted him, you see?”
“Do you know where this man lives?” Thomas’s heart was in his mouth.
“He has a house in Richmond down by the river.” She grinned again and her hand came back to rest on his arm. “Number 10 it is. Milly had been there once or twice.” She sidled up to him. “You sure you won’t change your mind sir? You are so pretty, innocent too. I like that.”
“No.” Thomas reared back as if she had bit him. From his post at the door he heard Ross snort, but there was sudden and unexpected warmth in the other man’s eyes. It flared for a moment and then it was gone and Ross turned away again with another, less audible snort.
They were silent on the carriage drive home. They had an address now and both felt they were closer to their prey. Neither commented on the fact that it all seemed too easy.
Gen took a swig of her gin. She had been lonely since Milly had gone, but the gentlemen kept her entertained and kept the alcohol flowing. She laid back on her bed for a moment and was almost dozing when she heard a footfall in her room and her eyes flew open, fear washed away instantly by relief as she saw the young man that had been here only a few hours before.
“Changed your mind?”
“Yes,” his voice was so sweet and gentle. He wasn’t a toff but he certainly had money. She looked around for the other one, a foreigner she thought by his strange accent, but there was no sign of him. No matter, she really liked this one and she might do him for the price of a bottle. “I’ve got a carriage outside, do you want to come?”
She nodded and let him take her hand. He had big hands, long fingers that wrapped comfortably around hers. His eyes were slanting and exotic behind those glasses that he wore and she could feel the slight tremor in them.
The carriage was nice, finer than she would have imagined. He helped her in like the gentleman he was and, when the door was fastened, he turned to her with a glint in his eyes. He removed his glasses and put them to one side. She giggled and he smiled at her all warm and soft. He leaned in and kissed her, chastely at first but then with more passion, harder and unrestrained. She moaned loudly cos she knew what men liked, and he pulled her closer. He tore his mouth away and stared at her for a long moment and she stared back wondering what he was seeing. Then he lurched forward again and put one hand on her breast squeezing slowly, she arched into his touch and he laughed then, burying his head in her hair, his mouth at her throat. She groaned this time and he squeezed once more harder now as he opened his mouth closed it over her jugular and bit down.
Ross couldn’t say he was surprised when they received a summons to the Hellfire Club, they had been working for Robert and his cronies for about a month and hadn’t told them anything so far. Sure they had leads, but since the incident after the opium den they hadn’t really done anything about them.
He knew Thomas intended on visiting Milly’s toff and it was the first real lead they had. Somehow, though, it seemed too damn easy and Ross had a feeling that things weren’t gonna’ be as straight forward as they seemed.
He’d still not gotten over the guilt of what he had done with Thomas. Trouble was he didn’t regret it and, worse still, he’d do it again if he could. It was shocking to feel like this and especially shocking to feel like this about another man. He’d had all the women he wanted back in the states, and he’d enjoyed the sex without the commitment. Now he found himself drawn to . . . fuck . . . attracted to this boy, this callow youth who was so fucking innocent and so full of self-doubt and concern. He’d taken the cowards way out when Thomas had confronted him and, to some extent, he had been telling the truth when he’d said that he just wanted this thing over and done with. He wanted to go home, he wanted to do something familiar, he wanted to fight again, the thought of punching someone strangely comforting. He didn’t want to feel like this. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fucking natural. He almost hated Thomas for worming his way into Ross’s life.
“What do you think they want?” Thomas shifted on the leather seat and peered out of the carriage window. “Why have they suddenly decided they want to see us?”
“I don’t know.” Ross felt on edge and he had to sit on his hands to stop from punching something or someone. “I guess they want to know what we’ve found out.”
Thomas was silent and Ross took that moment to study him. He looked pale under that untidy mop of hair, his eyes half- mast beneath the shiny gold of his glasses. When he was quiet like this he looked like a preppy librarian, the sort of college kid who used to come watch him fight on Coney Island. He was so much younger than Ross, and certainly not as worldly and yet . . . .
“I guess we’ve had some success,” Thomas sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. “I mean, we have that lead.”
“Doesn’t make sense though, does it?” Ross bent forward so that they were eye to eye. “I mean, from what you’ve told me, they thought Jack the Ripper was a toff or member of the royal family, if truth be told, and he targeted whores but this man . . . he seems to target women of all classes, and he kills them differently too.”
“Why did he kill my mother?” Thomas’s eyes glistened. “Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know, Thomas.” Ross swallowed down something he didn’t want to admit to. “Perhaps we might never know.”
“You want to stop this?” Thomas sounded resigned. “And go home?”
It was an out, but even before he spoke Ross knew he wasn’t going to take it. He leaned closer and put his hand on Thomas’s knee and the boy jolted as if he had been shot, speckled hazel gaze wide and wild.
“No,” it was almost a whisper. “I don’t.”
Thomas made a noise in the back of his throat and then, before he knew what was happening, he pressed his lips against Ross’s own. The kiss, if it could be called that, was laughable. Innocent and so fucking chaste but it made Ross’s whole body thrum with feeling, his emotions so close to the surface that he felt he was going to drown in them. He bent forward and grabbed Thomas’s shoulders. At first he thought he was going to push the boy away but, instead he pulled him closer, deepening the kiss by swiping his tongue against Thomas’s mouth and forcing it inside.
Jesus it felt good, better than anything he had ever felt before. It was weird kissing a man; stubble and hard skin instead of delicate softness, sweat instead of perfume. Thomas groaned as he pulled at Ross, burying big hands under Ross’s coat and shirt, nails scratching against his back. They stayed like that for a long moment, sharing hard, muscular kisses. It was the jolt of the carriage drawing to a halt that made them stop and they pulled apart, faces flushed, Ross’s heart thundering in his chest, breath coming in hard, sharp pants.
“We’re here,” the coachman bellowed. “They’re waiting for you inside.”
Ross sat back for a moment trying to recover his senses. He was half- hard inside his pants and, a quick glance at Thomas, confirmed that his condition was very much the same. Neither of them spoke as they both shifted, doing up coats and straightening imaginary creases in their shirts. After a few minutes grace they left the carriage and turned into the Hellfire Club both of them getting very good at denial.
They didn’t go to the same room as before, instead they were taken to a small study just off the main corridor. There were men milling around, some were playing cards, others eating while deep in discussion. It was early afternoon and everything seemed oddly normal.
Robert Downs was waiting for them in the room, and without asking he poured them both a shot of whiskey. Ross downed his in one swallow and leaned against the wall feeling belligerent while Thomas sat down on one of the leather chairs and stared into his glass, expression unreadable.
One of the old men who had instructed them on that first night entered soon after. He was wearing a dark suit and matching tie and he looked as if he were going somewhere important. He took the chair opposite Thomas, his eyes sharp on the younger man’s face.
“Well,” he intoned, gravely. “I want to know how your investigation is going. I was led to believe you have been out in the City the past few days.” His eyes narrowed. “To an opium den no less.”
“Are you paying someone as much to watch us as you are paying us to do this fucking job?” Ross pushed himself off the wall. He knew what he looked like when he did this, eyes burning, and muscles taut. Years of frightening opponents had led him to know what worked when it came to threatening others, and he had no hesitation in trying it now.
“No one is watching you.” The old man’s face was impassive. “We have eyes everywhere, it is a necessity.”
“Then why do you need us to do this job for you?” Thomas’s voice was low. “If you already have eyes.”
“There are reasons.” The old man exchanged glances with Downs who had remained silent throughout. “And they are not yours to question. You are being paid handsomely for this, and I expect results.”
“We have something.” Ross relaxed back against the wall, he couldn’t stop a quick look over at Thomas whose cheeks were pink, teeth biting compulsively at his lower lip. “Don’t we?”
“Yes. We visited someone who knew one of the dead girls, and she gave us an address.” Thomas pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to the old man. “This person visited the girl often, and he was seen with her on the night of her murder.”
The old man scanned the paper and his face grew pale as death, his breath faltered in the back of his throat and he shifted as he passed the paper to Downs.
“It cannot be this man,” he said, finally. “It cannot be.”
“The whore who shared a house with her was pretty damn certain,” Ross couldn’t hold back his ire.
“Did you know she was missing?” The old man shot Thomas a glance. “The whore you spoke to. Went missing two days since, not long after you had visited her.”
“No.” Ross felt the rage ebb away and he slumped down onto the plush carpet. “We did not know.”
“That doesn’t make her a liar,” Thomas said. “In fact it makes our case even more solid. Someone is worried we are getting too close.”
“Do you know who lives in this house?” The old man ignored him and waved the paper insistently in his face. “Only one of the most powerful men in Government, and the one you seek – his son . . . a member here.”
“So the fact he’s a member makes him instantly innocent?” Ross snorted. “Fuck you.”
“Can we talk to him?” Thomas pushed. “He might know about Gen, the girl we spoke to. It seems she’s gotten too close to this, and she might be in danger.”
“Do you know why we called you here?” The old man’s eyes narrowed.
“You want to know how we are progressing, you told us as much.”
“Yes, but that is not why you are sitting here before us. There was a witness to the whore’s abduction, someone who saw the man who took her away.”
“What?” Ross felt his stomach churn unpleasantly. “So you know who it is? Is it this guy you are protecting? Cause I for one want to get my hands on him.”
“The man who was seen getting into the carriage with the whore was much taller than the average man, slender and very young. He had long chestnut hair and was wearing gold rimmed glasses.” His eyes flicked to Thomas. “Who does that sound like to you?”
It was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. Ross’s mouth was dry and he wondered if he might vomit. Thomas looked like he might pass out, the skin pulling hard across his cheeks, eyes wild. He was shaking his head over and over, denial written on his face.
“It cannot be,” he choked out, finally. “I was . . . I never went back there.”
The old man said nothing, he gestured to Downs who got up and left the room without a word. Thomas looked terrible like the man caught in the grip of a terrible nightmare. Ross wanted to move over to him, wanted to hold him so tightly that no one could ever touch him without getting past Ross first.
“I wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Thomas was still talking. He was on his feet now, hands flailing and Ross couldn’t stop himself, grabbing Thomas’s wrists and holding them steady, pulling him gently so that he was leaning against Ross’s chest, the best support that Ross could offer. “Why are you doing this? What is happening here?”
Before he could answer the door opened, and Robert Downs re-entered but this time he wasn’t alone. There was a young man with him, tallish and handsome with bright blue eyes and a mop of jet black hair. He was dressed in pressed pants and a silk shirt, bow tie loose around his tanned throat.
“This is Misha Collins,” the old man said without preamble. “He is Alexander Collin’s son. The man who was seen with the girl who was murdered, the man with whom she left on that fateful night. You said you thought he could help you, and I believe that he can.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Ross couldn’t take his hands from Thomas’s wrists. He felt oddly comforted by the warm weight of Thomas’s body against his and he couldn’t help but wonder what they had fallen into. It felt a million miles from Coney Island and his home.
The old man coughed and rose, he rang a bell and a maid entered carrying a tray which contained cakes, a steaming teapot and delicate china cups. She bobbed a curtsy and put the tray on the table fussing around it as if they were having some sort of tea party. Ross felt Thomas shudder against him and he heard the younger man mutter something under his breath, felt his legs go weak. He tightened his hold on the boy just in time as Thomas fell heavily downwards only avoiding catching his head on the table because Ross held him so firm.
“Get some smelling salts,” the old man barked orders at the maid who bobbed another curtsy and left. Robert Downs took his seat again and the man, Misha, hesitated before sitting down next to him. Ross growled a curse at them all and lowered Thomas gently down, kneeling so he could pull the younger man’s head onto his thighs only just resisting pushing fingers through that messy mop of hair.
Warm sweet tea revives him but Thomas just wants to vomit or cry. The moment he’d felt better Ross had hauled him to his feet and deposited him on the chair. He could see those familiar green eyes dark with concern, and he took comfort in them, as he felt like Alice tumbling swiftly down the rabbit hole.
The five of them were sitting around the table as if they were having some sort of bizarre tea party. Thomas couldn’t quite understand what was going on here, thought that they might call the Peelers at any moment. Perhaps they had always suspected him, perhaps they had done this to reel him in, and send him to prison to rot. He hadn’t killed anyone. He couldn’t kill anyone. A lump burned in his throat and he shuddered again so close to tears that he felt he might explode.
“You suspected that this killer was not quite normal,” the old man was speaking and he forced himself to listen. “The way he killed, the randomness of his victims, and the blood loss.”
“Yes,” Thomas said and swallowed. “His patterns. It isn’t like Jack.”
“Misha,” the old man’s tone was gentle. “Tell the young man here your story.”
Collins cleared his throat, he looked sad, blue eyes full of something that Thomas didn’t recognize.
“I know you will find this hard to comprehend but I loved Milly. I am ashamed to confess that, at first, I used her simply for her body but unlike a lot of women in that part of town she was bright and intelligent. She could read and she had ambition.”
“She was an addict,” Ross growled out and Thomas shot him a glance. “She was found dead in an opium den.”
“I had my father’s physician working on her addiction.” Misha flushed. “He promised he would help me cure her. She was not just a body to me sir, I loved her and I believe she loved me back.”
“But she was with you the night she died.” Thomas’s mouth was dry and he had to force the words out. “Wasn’t she?”
“The night Milly was killed I was in the houses of Parliament with my father. You can talk to anyone, my guess is that there are over a hundred witnesses. I was there until early the next day. Afterwards, I went to find Milly and that low life in the den acted so strange. He said he’d seen me. He said I’d picked the girl up, and taken her away.”
“Shit.” Ross had visibly paled and Thomas could almost read his mind.
“I never saw that girl, Gen again after we talked to her,” Thomas was aware he was rambling. “I was at home the whole time. Ross here was with me, and his friend Jeff.”
“So whoever we are looking for . . . .” Ross still wanted a simple explanation. “He maybe disguises himself as others?”
“No.” Thomas shook his head slowly. “I need to go,” he snapped. “I need to go to the library here as soon as possible.”
The old man smiled knowingly and as he exchanged looks with Robert Downs Ross knew that he had been aware of this fact all along. They were being swept into a dangerous game here, and he had the feeling that the only person he could trust in all of this was Thomas.
Thomas felt exhausted and he also felt a fool. They had brought in Ross as a protector and, although he had vehemently denied it, he certainly needed one. Swooning in that room like a girl, he did not know why but the thought that someone had pretended to be him, and that someone had killed while pretending filled him with dread. He shuddered and pushed the book away from. The light in the library was dim and he was hungry and thirsty, a headache already throbbing at his temples.
“Food.” Ross poked his head around the door. “Don’t want you passing out on me again.”
Thomas flushed but he got to his feet and staggered over to where Ross was leaning against the doorframe.
“We’re going home.” Ross grabbed his arm. “Eating, and getting some sleep.”
“I need to find . . . .”
“You don’t need to do it now, Thomas.” Ross squeezed his arm and he flushed deeper, the touch making him shiver. “You need to rest.”
“He . . . this person . . . this thing, it was wearing my face.”
“Yeah, I get that, but Thomas I think these people already knew that. I don’t know what their plan is, but we are just cogs in a very big wheel and I don’t want you to kill yourself doing this.”
Thomas nodded and let Ross lead him out of club and into a cab. He leaned against the window frame and watched the Hellfire Club vanish into the darkness wondering if he would ever know what had happened to his mother, if he would ever know who was doing these things and why.
He ate eggs and bacon while huddled in front of his fire, Ross watched him like a hawk and he forced every single mouthful down. His pocket watch told him it was early morning and he couldn’t hold back a yawn, tension knotting in his neck and shoulders.
Strong hands moved across his spine and he drew in a breath. The plate was taken from his hands and he was pulled gently backwards fingers working hard against the tautness, pushing and pulling at his muscles until he felt weak, his pants suddenly tight, and body eager despite his exhaustion. Ross’s mouth was on his neck, a soft kiss on his nape and he groaned then turning quickly into strong arms opening his mouth obediently to let Ross sweep his tongue inside.
This time there would be no stopping them, they were alone right now, sharing muscular, violent kisses more like fighting than anything else. Ross was pushing him against the chair and, suddenly, there was a thigh between his legs, taut and up close to his cock. He moaned and began to rub hard against that thigh needing the friction, needing release. He could feel Ross hard against his hip and he was so hot. He fumbled down with his palm and pressed it, quickly, over the bulge in Ross’s pants and the older man gave a surprised gasp and jolted away.
“You need your rest.” Ross’s face was rosy, his cheeks smeared red. Hair stuck up in all directions and his pants were tented and pulled down to reveal sharp hipbones. Thomas was certain that he looked no better and he moved forward with obvious intent. “No,” Ross said and shook his head. “Go to bed Thomas.”
It was obvious this was not going to go any further. Thomas made his way, uncomfortably, to bed where he refused to take himself in hand. He lit the lamp and pulled out one of his books. If he was not going to sleep then he could, at least, get some research done. He sighed as he stared down at the pages. He could not comprehend why there was so much between himself and Ross, could not understand how Ross could want him one moment and reject him in the next. He thought that, maybe, Ross did not want to admit attraction to another man. Thomas was no fool, he knew that sodomy in all its forms was a crime and that men, including the writer Oscar Wilde, were sent to prison for laying with other men. The thought was overwhelming but it did not stop him from wanting Ross. It did not stop his cock from growing hard. Ross had touched him intimately, and even that was against the law but Thomas was not a scholar for nothing and deep thinking was his speciality. He did not care that he was risking prison by needing this. He did not care what others thought. For the first time that he could recall he was living and he did not want to stop.
Ross rose late, Jeff was already eating in the kitchen and he was stupidly relieved to see the man was alone.
“He went out.” Jeff stopped eating to give him the once over. “He said there was someone he wanted to see.”
“Do you know where he went?” Ross felt a vague panic. It wasn’t as if Thomas was a child who needed a nursemaid but that was what Ross was being paid for.
“Down to the docks he said.” Jeff shrugged. “You look like shit boy. Have you been training?”
Ross shook his head; most of the time he’d been riding around in carriages and visiting areas of London that no one should ever see. He hadn’t fought for over a month, and he hadn’t been running or lifted weights. He guessed he must be getting a tad ring rusty but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
“I’ll take a run down to the docks,” he tried to make it sound casual, keep the concern from his voice. “See if I can find Thomas and kill two birds with one stone.”
“Yeah. This sudden bout of running? Gonna’ help you is it?” Jeff narrowed his eyes. “Ross, I can see you’re enamoured with the guy. I know you too well.”
“He needs my help. I don’t know what we are getting into here but I don’t like it.”
“You don’t think we should just cut our losses and go home?” Jeff smiled wryly. “I’ve other fighters to manage, Ross and nothing is happening here. Those Hellfire guys could find a British pugilist or some meathead muscle to look after Thomas. Why do you think they chose you?”
“Because I was the best, they said.” Ross swallowed hard. “They wanted to see me fight some of their finest men.”
“You fought one old guy who had no chance, Ross.”
“Yeah, but . . . .” As the realization hit him he felt as if he might hurl. “They chose me because, over here, I’m dispensable. If anything happens to me no one – well maybe you – will care. I’m like those fucking low lives to them. No family, and no real ties here.”
Jeff said nothing and Ross shuddered.
“Thomas’s an orphan, no friends to speak of, no wife, and no fiancé. The guy works in a fucking library. Apart from this house he has nothing either. We are both people no one would notice, or care about, if they went missing or ended up dead.”
“I think you should go find your friend.”
“I think you’re right.”
He knew he was out of condition but the run to the docks took him longer than it should have. It didn’t help that he didn’t really know his way around, and he got lost at least twice, drawing to a breathless halt every time he found himself in a rat maze of streets and houses. Eventually it was the stink that led him in the right direction, and he suddenly came upon the hustle and bustle that he recalled from his first landing in Britain in what seemed like an eternity ago. As he pushed through the teeming crowds he wondered what the hell Thomas was doing coming here, and what the hell he was looking for. He couldn’t make the kid out, but then again Thomas was probably thinking the same about him. Shit, he was blowing hot and cold and confusing the hell out of Thomas but he didn’t mean to. He was just so fucking confused.
There was a scuffle going on in one of the inns that was located near where the ships docked. There was a big, thick necked man standing over another guy who was on his back trying to struggle to his feet. For a moment Ross thought he was hallucinating because the guy on the floor looked hell of a lot like . . . “THOMAS!”
He was running again and there must have been something about his voice that made the crowd part. The thick necked man whirled around as Ross roared towards him and Ross noted, through red rage, that he had his foot resting on Thomas’s neck. His fucking neck!
“Get offa’ him!” He grabbed the man and sent him rolling backwards, sure he might be bigger but Ross had the weapon of surprise and he was already punching the guy, fists flying as his opponent grunted in pain.
He was aware of Thomas rolling away, lying panting to the side but all he could see was red rage and he let it all out, the frustrations, the emotions, every damn thing until the guy was nothing much more than a face full of blood and bruises.
“What the hell were you doin’?” He didn’t mean to shout but the words just burst out of him. Thomas lowered his head and rubbed at his cheek. A darkening bruise is blossoming and the mark of a shoe is on the tender skin of his neck. Thomas is not wearing his glasses and speckled hazel eyes are fuzzy with confusion and pain. “Well?”
“I was . . . ,” Thomas sighed and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a piece of paper and handed it to Ross.
They were sitting in Thomas’s kitchen, Jeff was making coffee and keeping a tactful distance. It was late afternoon and raining again.
“This is a ticket back to New York.” Ross dropped the paper as if it had burned him. “Is this what you were fighting over?”
“Yes.” Thomas fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his glasses pushing them onto his nose in some sort of show of defiance. “Sort of.”
“Why?” Ross slumped down on the chair opposite and accepted the coffee that Jeff handed him with some relief. “What the fuck, Thomas?”
“You do not need to be here. All of this is none of your concern. You were brought here under false pretences, and I am sorry.”
“You aren’t making a lick of sense.” Ross’s heart jolted in his chest and he wanted to shake the man in front of him.
“They used you, just as they are using me. There’s something going on here, something strange. I do not know how you got involved, but . . . ,” he paused and bit his lip. “The guy at the dock said he had tickets back to America, and I paid him quite a sum of money. When I tried to get the tickets he refused to give them to me so . . . so I took them. Sort of picked his pocket and when he found out, he was not too happy.”
“You nearly got yourself killed.” Ross refused to think about why Thomas had done this. “You stupid fuck.”
“I’m sorry to have worried you.” Thomas picked up the tickets. “I want you to have them, I want you to go home.”
“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” he replied and tamped down his anger. “I’m not leaving you here to do this alone.”
“It was my mother who was killed.” Thomas gulped down his coffee, eyes still fixed on the tickets. “This is nothing to do with you.”
“It is. It is something to do with me. I’ve been tricked the same as you,” Ross bristled. “Me and Jeff – we talked about this too. All of this stinks, and someone knows a lot more than they’re letting on but I’m not leaving. Not today and not tomorrow, so you’d better get that clear in that thick skull of yours.”
Thomas was silent and Ross picked up the tickets that he was ignoring staring at it while coming to a decision.
“I won’t be using my ticket but Jeff should use his.” He lifted his hand to silence Jeff before he even opened his mouth. “You have other fighters and you need to go home rather than hang around this filthy city with me. Thomas fought for the tickets so you should use it.” He gave the paper to Jeff. “Go home. I’ll be following you as soon as all this is over.”
Jeff took the ticket and they exchanged glances, Ross hoped that his face didn’t give everything he was feeling away. He felt that he had burned all of his bridges in that one moment but he couldn’t and wouldn’t regret it.
“I’m not sure I should leave you here.” Jeff was bundled up in an overcoat that was far too big for him. The rain was still pouring down and Ross was grateful for that, knowing he could blame the rain for any dampness around his eyes.
“I’ll be alright.” Ross gave his old friend a hug. “And anyway Thomas needs me.”
“You take care of that kid, okay.” Jeff smiled wryly. “And I’ll see you later.”
Ross nodded and watched as Jeff turned and made his way up to the deck of the ship that would take him home.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll see you when all this is over.”
But even as he said it both of them knew that it was a lie and that they would never see each other again. Ross wasn’t going anywhere not now, not ever and the burn in the back of his throat was testament to that.
Now Jeff was gone it was harder than ever to ignore the tension between them. Thomas stayed out of Ross’s way for much of the time using research as an excuse. Neither of them talked about the incident at the docks or what had happened at the Hellfire club. It was as awkward as hell and, despite the fact he’d let Jeff take his ticket, Ross felt pretty homesick and constantly questioned whether he had made the right decision.
It was past midnight when Thomas burst into his room, it was a Saturday, nearly a month since Jeff had left and this was the first time they’d talked about anything that wasn’t the weather or what they might eat for dinner.
“I’ve made a breakthrough.” Thomas’s face was flushed and his eyes bright. “I-I know what it is.”
“It?” Ross had been dozing and he managed to light the lamp beside his bed aware that he was naked beneath the sheets, hair mussed, and skin warm. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. Yes!” Thomas seemed to have forgotten about personal space, he flopped down on Ross’s bed with a bounce and Ross noted, sleepily, that he was wearing an old under-shirt and pants with suspenders hanging around slim hips. His hair was all over the place and his glasses looked smeared as if he had been running his fingers all over them. “The thing that has been killing all of these women . . . In my research I came across a mythical creature called a vampire. People from Europe, particularly in the Balkans, Romania and all the small countries in those areas . . . they believe in these creatures. They suck the blood of the living to survive but, more importantly, they can shape-shift into wolves or bats. Do you understand?”
Ross was speechless, he stared at Thomas, at his wild eyes and pale face and all he could think was that the boy had lost his mind.
“You think I am mad.” It was a statement not a question. “I cannot blame you if you do, but think Ross. Think. This person we have been looking for . . . does not behave like a normal human being.”
“Thomas,” Ross tried to keep his voice low and calm. “Things have been stressful, I get that and I know I’ve not helped but have you listened to yourself?” He risked putting a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “This person, whoever he is, he’s cunning. He can disguise himself as others.”
“No!” Thomas shook his head. “Think about it! Just think. The man we talked to, the politician’s son, he was of medium height, right? Black hair, bright blue eyes. The girl he was seeing, who knew him so well, she went with him, she trusted him. She KNEW him. Then there was . . . ,” he paused and wiped his eyes. “Me. I’m six foot six inches in my shoes, and I have long hair, glasses. Even if someone was a master of disguise how could they be both of us?”
Ross opened his mouth and closed it again. Thomas was staring at him with damp eyes and he could feel the boy trembling beneath his fingers.
“And then there’s my mother. In the days before she died the only people she saw were my father, the physician and me. We were the only ones who went into her room and came out again. She died through a lack of blood. The thing that killed her was there, I know it. It was there but it was pretending to be someone else.” He swallowed and leaned back against Ross’s chest for a moment. Ross let his other arm slip around Thomas’s shoulder and he found himself holding him, tight and firm, listening to his harsh breathing, and the hard pound of his heart. “I think it is someone we have already met,” he continued. “I think . . . I think this thing is, and has been for some time, a member of the Hellfire club.”
Morning came dull and wet. Ross woke with a stiff arm and an erection that was painful in its insistence. Thomas was fast asleep curled into the crook of his arm, long legs slung over onto the cover, and an arm clinging to Ross’s shoulder as if he might save Thomas from anything. He didn’t remember falling asleep, only remembered Thomas’s words, and his suspicions. Suspicions that he himself had shared with Jeff only days ago. Now he was convinced. He was convinced that someone had chosen both himself and Thomas because they were disposable.
“Hey.” Thomas’s eyes opened and he stared at Ross heavy lidded and half asleep. “I am sorry.” he sat up and stretched. “It must have been very uncomfortable sleeping like this.”
“Nah.” Ross shifted so that he could face the younger man. “It’s fine.”
Thomas stared at him for the longest moment and then, without preamble, bent forward and pressed his lips against Ross’s. Ross opened his mouth immediately and let Thomas inside, their tongues tangling, the kiss going instantly from chaste to passionate, his cock aching.
“I understand if you don’t want this,” Thomas broke off for a moment, eyes wild. “I know this is wrong in so many ways, but . . . but I-I . . . .” He flushed deep crimson and swallowed hard. “I want this so badly.”
“It’s okay.” Ross gripped his shoulders. There was a warm throbbing in his chest, a lump in his throat. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like this, wanting something so much and yet it wasn’t all about physical need.
Thomas pushed himself up and shifted so that he was sitting astride Ross’s thighs. His exotic eyes were dark with passion and his lips swollen from kissing. With his mussed hair and flushed cheeks he looked so stupidly young and innocent, unworldly in every sense of the word.
“I couldn’t leave you.” Ross put his hands on Thomas’s waist marvelling at how slender it was. His fingers splayed over his spine almost touching and he felt such a terrible tenderness it almost floored him, sharper and more painful than any punch he had ever taken. “I couldn’t leave you here to deal with this, whatever this is.”
“They used us,” Thomas swallowed and laid his head against Ross’s shoulder, burying into the juncture there, warm breath against Ross’s exposed throat. “They could have got anyone to protect me, anyone at all and yet they went all the way to America to get you. We are orphans both of us, no one would miss us if we were to suddenly vanish.”
“But you have the house.” Ross wanted to make sense of it all but he couldn’t and, for the first time in his life, he felt real, tangible fear.
“I looked into things,” Thomas’s voice was muffled. “I had the solicitor who drew up the will come in to see me. If anything happens to me then this house and all of my father’s money, books and research go to the Hellfire Club.”
“Fuck.” Ross turned his head and mouthed at Thomas’s cheek. All of this was so wrong, but they both needed it. There was no avoiding this, it had been inevitable from the very first moment he had laid his eyes on Thomas, and although they were risking much he was more than prepared to take that risk. He fumbled with the buttons on Thomas’s shirt and began to shove it from his shoulders. Thomas helped him, wriggling out of the garment clumsily and dropping it onto the floor. His pants followed and Ross realized that beneath those simple articles of clothing Thomas was naked.
Ross took in his fill. He had seen other men naked before of course but never in this situation, and he couldn’t help but stare drinking Thomas in. Thomas was long and lean with a flat abdomen and taut thighs. His shoulders were wide and his torso just beginning to develop muscle. His hands and feet were large, fingers long and slender. There was a sparse sprinkling of dark hair on his chest and down beneath his navel leading to his cock, which was hard and erect. Ross had never thought he would ever find another man beautiful, but Thomas could only be described as thus. He reached out his hand and stroked his fingers across the head of Thomas’s erection. The younger man gasped and moved closer, his thighs clenching hard around Ross’s hips. Ross groaned then and he grabbed Thomas by the shoulders, unseating him and pushing him down onto the bed. He dropped kisses on his chest and belly and then he kissed Thomas’s cock tasting it hot and salty on his tongue. Thomas moved his hips in aborted little jerks, his breath coming hard and fast. Ross opened his mouth and swallowed Thomas down. He had never done this before but he knew what he enjoyed and he concentrated on doing the same to Thomas. He sucked as much as he could into his mouth and gripped the rest with his hand. Thomas moaned almost insensate with pleasure and he began to move his lower half with purpose thrusting eagerly into Ross’s lips. After a few minutes Ross felt the younger man tense and he drew back keeping his hand on the base of Thomas’s cock.
“Will you let me inside?” His voice was hoarse, wrecked. “Please Thomas.”
“Yes. Yes, do it Ross.” Thomas opened his thighs and spread his legs shamelessly and Ross’s own cock jerked, harder than he had ever known it. He reached into his bedside drawer and took out the lotion he used to keep his body supple. He slicked up his cock and then used the rest to slowly and carefully open Thomas up. The younger man was groaning, his head tossing from side to side on the pillow. Ross bent forward and kissed him, their tongues tangling. As they kissed he guided himself into Thomas, pushing in slow, soft and carefully. He kept moving until he was balls deep within the other man and he could barely hold himself still so great was the pleasure. He looked down at Thomas’s flushed face, his eyes closed, and lashes flickering.
“Is this okay?”
“Yes. God, Ross . . . move. You can move.”
And he did. Slow at first, and then faster. Faster until he lost his self-control, his body no longer his own, driven by a desperate need. He wrapped his fingers around Thomas’s erection and moved his hand in time with his thrusts. Thomas cried out and bowed his back, wetness seeping over Ross’s fingers. Ross kept moving, feeling Thomas’s release; the scent of it strong and somehow pleasurable. As the other man clenched around him he felt his own orgasm hit, taking him by surprise. The moment was almost overwhelming and he could see stars behind his eyelids as he came, and came, unable to stop the loud cry that left his lips, his whole world narrowing down to this one moment, so much pleasure it was almost pain.
Breakfast wasn’t too awkward and, for that, Ross was grateful. The maid brought them fresh bacon and thick crusty bread smothered with butter and Ross found himself eating every single morsel hunger driving him. Opposite him Thomas was bolting down food as if it were going out of fashion. His face was flushed and his eyes bright, and he looked better than he had in weeks.
“So,” Ross cleared his throat. “What now?”
Slanting eyes met his glinting with mischief and Ross shook his head.
“I didn’t mean that, genius.” Ross couldn’t hold back his own smile. “I mean with the monster.”
“I do not know,” Thomas sighed. “I realize you think I am not quite all there, but I am convinced that we are dealing with some sort of shape-shifting creature - given the blood loss it’s more likely a vampire.”
“So, if we actually manage to find out who it is, how do we kill it?”
“From what I have read, there are so many different ways; different countries have different lore and myths. Some say that nailing them into their coffin works, others bury suspected vampires at the crossroads. In the Carpathian Mountains they use wooden stakes and then hammer them through the creature’s hearts, and they also decapitate them.”
“And how do we recognize a vampire?” Ross wanted to believe Thomas, he had to. There seemed little else he could do given their circumstances.
“Again, the lore that I found varies; there are writings that say they cannot live in the light, but others say it just weakens them. They are pallid and their skin is translucent. Some say garlic repels them, as does holy water, or a crucifix. I do not know how much of this is relevant – if any of it is. Perhaps I’m just going mad.” He shrugged, his smile wry. “And taking you with me.”
“I’m willing to go with this.” Ross reached over and put his hand over Thomas’s. Their eyes met for a moment and he felt the biggest sap in the universe, like a hopeful beau taking flowers to his sweetheart. “At the moment it’s all we’ve got.”
“Then onwards we go.” Thomas’s smile was more genuine now, wide and dimpled. “Together.”
Ross hoped he wouldn’t live to regret this as he replied, “Together.”
Showing a united front was all very well and good, but it still didn’t get them any closer to the ‘thing’ that was doing this. Thomas spent long hours doing extensive research but there was so little lore that it was hard to know just what they were looking for. Not just what though, but who. Thomas was convinced the creature was somehow connected with the Hellfire club but neither of them had any sort of clue as to who it could be.
“We should perhaps talk to Robert.” Ross was tired, weary of it all, and he just wanted it all to be over. “He brought us both here, so perhaps he knows something.”
“Yes.” Thomas rubbed a hand through his hair and sighed. He leaned back in his chair and grinned ruefully at Ross. “God knows we aren’t getting anywhere at this juncture.”
Ross managed a grin back; he felt his stupid heart flip at the sight of Thomas, pale and ruffled, hair all over the place. He wondered what would happen once this was over. Could they have a fairy tale happy ending? What they were doing was immoral, and illegal, but no one needed to know. They could perhaps continue like this, and live comfortably. He didn’t have much money but he had enough, and the payments that the Hellfire club had made to him helped considerably. He knew that Thomas was reasonably wealthy too and that neither of them needed anything much. He was certain that he wanted Thomas in all ways, and he would not feel complete unless the young man was close to him. He had never felt like this before but he dared not put these alien feelings into words, because the one word that would describe his personal state right now was too scary to even contemplate.
“Ross,” Thomas’s tone suggested he was concerned. “Are you sure that you want to get in touch with Downs?”
“Yeah.” He shook himself and moved closer to Thomas, slinging an arm around his shoulder. “It seems the only solution at this moment in time.”
“The killer is still out there.” Thomas leaned into Ross’s body, warm and familiar. After the first time their relationship was far more physical than it had been, they were more tactile with each other, more intimate and it gave Ross some small crumb of comfort. “So therefore people are still in danger . . . not to mention the fact that he can be anyone he wants to be.” He swallowed. “I won’t lie to you, I’m scared.”
Ross nodded. He was scared too, but not of the killer and not for himself. Ross could handle himself well enough, he had always been a fighter, and a survivor. Thing was, he’d never had anyone else to worry about before but now, now he had Thomas and if he lost the young man to this thing he wasn’t sure how he would be able to carry on.
“I’m here,” it sounded like scant comfort. “I’ll make sure you’re safe. I promise you that.”
“My hero,” Thomas’s retort was light and amused but his expression belied his tone. It was intense, eyes burning, his emotions written all over his face. Ross swallowed down the lump in his throat and pulled Thomas even closer, mouth moving over the man’s face and neck, sucking and biting as if he could mark him, make sure that everyone, every fucking thing knew he belonged to Ross. Thomas groaned and he responded in kind, his own movements harsh and determined. As they tumbled to the floor it became obvious that there would be no more research done that day.
This time they were too desperate to remove any of their clothing. Thomas’s hand reached into his pants and wrapped roughly around his cock. At the same time he was licking at Ross’s neck, his other hand cradling Ross’s balls through the cotton of his undergarments. It was dirty and wrong and it drove Ross wild. He thrust needlessly into Thomas’s hard grasp, eyes closed, and hips juddering. He came so hard and so fast that he almost passed out, his throat tight, and his whole body shaking with desire. Thomas held on until Ross pushed the younger man away, sensations too much for him. Thomas’s pupils were blown wide with lust and need and Ross only needed to reach out and put a hand upon the front of his fly. Thomas looked shocked, his mouth open for a moment and then he fell back, material at his groin growing dark. The two of them lay there for a long time as they came down, the force of their need enough to bind them closer, ready for anything.
“So you have something to report?” Downs sipped at his tea. He was impeccably dressed as usual, his hat perched on the table next to his leather briefcase. “They will be pleased.”
Thomas sat down opposite him while Ross preferred to lean against the wall, legs and arms crossed. He felt he looked more threatening that way, muscles bulging, eyes burning into the back of Down’s head.
“Yes.” Thomas removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. There were deep shadows beneath his eyes again, and Ross could see the bones of his cheek and chin sharp under his skin. “I have been doing some extensive research and . . . ,” he swallowed before continuing. “I now know who the perpetrator is.”
If Downs was surprised he didn’t show it; Ross, however, almost fell off the wall, his eyes wide as they met Thomas’s.
“And are you going to give me a name?” Downs began to rifle in his case. “This is wonderful news. We may finally be able to put this matter to rest and you will be aptly rewarded.”
“I am saying nothing here and now,” Thomas’s voice was calm and Ross had to admire that at least. “I want to do it in front of the committee so that everyone can hear. I am planning to come down tomorrow evening so perhaps you can order us a carriage.”
“Of course.” Downs beamed. “This is beyond my expectations.”
“I just want to have justice for my mother,” Thomas kept his tone even. “After that I will be able to find some sort of peace.”
“Indeed.” Downs rose to his feet in such haste he almost knocked over the teapot. “I will be on my way. I cannot wait to tell everyone the good news.”
“God’s speed.” Thomas got up and shook the other man’s hand. “I will see you tomorrow evening.”
“What the hell?” As soon as Downs had shut the door Ross was in Thomas’s face; he gripped the younger man’s slender shoulders and shook him none too gently. “Why the fuck did you tell him we knew who it was? We don’t have a clue, Thomas. What are you going to say to them tomorrow? You have no idea what they might do.”
Thomas stood limp under his grip. His eyes met Ross’s, clear and bright behind those stupid glasses. “I have set a trap,” he stated blandly. “And all I can hope is that our friend steps into it.”
“A trap?” Comprehension dawned and Ross felt real fear in his gut. “You stupid fuck . . . you are deliberately bringing it here? Thomas, we have no idea how to fight this thing, and even less idea how to kill it. Have you lost your mind?”
“Ross, it knew we were getting close anyway. It would have come eventually. It would have attacked us both, maybe even taking our form. It wants this house, I am sure of it,” he said and sighed, relaxing slightly as Ross let him go. “I would rather know it was coming, than have it attack without warning.”
“How are we going to fight it, Thomas?” Ross’s stomach lurched. “What weapons do we have?”
“From the research I’ve done I have found out some things.” Thomas slumped back down in his chair. “I’ve been working through the nights,” he confessed. “I needed us to be as sharp as we can be.” He gave Ross a rueful glance. “You are pretty handy in a fight, Ross but I think we need brains not brawn on this one.”
Ross knelt beside the chair and laid his head on Thomas’s thigh. He could feel the fine trembling of Thomas’s muscles beneath his cheek and it made his heart ache.
“I don’t want to lose you,” he said, eventually, voice shaking. “I just want to keep you safe.”
“I am a grown man, Ross.” Thomas’s fingers massaged gently across his scalp. “I may not be worldly wise, and I know I appear naïve, but I have to learn to take care of myself.”
“So,” Ross said and swallowed, throat painful and tight. “I’ll ask again, what weapons do we have?”
“According to legend and lore, vampires can be killed by a wooden stake through the heart followed swiftly by beheading. With this in mind I have purchased some wood which I have sharpened into rough stakes, and two rather large knives. I also found out that they are repelled by holy water or by crucifixes. I obtained a small flask of water from the church and brought us these. . . .” He handed Ross a silver cross on a rough leather chain. “For extra protection. If most of the lore is to be believed, they do not like garlic, cannot cross water and can only enter a room if directly invited. I think that we are as armed as we can ever be.”
“You want to kill it, don’t you?” Ross gulped down bile.
“It killed my mother and, indirectly, my father. It wore my face. Yeah, I want to see it die. But most of all, I want this to be over. I want to live my life without this threat hanging over me.” A flush stained his cheeks and his eyes met Ross’s, fingers digging hard into Ross’s scalp. “Most of all, I want to be with you. I do not care where, and I do not care how we might live, but I do want us to be together.”
Ross laid still, he had no words but he hoped Thomas understood. He hoped that Thomas realized his silence wasn’t a ‘no’, because he wanted that too, more than he had ever wanted anything. He nuzzled impossibly closer, eyes closed. This was his future, however uncertain and he would fight to the end, for himself and for Thomas.
Thomas lay in his bed, he was tired but his mind was buzzing too much for him to actually sleep. Research books lay on the coverlet next to him, and on the bedside table there was a flask of holy water, a knife Thomas had used to prepare the wooden stake, that was sharp and ready. Ross had suggested that they take turns keeping watch and the older man had insisted he take the first few hours insisting that Thomas slept. However, his brain would not shut off, and despite the heaviness of his lids, he was unable to slide into the comfort of oblivion.
He checked his pocket watch, it was ten minutes after midnight and he’d been in bed for over an hour and a half. He sighed and shifted his body, stiff and tense. He had not bothered to close the drapes but all he could see was thick, cloying darkness. The moon was a thin sliver of grey and the stars, if there were any, were obliterated by thick London fog. Thomas shivered and blinked once or twice, rubbing his eyes to get rid of the soreness there.
He looked up. Ross stood in the doorway illuminated by the flickering gas lamp behind him. He was stark naked and Thomas could not tear his eyes away, his mouth suddenly dry.
“Ross,” the name stuck in this throat and his tongue felt thick; the sight of Ross standing there, broad shoulders and narrow waist, strong thighs and slender calves just took his breath away. His eyes wandered down to Ross’s flat stomach and the soft golden hairs trailing down to his cock, which stood out large and proud against his belly.
“Can I come in?” Ross’s voice was low, seductive and Thomas nodded, hardly able to form the words.
“Yes.” He could feel his whole body flush with heat. “But I thought you were . . . .”
“I was.” Ross moved slowly, smoothly, like a panther hunting its prey. “I couldn’t stay away any longer, Thomas. I need you so badly right now.”
Thomas gasped as Ross climbed into bed next to him. His body was cool against Thomas’s hectic skin, and his hands smooth as they stroked across Thomas’s flesh, moving downwards, his fingers pinching Thomas’s nipples, before wrapping tight around his already eager erection.
“Ross,” he moaned. Thomas ached with desire so strong it was almost painful, his whole body tingled and he could not get enough. He thrust shamelessly against Ross, and it was as if he were caught in the grip of a dream. His mouth open in a soundless groan. He tipped his head back and he felt Ross nuzzle against his neck. The blood roared in his ears, and he tilted his neck further to give Ross better access.
“Thomas.” Ross held his shoulders down and rose above him and in the dim light of his room Thomas could see his eyes; hard and sharp, different from their usual gentle green. For a moment he froze and there was a slow tingle of unease in his stomach. Ross must have seen his expression because he smiled then as he tightened his grip on Thomas’s shoulders. “You are beautiful,” he spoke leisurely, unhurried. “So very beautiful.”
Thomas’s heart leapt hard in his chest. He tried to rise but the hands that held him were too strong, fingers digging into the bone. He felt himself begin to struggle, body shifting as he desperately attempted to free himself. Ross’s grip on him was too tight. Almost inhuman in its intensity.
“Ross,” the name fell from his lips and he felt his eyes stinging foolishly.
“Did you not even suspect?” his tone was hypnotic and Thomas’s struggles ceased almost against his will. “Why should you?”
“No, it can’t be.” Deep down he knew that this was wrong somehow, but it felt as if he were trapped in a nightmare and his mind was whirling away from him. His thought processes growing more and more sluggish as he stared into those familiar hypnotic green orbs. “Not you.”
“Oh, Thomas.” Sharp teeth grazed his jugular and he renewed his struggles, body twitching frantically. “You see what you wish to see. Everyone sees someone different. You are such a bright boy, and so very beautiful, just like your mother. I am going to give you the most precious of gifts and, when we are done, you will be mine and nothing will come between us.”
“NO!” He tried to cry out further but his protests were too feeble, too muted. He stared up at the man above him, watched in horror as he opened his mouth, canine teeth coming down slowly, sharp, pointed fangs. He had just a moment to think about the fact he had been right, and then those teeth were buried in his neck. For a moment it hurt; strong, piercing pain and then the pain ebbed away and it was replaced by a slow building desire, his cock hardening despite his fear. He closed his eyes, world narrowing to the feel of those teeth in his skin, the steady sucking of his blood from his body, the world whirling and vanishing, and finally stars bursting behind his eyelids as he drifted away.
Ross rubbed the back of his neck. It was cold in the study and the fire had long since died out. He shivered and wrapped the large overcoat Thomas had given him tight around his shoulders. Something wasn’t right but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Everything was silent, almost supernaturally so. He got to his feet and wandered to the front door opening it briefly to assure himself.
The street was dark and empty. The fog shrouded the pavements and there was no sign of life. He shut the door with a resounding slam and stood at the bottom of the stairs listening for something. Then, distant but there, he swore he heard a moan.
“Thomas!” He took the stairs two at a time, feet thundering. He was panting hard and his heart was pounding so fast he thought he might lose his mind. He drew to a shuddering halt at the top of the stairs and his world imploded.
Thomas lay on the bed. Even in the dim light he could see that there was so much blood. Blood on the sheets, blood on Thomas’s nightshirt, and blood smearing the white hue of his skin. Someone was leaning over Thomas’s prone body, bending almost double as they nuzzled and bit at his neck. Ross froze, did a double take and squeezed his eyes shut a moment before he stared at the person that was using Thomas so intimately. It was his double. The thing with Thomas was wearing his face.
“STOP!” It was foolish, his voice was panicked, loud and strident as it echoed around the room. He fumbled in his pocket for the flask of holy water Thomas had given him earlier and, with trembling fingers, he uncorked it praying that it might work.
The creature turned and it wore a smirk that he’d never seen on his own face before. Blood was smeared crimson on its chin. It rose to its feet and Ross took a step back, eyes flicking swiftly to Thomas, afraid he was already too late.
“Ross. Why don’t you come in, and join us?” The thing smiled and, to his horror, its skin began to shift, patches of it tearing open, falling like raw meat to the floor. For a moment it looked like nothing he had ever seen before, odd and unearthly, a faceless being. Then he found himself looking into the familiar face of Robert Downs. “Surprise,” it said.
“You.” Ross moved slowly into the room, the flask clutched in his nerveless fingers. He was more scared than he had ever been in his life and he knew, without doubt, that all of his brawn would be of no use to him now. He might be stronger, taller, and well-trained for the ring, but his well-honed fighting skills would not win him this particular fight. Again, he let his eyes fall on Thomas. The other man’s skin was parchment white, his eyes closed and mouth open. Ross couldn’t tell if he were breathing, and his throat tightened at the thought that he may have already lost something precious.
“Yes.” The thing wearing Downs face smiled. “I suppose you are shocked . . . but then you are not the brains of the outfit, are you?”
Ross reared back and uncorked the flask. He arched his arm and threw the water hard at the thing’s grinning face. For a moment there was silence but nothing happened, and all Ross could do was to stare as the water dripped across Down’s skin turning the blood there pink.
“Ah, so much of your friend’s careful research is wrong. It will take something much stronger than that, to stop something like me.” He patted the bed next to him. “Come – sit. You are going to die anyway, but at least let me put you out of your misery. Tell you my tale if you will.”
Ross could not resist. He felt himself moving slow across the floor, felt his body lower itself onto the bed. The blood soaked into his trousers and clung hot and wet to his thighs. He felt as if he were in some sort of dream and he could do nothing but stare at Downs, unable to do anything else but listen as the man talked.
“I was born centuries ago in the place now known as Romania. I was the son of a very great Lord, a man before his time, a man who practiced the dark arts and made a good many deals with the devil. As I grew it was clear that I was not a normal child. I could do things that no other individual could do, I could change my shape, become something or someone else. My mother died giving birth to me, so my father raised me. He helped me hone my skills, and he instructed me how to harness the power I had. After a time I discovered that normal food did not sustain me. I became sick and weak. Physicians and others were called, but not one of them could decide what ailed me. Then, one day, a servant girl cut her hand while waiting upon me and I fell upon her, sucking her dry. From that day on I grew stronger than ever, and it was obvious that it was only human blood that would sustain me.” He paused. Ross felt frozen, unable to move, unable to tear his gaze away from the creature. Deep down he knew he should do something. Anything. He would die here, and Thomas with him. “And so time passed, days, months, years. I grew to adulthood but no further. I did not age. I did not die. I watched others pass, but I continued on. Century followed century and I lived, but I needed blood to keep me alive. I needed it to keep me fit and well. I fed, but after a time people around me grew suspicious. I had to move on. It was easy for me with my particular skills. I could be whoever I wanted to be, and always remain above suspicion,” he said and sighed. “But after eons I became lonely. All men need mates. All human kind need someone they can love and cherish.” He glanced over to Thomas. “I know you understand that need, Mr. Ackles.”
Ross swallowed. He could barely move now, muscles stiff and atrophied. He let his eyes slide to the bedside table for a moment and he saw the glint of silver. The knife . . . perhaps it wouldn’t work . . . the water had not, but he owed it to himself and to Thomas to try.
“What brought you here?” he heard himself ask, voice rough and unused. “Why did you feel the need to come here to this country?”
“I wanted to see the world. I had all the time I needed to travel, and to visit countries I had only read about. I had a thirst for knowledge, and I wanted to see everything. I came here on a clipper ship. Fed on the sailors, their deaths blamed on plague.” He laughed. “But when I arrived here I loved it so much. This dark and dull country with so many poor and needy, and so much sustenance. I spent much of my time with those who had little to live for; addicts and whores who would not be missed. It was just after Jack had run his course, so London was now used to such brutality. I could feed without anyone knowing who or what I was. I could be a different person every single day. I could be whatever they wanted me to be.” He paused for a moment and moved closer to Ross. His eyes were burning now and Ross felt the lethargy that had gripped him previously hold him tighter. He could still see Thomas out of the corner of his eye, and he searched frantically for some movement, afraid that the young man was already dead.
“Why did you kill Thomas’s mother? She wasn’t poor or needy. She had a family who loved her.”
“I found out about the Hellfire Club through one of the whores. She told me about her friend who was seeing a politician’s son. I was curious and decided to pay them a visit. I took on the guise of a Romanian count, and was welcomed with open arms. As soon as I was initiated I realized what a wonderful place it really was. I could move among these men without suspicion, and I would be protected by their unwavering loyalty. I could take their shape and become someone very important. It meant I could now live with both the rich and the poor. I could visit houses without question, and it was on one of those visits that I met Thomas’s mother. My God, she was stunning. Plus she had a sharp mind too. She was an educated woman, bright and curious. She was everything I had been looking for, and I realized right there and then that I had to have her. Her husband was a fool! He had no idea the treasure he had in his hands.”
“But, you killed her.”
“I had no intention of doing so. I would come here in the guise of the physician for the old drunkard had no idea what was going on. I controlled his mind and made him think he had been treating her, when in reality it was me. I forced her husband to wait outside while I fed on her. I took enough to sustain me, but not enough to harm her. I intended to turn her, but I was prevented from doing so by her interfering husband. She died before I could finish the process so now . . . ,” he paused and smiled. “I am going to take her son instead.”
Ross had heard enough. He couldn’t sit here a moment longer and listen to this thing. He closed his eyes and shook himself. He hadn’t much time but he needed to try. For Thomas, he had to try. He hauled back his arm and, with as much strength as he could manage, struck the man before him hard on the chin. It was like hitting iron, but he heard the crack of bone beneath his knuckles and he bit back the pain as the man reeled for a moment. A moment was all Ross needed. He moved as fast as he could, left hand gripping the knife from the bedside table before whirling it hard and fast. It felt heavy in his hand and he didn’t think he had the strength to move it but he swung it against the creature’s neck and prayed.
Blood sprayed everywhere as the knife buried deep into the creature’s flesh. Ross cried out and pushed upwards, slamming the thing’s body down onto the bed and digging the knife in harder. He felt it cutting through tendons, and heard the hideous gurgling as the thing tried to fight back. He realized he was dealing with something older than time. An ancient evil that had beaten everything, and everyone, he had ever come up against. Ross was just one man. This was not some opponent he could knock out, there was no purse at stake here, but still it was the most important fight of his life and he had to win it.
“S-s-stake . . . .”
He barely heard the voice and, for a moment, he thought he might be hearing things. The creature was bucking beneath him. Its clawed hands reaching up to grip Ross’s wrists; its nails digging in tight and hard. The thing’s skin was shifting and sheading and Ross could no longer see Downs face, but something else. Something bizarre and inhuman. The thing’s head was hanging from its broken neck, but it still fought him, grunting and groaning as it tried to heal itself.
“Ross. The stake . . . though the heart. Now!”
He definitely heard it then, Thomas’s voice, gruff and wobbly. A whisper. Just the sound of it spurred him on. Thomas was alive. That reassurance gave Ross strength, knowing there was something more worth fighting for. He pushed the knife down harder and dragged the creature from the bed. The wood that Thomas had sharpened so carefully was in the study and he got to his feet, running down the hall as fast as his weakened legs would carry him, breath catching in his throat. His heart was pounding painfully and his vision blurred dangerously but he kept running. He had to do this, he had to finish this.
When he got back into the bedroom the creature was still on the floor. It had once again taken Downs’s form, its neck beginning to heal. The knife still lay on the bed, blood drying and Ross wanted to vomit. The thing, with its head at a weird angle due to the wound in its neck, smiled at him through sharp teeth.
“You cannot kill me,” it ground out. “I have lived for decades. I have survived many things. An insignificant insect like you, will not be the end of me.” it gestured to Thomas and said, “He is mine, not yours. He will be mine for eternity. He is so like his mother, and he will make an ideal companion for me. I will let him see whatever he wishes, I will become you,” he laughed, coughing blood as he did so, the bones and sinews of his neck knotting together as he grew stronger. “You will be dead, but take comfort that you will live on through me.”
“No!” Driven by desperation Ross lurched forward and rammed the sharp stake hard into the creature’s chest. He felt it go into soft flesh and heard the thing before him scream, as the point of the wood went straight into its heart.
It collapsed like a marionette whose strings had been cut; went down heavy, skin shifting and shedding, eyes glowing red and angry. It thrashed on the floor like a fish dragged out of water, limbs lashing out. Ross grabbed the knife once more and used both hands to thrust it into the thing’s throat. He pushed it in harder and harder until he heard the crack of bones. Crimson splattered everywhere, stained his face and hands and he swallowed down bile as he continued to push until the head was separated from the neck and the thrashing finally stopped.
He vomited, bent over and heaved throat burning. The world spun around him and his vision blurred. All he could hear now was the thumping of his own heart and the desperate dragging of his breath. His own knees gave way and he fell face down on the bloodied carpet unable to fight the darkness that enveloped him.
Ross sends the maid away and sends for a carriage before making sure she gets in it; he has a fistful of notes in his pocket, and he gives them all to her. He promises that he will write her a good reference, but insists she goes home to her family. He doesn’t want her to see what is in the bedroom.
There is a young boy playing some sort of game in the street and Ross calls him over and gives him all of the coins he can find before sending him to the Hellfire Club. He has no idea who will answer his summons, if anyone, but he has to trust that someone will. He sends for a physician too, and prays that it isn’t too late.
He cleaned up the best he could, wrapped the stinking corpse in blood stained bedsheets and dropped the rotting head into a pillow case. There was little about the thing before him that even looked human anymore, but he doesn’t fear the peelers; in fact he doesn’t think he will fear anything ever again. All that matters now was Thomas. Ross sat on the bed and stroked his hand through that messy hair, praying hard. If Thomas died then all of this would be for nothing, and Ross doesn’t think he can face a future without Thomas in it.
The physician was old, and Ross could smell the sweet cloying scent of whiskey on his breath. He stared down at Thomas as if he couldn’t believe his eyes and ignored the wrapped up corpse, gore still staining the white sheets. The whole room stank of stale blood and sweat, but Ross didn’t want to open a window because he was so concerned about Thomas.
The physician had no such concerns as he flung open the curtains fully and then unlatched the window letting in the cold air and the fresher scent of morning. Then he stood beside the bed and opened his bag, tutting as he put his hands on Thomas’s chest, examined the bite wounds on his neck dispassionately, and looked for a pulse.
“Does the committee know about this?” It was a strange question but Ross nodded unable to form words. The old man tutted again, and put his fingers against Thomas’s throat. “He is alive, but only just. He has lost so much blood that I fear he will not survive this.”
Ross’s legs went limp and the world whirled around him.
“I stopped him,” he choked out, finally. “I stopped the fucking monster. You have to save this man, please.”
“There is little I can do,” there was sympathy in the man’s voice but Ross didn’t want sympathy he wanted action.
“What about a blood transfusion? Can’t you give him some blood?”
“Blood transfusions are rare and they are not guaranteed. I would have to take a fair amount of blood from someone else to give to this man. It would be both painful and risky to both parties.” The man shook his head. “It cannot be done.”
“Yes. Yes it can.” Ross began to roll up his sleeve. “Please. You can use my blood. I’m fit and healthy. I’ve never had a day’s illness since I had measles as a child. I don’t care about the risk to myself, just don’t let him die.”
“I have only seen this done a handful of times, and only performed it once myself.” The physician reached into his bag and drew out a large rubber pipe. He pulled out two needles with thick ends and an empty glass phial. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head ruefully. “You must lie down,” he said gently. “And try to relax.”
“Thank you.” Ross rubbed at his arm and lay quickly on the bed next to Thomas’s prone body. He could barely hear Thomas’s laboured breathing, and his skin was almost translucent, shadows deep beneath his eyes, lids fluttering as if he was dreaming.
“I understand you have informed the Hellfire Club about this.”
“I sent a boy to them this morning, but I only told them that the thing was dead.” Ross shuddered. “I didn’t know what else to do or what else to say. I fear no one would believe me. What happened here last night wasn’t natural. That t-thing . . . it was evil. Evil that had been around for centuries, and I think that the committee knew about it. They knew it walked among them, and yet they did nothing. Why did they send a boy to do a man’s job?” He gestured to Thomas and felt foolish tears sting at his lashes, throat clogging thick with salt. “They used us both. We could both be dead now, and it’s with no thanks to them.”
The physician was silent for a while. He wrapped a tourniquet tight around Ross’s arm and began to tap his flesh looking for a vein. Ross breathed hard through his nose as he felt the sharp stab of the needle. He closed his eyes as the pain became harsher, the deeper the tip went into his flesh and vein. His free hand reaching out and gripping Thomas’s cold one, holding as tight as he could as he sent a desperate prayer to whoever might be listening.
“The real Robert Downs was a good man,” the physician’s voice sounded distant, a faint thrum though the buzzing in his ears. “He knew so much, and the committee trusted him with their lives. He had the name of every single member of that club, and he had been to every single home, visited every single person be they prince or pauper. No wonder the thing chose to take his form.”
“Do you think he killed Downs?” Ross felt as if he were floating, distant from everything but the sharp pain in his arm, the odd feeling of his blood being drained from his body.
“Most definitely. Robert was too trusting for his own good. I recall quite clearly the day he brought the Count to our club for the first time. There was something about the man, even then. Something in his eyes,” he said and sighed. “But we let him in, and unbeknown to us on that day, we let evil into our small and intimate world. An evil you have now destroyed.”
Ross said nothing. His mind was beginning to fragment, stars dancing in front of his closed lids. He felt weak and displaced and he tried to raise his head, lids flickering weakly.
“No.” The physician’s hand was gentle but firm. “You need to stay there, and you need to rest.”
“Think about yourself. There is little point in me doing this if you are determined to lose your own life.”
Darkness enveloped him before he could say another word. He let it pull him down, falling into it gratefully, pain receding until there was nothing but sweet, comforting oblivion.
He must have slept for a long time because when he opened his eyes it was night once more. Darkness flooding in through the open window, bringing with it the damp smell of fog. He still felt light-headed, and his stomach grumbled angrily as he realized it must have been over forty-eight hours since he had eaten anything. He rolled over slowly, and a little painfully. His right arm was stiff, sore and bound in some sort of rough bandage, but he managed to get some leverage from it and he propped himself up slightly so that he could gaze down at Thomas.
He hoped he wasn’t imagining the flush of colour in the other man’s cheeks as he reached out and stroked a hopeful finger down Thomas’s neck. The physician had covered the bite wounds with lint and, for that, Ross was grateful. He held his own breath as he listened to Thomas’s. Thomas appeared to be breathing normally, a slow in and out. His pulse flickered strongly against the skin of his throat and Ross let himself hope, heart thundering excitedly as he leaned over to press a kiss swiftly onto Thomas’s forehead.
“J-J-Ross . . . ?” Thomas’s voice was faint.
“Yeah.” He couldn’t even try to hide his joy, and relief. “Yeah, it’s me. How are you feeling?”
“Tired.” He coughed and closed his eyes for a moment. “Even though it feels as if I’ve slept for decades.” He sighed. “I can’t recall very much at this moment, but I believe you saved my life.”
“That’s what I’m paid for, isn’t it?” Ross tried to keep his response light, the intensity of his feelings almost floored him and he had no real words for how he was feeling. “I was just doing my job.”
“Is he . . . it. Is it dead?” Thomas looked as if he were slipping under again but he reached out and grabbed Ross’s hand clinging to it as if it might keep him awake. “Is it gone?”
“Yeah, Thomas. It’s dead and gone. We’ll talk some more when you’re feeling better. Okay?”
“Okay.” He closed his eyes on a sigh, dimples softening his cheeks. “Thank you,” he added as he clung on to Ross’s hand. “Don’t go,” he mumbled.
“Not goin’ anywhere,” Ross said and he’d never spoken a truer word in his entire life.
Ross prepared them something to eat with whatever he could find in the larder. There was cheese and bread, that wasn’t too stale, with bottles of ale and some beef cut thick from the bone. The physician brought medicine. He called it a ‘tonic of iron’ used to aid the blood loss both of them had suffered, and he also brought a basket of fruit and other sweetmeats from the Hellfire Club. A ‘gift of gratitude’, he had said.
Thomas was weak but recovering, his colour was up and his eyes brighter. He slept a lot, but when he was awake he insisted Ross sit with him. They didn’t talk much and Thomas seemed content just to have Ross holding tightly to his hand. Today was the first day Thomas had actually asked for food. He had lost weight, and looked even skinnier than usual, his height making him look long and lanky. The shirt he wore hung off him, and Ross wanted nothing more than to feed him up and make him better.
“This is quite a feast,” Thomas said and grinned weakly as Ross placed the plate in front of him. “Considering you sent the maid away.”
“Yeah, not my finest hour but I panicked to be honest. I didn’t want her to find the headless corpse, or have to clean up all that blood.”
“You did it all then?” Speckled hazel eyes met his. “I have no comprehension of how I will ever be able to thank you. Particularly as I was incorrect about the holy water.”
“Yeah, but you were right about everything else.” Ross put his hand on Thomas’s shoulder, he couldn’t stop touching the younger man, and didn’t think he would ever tire of it.
“I set the trap not knowing that Downs was our man,” Thomas said. “The physician informed me he thought that maybe the thing killed Downs, and took his form long before he came to get us. It transpires that it was he that put my name forward.” He swallowed. “He was going to turn me into something like him. He wanted my mother, and when he could not have her he fixed his attentions on me. If you had not been here, I would be . . . I would b-be . . . .” There were tears in those beloved eyes, and Ross turned his gentle pat into a hard embrace.
“Don’t think about it, Thomas? We did what we set out to do. Word is, we won’t ever want for money and that we have a lifelong membership of the fucking Hellfire Club,” he said and laughed ruefully. “All that remains is to decide what we are going to do next.”
“I do not know. A few months ago my life was clearly mapped out for me. I was to be a librarian, doing the job of my dreams. It was all I ever wanted, but now . . . ,” he paused and flushed. “Now things are very, very different.”
“Yeah.” Ross felt warmth flood his gut and knew he couldn’t let Thomas go. “What’s changed?”
“Now there is you.” Thomas swallowed again, flush deepening. “What we have is illegal, and immoral, and if anyone was to discover what we have been doing we risk much, but. . . .”
“No one knows anything, Thomas. The Hellfire Club think we are merely comrades-in-arms. There is no one else here that knows me, or you for that matter. Your life need not change.”
“I want it to change.” Thomas let him go for a moment and sat back against the pillows. “I want different things now. I was a naïve boy, but now, now I guess I’ve had to grow up fast. I need you with me, Ross. I have never felt like this before.”
Ross smiled. They had both been dancing around the words, but he knew exactly what Thomas meant. He felt it too, and this feeling was too good to lose. He had never wanted to settle down. He had never thought about a wife or children, but what he had with Thomas was as good as any marriage and he was prepared to risk everything just to have it forever.
“What do you want?” He asked, finally.
“To see the world, rather than read about it. With the exception of university I have never left London. Every bit of research I did on that thing came from dry, dusty old books. There might be a million things like that out there, and we would never know.”
“Do you want to become some sort of supernatural expert, seeking out and destroying evil?” Ross laughed then, his whole body exploding with delight at Thomas’s words.
“No . . . not really. I just want to see things rather than read about them. I want to walk on the sands of the Sahara, and maybe see the mighty Sphinx. I want to see the colonies, with you as a guide. I want to . . . we were so close to death, Ross and all I want to do now, is live.”
Ross regarded him for a moment and then he lunged forward and gathered him up into his arms. They kissed desperately, as if they had never kissed before, harsh life-affirming kisses almost like fighting, bodies pressed as close as they could get. Their lust and affection warring together.
“God knows, we have enough money to see the world.” Ross was panting when they broke apart. “Those old men at the Hellfire Club will give us anything we want both out of gratitude, and in an effort to keep us silent.”
“You don’t want to go back to fighting?”
“Not for a moment. I only fought in the ring because there was nothing else for me. I never considered my future, but now it is in the forefront of my mind. I have a future and it lies with you.”
“So . . . .” Thomas pressed impossibly closer, his hand closing tight around Ross’s erection. “The world is waiting for us.”
“I guess it is.” Ross moved his body into Thomas’s grasp, pain and pleasure exploding within him. He wanted to say the words just once, let Thomas hear what he had known for quite some time but even as he opened his mouth Thomas put a long finger across his lips shaking his head.
“There’s no need,” he whispered as he laid them both down, hearts beating so close they were almost as one. “I know. I have always known. You saved my life, not once but twice. We share everything now; experiences and blood, there is nothing greater.”
And as he closed his eyes and gave himself over to Thomas Ross could only agree.