Dante kept his head low as he walked the early morning streets. Shop keepers readied themselves for the day, letting their boys shovel away the snow or fetch some forgotten material or ingredients. Horses walked with empty carriages to keep their muscles warm, and one by one did signs turn from closed to open.
Up until now, no know seemed to pay him any mind. It still surprised him how little people actually cared about his appearance if a little flush was added to his skin.
Though his head was low, his eyes were shooting from one corner to the other, catching glimpses of all that was going around. The smells weren’t as terrible yet, though the more people that decided to join him on the sidewalk, the more overwhelmed he got.
Because of that, he made good time of the moments he still had where that wasn’t the case as he wondered how his old clan managed to not be bothered by it.
While Briar and Rena went to talk with Chief Blakewell about the recent murder, Dante decided to see if he could catch a glimpse of the vampires that had entered London. Although he disliked Clyde, he was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially after Rena was unable to follow through with their plan. In reality, Dante simply wished the girl a deserving partner to experience her first love with. Clyde might be many things—a vampire hunter not being one of them—but he truly seemed to care about Rena.
Dante felt as though the affection Clyde had for Rena resembled his own for Briar. Though Briar was quite reserved despite her open attitude, Dante thought they had moved forward in their relationship the previous night. And it made him quite happy. He was still uncertain what exactly their said relationship was supposed to be, but he was content with where it was going for now.
Smiling to himself, he wondered why he had agreed to that silly bet of hers. If it was up to him, if his willingness to win was not in the way, he would have given her the kiss she wished for. Probably more than that. She would never want to kiss another man again.
“What are you smiling about, handsome guy?” a female voice said, drawing his attention. Looking up, his eyes met those belonging to a familiar face.
She took a second look before her flirtatious smile formed into genuine delight. “Dante! I hardly recognized you.”
Putting a finger to his lips, he glanced around them to make sure no one had heard. “What are you doing here?”
“The usual,” Camelia said, grabbing onto his arms as she started to lead him. Though, Dante already knew where she was taking him. “I was hoping to fetch one last patron, but you should do quite nicely as well.”
Dante frowned, taking in her bare shoulders and arms before stopping to shrug off his coat. “Do you need some extra money? I can spare—”
Camelia cut him off with a wave of her hand but accepted the coat.
“I can make my own money.” Tugging the coat tight around her shoulders, they continued on their way. “But I have to admit that I have missed your company in the brothel, many of us have, especially Emily.”
Dante hummed. “I apologize for my absence, but with the rumors and the recent murder that has been tied to my name I haven’t had the time.”
Resting her head of dark curls against his arm, Camelia sighed. “It’s become so dull without you, Dante, where has our charming vampire disappeared to?”
Reaching up, she caressed his cheek before pulling back his upper lip, revealing his very human row of teeth. Her hand lowered but her fingers lingered where they could. Dante never expected his vampire appearance to be favored over his human-like one, yet that seemed to be the case.
The girls from the brothel never seemed to have had a problem with his appearance, believing it was a unique chance at first, having heard of the extraordinary stamina that vampires possessed. But after Dante refused to share a bed with any of them unless it was for actual sleep, he became more of a friend to most of them.
Most of his lonely days and evenings had been spent there. Protecting the girls from the men that disrespected them. Keeping them company in between their sessions. It had become an interesting past time which he came to enjoy. His reputation was already bad, this could hardly make it worse.
And when little Emily was born Dante had rarely returned home. Until the rumors started to spread and the Madam had him leave in fear of them being true.
He wondered if Madam would have him enter now. Word spread like a wildfire within these communities, after all.
“Have you finally found yourself a willing blood bag?” Camelia asked, letting her hand slip to his to pull him down the stairs to the familiar door.
Dante hesitated only slightly, not given much choice either, before following. “Not exactly. I cashed in on an old favor and am able to get my blood from the morgue.”
The familiar heat of the brothel welcomed him, though the shift in temperature did nothing to warm him. What did fill his chest were the smiles he received when one by one familiar faces recognized him. Most of the patrons, if not all, had already left, and the girls had been talking among themselves when he and Camelia entered.
“Look what the cat brought in,” Lillian said, standing from her seat to greet him with a kiss to the cheek. “You barely look like yourself.”
“I had to do a second take as well,” Camelia laughed, placing his coat on one of the chairs.
More pleasantries followed and Dante couldn’t keep the smile from his lips. Despite all that happened to him prior to being framed for murder, his days in this very room had been ones he wouldn’t change for the world.
After being handed a drink and seated in his old seat, he continued to answer the round of questions. He did not touch the gin they brought him, but held onto it nonetheless to not appear ungrateful.
“So Miss Blakewell has been helping me since then,” he finished, giving just enough detail to not seem like he was holding back, yet not enough for important information to be leaked.
“I can hardly believe it,” Camelia mumbled, shaking her head. “That poor girl, why would they kill her?”
“She was a Morris, why wouldn’t they?” the girl going by the name of Sally said, scoffing afterward. “At least the upper class is threatened this time. During the Ripper case, it didn’t seem like anyone even cared, some even thinking that mad man was doing everyone a favor.”
“They do make a bigger commotion over it now,” Lillian agreed, biting her lip as it was one of her habits. “Though the recent victim wasn’t from the upper class.”
Lillian nodded. “Yes, he was here a few days prior to his murder.”
Dante leaned forward, setting his drink on the table in front of him. “Andrew Smith?”
“Yes, that was him,” Lilian said. “We came here quite often, actually. He became a regular after his wife passed.”
“It’s why we thought it odd that he hadn’t appeared for a while,” Sally added. “Emily later said that she saw him with a blond woman when I took her to the sweets shop. I didn’t notice him myself, but she was certain it was the funny walking man, as she called him.”
Dante’s face paled. “A blond woman? Are you certain that’s what she said?”
Sally furrowed her brow before nodding. “She was wearing pants as well, according to Emily.”
Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Dante took a deep breath. That could have been anyone, he told himself. There were more women with blond hair than her. There was no reason to overreact. It could be anyone. It probably was anyone. She would never kill—
Dante looked up immediately, all his thoughts fading as a large smile grew on his lips. “Emily.”
The little girl, although having grown since the last time he saw her, still looked as sweet as she did when he had first held her. Dante held out his hand for her, but she stepped back, hiding behind the chair that Camelia was seated on.
His smile faltered a bit before realizing she didn’t know him without his fangs. The grin he had given her must have startled her.
“It’s me,” he said gently, removing his hat to reveal his white hair. “Uncle Dante, remember?”
Emily stared at him for a long time.
“Come on, sweetheart,” Camelia prompted, putting her hand on the little girl’s back. “It really is him.”
“But . . .” Looking up at her mother, Emily pointed at her own teeth.
“They’re still there,” Dante said, using his fingers to reveal his gums and pushing one of his fangs that were hidden in it down. After all those years drinking only animal blood he had forgotten to reveal them on command. “See?”
Finally convinced, Emily’s mouth broke into the widest smile before she rushed to him, throwing herself into his arms. Dante hugged her close to him, having missed her tiny body in his arms.
“Where have you been, Uncle Dante?” she asked him as she pulled back, her dark curls bouncing off her shoulder much like her mother’s did.
“I’ve had a bit of trouble, Darling,” he said, pinching her cheek. “But I’m here now.”
Camelia leaned closer to them, putting a hand on Emily’s shoulder. “Sweetheart, why don’t you tell Uncle Dante about the woman you saw the funny walking man with?”
She shook her head. “No, she looked scary.”
“Why was she scary?” Dante raised his brow, hoping his tone was light enough to hide his dread.
“She had a very mean look,” Emily said, looking between her mother and Dante as she retold her tale. “Her eyes were very mean even as she smiled, it looked like she wanted to hurt funny walking man.”
Emily wasn’t wrong there. Dante swallowed, sharing a look with Camelia who seemed equally as worried.
“Promise me you will never get anywhere close to the scary-looking woman, okay?” Dante said, brushing some of her curls from her face. “And if you do see her you tell mommy immediately, understood?”
Emily nodded, resting her head on Dante’s chest. “I promise.”
Dante sighed as he kissed the top of her head. “Good girl.”
With his hands in his pockets, Clyde ventured down the dark alley. He personally would have chosen for a different meeting place if it had been up to him, but he supposed it would do for now. The putrid smell of waste and rot would fade once he got used to it. At least, that’s what he hoped.
He kept his hands clenched tightly to keep them from touching the spots where Rena’s fingers had been only moments ago. Although there was no other person in sight, he knew he wasn’t alone. Clyde wasn’t lying when he said he would do anything for her, which also meant keeping her safe. Any wrong movement could give away thousands of secrets. He had to learn that the hard way.
“I don’t have all night,” he called into the darkness.
“Such impatience,” a female voice sounded, followed by the figure that had been hiding within the shadows.
“I need another week to get everything ready,” Clyde said, ignoring her comment.
She walked closer, a glimpse of moonlight catching her dangerous eyes and daring smile. “And why is that? From what I’ve heard the Chief is convinced Dante is behind all of the murders.”
“His daughter isn’t.” Clyde lifted his chin, though it did nothing for either his confidence nor intimidation. “She teamed up with Dante to figure out who was really behind it. I talked with them today to gain their trust, they believe I am a vampire hunter from Bristol who followed the clan that according to them is already supposed to be here. I’ll need another week to get them off our trail.”
She hummed, her arms crossed. “Alright then. One week, then I’ll be bringing in the rest.”
Clyde nodded, ready to turn away when she called his name. The way it dripped from her tongue like poison still sickened him till this day.
“Are the chief’s daughter and Dante the only ones we need to worry about?”
She was watching him closely. Clyde had to be careful with his reaction. He wanted to swallow the lump in his throat, but that alone could give away his lie. He nodded instead. “Those two are the only ones involved.”
“Alright then,” she said as Clyde turned his back on her. “See you in a week.”
“Oh.” Clyde stopped, glancing over his shoulder. “Was the drunkard really necessary?”
A wicked laugh sounded from the shadows. “You can’t deny me a bit of fun, now can you?”
He couldn’t. The only reason he asked was to show he wasn’t afraid. It was always a risk, figuring out when to speak and when to keep his tongue.
Only when he was back on the street and visible to many citizens did he dare to breathe again. He could keep his head for another day.