“Our business here is finished, then.”
He tilted his head, smiling only somewhat. “I suppose it is—for now,” he replied in immaculate French. Smoke curled around his fingers and drifted up to his face, sickly sweet. Behind the thick smoke shrouding the room and their hushed conversation entirely in French, they were paid no heed by the others lounging in the parlour.
She pursed her lips. “And your end of the bargain?”
“We shall live up to it, sweet Béatrice.”
“It’s Vanessa now, Davide, and you would do well to remember that,” she countered, twisting her mouth in a grimace. The warning was clear, and her business done. She stood, her long skirts falling off the chair.
But his voice kept her in the smoky room a moment longer. “A new identity to renew yourself after the death of the king? Very well. Give my regards to the prince, Vanessa, and rest assured you have the protection of my pack wherever you dare venture in London.”
She scoffed and wove through the plush couches and polished tables that littered the parlour. Soon, the man’s animal smell was engulfed by the sweet scent of opium that hung over the room and she felt tension in her shoulders ease. Politics were still strained between her clan and his pack, from a failed revolution and the death of the king, but even she couldn’t deny they were her best option for protection while in England.
With a squeak of the door and a scuff of her boots, she stepped out of the gentlemen’s club and into the smoggy night air of London’s East End.
The reek of smoke, continuously belching from factory smokestacks, overwhelmed her in an instant. With it mixed the fetid slop dumped into streets and alleys; the fishy smell of the Thames; and a multitude of unwashed beings still prowling the night. She ceased breathing without hesitation, and began her trek toward the slums of Whitechapel; beneath the floorboards of a bawdy house was one of many safe-houses for her clan, ready to store those who made the trip to London.
She kept to the shadows and alleyways as she flitted in silence to the brothel. It was only the middle of the night, but she could feel acute weariness in her bones as the thirst set in. She had been awake, negotiating a contract with Davide and his fellow French nationalists, since the safety of twilight, and had not yet found an opportunity to care for her own wellbeing.
Even before she opened the door to the ramshackle brick building, she could hear the whores inside plying their trade. A small smirk found its way onto her face, and she quickly hopped up the steps to the door. Ah, the men of this city had no idea just what they were involving themselves with. What they were paying for.
The warmth of fire and smell of sweat and bodies greeted her as she stepped into the house. The door opened to a narrow hallway, with a cozy sitting room to the left and kitchen to the right. It was a small house, as they tended to be, especially in Whitechapel, but every bit of it was used to perfection. Rickety stairs led up to the second storey, with a second parlour and multiple bedrooms; and hidden beneath a carpet in the kitchen was a trap door to the cellar, where she and her compatriots could rest as they pleased.
She sighed and tugged off the black ribbon choker around her neck, the shell cameo toppling neatly into her palm. It would be a relief to free herself from this horrible, restricting corset and bodice, and simply lounge with the other ladies downstairs before her night progressed—
“What a beautiful pendant.”
She paused and glanced over her shoulder. Seated in an old wooden chair beside the door was a young man, smiling politely as he gazed up at her. “Thank you,” she said, barely lifting her lips in a smile as she tucked it away in the pockets of her jacket.
“May I ask where you got it?”
Well, she could spare a moment for this disillusioned male. She couldn’t climb into the cellar until most of the nosey humans had left, and she was feeling rather weak. She dipped her hand into the pocket and pulled out the cameo. “Here.” She handed him the ribbon and pendant. “A friend of mine gave it to me.”
The man smiled and held the necklace in front of him. She had long ago memorized the image stamped into the shell; a beautiful woman with curly hair and aristocratic profile. A woman long dead, who lived in the era of rebirth and art. He lightly ran his fingertips over the raised edges, his dark eyes twinkling in the nearby firelight. “Exquisite. I must admit I envy your friend, to be giving such lovely gifts to a lady such as yourself.”
She laughed at that, completely forgetting her manners. “Oh? You don’t even know my name, and you met me in a brothel. Who are you to assume what sort of lady am I?”
He laughed softly and stood from the chair. “I am Henry Francis Washburn, my lady, at your service.” With a deep bow, he cupped her hand in his and touched his lips to her fingers. “And though we meet in a brothel, I am only here as an escort to my younger brother, who insisted on enjoying the company of the ladies here before his wedding.” His moustache twitched as he chuckled, then he released her hand and straightened.
She smiled and tucked the cameo back into her jacket. “Vanessa Béatrice Estée Collingwood, a pleasure,” she said, and dipped into a curtsey.
“Ah, French? Of course. Your beauty rivals that of Parisian queens.”
“French through my mother alone. I was born here in London,” she admitted—and kept to herself that the London in which she had been born and raised was an entirely different city than the one of this modern, industrial age. “I hate to part your company so suddenly, Mr Washburn,” she added, spotting a friendly face grinning at her from the kitchen, “but I really must be going.”
“Of course. I do hope we can meet again, my lady.” He bowed again, and returned to his seat as she trotted into the kitchen.
“Vanessa, thank God you’re back.” The woman grabbed her arms and pulled her into the kitchen before quickly shutting the doors to the room. Her lips pursed and she began unlacing Vanessa’s bodice without a word of question. “Did you manage to make up a contract with the dogs?”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Vanessa slumped into the woman’s arms. “Yes. I have the extra protection of the local pack during my visit.” Once her chest was free of the restraining bone corset, she stretched, feeling the bones in her back pop and crack. “Anne, I have a favour to ask.”
“Anything, love. You know we’re all very pleased to have you here, helping out by the order of our king.”
“Prince,” she corrected idly. It was habit by now, and it had only been a mere seventy-nine years since the murder of their king. Shedding her jacket and handing it off to the plump little woman, she began to pull off her bodice and untie her skirts. “I have not found the time to feed yet tonight,” she said, shooting a sharp glance at Anne. Several other women were in the room, silent as they watched. “You know how the French dogs are.”
Anne scoffed and began folding Vanessa’s clothes without hesitation. “Tsk, the voivode ought to have just let them have their fun during the war,” she said, pointing her nose in the air, “then maybe they’d be more personable now.”
“Doubtful.” Thus freed from the constricting female fashion of the era and wearing only a loose cotton chemise, Vanessa padded over to a nearby mirror dangling from the papered wall. A shadow greeted her, little more than a smudge in the shape of her face and shoulders. “I do rather hope you have someone waiting.”
“Course we do, love. Lorelei!”
One of the girls, a pale American thing with startling blue eyes and naturally straight brown hair, stood from a chair in the corner and smoothed her hands over her voluminous dark skirts. “Yes, Anne?”
“Can you be a dear and see if Sarah’s done with that bloke upstairs? Would you like your fun with him too, dear?” Anne asked, turning her unnaturally bold brown eyes back to Vanessa.
She swiped her hands over her cheeks, clearing off some of the smudgy makeup applied earlier by one of the ladies. “Has he been drugged?”
“Of his own accord. Opium.”
“Hm.” She pursed her lips and turned away from the mirror. “No. Do you have anyone without intoxicants in his blood?”
“One, I think,” another lady replied. Pale, with dark brown curls and odd brown eyes that nearly bordered on amber, was sprawled in the corner near the kitchen hearth, picking at the dirt beneath her fingernails. Her accent was singsong; she was from Wales, unless Vanessa was mistaken. “Or you could pretend to be one of the ladies for the night and take one of the real men. There is a rather delectable gentleman sitting just in the front, outside the parlour.”
“In the hall? His name is Henry Washburn. He was awfully enamoured with me.”
The girls twittered with laughter, and Anne patted Vanessa’s shoulder. “And who wouldn’t be? Was it your pretty white face or ample bosom that did him in, eh?”
The women all laughed again, and Vanessa even allowed herself a small smile. “Actually, neither. He was astounded by my cameo pendant.” Padding across the room, she pulled the pendant from her jacket and held it out for the others to see. “It’s of my mother, during the Renaissance. Fane found it for me near to a century ago, while travelling France with Joachim Grey.”
“All a ruse, love. What man wouldn’t be infatuated by your perky breasts and nice round bum?” Anne slapped the posterior in question, making Vanessa flinch and hop away.
The Welshwoman snorted and shook her head. “How did you ever pass as a man in war?”
Vanessa rolled her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. “Are you going to fetch me someone or not?”
Anne’s brows rose into her hairline. “Oh! No drugs or anything of the sort, Lorelei. Joan thinks we’ve someone who suits you.”
The American girl nodded and shuffled from the room. Raucous laughter and cries of pleasure seeped through the open door for just a moment; then it shut and they were left in muffled silence once more.
Once the girl was gone, Vanessa dug through the hidden pockets sewn to the inside of her skirts and petticoats, and unearthed several folded papers.
“Is that your research, then?” Anne asked, standing on her toes to peer over Vanessa’s shoulder.
“Yes. Have you any of the newspapers?”
“Oh, sure. They’re in the parlour.”
Vanessa nodded and pulled a silk robe off a hook on one wall. After tightening it around herself, she gathered her materials together and left the kitchen. As she crossed the hallway to the parlour, she stole a glance at the chair by the door. Empty. She clucked her tongue and slipped through the worn muslin curtain that stood in place of a door.
“That was a rather quick job, Miss Collingwood.”
Vanessa paused, papers still tucked under her arm, and spotted Henry Francis Washburn stretched over their single chaise longue, a newspaper folded between his hands. His jacket and hat were set neatly on a table nearby, and he seemed oddly at home, considering he was a gentleman in a whorehouse.
“You are rather bold, presuming I am a whore,” she replied crisply, and moved to the table where he set his coat. Uncaring for propriety—considering they were in a brothel and she was wearing only a shift and a long robe—she rifled through his pile of discarded garments until she came to the newspapers piled underneath. Armed with her research, she pushed his feet off the couch and made herself comfortable.
“I meant no offense.”
“And I took no offense.” She began to lay out the papers on the floor in front of her; newspaper clippings from journalists all around London, notes taken by several of her clan living in the area, and even a few pages in the delicate, looping cursive of the prince.
They sat in silence for mere minutes before Lorelei appeared at the entrance to the room, her white cheeks slightly flushed with pink. “Miss Collingwood,” she said timidly, her mouth curling into a sweet smile, “your room upstairs is ready.”
“Oh, brilliant.” She climbed off the couch and followed the girl through the narrow, winding halls of the building. The stairs creaked beneath their combined weight; the middle of each step was caved and worn thin from years of heavy traffic, and the railing looked as though it had toppled several times during the span of its life.
Every door they passed on the second floor was closed, but the sounds behind them were obvious. Despite being run by rather unconventional hostesses, the men who frequented the house had no idea its true purpose. It was a perfect setup. Vanessa only disliked how seldom she visited.
Lorelei led her to the final door on the right. She paused and gave a little curtsey. “He’s just in here, Miss Collingwood. Will you need anything else tonight?”
Vanessa cocked her head to the side and contemplated the girl before her. She was in her first decade, and hadn’t yet grown accustomed to protocol. “No. All I require is room to work. The parlour will do until I can go to the cellar. Thank you, Miss Morgan.”
The girl nodded again and vanished down the stairs, leaving Vanessa the only one standing in the hallway. She barely wasted a second and slipped into the room, shutting the door behind her and turning the key in the lock. The room was bare save for a rickety brass bed shoved against one wall; sprawled on it, arms and legs askew, was a middle-aged man with greying hair and blood soaking his front. His chest trembled with effort to breathe; perspiration misted his forehead. He was perfect.
In silence, she ghosted to the bed and lowered herself to the edge of the mattress. The man barely registered her presence, even as she tilted his head to the side to observe the deep gouges in his neck made by the other girls in the house. She smiled. Cuts in the neck of a man in a whorehouse. She ran her tongue over her teeth, and a shiver ran down her spine. So like the articles in the papers, and the reports from her fellows: deep cuts in the necks of whores in Whitechapel.
She leaned down and fastened her mouth over the torn flesh of his throat. He lacked the strength to cry out as her teeth sunk into his flesh and pierced the tender currents of blood running through his body. As she sucked in the warm lifeblood flowing freely from his neck, she lost herself in the ecstasy of the feed. This was why she was back in London, in the waning summer of 1888—because women had been found dead, organs removed and throats slashed, and all evidence pointed to a strigoi mort.