“Right this way, guv.”
The boy hurried ahead of Rip, his roughened boots churning the snow and mud to sludge. He kept darting a glance over his shoulder, fully aware of exactly what stalked behind him.
John ‘Rip’ Doolan strode through the cold streets behind the lad with his hands thrust into the pockets of his heavy coat. The fingers on his left hand kept twitching, trying to stir some semblance of heat into the limb. Of the right, all he could feel was the heavy pull of the hydraulics in his forearm as the mech hand flexed. Rough work. Rookery work. But it served its purpose. Though the aristocratic Echelon that ruled London city considered him less of a man because of it – less than human – he couldn’t run this line of work without two feasible limbs.
Jem Saddler paused at the intersection ahead, blowing into his cupped palms. The work-chafed fingers struck through the end of his gloves. The boy’d lost one the year previous, when the biting cold came in. Not uncommon in Whitechapel, where flats and tenements slumped against each other like slatterns on a winter’s night, seeking warmth against the bitter chill. Few here had coin enough to keep the fires burning all night and from the neat little slash that gaped in the fabric beneath the boy’s arm, the coat had once belonged to someone else. Clothing was hard to come by too, except for the more enterprising.
Rip’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed Petticoat Lane and the alleys off it. The ever-present ropes that slung between the upper stories of the alleys were bare of the ghostly flap of laundry. Fire burned in a barrel on the corner and a pair of dollymop’s huddled around it, warming their hands. One of them eyed him warily, a frozen little smile etching itself onto her lips. Coin was coin, but he knew what he looked like. Wouldn’t be the first time a trollop hoped he walked away.
“You’ve done your bit,” Rip said, turning to Jem and pretending he didn’t notice the whore’s sigh of relief. “Ought to wait ‘ere though, case I need you to run a message for me.”
Jem held his palm out, his narrow chin tipping up with a faint tremble as he stared Rip down. He could have left once his message had been delivered but the lad’s palm hadn’t been greased yet.
The action was presumptuous but Rip tugged a pair of shillings from his pocket and flipped them toward the lad. He knew what it was like to be starving at that age. It were the sort of thing a man never forgot.
Jem’s eyes widened as he saw how generous Rip had been and he gave a grin, the shillings disappearing like magic. “Aye, guv. I’ll stay.” He glanced at the narrow laneway that ran between buildings. Liza Kent’s place. There’d been no sign of her in three days and Jem had done the right thing in tracking him down about it. “Thought ‘er old man might ‘ave given ‘er the touch-up, but no sniff o’ ‘im either.”
“Liza’s flash gent touch ‘er up much?”
It weren’t none of his business but the hair on the back of Rip’s neck rose as the darkness within him stirred. Memory reared its ugly head; his mother staggering back into the stove as her pimp laid into her with his fists. Rip had been small then, powerless. He wasn’t powerless anymore, and there was nothing he despised more than a man who raised his hand to a woman.
Jem must have sensed the slither of darkness inside him for he swallowed. “No more’n usual, guv.”
Easy. Rip squeezed his eyes shut and forced the yearning hunger in him to subside. After six months of living with the hot, gut-twisting clench of it, he was starting to recognize what set it off and how to avoid that.
Becoming a blue blood with their unnatural thirst for blood wouldn’t have been his choice, if there’d been one. Six months ago though, a vampire had torn his throat open and half disembowelled him. He could remember the hot-wet splash of his own blood as pain washed through him like brandy-soaked flames. Lying on the roof, his heels drumming on the tiles as he coughed wetly into the night. And then his master, Blade, leaning over him with a desperate whisper. “We’re gonna give you me blood. The virus might keep you ‘live long enough to ‘eal your wounds.”
He knew what it meant. Blade had asked before if he wanted to become a blue blood. In their dark little world, the threat of death or crippling injury was a constant and the craving virus could heal anything short of decapitation. Still, he’d always said no before.
Until Blade whispered the one little thing that might have changed his mind. “If you don’t want it, blink. If you do, squeeze me fingers. But know that this’ll devastate Esme.”
Esme. Blade’s housekeeper. Christ. In that moment he’d seen a flash of her serious face, with the slashing dark wings of her brows, and Rip couldn’t have said no despite himself. He’d always kept his distance from her but the sudden hot flare of yearning – the urge to see her just once more – was too strong for him. And so he’d squeezed Blade’s hand.
The next he knew he was flat on his back in his own bed, with Esme straddling his hips, her firm, no-nonsense fingers going to the buttons at her throat. The other half of the equation began to sink in. Blood. And as soon as he realized what she was there for, a fierce aching need had burned through him like white-hot fire, draining away the colour from his vision until all he could smell was the violet water on her skin and see the heady tick of her pulse in her throat. Hands on her, yanking her close. And Blade holding him back. “Easy now, lad. You don’t want to frighten ‘er, do you?”
The craving virus had healed him all right. But he’d never thought about the other edge of the coin. The fierce hunger he could barely control. Especially around her.
“You don’t need me to come with you?” Jem asked somewhat nervously and Rip realized he’d been staring.
He gave a rough shake of his head. “I’ll check on it.”
The lad tossed him a tremulous smile, then scurried into a nearby doorway and hunkered down to watch.
Hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched, Rip began to cross the street, sliding in the wet slush. The scent of roasting chestnuts drifted past and raucous laughter sounded nearby. Someone had hung a bedraggled strand of holly in their window. Christmas, he remembered, was nearly upon them.
Not the sort of thing the blue bloods of the Echelon celebrated, since the Church had excommunicated them, but it lingered in the human remnants of the population. A defiant gesture. The ruling Echelon might have burned the churches in England and arrested any caught praying or on consecrated ground, but they couldn’t police everything.
Nor could they arrest half of London.
The chestnut seller’s laughter wasn’t quite enough to hush the almost silent footstep that followed him. Rip glanced down beneath his lashes, a shiv sliding into his hand. He kept it tucked against the heavy cup of his palm, hiding it low against his thigh. As he turned the corner, stepping into the shadowed alcove of the alley, he pressed his back against the wall and waited.
The shadow behind him lengthened and Rip stepped forward, slashing out with the blade. He caught a hint of musk in his nose and pulled the blow, snarling under his breath. “Bloody ‘ell.”
A hand caught his wrist. Rip glared up into the unnatural golden eyes of a tall young man, tempted for one moment to push back. But that was the hunger in him, the fury. And if he pushed too far, he knew who would end this fight the victor.
Not even a blue blood could take on a verwulfen without consequences. In the strange berserker furies that overtook them they were practically invincible.
Will shoved away from him. “What are you doin’ here?”
“I ought ask you the same question.” Rip sheathed the knife, anger a slow-burn in his blood. He knew the answer of course. Blade must have sent Will to watch him. Make sure he didn’t lose control in the middle of the rookery and spill blood on the dirty gleam of the icy slush. A shiver ran down his spine, his mouth watering. Tempting. Just to give in, just once…
“Thought you might need a hand,” Will muttered, heat burnishing his cheeks. He hadn’t expected to get caught.
“Aye,” Rip said, flexing the steel grip of his fingers. “You’re about ten years too late.”
A faint smile curled over the young man’s mouth. Then Will stepped past, nostrils flaring as he surveyed the alley. “What you up to?”
“Jem Saddler said Liza Kent ain’t been sighted near on three days. No sign o’ ‘er old man neither,” Rip replied, falling into place beside him.
Will stopped outside a wooden door, eyeing the painted symbol of a pair of crossed daggers above the lintel. The matching tattoo was branded on the inside of both Rip and Will’s wrists. A sign of ownership, of protection. Blade’s mark. Will’s nostrils flared again.
“You smell anythin’?” Rip asked. His own senses had improved since he’d become a blue blood, but Will could smell days worth of scent.
“Strange.” Will frowned, his enormous shoulders bunching beneath the oiled canvas of his coat as he stepped forward. He scrubbed at his nose. “Chemical. But nothin’ else. Smells like Honoria’s laboratory.”
Blade’s new wife. Rip breathed in deeply, finding a faint trace of the vinegary tang that reminded him of the laboratory, except for the slight watering of his eyes. The scent was strong enough to linger in his nostrils, wiping out the odours that clung to the streets. Pushing open the door, he frowned when it gave way easily. Unlocked.
Not even the most desperate thief would cross a threshold with Blade’s mark on it. Still… This was Whitechapel.
“Hullo?” Rip called, his voice echoing through the room. He knew the place was empty before he’d even taken a step. The cold was biting here, the chill emptiness of a place that hadn’t been occupied in some days. His hard gaze raked the room. A frying pain in the wash basin, a pile of darning in the corner… Someone had dragged a thin curtain over the doorway separating the bedroom beyond and suddenly Rip could smell something else.
No matter what he breathed, he’d always be able to smell that distinctive, coppery scent. Rip yanked the curtain open. A man lay spread-eagled on the thin mattress, his torso slit from chest to groin and intestines spilling out like raw sausages. The blood was long since dried, the scent still strangely diluted. Rip swallowed hard as his vision dipped, painting the world in shadows of gray and white. He almost had it under control when Will brushed against his shoulder and suddenly he could smell something else; blood, hot and fresh, pumping beneath the other man’s skin.
Rip shoved past, staggering out into the alley. He’d fed the day before, but obviously not enough. The world spun around him, the chestnut vendor’s laughter grating against his skin. His head turned that way, the predator in him tracking the man by sound alone. Jem Saddler looked up at the sight of him then paled. Rip scowled and jerked his head, watching as the boy bolted. Looked like prey and his vision narrowed again.
Hell. Rip shook his head hard, his fumbling fingers dragging a cheroot from his pocket and a packet of matches. He lit the match hastily, knowing from the listening sound of the silence behind him that Will was watching.
“You all right?”
“Fine,” he snapped, raking his metal hand over the back of his neck. It was better out here. Not so close. The sounds from the street nearby made it harder to pick out the rushing throb of blood through Will’s veins.
Will stepped off the porch, his boots sloshing through the snowmelt. “Did a right number on him. We ought to tell Blade.”
Rip’s fingers tightened on the cheroot. “No. Let ‘im be.” This was the Warren’s first Christmas and Blade was determined to make it a special one for Honoria. He had enough to manage. “I’ll deal with it.”
Even if only to prove to himself that he could. Rip’d been nigh on useless the last six months. Too stricken by the hunger to be of much good to anyone. He had to prove that he could control it and this was his best chance. Tossing the cheroot on the cobbles, Rip ground it into the wet sludge and started for the street.
“Don’t think I ought to leave just yet,” Will muttered.
Keeping an eye on him.
Rip shoved his hands into his pockets and caught the eye of the whore near the fire barrel. “Do what you want.” His mouth watered as he jerked his chin at her. Time to take care of the pounding thirst for blood. So he could start thinking on who’d killed Liza Kent’s old man, and where the hell she’d gone.
The first cold kiss against Esme’s cheek made her look up. Soft flakes of snow tumbled from the stormy sky, tangling in her hair. Her hands tightened around the basket in her hands. She’d always loved snow. When she’d first come to the ‘Chapel after her husband Tom died, she’d despised the grim tenements and filthy hovels. For nearly a year she’d managed to scrape enough coin together to feed herself, until a too-friendly neighbour had made it clear that he could find other work for her…if she was willing to lie on her back. She’d hated the world then, hated the rookery. When she first went to Blade and begged for protection in exchange for her blood, he’d frightened her as much as the rest of the world had. And no wonder. Who wouldn’t fear a man who was called the Devil of Whitechapel?