He shook his head, his throat so thick he could barely talk. “No.” The word came out hoarse and barely audible. He tried again. “It’s that Slasher. I know it. I saw some blood on the snow back there--” He lost the ability to speak again, his throat closing over completely.
“Aye,” Blade murmured, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Well, ‘e’s made ‘is mistake this time.” Eyes glittering, he surveyed the street. “We’ll get ‘er back, Rip. I swear. And then I’ll skin ‘im alive for this.”
An hour later, they met again at the junction of Petticoat Lane. Rip was drenched in the icy water of the sewers, shaking so hard he could barely stand. The rage in him was growing, the hunger creeping over him like the threatening weight of an avalanche. The only thing holding it at bay was the thought that if he lost control, he’d never find her. He needed to be rational for this.
“No sign?” Blade asked.
“Chemical,” he managed to choke out, his throat and nose burning from the smell of it. He felt like he’d never get the scent out of his nose. “One o’ those chemical bombs they been usin’.”
Will knelt in the snow, his amber eyes gleaming in the moonlight. As close to the edge as Rip in his own way. “Found nothin’,” he growled in frustration, his own eyes red-rimed. “Every tunnel stinks o’ chemical. Can’t smell a bleedin’ thing now.”
“’E planned this,” Blade muttered, staring down the street. “Knew what our strengths are. ‘Ow we work. Fuck.”
“What you want us to do?” Will asked. “Rouse the streets? See if anyone saw something?”
“That’ll take ‘ours,” Rip snapped. And Esme didn’t have that long.
How long had it taken Higgins to get her back to his hidden lair? How long to strap her to his table, to insert the needles in her veins that would slowly steal her life away? How long until she was nothing more than a dry husk of the woman she’d once been?
Rip spun and kicked at a pile of crates against the corner, sending scraps and rubbish flying. The streets became black and white; the colour of a graveyard.
Someone caught his mech wrist and he spun, prepared to lash out. Will caught his fist before it could land, yanking his arm up behind him and Rip glared into the face of his master.
“She needs you,” Blade said, letting his mech hand go. “Rein yourself in. Now.”
Rip shut his eyes and sucked in a sharp breath. Wanted to kill. Wanted to tear something apart, anything to stop this helpless, goddamned terror. His shoulders slumped as the anger and fury washed out of him. Blade was right. He was no help to Esme in this condition.
Blinking, the colour of the world snapping back in on him again, he turned to glare up into Will’s burning gaze. “Lemme go.”
Will let him go and stepped back out of reach. “Someone’s got to know where Higgin’s hides. If he’s a Slasher, he’ll be sellin’ the blood down at them drainin’ factories. Someone there buys it on the sly; they’ll know how to contact him.”
“Go,” Blade snapped. “And be quick about it. I’ll ‘unt down below again, see if I can make out any scent trail. Maybe that chemical’s wearin’ off.” He nodded at Rip. “You joinin’ me?”
Rip stared at him. “Where’s he getting’ the chemical from?” He took a step back, his mind suddenly reeling. Getting hard to find bodies, Rip. The sudden memory of Dr. Creavey’s examination room sprang to mind. And the breath-stealing scent of whatever he’d used to preserve those specimens in all of the jars.
The woman on the examination table, her wrists slit and her body eerily pale. Like she’d been drained of life. Rip swore under his breath. Under his nose all along and he’d not realised until now.
What better way to hide the drained bodies than to give them to someone who’d make sure they were never seen again? And would probably pay for them in the process.
“Got an idea,” he snarled. “I’m goin’ to visit an old friend.”
Blade nodded. “Move quick and watch your back. I’ll be in Undertown.”
“Aye.” They all nodded at each other.
“You see somethin’ and you whistle,” Blade said, referring to the whistle’s that would pierce through each of their hearing from miles away. Nothing human would hear them, but the sound would set dogs barking and went through Rip like an ice-pick to the brain.
“If you find nothin’, then we’ll meet back ‘ere in an ‘our,” Rip said, praying under his breath that he wouldn’t see them again until Esme was found.
Rip stepped back and placed a solid kick to the middle of the door. The wood splintered with a satisfying bang and he shoved his way through. “Creavey?” he bellowed. “You in ‘ere?”
A light flickered to life as someone hurriedly lit a lantern. Rip’s predator gaze focused on it with deathly intensity. He was moving before he thought, shoving through the door into Creavey’s personal chambers.
Photographs littered the walls. Grainy pictures of bodies on examination tables and the jars in Creavey’s lab. Rip looked away in disgust and found his prey cowering by a stuffed armchair in his stained nightgown. The lantern burned on a small table, next to a book on dissection and a pot of tea.
“Christ,” Creavey snapped. “You scared me half to death, Rip. What are you doing here at this hour?”
Rip strode forward and grabbed the doctor by the throat. He slammed him up against the wall, photographs fluttering like dying moths to the floor as he snarled.
“Where you been gettin’ your bodies from?” he snapped. “You been givin’ someone vials o’ that formalde’yde?”
The colour drained out of Creavey’s face. “Don’t know what you’re… talking about…” he choked out.
Rip leaned forward, his mech fingers closing tighter as Creavey made a strangled sound. “Gettin’ ‘ard to find bodies,” he snapped. “That’s what you said and I saw that girl what I thought done ‘erself in. Drained o’ blood. You still got ‘er? I’d be curious to know if there’s any needle marks in her elbows, or more slashes across her throat and thighs. That’s ow they do it.” He slammed Creavey back against the wall. “That’s what the Slashers do when they tie someone down.”
Suddenly he pictured Esme lying there on Creavey’s examination table, her body pale and faint bloody marks across her wrist. No. He wouldn’t be too late. He wouldn’t. The thought tore through him like a knife and as he blinked he realized Creavey was turning purple.
Rip let him go and stepped back as the man slumped to the floor, sucking in breath through his badly bruised throat. He knelt down, staring into the man’s terrified eyes. “Now, I don’t got a lot o’ time. Nor patience.” Blackness flickered behind his vision but he reined it in. Later. “You know Blade’s ‘ousekeeper?”
Creavey nodded sharply.
“The Slashers got ‘er,” Rip said in a quiet, deadly-soft voice. “And I want ‘er back. A man by the name o’ ‘iggins. You ‘eard of ‘im? You know where ‘e dwells?”
The stink of urine flooded through the room. “Can’t,” Creavey gasped. “Said he’d kill me if I said anything.”
The blackness obliterated everything. The next thing Rip knew, Creavey was screaming as Rip shoved him down onto one of the frigid steel examination tables in the laboratory. Pinning him by the throat, he yanked a small rolling table closer, with its tray of evil-looking instruments.
“e’s got my woman,” he heard himself say. “And you think ‘e’s the greater danger at the moment?” His hand closed over something sharp. He held it up. “’e might kill you. Some’d say that’d be a mercy to what I intend.”
As Creavey screamed, Rip held the gadget up. A small, razor-sharp wheel of some description. He wound the crank attached to the shaft of it and the razor suddenly started spinning, light glinting off its edges with a buzzing sound.
“Now me,” he whispered. “I don’t plan on killin’ you at all.”
Creavey’s fingers wrapped around the cold steel of his mech hand. “I’ll… tell…” Froth bubbled on his lips as his gaze locked on the gadget Rip held.
Rip stepped back.
The doctor scrambled off the table, into the corner of the room where he cowered. “I couldn’t get the bodies.” He started crying. “The Echelon’s metaljackets started patrolling the cemeteries at nights. What was I to do?”
Rip stared at him. How any man could do such a vile thing was beyond him. He flung the circular saw aside. “So you started buyin’ ‘em from the cursed Slashers?” He kicked the rolling table aside and metal implements scattered everywhere. “Knowin’ what they do to people?”
“It’s easier to examine the tissues,” Creavey whispered. “Without all the blood in the body.”
A vein in Rip’s temple throbbed. “Where is ‘e?”
“I don’t know,” Creavey sobbed. “I don’t. I swear I don’t! I just deliver the formaldehyde to the back of an apothecary in Bethnal Green. They’ve got the bodies there, hidden in a shed out the back. I think… I think there’s a tunnel down into Undertown in the shed.”
Thoughts raced through his brain; a map of the streets thereabouts. “By apothecary, do you mean opium den? Madame Liu’s?”
Heavily defended by one of the gangs as run that part of town. Rip’s fist clenched. “Don’t you go leavin’ the area,” he snapped. “I still got words to ‘ave with you.”
Then he turned and left the doctor quivering behind him.
“No!” Esme kicked as the man shoved her back against the gurney. “No!” She screamed as he wrenched her arm back and tightened a leather strap around it.
The room was dank and cold, hidden deep in Undertown. They’d passed dozens of Slashers on the way, splashing colourless liquid all through the tunnels from enormous glass jars. The stench of it took her breath and she knew what its purpose was.
No one would be able to track her by scent. Not Blade. Not Will. Not even Rip.
She’d picked at the cotton on her sleeves to try and leave threads behind, but the sewers were dark and the water washed away the cotton. As Higgins wrenched her through a tunnel, Esme had ripped the black satin from her throat and curled her hand around the small silver ‘E’ until she found a suitable spot. Then she’d deliberately tripped and dropped the necklace just before Higgins shoved her deep into the tunnel system that spawned his home.
“Stay still,” Higgins snarled, waving the hook on his hand at her in warning.
Her fright of it had long since faded. If he managed to strap her down, he’d kill her anyway. She kicked out and Higgins staggered back into a tray of rusted implements. He looked up at her with a murderous gleam in her eye and Esme rolled, trying to yank at the strap on her left wrist.
The hook sank into the steel table an inch from her nose and Esme screamed and jerked back. Higgins loomed over her and grabbed her right wrist, strapping it down with brutal efficiency.
“I’d kill you for that,” he said, then suddenly laughed. “But we’re goin’ to do that anyways. And I always says, waste not, want not.”
Yanking at her skirts, he caught one of her ankles and stretched it out. Esme squirmed. The leather straps around her wrists had no give in them. Her heart thundered. No. Please no… Not like this.
Gutters ran along the edges of the table to a hole at the end where a tube siphoned whatever liquid splashed through into an enormous glass vial that stood in the corner, almost her height. The bottom of it was nestled into a gleaming copper machine.
Esme yanked again, her eyes streaming with tears. Rip. Where was Rip? She was so frightened she could hardly breathe, but she knew he’d come for her. As soon as he realised she was missing…
What if he’d fallen asleep? Or thought she wanted to sleep in her own bed? Esme yanked again and the buckle that she’d loosened on her left wrist slipped a fraction of an inch.
She stilled, watching as Higgins turned to the tray of implements. A little hunchback watched from the corner, eyes gleaming avidly at her. Esme didn’t dare move. The ugly little creature hadn’t spoken so far, but if it saw that the strap had loosened fractionally, it might raise the alarm.
There’d only be one chance at this.
Higgins picked up a glass hypodermic syringe with a long hollow needle. She’d seen the like before. Tom’s mother had frequently injected herself with morphia or opium-tinctures to ease her gout.