Rip’s gaze dropped. “Blade wants your ‘elp with the tree,” he said to Will. “Lena wants to put an angel on the top.”
Will stood with fluid grace, sighing under his breath. “She would.”
As he left the room, Esme toyed with her apron strings. “I didn’t mean--”
“I ‘eard you,” he replied softly. “Per’aps… Per’aps it’s for the best.”
With a bleak nod in her direction, he turned on his heel and disappeared.
Rip prowled the night, his body on edge almost as much as his nerves. Running a hand over the stubble on his scalp, he stared out across the frost-rimed rooftops. Scars rippled beneath his fingertips; the reason he razored his hair so short. If he grew it, thick silvery half moons gleamed in the coarse blackness of his hair and Rip preferred not to look a fool.
His fingertips traced the deeper scar at the base of his scalp in a familiar rhythm that helped him think. A half circle. Shaped like the bottom of a bottle. Or, more accurately, a broken bottle. The scar’s jagged edges bore testimony to that.
No matter how much he tried to keep his mind on the business at hand – he had the midnight guard shift – he couldn’t stop thinking of Esme. Jaysus. What in blazes was he going to do? She’d kissed him on the mouth, her body pressing against his as if she were almost greedy for him. At the time he’d been so afraid he’d hurt her that the surprise of it hadn’t begun to set in.
But he’d had all day to think, his mind chasing itself around in circles.
“Because I wanted it to be me…”
Seven little whispered words that tore his chest in two. Did she mean that she wanted to be his thrall? She’d never once given him any indication that their friendship was anything more – had she?
And now she wanted nothing to do with him.
The worst thing was, he didn’t know how to fix it. Oh, she smiled at him and spoke to him, but he felt as though there were a wall between them. Treating him with polite courtesy until he choked on it.
Shadows flickered in the distance and Rip’s head jerked up as he peered across the stark snow-blanketed rooftops. A reminder to keep his mind on the task at hand and not on a green-eyed witch who’d knotted his heart in chest. Easiest way to get himself killed out here.
The shadows melted in the moonlight, vanishing. Too big to be a cat. Whatever it was they were gone now but the uneasy feeling remained. Who else would be on the rooftops at night? Or had a right to it?
His footprints left their mark behind him as he crossed the rooftops that served as his own private highway here in the rookeries. The streets were as crooked as an old man’s grin and cramped with refuse and the odd shivering human. But up here the world was clean and he could seemingly see for miles.
He knew as soon as he hit Angel Alley what he was about to find. Blood was thick in the air, a metallic scent in the freezing night. Footsteps mingled on the roof, leading directly to the edge of the wall that circled Whitechapel to keep the Echelon out. South. Toward the nearest entrance to Undertown.
“Hell,” he swore, trying to breathe through his mouth. Saliva pooled. Go after the Slashers? Or check to see if there was anyone alive down there?
A soft whimper made his decision for him. So quiet that no normal human would hear it. Quiet as a mouse.
Swinging over the edge of the roof, he saw the window in the attic and dropped to the ledge, the muscles in his forearm bulging. Easy work to break the latch. He’d cut his teeth as a cracksman. Of course, it had been easier when his shoulders weren’t as broad.
Moving quietly, Rip eased through the narrow window, landing with cat-like silence on his toes and fingertips. The smell of blood was stronger here; a god-damned aphrodisiac. His head spun, the hunger clutching at his guts with iron claws. Another scared, panting gasp came from below and he tracked the sound, the faint whisper of breathing and the barely-stifled sobs.
More blood. Still warm. He just had to find the source of it…
Swallowing hard, Rip ground his head into the palms of his hands. Not his thoughts but the demon within. Damn it. When would this ease? When would he stop seeing everyone around him as merely a source of nourishment?
Or would he?
He’d seen the blackness rise in Blade’s eyes many times. Was that what he had to look forward to?
“Mama?” A little voice whispered, down in the dark.
For an instant all the years rushed away and that was him. Locked in the cellar and listening to the sounds of fists pounding on flesh. His mother’s muffled gasps as she tried to spare him the worst of it.
The hunger was thick and unquenched in his throat but suddenly Rip found he could breathe through it. Looking up, he sucked in a lungful of air and scraped his hand over his face. Come on, you ugly brute, he snarled to himself. The quicker you do this, the quicker you can get after the Slashers.
And that was enough to choke down the last desperate grip of it. Fury rose. Nothing he hated more than Slashers.
With cold purpose burning in his chest, he straightened himself to his full height and started down the stairs. Halfway down they creaked and the stifled sobs froze. Not even a breath now.
He could smell the blood, splashes of red darkening his vision. Rip took each step precisely, looking around at the small kitchen. Two rooms branched off it. A veritable manor here in Whitechapel.
“I ain’t goin’ to ‘urt you,” he called. The silence had a listening feel to it. “I’m one o’ Blade’s men.”
Nothing. Only a ragged heartbeat thumping wildly in the dark. He pinpointed its location – beneath the floorboards – and stepped slowly toward it. The rug in the middle of the floor was skewed. A man lay on the bare timber near it, his blank eyes staring at nothing. No doubt he’d bought his child’s life with his death.
The remains of a meal rested on the table, cold herring pie congealing on the tin plates. The knife and fork at the head of the table were placed beside the plate in an orderly manner, the chair tucked back in. The other two seats were scraped back from the table, one fork lying forlornly on the floor.
Rip examined the room. One of the paintings near the door hung skewed. A fight then. He bent low, examining the man’s body and trying not to breathe too deeply as he pieced together what had happened. Someone had knocked at the door. The man got up to open it, and judging by his bruised knuckles, realized what was standing there as soon as he had it open. He fought, which gave the other two enough time to shove away from the table. Maybe for the mother to hide her child in the small trapdoor beneath the rug.
The woman’s screaming absence told the story. Rip’s gut dropped like lead. Another one missing. But why hadn’t they taken the child?
Panicked breathing sounded beneath his feet. Rip dragged the rug back and spread it over the man’s body. There was no sign of a lock on the square-cut trapdoor. Which meant it was locked from the inside.
Perhaps the Slashers had seen him out there on the rooftops, or didn’t want to waste the time?
Or perhaps they’d gotten what they wanted. He was starting to remember who’d lived here now, a nice young couple with a tow-headed daughter. Oliver Tanner, his wife Annie and their daughter…Meggie? Maggie? No, definitely Meggie. Peeking out from behind her father’s leg when he came to pay his tithe to Blade for the cost of protection.
Sure as rain, there would be a pair of crossed daggers over the lintel.
Another message. Another taunt.
We can take any you claim to protect.
Rip sank onto the floor beside the trapdoor. “Meggie?” he called softly, trying to lower his voice as much as possible. “Meggie, I need you to open the door. I’m ‘ere to ‘elp you.”
Another shuddery sob.
“Won’t ‘urt you,” he said. “I’ll take you back to Blade’s place, where you’ll be safe. Can’t naught get at you there.” Silence. “Please, Meggie. Open the door.”
He could tear it apart. He had the strength now. But he knew what it was like to hide in the dark, knowing that your only safety lay in the thin bit of wood from a cupboard door. He wouldn’t take that away from her. He wouldn’t add more nightmares to those she undoubtedly had.
“Meggie, I can’t find your mother,” he called. “I need to get you away from ‘ere so I can go look for ‘er. You want that, don’t you? You want me to try and find ‘er?”
“They took her--” A choked voice blurted. “I could ‘ear ‘er screamin’.”
Rip listened to her frightened sob. “I’m gonna go after ‘em, sweet’eart. I just need you to let me in.”
Silence. Then a lock snicked.
Rip let out the breath he’d been holding. “Okay, luv. I’m goin’ to open ‘er up. Don’t be frightened.” He wet his lips. Her fear was a heady thing. “I know I look mean, but I’m only mean to them as deserves it.”
Slowly he tugged the iron ring from the floor, lifting the edge of the trapdoor. The light gleamed on the wet-shine of a pair of frightened eyes. Slowly he reached down and offered her his left hand. The flesh one. Right now, if she saw the cold metal of his mech-hand she might think him a Slasher.
A minute ticked by. Rip stayed still, letting her make her own judgements. Finally Meggie reached up and wrapped her small fingers in his own. As he dragged her out, she looked around but Rip caught her face and pressed it to his shoulder. Moonlight gleamed through the window, just enough to highlight the splashes of blood on the floor and the body beneath the rug.
She didn’t need to see that.
“’ush, luv,” he whispered, stroking her hair as she cried into his shoulder. It was the most he could spare her, after burying his own mother at the age of eleven.
Meggie had descended into misery, sobbing against his shoulder as if she couldn’t hear anything he said. Rip wrapped her in a blanket and took her to the one person he knew might be able to help.
The Warren was quiet this time of night. Rip knocked on Esme’s door, feeling the little girl cling to him tighter, as if afraid he was going to let her go. The instant trust left him feeling slightly uncomfortable – and infinitely tender.
Footsteps crossed the floor and Esme opened the door, her dark hair in a loose braid and a robe dragged over her nightgown. As soon as she saw him, that cool veneer swept over her features, then she saw the little girl in his arms.
“Oh,” she murmured, hands coming up to stroke Meggie’s hair. “What happened?”
Slashers, he mouthed.
Esme’s eyes softened in distress. “Here now, sweetheart,” she murmured, stroking the red curls out of the girl’s face. “What’s your name?”
“Meggie,” he replied, looking down at the warm weight. “Meggie, this ‘ere’s Esme. She’ll look after you whilst I--”
Meggie’s grip tightened. “No. Don’t leave me!”
Rip’s hand paused on her hair. “I need to find your mother. I’ve got to go, sweet’eart. Esme will keep you safe.” He stroked the fine red curls. “You ‘ave to let go, darlin’. The quicker I can get goin’, the more chance I got o’ findin’ ‘er.”
He wouldn’t give her false promises.
He could feel Esme watching him. “You don’t mind?” he asked.
“Of course not,” she replied, reaching out.
Rip turned and eased the child into Esme’s arms. She was good with children. Of course, it helped that she always smelled faintly of baking biscuits, cinnamon and spices. If anyone could look after the frightened little girl, it would be her.
The warm scent of Esme’s skin drifted past his nostrils as her arms brushed against him. Taking Meggie, Esme buried her face in the child’s red hair and hummed under her breath. “It’s all right, little one. If anyone can find your mother it will be John.” Soothing the hair out of the little girl’s face. “Even the Slashers are afraid of him.”
A hint of pride in the words. Rip stared at her, wondering if she even knew how much her voice had softened. His fingers jerked, wanting to reach out and touch her, to ask what was so bloody unforgivable. No point though. She’d flinch away no doubt. No. His rough hands weren’t for her.
“Got to get goin’,” he said.
Green eyes met his. “Of course.” As the silence stretched out between them, Esme’s lips parted but the words never came.
“Righto,” he muttered, taking a step back from her. With a sharp nod, he turned around and shoved his hands into his pockets, feeling his chest tighten with despair. Hell.
Rip paused and glanced over his shoulder.
“Be careful,” she called, then hesitated. “You watch your back tonight. You know what the Slashers are like. I don’t want to have to… to be washing the blood out of your shirt in the morning.”