One of the Slashers darted forward, swinging a chain with lethal dexterity. It whipped toward him and Rip dodged, his hand lashing out and catching the end of it. Chain links wrapped around his fist and he yanked hard, bringing his other fist through as the Slasher stumbled off-balance toward him.
The heavy crunch of his fist in the man’s throat was distinctly satisfying. The Slasher went down with a gurgle and Rip stepped over him, swinging the other end of the chain up into his mech hand and tugging the links taut. Three of them leapt for him, knives flashing in the dim light. Rip didn’t think. Leaping forward, he wrapped the chain around one of their throats and yanked the ends over each other hard enough to break the neck.
A hook slashed toward his face, breaking his hold. The body he held went down, still twitching and Rip swung, blocking another blow. Grabbing the Slasher’s forearm he snapped his open hand down into the man’s elbow so it bent and shoved the hook back toward the man.
Screaming, the Slasher went down with his own hook stuck in his eye. Rip bent low as the next man leapt for him and threw him over his shoulder.
Each move was like a dance, the men coming at him as if they moved through a waltz. That was one of the benefits of the craving; increased speed. The demon within howled for release but he held it, forcing it to glut its hunger on pain and not blood.
Within seconds the six Slashers were down. Only the one with the hook was still alive.
Higgins’s nostrils flared and he gestured the other four in front of him. “Kill ‘im,” he snarled, stepping back into the beckoning shadows of the train tunnel. A hunchback lingered there, holding a small shuttered lantern.
This time Rip smiled. His vision was nothing but a shadowscape, in tones of blacks and grays. Men came at him and he cut them down with little more than his bare hands.
His reputation might keep most in the ‘Chapel from fixing to mess with him, but he’d earned it in blood and pain over the years.
Behind him he heard Blade whispering to Annie. The blood roared through his veins, red rushing through his eyes. Seeing Higgins step off the platform onto the train tracks made the hunger roar. Rip lifted the last Slasher over his head and hurled him after the bastard.
“Coward!” he snapped, striding forward. Dropping onto the tracks he stepped over the Slasher he’d just thrown. “You want to frighten little girls? You want to abduct women who can’t lift a ‘and to you--” And there was his mother’s face again, wide-eyed and pleading as she lifted her arms up to protect her head.
And Whitey, bringing the bottle down for the last time. The last fucking time ever--
Fury roared through him. Higgins shoved the hunchback toward him and Rip barely paused to throw him aside.
“You come and fight, you fuckin’ coward. You fight me, fight a man.”
Higgins stepped back into the mouth of the tunnel. Silver glinted at the sides but Rip was too enraged to care.
“I think not,” Higgins said. He took a step back, then another, eyes glittering in a watchful way.
Rip stepped toward the mouth of the tunnel—
“Don’t move!” Blade snapped.
Only years of responding to that tone made his body freeze. A flicker of disappointment flashed through Higgins’s eyes then he shrugged and took another step back. “Another time, p’raps.” Dragging a small metal box out of his pocket, he pressed the button in the middle of it.
With a groan, one of the silver blades on the side of the tunnel dropped, swinging past Rip’s nose by an inch. Rip leapt back as other blades released from the sides of the tunnel, whooshing past with deadly force. Like the swinging pendulum on a grandfather clock, each blade moved independently of the others so that all he could see were flashes of Higgins, slowly stepping back through them.
An entire bloody gauntlet of them.
“Been makin’ a few adjustments to me new home,” Higgins called. Doffing his hat, he stepped back, slashes of him appearing between each swinging blade. “Tick, tock, gentlemen.” Then with a laugh he disappeared into the darkness.
“Damn it!” Rip kicked the side of the tunnel and shot a frustrated look toward his master. “I damned well ‘ad ‘im.”
“Aye, ‘e knew it too,” Blade murmured, staring through narrowed eyes after Higgins. “Them’s the sort as always runs when the ship starts sinkin’. Like bleedin’ rats.”
Blade knelt down, gathering Annie into his arms. He looked up, black eyes gleaming. The blood from her wrists dripped all over her gown and she gave a weak whimper. Rip realized he was staring.
“I got ‘er,” Blade said, lifting her wrist to his mouth and licking the wound. “Get on after ‘im. I’ll send Will to ‘elp you and meet you back at the Warren when you both done.”
Rip’s breath caught. He couldn’t look away from the blood.
Blade’s eyes narrowed as he put his mouth to the woman’s wrist and suckled. “Go,” he snapped. “Bring me back his bleedin’ ‘ead.”
Rip nodded sharply, jerking around and facing the swinging pendulums. Blade could do what he couldn’t; use his saliva to heal the broken skin, hopefully before she lost too much blood. Rip would never have been able to control himself in such a way.
Each scythe swung in a random pattern, leaving bare inches between them. Not enough for his body to rest between each blade. He’d need to time this perfectly…
Taking a deep breath he stepped forward, feeling a cool breeze over his face as the first scythe swung past. Another step, an odd dancing movement, again, and again. Focusing sharply on each blade until he was finally at the end of the gauntlet. Breathing hard, Rip stared into the darkness. The same vinegary tang he’d smelt at Flash Jacky’s cancelled out all other scents, burning through his nostrils until his eyes watered and that was all he could smell. A beaker of chemical to obliterate any trace of Higgins.
Couldn’t track him by scent then.
Well, that was fine with him. He’d spent thirty-five years without enhanced senses. He knew this world, of darkness and grime. And he wasn’t afraid of the dark. Not anymore.
Indeed, the dark should fear him.
Night was falling.
Esme looked up from the stove as her ears caught the faintest hint of noise. Swallowing hard, she put her wooden spoon down on the bench and hurried to the door to peer out. The yard was empty. No sign of Rip. Blade had returned hours ago with Meggie’s mother, Annie, and a murderous look on his face. He’d snapped an order at Will to get out and help Rip search for the Slashers, then he’d bellowed for Honoria to get her medicine kit together and vanished into his rooms with the two women.
After spending most of the afternoon in Esme’s lap, Meggie had recently gone up with Lena to sit with her mother as she recovered. There was no point in Esme being there as well. Her skills lay in another area and she sought her own comfort in baking tonight as the shadows lengthened and Rip still hadn’t returned.
Latching the door, she sighed under her breath and returned to the stove. The fresh scent of cinnamon buns steamed in the air and Esme stared past them. She’d always worried about Rip when he was out on patrol, but it had been worse ever since the vampire attacked him. Before that he’d seemed so large, so full of life that it seemed as though nothing should best him.
When Blade brought him home, covered in blood and slowly drowning on all the fluid in his lungs, she’d nearly been undone. She’d buried one husband – she didn’t wish to bury another man that she cared for. Once was enough.
It didn’t matter if things were strained between them. Didn’t matter if he saw her as nothing more than a friend.
A sharp rap at the door made her gasp. Looking up, Esme saw Will peering through the glass, and behind him the thick leather jerkin that she knew belonged to Rip.
“Oh, thank goodness,” she said, opening the door to the pair of them. Her gaze darted past Will, raking over Rip’s large body. He was covered in blood, one sleeve of his shirt torn.
“Blood ain’t his,” Will assured her, stepping past.
“Did you find them?” Esme asked, unable to take his reassurance at face value. But indeed, the blood looked more like spatters, not as though it dripped from him anywhere.
“Nothin’.” Rip wore a scowl fierce enough to make a grown man quake. As he stepped past her, he paused, looking down. Their eyes met and Esme’s breath caught on all the things she suddenly wanted to blurt. She couldn’t stop herself from reaching out, touching him, just to make sure he was truly there. The backs of her fingers brushed his chest and Rip sucked in a sharp breath, a hint of red burnishing his cheekbones. He looked up and she followed his gaze to where Will arched a brow.
Then she smelt him. The scent was ripe enough to make her nose wrinkle.
The spell was broken.
“Aye,” he muttered. “I stink. Goin’ up to wash. Sorry ‘bout the blood. I’ll throw the shirt out so you don’t got to wash it.”
And with that he shouldered past, leaving her alone with Will.
Esme’s mouth worked but nothing came out. Drat the man. She’d spent the past three hours wearing a rut in the floor with worry and he could barely speak to her. A bite of guilt edged down her spine. Her own fault. She was the one who’d decreed they couldn’t be friends, at least until she’d recovered from the pain of unrequited feelings.
But what kind of friend did that make her?
Will shrugged. “He were upset we couldn’t track the man. Let him be. He’s in a dark mood tonight.”
Esme nodded, staring at the staircase Rip had ascended. She’d never had it in her to be cold for long and even now guilt stirred her to run after him.
The hurt gleaming in his eyes… The sense of failure she’d seen there. He’d take this loss to the enemy upon himself, for that was the type of man he was.
Perhaps she could put aside her hurt feelings and simply try to be a friend?
Esme took a deep breath. Her first instinct was to stay here, but that was cowardice more than anything. “There’s stew in the oven if you’re hungry,” she said, patting Will’s arm. “I have something to do.”
The look in his eyes told her he wasn’t fooled. Esme untied her apron and tossed it on the table, then hurried after Rip.
Esme knew where she’d find him. Blade had his own private wash-chambers, but the rest of them made do with a communal bathhouse. The water was piped in from the boiler-pack behind the kitchens, sinfully hot, and the tub was large enough for two.
She could hear the taps running as she paused by the door, her breath catching with last minute nervousness. No point running now though. He’d have heard her.
Esme rapped sharply, before she could convince herself otherwise, and waited.
“Aye?” Rip called, water stirring as he sat up.
“Are you decent?” she asked.
There was a long moment of silence. “I’m in the bath.”
Decent enough. They didn’t sit on formalities here in the Warren. Esme took a deep breath and pushed inside.
Rip sank down with a splash and a yelp, the water sloshing over his waist and stomach. “Christ, Esme. What the ‘ell are you doin?” A look of something raw and almost violent crossed his face, and he slammed his hands over his groin.
“You’ve got nothing I haven’t seen before,” she reminded him, closing the door behind her. “I am a widow, John.”
“Aye, well ain’t a man entitled to his privacy?” he snarled.
The first hint of anger she’d ever heard directed at her. Esme examined him. Not anger. No. She’d never seen him so discomposed before. Rip was nothing if not confident.
But then she’d never seen him stripped to the skin before. She knew he didn’t like to display the gaunt steel of his mech arm. Here in the East End a mechanical limb meant you were either a Slasher, or one of the mechs that ought to be bound in the enclaves to work off their mech-debt. Either way it was a sign that you weren’t quite human, or not human enough for some.
Esme didn’t linger long on his mech arm though. The rest of him caught her eye. Oh, she might have imagined what he’d look like beneath those heavy, oilskin coats he wore, but the reality… the reality was breath-taking.
All sleek, heavy-set muscle, slightly flushed from the heat of the bath. Golden skin that gleamed beneath the lantern-light. He’d razored his hair and beard again, so that the hair was barely stubble. Thick and black, it gave him a villainous look, but he was her villain.
“I thought you might need a friend,” she replied, crossing slowly to the bath.
Rip watched her warily, water streaming from the faucet over his curled up knee. He shifted, as if to cover himself better. “Now you want to be friends? Christ, Esme. I don’t understand what’s goin’ on wit’ you.” His voice dropped. “And you could ‘ave better timin’. This ain’t… it ain’t decent.”