MASCULINE LAUGHTER echoed through the hotel door, followed by a distinctly feminine giggle. Perry Lowell grimaced as the elevation chamber doors closed behind her at the Charing Cross Hotel. She could hear a faint murmur now; words she couldn’t quite make out - and was grateful not to.
She rapped her knuckles against the door. The laughter froze, a listening quality echoing through the stillness. “If it’s housekeeping... then we’re not at home to visitors.”
Another feminine giggle followed the man’s words.
“Get your backside out of bed, Garrett,” she shot back. “It’s Perry.”
That brought about a flurry of movement inside. “Give me a moment.”
“Oh, stay love. Tell them to go away, and stay with me,” the woman cooed, as the sound of bare feet padded on the floorboards within.
“Business, I’m afraid.” His voice hinted at a smile and Perry could just imagine what was going on behind the door – Garrett snatching at his clothes as he winked, and made smooth promises to the friendly widow he’d been cultivating. She’d seen it all before. Women loved Garrett, and he loved women.
Perry stepped away, and peered through the window in the hallway, giving him the illusion of privacy. Or perhaps not wanting to hear those whispered love words, and promises he’d no doubt break.
Garrett had been her partner for nearly six years, after she’d arrived at the Guild of Nighthawks one night, soaked to the bone, and shivering with the dark hungers of the craving virus. Her first few months as a blue blood had been horrendous as she struggled to rein in her bloodlusts as her body slowly changed; becoming leaner, faster, stronger, and hungrier. Not for food though. Only blood.
The door jerked open and Garrett appeared, his shirt still half unbuttoned and a bite mark on his neck. Perry caught a glimpse of the plump widow who wore nothing more than the froth of sheets in the middle of the bed. An ice bucket housed an open bottle of champagne by the smell of it, and sheer, gauzy lace fluttered over an open window, beneath red, swagged drapes. The smile the woman had worn for Garrett faded as she caught sight of Perry, becoming a little sharper, a little narrower. Then the door closed, and it was just the two of them.
“I thought we had the day off?” he said, buttoning the shirt to his throat and hiding that condemning mark.
“Unfortunately, someone forgot to mention that to the criminal classes,” she replied. The scent of somewhat rancid lilies wafted through her sensitive nostrils as he drew closer. Perry screwed her nose up. “You smell like a whorehouse.”
“And how would you know what a whorehouse smells like, my lady peregrine?”
Touché. As one of the only two female blue bloods in London, she was expected to be above reproach, in all respects. The aristocratic Echelon who ruled the city, had decreed that only males were to be given the blood rites that infected a human with the craving virus, and began the transformation into a blue blood.
The Echelon feared that a female’s sensitive nature would be unable to deny the strong lusts and fierce cravings of the virus. Perry was determined to prove them wrong. She sipped her blood in private, using her own money to purchase it from the draining factories the government collected the blood taxes at, and maintained herself with a fierce decorum. Indeed, Garrett often told her she was almost puritanical, which bothered her a little.
Not everyone could be as careless as he though.
“So what is urgent enough to drag me from a rather pleasant bed?” he asked, thundering down the stairs in front of her, and slipping his black leather coat - the uniform of the Nighthawks - over his broad shoulders.
“My apologies. Perhaps I should have waited another five minutes - that’s how long the ladies keep your interest, isn’t it?”
“They keep it for considerably longer than five minutes.” The sound of affront in his voice faded with the appearance of the devilish grin he shot her over his shoulder. “But not a great deal longer, you’re correct. You shouldn’t sound so prudish. All work and no play, Perry... Makes a girl... dull.”
That smarted. “Does a murder sound interesting enough?”
The smile died on his face, his blue eyes sobering. “Who?”
Holding onto her own frustration seemed petty too. “An actress at the Veil Theatre, possibly.”
“The body hasn’t been found yet, only... traces of blood, I’m told. Whatever that means.”
Now that transportation had improved, and the streets were safer at night, theatre had begun to face a little of a reconnaissance. Broad Street, in the middle of SoHo, had begun with the intent of being as grand as nearby Mayfair, and after a brief battle, had slowly given ground to the theatres, music halls and brothels.
They disembarked from an omnibus, near the Newcastle-upon-Tyne pub, and Garrett scanned the cobbled streets. Eating houses and pubs lined the streets, though a man could find much more than something to serve his stomach if he looked for it. The occasional window advertised ‘French Lessons Given’, and Garrett had seen places where they corrupted the tableaux vivants art form into something a little more risqué. At night, women of ill repute would stroll the streets, with their skirts edged just high enough to reveal their petticoats. He’d seen worse, growing up in the East End, though he preferred not to think about his past. Still, he usually felt more than a little pity when he saw the hard-etched desperation on the women’s faces, and the tight, false smiles they displayed. There was nothing he could do about it, of course... But he never forgot that his mother had worn a smile like that, toward the end.
“Have you ever been to a play?” he asked Perry, in order to shake off the grim thoughts plaguing him.
She looked as solemn and sober as always, her short, dyed black hair pomaded into neat, glossy strands. It often hung over her gray eyes, as if she were hiding from the world, but wearing it swept back like that gave a sharp slant to her cheekbones, and the firm set of her chin. A stubborn chin. It matched her well. Only Perry could frustrate him enough to make him want to bang his head against the wall.
They’d been partners for nearly six years, and he still sometimes felt as though he barely knew her. She was good at what she did; she could track a criminal from the barest scrap of scent, and she was devilishly clever. Some of the men ribbed him for having to work with a female, but none of them knew what Garrett did.
Having her as a Nighthawk went against all of the rules, and had set the Guild on its ear. She might be a blue blood, but she was a woman. As far as half the lads went, it should have been the end of the story. If the Echelon had gotten wind of it... Well, they’d come down harshly on rogue blue bloods like himself - those that had been infected by chance, not selection - and Garrett didn’t care to think of what they’d do to a woman. Force her into an asylum perhaps? Someone had to keep an eye out for her, and he knew he was the best choice.
Glancing at the playbill, she hesitated. “I’m not a complete bore. I have seen several plays, a long time ago. It’s difficult now that I’m a Nighthawk. I rarely know when I’m going to get a day off.”
This was interesting. He knew next to nothing about her life before the Nighthawks, but there was no point asking for more. She’d only clam up. “I’ve heard of this one,” he replied, instead. “‘A Season for Scheming’. Mrs. Scott claimed it’s terribly wicked and witty.”
“Is this Mrs. Scott of the rumpled bed sheets this afternoon?”
“Yes.” Though he could think of a dozen other ways he could refer to the widow. Mrs. Scott of the very ample cle**age. Or Mrs. Scott of the very clever tongue. Garrett smiled to himself. Her prejudices were showing. “One would think you raised in a nunnery.”
“My favourite play was Phèdre.” There was a wistful note to her voice that he nearly missed.
Good God, did the sphinx just reveal something about herself? They were forced to part around a pair of ladder-men, with their cans of paste, ladder, and posters advertizing Tucson’s Luxury Soap, then came back together. “A tragedy?”
“Not everything has to be a comedy, Garrett.”
“Life is meant to be laughed at. How else can you keep smiling in this kind of world?”
She looked startled, then thoughtful.
“I’m not trying to be philosophical. You and I both know the reality of the London streets. There’s nothing better than a good comedy, or a night out with the lads, to clear those kind of memories, and make it easier to forget the day’s case.”
“I read,” she admitted. “It takes my mind off the worst cases.”
They both felt silent. With the ruling class of blue bloods deeding humans few rights, there was little he hadn’t seen, in the course of his investigations; bodies drained of blood and discarded in the gutter like so much refuse, or young girls kidnapped off the streets and sold into slavery... It made a man weary in a way that could threaten to drown a soul.
“Here, we are.” He paused in front of the Veil Theatre. The poster advertised, ‘Murder. Mayhem... And mistaken identity.’ “Well, we’ve got two out of three,” he said, pushing open the door and ushering her inside.
The moment they entered the Veil, a small crowd of people hastened to meet them. Two of the women looked visibly distraught, while the man in front swallowed hard before coming forward to meet them with an outstretched hand.
“Nighthawks Reed and Lowell.” Garrett flashed his identity card at them.
“Thank goodness,” the man replied. “I’m Mr. Fotherham, the director. This is my wife, Mrs. Fotherham, and Miss Radcliffe, our lead understudy. She’s the one who found... well, found Miss Tate to be missing.”
Garrett tugged out his pocketbook and flipped to a blank page. “Missing? I thought the telegram said murder?”
They all shared a glance, then hurried to speak in a mangle of voices. He managed to work out the logistics. Miss Nelly Tate was the actress playing the lead role in the play, and had gone missing earlier that morning. Miss Radcliffe, her understudy, had gone to fetch her for a final rehearsal for tonight’s opening, and found only a few drops of blood in her room.
“And no sign of her since?” Garrett continued, with a friendly smile.
The actress’ shoulders softened as she shook her head. “Nelly’s always so punctual. Six hours is a notable length of time for her to be missing. She’s not at her home,” Miss Radcliffe finished. “We sent one of the stagehands to check, and well, the blood, you see...”
“Any relatives we might be able to talk to?”
Miss Radcliffe bit her lip. She was the type of woman who seemed to overplay every emotion, but he wasn’t entirely certain if that meant she was hiding anything, or whether she was simply overdramatic.
She was also very lovely, he noted, in an entirely masculine way that had nothing to do with the case.
“Nelly never spoke of anyone,” Miss Radcliffe admitted. “Though I gained the impression that her mother never approved of her stage ambitions. I believe there might have been words said at one point, and that Nelly had nothing further to do with her parents.”
“What’s going on?” The loud voice cut through the quiet of the theatre. A gentleman snatched his bowler hat from his head, and strode down the aisle. From the finely waxed points of his moustache, to the elegant ruff of sable fur along his coat collar, his appearance screamed money.
“Lord Rommell,” Mr Fotherham stepped forward. “I’m afraid there’s been some terrible news.”
A blue blood of the Echelon then. Garrett’s gut tightened. “Lord Rommell.” He stepped forward and offered his hand. The man shook it with a firm grip, his dark eyes raking over the group as Garrett introduced himself, “I’m Detective Garrett Reed, of the Nighthawks.”
“You’re somewhat underdressed, aren’t you?” Rommell’s gaze slid over his attire.
“I wasn’t expecting to be called out today.” Garrett snapped his pocketbook shut. With his extraordinary blue blood senses, he could smell a faint hint of blood about the man. No doubt, just his lordship’s lunch, though it was quite unexpected to see a blue blood out and about during the day’s harsh sunlight.
“Lord Rommell is one of the theatre’s owners,” Mr Fotherham interceded. “He often comes to peruse a rehearsal.”
“What’s all this about, Fotherham?” Rommell’s dark brows drew together as he tugged off his shiny, black leather gloves. “I thought we were due for rehearsal? Not Nighthawks.”
“It’s Miss Tate, my lord,” Miss Radcliffe said earnestly. “She’s been missing all day, and there’s blood in her room.”
Rommell froze. “Nelly’s missing?”
Nelly. Garrett slid a glance toward Perry, whose brow twitched faintly.
“Well, what are you standing around for?” Rommell snapped. “I thought you Nighthawks were part bloodhound. Off you go! You bring her back. She’s a valuable asset to this theatre.”
She might be dead. Garrett ground his teeth together. He was used to dealing with the Echelon lords. “I was just about to recommend such a thing,” he said. “Miss Radcliffe, would you care to escort us to Nelly’s dressing room? Mr. and Mrs. Fotherham, no doubt we’d like to speak with all the theatre staff shortly, if you could arrange for that?” Still smiling, he shot Rommell a look. “That includes you too, my lord.”
“Me?” Rommell looked aghast.
“You want her back as soon as possible, don’t you?” Garrett asked, trapping the man.