– 1 –
“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t see a reservation under that name. Are you quite certain you have the right establishment?”
The maitre d’s tone contained the perfect blend of smarmy subservience and false apology, iced with a delicate layer of eloquent snobbishness, that was practically guaranteed to annoy anyone who was operating outside of their usual station in life.
People like Jack O’Donnel.
O’Donnel was tall and broad, giving the appearance of a mobile tree trunk when on the move. His hair was a glimmering bronze wave that had been teased into a well-oiled pompadour in the front and a tasteful taper in back. Beneath thick, bushy brows of the same color and set evenly in a white face peppered with freckles were his eyes. The left was a brilliant green, reflecting the lounge area of Spanetti’s with an emerald cast. The right was hidden beneath a black silk eyepatch that looked ill-fitting, as though he was unused to wearing it. Strong arms and thick legs indicated he was interested in keeping fit, and his movements spoke of familiarity with military discipline, though his clothes were more fit to a rube out on the town: black slacks, a green shirt that appeared to have been hastily pressed, and a not-quite-rightly knotted blue tie.
He gave the impression of a recently-retired solider — which he was, in a manner of speaking — and cut a handsome, if somewhat clumsy, figure. If one ignored the flakes of dried liquid at the edges of the eyepatch, or the scorched ruin of his right hand. Or that he didn’t appear to be breathing.
Living in London after the Burning of the Eire had been hard enough; with his looks and heavy accent, O’Donnel would forever be marked with suspicion. He’d thought it couldn’t get much worse, and had considered trying his luck across the pond on more than one occasion. Lucy had kept him here, though; she didn’t care if he was a refugee, didn’t care about what he might have done in the riots. She didn’t want to leave, so O’Donnel had stayed. In the process, he’d found out just how bad it could get.
Exposure to the chemicals the Protestants had been using had turned out to have long-lasting effects; asthma, heart problems. He couldn’t have known at the time. Just like he couldn’t have known that, thanks to his grandfather, he possessed the genetic markers for a susceptibility to leprosy-D.
He’d dropped dead in his flat while making tea and arguing with his publisher. The combined pressures of the editor wanting him to rewrite a section that painted the Catholics in a less-than-favorable light and the small box that had been resting in his pocket had overcome his weakened his heart and lungs, and there went the ballgame. He was lucky that he’d recovered quickly, or the burning — inflicted when his hand and face went down on the stove just as the kettle was coming on — might have been more severe.
To folks like the maitre d’, O’Donnel thus had three strikes against him: Soldier. Irish. Deader. As the Americans were prone to saying, “Yer outta here.”
Still, tonight was important and he had to try. Disengaging his left arm from the waist of the woman at his hip, he rummaged in his pocket — brushing past the velvet shell of the small box within — and came up with a twenty pound note, the Queen’s portrait seeming to glare at him balefully. O’Donnel made as if to slip it to the maitre d’, trying his best winning smile — the teeth almost ridiculously straight and white, a benefit of the relocation program that had landed him here to start with — and whispered.
“Come on, lad; bit of a tight, here, and it’s a special night.”
The maitre d’ glared down at the proffered note, then leveled his murky brown eyes with O’Donnel’s. “The money of your kind is no good here, sir. May I suggest that you and your…” He paused, turning his glance to the woman beside O’Donnel and giving her an appraising glower before returning his focus to the object of his scorn. “…date depart, before I alert the constables.”
He sniffed and brushed at his jacket, as though proximity to O’Donnel’s outstretched hand or whispering lips might have somehow contaminated him. O’Donnel’s fist clenched around the note, tendons stretching at the fabric of his shirt. He took a deep — and mostly unnecessary — breath, fighting the urge to wrap that thick fist around the smarmy overgrown butler’s throat.
A cool, soft hand at his elbow pressed his arm downward, and O’Donnel glanced back down at the woman at his side. The sight of her was enough to push the rage away as she shook her head at him.
“It’s okay, luv. We’ll go somewhere else. C’mon, then.” Her voice was barely above a whisper — she had suffered a dreadful case of strep as a child, damaging her vocal chords — but she had always been expert on using it to leash O’Donnel’s temper when he could no longer control it.
He stuffed the bill back into his pocket and took her arm. “If’n ye say so, lass.” His eye had glazed over, hypnotized as he always was by her.
She was no great prize-winner and likely never would be; her features were just a little too round, her eyes too wide. But the blonde-and-blue imp who stood beside him with her head angled upwards to study his face was still the most beautiful woman that O’Donnel had ever laid eyes on. The heart and mind that lay behind that pain face had snared him as effectively as any of the traps he’d laid during his time in Dublin, and on a night like tonight — dressed in a blue-sequined gown that hung just above her shin, split up the side, with her blonde hair teased into an elaborate crown — she was an ephemeral vision, a goddess that had somehow chosen him as her escort.
He turned on his heel, Lucy West — who might soon become Lucy O’Donnel, if the magistrates would ever get done arguing about it and if she accepted the thing in his pocket — moving smoothly with him, still smiling up at him as she stroked his arm.
“Fookin’ lifeists,” O’Donnel grumbled under his breath. The maire d’ merely sniffed again as he set to pointlessly dusting the mahogany of the greeting stand once more.
They pushed through the revolving door and back into the light fog that cloaked Baker Street, turning the bustle of London into a dreamscape. Nonplussed, his irritation and panic coming back to the fore, O’Donnel buried his hands in his pockets and grunted.
“Don’t get all cranky!” Lucy lightly punched his arm. “We’ll just go down to MacDougall’s like always, ey?” She managed to turn up the intensity of her smile another dozen degrees, though as his eye flickered over her, O’Donnel could see the hurt that lurked behind them.
“T’nite was s’posed to be special, Lucy. Ye know that. We’d look like a pair of bloomin’ loons, sittin’ in MacDougall’s like this. ‘Sides, we’re always at MacDougall’s,” he rumbled, his tone indicating he would do as she asked, even if it caused some grousing.
MacDougall’s had always been their hangout, and with good reason; it was one of the few places to catch a bite or a beer that didn’t seem to care whether the patrons were living or dead — or what company they kept — so long as their tabs were paid and nobody got a bottle broken over their head. Local gossip claimed the owner’s nephews were deaders and that the proprietor was thus a little softer on them than some folks; O’Donnel just thought the man was a mercenary and a miser and cared more about the cash than where — or who — it came from. Either way, it was a safe place. But the smoky atmosphere, typically full of the hoarse shouts of hooligans at the bar watching soccer or cricket and accented by hovering waitresses in tight dresses constantly trying to refill your pop or shot glass, wasn’t as conductive to O’Donnel’s plans as the light strains of piano and red velvet drapes accented with near perfect fettucini would have been.
“Earth to Jackie, earth to Jackie!” Lucy was snapping in front of his eye, though still smiling. O’Donnel realized he’d gone drifting in his own thoughts again, something that had been common when he’d first escaped from Ireland, that had faded before his death, but had cropped up again since; residual brain damage, the doctors claimed, though they were still trying to figure out ways to set it right. He forced a smile down at her.
“Sorry, luv. Woolgathering.” He fetched a heavy sigh, picking at his tie.
“Stop that.” Lucy slapped his hand away from the tie, then smoothed it out and tightened it back up. “So far as lookin’ out of place… who cares? We’ll be the best dressed couple to ever walk through their doors.” She patted his arm. “And I think you look very handsome.” Threading her arm through his once more, she started walking; he was helpless to do anything but allow himself to be dragged along.
“Roight. I’m sure they’ll give us a fookin’ medal.” His eye rolled skyward for a moment, but his smile had become more natural as he went with her. Lucy had always had that effect on him.
She gave him another playful slap as they passed a small group of well-dressed men heading into Spanetti’s, earning them a glare and a whisper or two. “You never know, do ya? And stop saying that word, didn’t yer mother teach ye better?” She deliberately mocked his accent with that last, something that had always amused him; the Americans might think they sounded the same, but hearing a Britisher try to emulate an Irishman always sounded like a terrible joke to O’Donnel.
He spread his palms, smiling down at her. “I cannae help me nature, dearie.”
Lucy stomped one high heel in mock frustration, still smiling. “We know, luv. Wouldn’t want to change it anyway.” She stood on tiptoe for a moment, placing a peck on his cheek before turning to drag him once more. If she heard the cry of disgust from across the street, or the call of “I can find you somethin’ better to taste than coldcuts, dearie!” she gave no indication. O’Donnel likewise tuned it out.
Later he would have reasons to think that was the wrong thing. How much might have changed, if he’d said something then, done something different? He didn’t know. But he wondered, yes indeed.
– 2 –
Markus leaned against the pitted concrete of Kerioth Shipping, staring southward across the street at MacDougall’s. Tucked behind him in the alley that worked between Kerioth and a burnt-out clothes store were Pip and Ratchet, their over-excited gibbering almost hiding the sound of the rats rummaging in the dumpsters that serviced most of this block. They’d been waiting here for half an hour, at Markus’ insistence, after seeing the short and sadly pretty little thing snogging the rotter.
I’ll give that little slut something worth snogging on, he thought. He and his mates made a habit of prowling the eateries and late-night shops on the weekends, usually finding at least one mark with a fat wallet. Rotters were the best, in his opinion; nobody looked too hard when they turned up missing. If they had friends, it was even better. Higher payoffs, the opportunity for a bit of fluff, and nobody believed them, often blaming their rotter friends, when trouble hit.
The midget and her dead friend were just the kind of targets Markus liked best; obviously with a bit of money — they had been coming out of one of the classier places in this part of town, and dressed well — the woman pretty enough to pass muster but quiet enough that he bet hardly anyone would notice her screaming, and the guy apparently as observant as a case of rocks. He looked big and mean, but Markus bet the bastard would fold with a couple thousand volts to the neck just like anybody else.
He fingered the device in his pocket — home-made by Ratchet, who’d had the opportunity to be an electronics whiz, working with the squints in some government lab, before Johnny’d talked to the constables about the building that got blown up — almost caressing the nubbin on the side that would discharge the 9-Volt battery directly into someone’s nerve tissue.
Seeing a pair of figures — one a hulk of meat, the other a diminutive blue streak — slipping out of the door of the bar across the street, Markus snapped his hand up and clenched his fist. Pip and Ratchet froze immediately. It’s good to be king, Markus thought as he eyed the couple.
C’mon, ya bloody bastards. C’mon this way. He intended to have them either way; it’d just be easier if they made their way down this side, removing the need to shadow them further. Ratchet was solid, but Pip had an annoying tendency to start giggling when the game was on, would likely give them away if it took too long.
The couple slipped their arms around each other, appearing to laugh as they shared a kiss — one much more involved than the one Markus had witnessed outside Spanelli’s, one that caused stirrings below his silver-studded belt and brought a wide and mostly toothless grin to his split lips — before moving across the street and following the walk that would take them directly past Markus and his crew.
He waited until he heard the heavy shuffle of the rotter’s boots barely masking the light clopping of the girl’s heels, raising a finger to his lips to shush Pip as the younger boy seemed about to giggle.
As the huge profile of the rot came into view, Markus dove, shoving Ratchet’s magic box into the rotter’s sternum and flicking the nub. Ratchet and Pip barreled out after him, clamping their hands all over the girl’s body and dragging her into the alley, going behind the dumpster, while Markus started dragging the big lug along after.
Nobody seemed to notice; noticing, they did not care. After all, the rot was probably getting what he deserved, and his deadhead girlfriend was going to learn a lesson.
– 3 –
So far as Lucy West was concerned, everything was coming up roses until the moment the dark shape with the red jacket lunged out of the alley and shoved… something into Jacky’s gut.
Some people had thought she must be a nutter; getting involved with one of the Irish immigrants, let alone someone who was so plainly a former solider. That opinion was only reinforced when he’d suffered the stroke and been outed as one of the deaders. But other people and their opinions — which had often been cruel to her, anyway; always mocking for her height, her weight, her clothes, her voice — had never been of much concern to her; Lucy counted them as just jealous that she knew who she was and what she wanted. And from the minute she’d seen him drinking alone in the corner of MacDougall’s, nursing a bottle of whiskey with a placid yet somehow sad look on his face, she’d known she wanted him.
Would it have changed her mind, to know how it might end? Probably not; even now, as she saw the two hooligans coming out of the alleyway — a tall, birdlike one who kept bobbling his head and laughing to himself, and a shorter one who’d teased his thinning hair into a cock’s comb and tattooed “Life is for the Living” on the bare area of his gleaming skull — her primary thoughts were of the ring that now rode on her hand, of the happiness it had brought her when O’Donnel finally managed to muster his courage and take the plunge.
The skinny one grabbed her wrist with one hand, scrabbling at the bit of exposed breast above her dress with the other, still giggling as he drug her into the ally. The short one caught her other hand and fell behind as he grunted.
“‘ey,” he whispered to his compatriots. “Got a ring. Nice one, too.”
She felt his rough and stubby fingers yanking at the ring; that was enough to break her paralysis. She lunged forward, attempting to twist her arm out of his grip before he could take her treasure, managing to get just free enough to plant one foot on the ground and the other directly in the skinny one’s rear.
“Don’t… you… dare…” she hissed in her raspy voice, finding that for perhaps once in all her life that she wished for a voice other than her own, one that would strike fear in these little bastards, one that might summon help, perhaps even a constable. Instead it only provoked laughter from the one behind her and a sarcastic twitch at the corner of the short one’s mouth. The skinny one had gone down, a bead of blood forming on his rear where her high heel must have done some damage.
Seeing a brief opening, a chance, she yanked her left arm again; whatever gods there were saw fit to give her a break, and her sweaty forearm slipped through the short one’s grip. She turned to bolt, but had forgotten the third; even as she ran into him, the short one called out.
“Markus! Get ‘er!”
She was enveloped in a massive arm that writhed with tattoos, swallowed by the stale aura of madness, sweat, used condoms and burning rubber. With a laugh, the one called Markus shoved her backwards. The skinny one had recovered, grabbing at her side as she flew towards him, while the short one caught her by the elbow and bent it backwards.
She tried to scream, but only hoarse panting emerged from her lips. She felt his fingers once more at her ring and tried to pull away again, but this time was held steady, the skinny one taking his opportunity to pull her dress further down and start groping her, panting in her ear.
They had pulled her almost to the dumpster and from the sound, Markus and Jack weren’t far behind. She tried to cry out again, calling Jacky’s name, but couldn’t get above the giggling and panting of the skinny one.
The short one tightened his grip on her hand. For a moment she was lost in the memory of her and Jack’s first dance, the strength that had been in his hand as he took it to lead her across the dance floor at her cousin’s wedding. Then the pain came, as the ring didn’t want to come off — Jack hadn’t been able to get it sized properly, thus giving it a tight fit, but had promised they’d get it taken care of as soon as possible — but shorty’s tugging didn’t stop. She heard a metallic snick, and screamed again as she realized what he meant to do.
This time she managed the sound of a teakettle approaching boil, but still not loud enough. It went up another octave, joining the realm audible only to dogs, when the short one’s rusty, dull switchblade dug through her palm, tearing ligaments and catching on the bone before popping her finger — and the ring — off like a turkey leg.
Lucy forgot about Jack. She forgot about the ring. She forgot about it being one of the best days of her life, and about burying the things from her childhood that had made her who she was. For a moment, her mind insisted she was seven again as her father sat atop her, choking her and crushing her larynx to dull her screams as he bucked within her, but this time she wouldn’t have to take it, wouldn’t have to lie still and feign illness.
Twenty-five years of repression, of the darkness that had been at her seemingly-optimistic core reached out at that pain and violation. Somewhere inside, watching like some clinical observer in a mental ward, she watched as her body lunched forward to use the only weapon left to it, saw as she latched her teeth into shorty’s cheek while he stared at his prize. She tasted copper and pennies, felt it running down her jaw and over her breasts to stain her dress — the pretty dress she’d bought special the day before, the one she’d picked because Jack always said she looked good in blue, and she wanted to look good for him, wanted to pretend that they were happy, that it was that happiness that had brought them together instead of mutual nihilism buried deep within — as she jerked her head backwards with a savage grunt.
The short one shrieked, sounding more like a little girl than a two hundred pound man. “She bit me! Bitch bit me! She’s one of ‘em! Git ‘er! Git ‘er!” He was now hopping up and down, her ring dropped and rolled under the dumpster, all thoughts driven from his eyes except the pain.
Lucy saw herself whirl towards the skinny one, start to lunge at him. Behind her, she thought she heard a grunt of surprise and pain, but it didn’t matter to her. What mattered was dumping the poison she’d found, spraying it on these rancid little shits who had tried to ruin her day, made her remember. Get rid of it before it did any more damage. She hooked her remaining fingers into claws — those on the right hand wobbling and twitching, as though mourning the loss of their sister — as she dove, intending to sink them into the laughing little shit’s eyes.
She never got that far; the skinny one, despite his giggling and apparent distraction, had gotten out his own knife, and shoved it into her stomach. She impaled herself on it with a last wheeze of surprise, cocking her head at him.
She slid to the ground, feeling her life — her poor, lying, poisoned life — seeping out of her. Her eyes twitched around her, finally focusing again on the skinny one as he grabbed at her skirt, apparently intent on having his way even if she was dying. He loomed over her, madness quite visible in his gray eyes and fleshy, pallid lips as they twitched into a grin. The knife was over her heart.
“Shut yer gob, luv. It’ll be fun. I pro—”
His words were cut off as Jack replaced him in her field of vision. She blinked and tried to turn her head to see what happened, but couldn’t. Even the blinking felt like too much work.
Cold. So cold. She thought she’d never be warm again. But still… Jack was okay. Jack would make it right. She didn’t care about the stares they’d get; they’d be together. She could tell him the truth, and rather than her fixing him, they could fix each other. A nice flat, nice lawn. No kids, but Lucy couldn’t have them, anyway; the things her father had done had seen to that, though she’d never told Jack.
A flicker of shadow in her peripheral vision; a bloom of red in the center, spreading. She heard a rough grunt followed by several snapping sounds, and the skinny one’s incessant giggling finally stopped. A moment later, several more snaps and a metallic bong that could only have been someone’s head being rammed into the dumpster at high velocity came from somewhere behind and above her ears.
The red spots were spreading further in her vision, now claiming all but the edges of her vision. Still, she knew when Jack stood over her, his bulk — and the green shirt she’d picked for him, still mostly clean, still wearable for their wedding — filling the edges of her fading sight.
She managed to force her lips to part, managed to raise her left arm and cup his cheek. The wound from the gash in her palm and the missing finger left a streak of red, like warpaint, against his cheek.
“Do it,” she sighed. “Make me like you…”
She knew he could. His blood, maybe even his spit, ground into the wounds and she’d live. Like him, a carrier, but they’d be together. Forever. She twisted her hand, presenting the gash to him, tried to drag it across his lips, begging him with eyes that were already going cloudy.
His voice was like thunder, the decree of an angry god with whom there could be no argument. “I can’t.”
He pushed her arm back down, and she heard a rapid beat of footsteps, the sound of Jack bolting, the sound of her father scurrying back to his room, the sound of the mice in the attic walls that had been her only friends until she’d run away at sixteen. Her hand hovered in the air a moment longer as her heart slowed.
As she breathed her last, her broken voice came, sounding strange and foreign to her own ears.