It had been nine days since that heinous young woman had murdered her son. And in those nine days since there had be no information on the woman’s location: she had simply disappeared. Disappeared. The incompetence of the police was ever growing, if they truly believed someone could just disappear.
It had been nine days and she was still unable to begin planning her son’s funeral, unable to begin preparations to place her darling boy in the family tomb. Not because the inquest into his murder was now allowing her to take Charles’ body into her keeping, but because she could not face the reality that her son would never smile at her again, that she’d never hear his laugh or find herself annoyed at something he had done for the sake of annoying her.
He was dead. There would be no more hearing of his voice.
It was not right, not fair, for a child to die before their parent—it was not how nature intended.
Charlotte Beauchamp could still clearly remember the night she’d given birth to her eldest child and only son. She had been merely twenty, her son conceived when she was nineteen on her wedding night to that miserable wretch she had to call a husband, and a storm had raged outside—fierce and unyielding, with each clap of thunder seemingly in time with each contraction that had her howling and screaming and holding onto her sister’s hand so tightly she almost broke her nimble bones. Charles had been born midway through the night after what had seemed like an eternal labour, and had been born such a fragile little thing that she’d feared he would not live long.
But he’d lived, and grown strong and been the same way as every little boy; unruly and boisterous, forever annoying his sister and pulling on her hair even though he was the eldest sibling and three years separated them.
Charlotte, as she pulled herself from the memories, looked over at her daughter with narrowed eyes. The young woman was sat near the fire, dressed all in black, and conversing quietly with her aunt. And oh, how she, Clarice, was so like her father in appearance and personality; pretty but not beautiful, with an inane mildness, timid nature and inertia that Charlotte very much despised. Charlotte had wanted a son and daughter both who followed her in mind and matter, but alas Clarice had grown to be the double of her father.
At least Charlotte had been able to have what she desired in Charles, had taught him all she knew and how to achieve all that he wanted. Now she had lost her protégée and been left with this feeble, doll-like, emotionally stunted thing she loathed to call a daughter almost as much as she loathed to call Alfred her husband.
Alfred, a man five years older than she, who had been quite handsome in his youth—unfortunately the smoking of pipes, opium and alcohol consumption had seen to it that he looked more like an old leather-bound book now, even though he was only fifty years of age. She had never loved the man—how would it be possibly to love someone who was bland and without drive and ambition (a man without ambition was no man at all, to her)? The only thing that had attracted Charlotte to Alfred was indeed the humble circles he moved in, the boundary of the middle and upper class, so she’d dealt with the tedious courtship and the dry drabble of small talk that was all the man had to offer to gain a marriage that improved her social standing.
Now all she’d strived for meant nothing, not when her source of her happiness was gone. Not now her light had been extinguished. For the past nine days she had been plagued by dreams—nightmares—of that whore cackling and teasing her about Charles’ death.
A loud knock at the door to the parlour broke Charlotte out of her thoughts once more. She scowled and called for whoever was there to enter. The door opened slowly and the butler stepped into the room, his face stern but eyes concerned. She did not know if the concern was that in the days since her beloved child’s death she had been staring at the walls and barely eating any food placed before her—the truth was she turned her head when it was offered to her as she laid in the bed she had been unable to remove herself from until today—or for the reason he was intruding upon the room ... whatever it was, she did not care.
“Sorry to intrude, milady, but there is a man waiting in the foyer who wishes to speak to you—”
“I am not accepting callers.”
“Very well, milady, I shall tell them—”
The butler was abruptly pushed aside by a broad, scarred alabaster hand. The owner of the hand came immediately into view. It belonged to a tall man dressed in a frockcoat over trousers, a gaudy lilac waistcoat and shirt—no cravat, how improper. The man had a harsh face, all sharp lines and edges, with a thin mouth and hard ice-blue eyes, and there was a wicked scar that spanned from his nose down his exposed throat. He looked to be in his early forties.
Charlotte rose hastily to her feet, and ignored the quiet gasps for the other infernal women surrounding her. God, how she wanted to be left alone and without having to meet the eyes of these females and the pity in their eyes. And how dare this insolent man practically storm into the room.
Before she could bark or yell or whatever she felt like doing in retaliation for this man’s diabolical attitude, the man spoke. “I do apologise for my impromptu entrance, Lady Beauchamp, but I have an urgent matter that I sorely need to bring to your attention.”
“I am taking no callers, sir, especially ones who enter the way you have done,” Charlotte replied, a hint of anger layered on her voice. “Leave, sir. Now.”
But the man held his ground. His next words shook Charlotte to her very core and had her grasping the back of the chaise longue to keep upright: “I can find the murderer of your son.”
Before she had registered her movement, Charlotte had ushered the women out of the room. Quite honestly she was grateful to be able to do so. So quickly had she emptied the room of all occupants except her and this man, and now the two of them stood facing each other on opposite sides.
Slowly, Charlotte lowered herself back down until she was sat on the edge of her chaise, and gestured for the stranger to sit in any one of the chairs near her. When he sat in the one that Clarice had occupied, she spoke. “Speak, sir, and do not waste my time. Do you work for those fools called the police?”
The man shook his head. “No, milady, I am my own agent with no affiliation with the men at the Met—an ... independent party, if you will. My name is Richard—”
“I am not interested in your name; I am only interested in how you, an independent party, will be able to find that whore who killed my darling son.”
Every day she had attempted to tell her son that that girl was nothing more than a high-class prostitute who would be his ruin, but Charles had been too blinded by the girl’s body and beauty to listen to anything his mother had had to say. He should have listened to her. Mothers were always right, always knew best.
“I have been tracking people similar to her for the last five-and-twenty years ... though, perhaps, ‘hunting’ is a better to describe my work.” Richard paused and leaned forward towards the tea tray between them and poured himself a cup of tea. How insolent. Under any other circumstance it would have been enough for Charlotte to grab the man by the back of his collar and personally show him to the door, but she was too wrapped up in trying to understand what he meant by ‘tracking’ and ‘hunting’ and ‘people similar to her’ to care.
“Who—or rather what—are you, Richard?” Lady Beauchamp asked.
A sugar lump was dropped into the tea. “A hunter, milady.”
“Who on God’s earth hunts humans?”
Richard leaned back in his chair. There was a smirk on his face. “Oh, the murderer of your son is far from human; she is not of mankind, or humankind—if you prefer that statement.”
The man took a long sip of his tea. “The post-mortem reports say that your son died from what can also be explained as asphyxiation—except it wasn’t the typical asphyxia now, was it? No, your son died due to his lungs being flooded with blood that burned and corroded the organs until little was left. Did you not find that suspicious or wonder just how that was possible? The answer is simple: it isn’t.”
She wanted to ask, demand, how it was that he knew that. Instead she said: “I am aware of that, or do you wish to belittle my intelligence?”
“Of course not, milady. I merely wish to inform you that it is humanly impossible, but not for who is as far from human as anyone can be.”
Charlotte huffed in impatience and stood. “All you are doing is spinning riddles, and because of that I wish for you to leave and allow me to return to my grief.”
After a moment of stillness, Richard gave her a smirk and stood and began to walk towards the door. Just before he reached it, however, he half-turned and spoke once more. “Enlighten me upon one thing before I leave, if you will. Do you truly want your son’s killer to be caught?”
“How absurd a question! Of course I do.”
“Then I give you a word of advice, Lady Beauchamp: the police will not find you the woman you seek your justice and revenge upon, not since you are searching for a human. It is not a human you should be turning your eye towards, but a monster so completely inhuman. If you’re simply playing a game of chase then carry on using the futile resource that is the police, but if you want to catch your prey then I suggest you pay for the assistance of myself and my team—”
“If the police cannot catch this whore, how can you?”
“Ophelia White is adept at hiding in the shadows of the underworld of this city, and my team and I are adept at hunting in those shadows. We are hunters of those like her—not the whores and the drunks, but the underworld beneath the underworld; the realm of demons, monsters and creatures you have been blinded to your entire life and told do not exist.”
Charlotte raised her eyebrows at the man who spouted such utter nonsense. “Have you ever been a patient of Bethlem Hospital, sir?”
Richard laughed and shook his head. “I suppose it does sound as if I have, but I assure you that is not the case. I can tell from your expression that you will not believe my words until I present to you the ocular proof—”
“It seems you do have some common sense and wit about you, despite the nonsensical babbling of otherworldly creatures.”
Richard seemed to ignore her comment—how ignorant. He reached inside his frockcoat and pulled out a small slip of paper. “The ocular proof lies within the walls of this building, I insist you come to satiate a curiosity that will certainly spring in you and receive more information of how my services are the best for what you want. Come in two days time, under the fall of night.”
“Why in two days?”
Richard pressed the paper into her hand and smirked. “It is a full moon.” Without another word he turned and left, slamming the door shut behind him.
Charlotte Beauchamp was left alone, staring at the elegantly written address on the paper, and feeling as if some of the empty hollowness within her had been chiselled away.
The high tide water sloshed against the dock, black under the fall of deep night. It was the only sound, echoing past the ramshackle assortment of buildings that sprawled in a labyrinth around the waterside. She avoided the light that spilled from the dirty inhabited barges bobbing and banging dully against the dockside, keeping to the shadows as she traversed through this mini city of dockworkers and dwellers she would never deign to speak to. She kept out of sight, almost completely hidden by her cloak, and ignored the homeless drunkards crowding round small fires as she made her way to the address she had been given two days ago.
Charlotte Beauchamp peered up and glanced at the sky, at the clouds that looked grey as they concealed the moon as it began to rear into fullness. She had not originally planned to follow the words of advice from the so-called hunter, had had no reason to follow up on her invitation, but she had found herself staring into the fire in her room imagining the demise of that whore, and so here she was. It had been easy to leave her house through the front door and bustle into an unadorned carriage for hire; the servants had gone to their rooms and Henry’s bedchamber was as far on the other side of the household as it could be—they had not shared a bed since Clarice’s conception, which had been nigh on twenty years ago: she had hardly been able to bare the presence of her husband’s body beside hers and had been the one to cast him out. She would have long since divorced him if the matter of scandal was not hanging and swinging over her head each and every time she contemplated the prospect.
She turned a corner to find a large warehouse that stood by itself, exactly how the note said it would be. It loomed tall and the front was dully illuminated by the lamplight cast from the lanterns placed on barrels on either side of the front door. Next to those barrels, leaned against the wall, were two men smoking, who both glanced up as she approached the building.
Charlotte held out the slip of paper, out to the first man. He nodded and leaned over to push open the door to reveal a small, strangely tastefully decorated foyer. She said nothing as she walked into the room, did not flinch as the door slammed shut behind her. A second later the door in front of her opened and a familiar figure slipped through the gap.
“Good evening, Lady Beauchamp,” murmured Richard. “Are you ready to have the secrets of the underworld revealed to you? Though I must say you are slightly early for the main spectacle, but until then I dare say we have other pieces for you to delight upon.” He said it as if he were a circus master inviting people in to bear witness to his freaks.
“I am ready to witness your tricks, yes,” replied Charlotte. She would not so easily be fooled by carnival speech and so frivolous to throw away her scepticism. It would take something truly unfathomable for her to be convinced of what Richard said.
“I assure you there are no tricks, milady.”
“I shall be the judge of that.”
Richard smirked. “As you wish.” He pressed a hand against the door behind him and pushed it open. “After you.”
She dropped her hood and stepped over the threshold of the foyer into the main section of the warehouse. It was ... unusual in layout, the exact opposite of what she had expected. Immediately in front of her was set up a sort of library, with cluttered tables clustered in the centre, bordered on either side by heavy bookshelves positioned not against the walls but near the tables in a way that denoted that they were concealing things. On the other side of the room was a rather elegant staircase that swept up onto a wide first-floor mezzanine: she could see the guardrails from this side of the room but nothing that could be on it. There was a second staircase in the very centre of the room that led down into a ground floor. The interior was so distant and detached to the exterior and it surroundings, and the close proximity of the furniture on this floor, coupled with the mezzanine, lent the place a claustrophobic feeling.
“Are you also some sort of scholarly man, Richard?” How she wished him given her a last name: she felt improper addressing him simply by his forename.
“I suppose it seems that way, and I suppose I am one of sorts. All these books are ledgers and bestiaries, histories and records.”
Charlotte contemplated that for a second, as her eyes roamed over Richard’s attire as she did so. He was wearing a brocaded waistcoat and cravat both fashioned from silk, two articles of clothing that would have certainly been found in Harrods. She had not particularly taken anything but a customary glance at the men at the door, but she recalled one of them wearing a fine frockcoat. “Does your work pay well?”
“Our clients pay quite handsomely.”
Charlotte raised her brows. “Do you have many clients?”
“You would be surprised at how popular our services are.” The smile he flashed her was nothing short of wicked. He flung out a hand and gestured to the staircase leading up. “Shall we walk? It is nearing time for the main spectacle that will certainly show that all I tell you of the otherworld is true.”
As they walked towards those stairs, Charlotte discovered just what the specifically placed bookshelves concealed: cages. There were two-metre gaps after every shelf, and within that gap were barred cells each with a single bed, chamber pot and washstand—the very basic of living facilities, not barbaric but not comfortable either. It was not the living accommodation of these cells that caused Charlotte to pause and gasp, but rather the inhabitants within them. In one cell was a female who was human in form, but her skin was a dull blue, her eyes exclusively white, and her ears were long and pointed at the tips. In another was a thing that was certainly not human but vastly otherworldly, small with elongated, thin limbs and a pretty face. Another simply held a thing that could only be described as a shapeless shadow that hovered just above the ground and when it moved to seep through the bars, it jumped back and let out a cry of pain. One cell was unlike the others, in that it had no solid floor but instead a square of water and no furniture—in it was an exquisite young woman who stood on the surface of the water, dressed in white with an odd looking collar clamped around her throat. In the last was a dancing orb of flame.
As they walked, Richard named each individual: “Fae”, “Faerie”, “demon shadow”, “Xana”, and “Santelmo”. He then glanced at Charlotte and smiled. “These creatures are only a few of the ones we have hunted, but they are a few of the more interesting. Beneath this floor are nine more floors to hold all assortments of beings; we can keep fifty in total.”
All initial scepticism Charlotte had felt disappeared at the sight of these things. “What is the intention for these?”
“Some are awaiting executions for their crimes; others are awaiting travel to join freak shows and high-brow households to provide entertainment.”
“The latter part seems a little barbaric.”
Richard shrugged. “This is not a business of morality.”
“But to make them slaves, to force them into something that they do not want simply to please others, to make them have masters ... how can your conscious allow you to sleep?” She had always detested any and all forms of slavery, had always been opposed to it—people should work willingly, not be forced and whipped into submission.
“I am merely a middle man; I carry out my orders and care not for the conscience of it. These things are nothing more than physical wages. They are merely things, creatures not of our world, and therefore are outside of any rights—think of it that way, if it makes you feel better.”
Charlotte opened her mouth to speak again, but the words spoken by Richard sunk under her skin. They were separate to the world, not of it—freaks and sinister things that did not deserve her sympathy or protection. They were an affront to God, unnatural and unholy, and slavery and imprisonment and death were the correct ways to deal with such horrible beings. She closed her mouth and nodded. “What is the woman whom I seek my revenge upon?”
“A creature of the sea. She calls herself a siren, but her proper name is a Cold One: the cursed counterpart to the mermaids. She is one who lures men to their deaths with a song and her beauty. She is shallow and cruel and not of the land, but she has been exiled to the earth for a crime against her tribe that I do not know. She is a thousand years old and is renowned amongst the entire underworld as the most ruthless of killers. She cares for none but herself.”
“A true monster.”
Richard smiled and glanced upwards towards the huge windows lining the upper floor. “Let us be on our way, Lady Beauchamp—it is almost time for the main spectacle.”
Charlotte followed Richard up the stairs and along on to the mezzanine. She was about to ask just what this main spectacle was, but the words died in her throat as she beheld the sight. In the centre of the mezzanine was a young man who was encased not in a cage but in a large square drawn using some kind of black, shimmering powder. The man knelt in the middle of the square, completely naked but positioned with his back bowed to the floor and chest pressed against his thighs, ensuring nothing of vulgarity was on show. She could just about make out the trace of burn scars that marred his right shoulder and travelled down his arm, as well as a blade scar on his upper left arm. He seemed to be trembling—yes, there, along his outline was the slightest of shakes—and his skin was slick with sweat.
“The square is fashioned from the ash of a Rowan tree,” explained Richard with a gesture to the shape. “It becomes a form of containment and entrapment when used for werewolf scum and their purebred counterpart the lycanthropes.”
“Of which is he?”
“I presume there are differences between the two?”
Richard nodded. “Both are shape shifters with the ability to transform into a wolf upon the full moon, something neither has any choice in—it is why the change is known as a curse. Lycanthropes are born whereas their counterparts are made through the transmission of the disease through a bite on a full moon. Lycan’s have some degree of control over themselves, their minds, whilst in their other form, whereas werewolves are simply monsters that must be kept locked up. There are other differences, of course, but I do not wish to bore you with the details.”
Charlotte was silent for a moment, taking in the information. Before she had the opportunity to speak again, however, the man in the square let out the most horrible of screams that reverberated through the warehouse.
Richard glanced at the nearest window, from which the light of the full moon shone through. “It is time.”
A deep coldness curled in the pit of Charlotte’s stomach as she watched as the man’s back arched upwards and then down in a way that should have been impossible. The sound of bones cracking filled the air. His hands spread out on the floor in front of him, curling inwards like talons or claws and the nails raked up and down the concrete with enough pressure that they cracked and left blood tracks. His body continued to contort, the muscles expanded and contracted and his skin twisted. Charlotte let out an involuntary sound of horror as those bloody hands came up and tore at his skin until his arms and shoulders were bleeding, and gasped when his head snapped up—gasped not at the scars, deep silver grooves, across his face, or the milky look of his left eye that showed him to be blind there, but at his open mouth as his teeth elongated and sharpened. He was screaming all the while, filling the chill air with violent sounds ... until he wasn’t. Until the man before her was no longer a man, but a wolf with deep brown fur that was missing in places where his various scars were. It—he—growled before beginning to pace along the border of his confinement.
“Why did you want me to see this?” Charlotte asked. Her hands were shaking; she placed then in the pockets of her cloak to conceal this fact.
“He is one of the member’s of this society—he is a hunter,” Richard replied nonchalantly. “I know it sounds odd, but there is no greater asset than a werewolf, for they have the same senses as any domestic dog but they are wild and so even those senses are heightened. The story of how he came to work for me is a long one, but he is my main weapon in finding the woman you want to have found.”
Charlotte splayed her hand across her throat and pondered. “How will he find her?”
“Scent, mostly. The place where your son was murdered is still under the jurisdiction of the police, but we can find our way in. It has been nine days, but even though the scent of the woman will have disappeared a little it will still be strong for him. We shall work from there.”
Lady Beauchamp could see before her the woman who had ruined everything, grovelling for her life as Charlotte held a dagger in her hand and the opportunity for her dreamt revenge. A smile slowly crossed her face as she beheld the werewolf, imagining the monster sinking its teeth into Ophelia White’s throat. “I will hire your services, Richard. Find the bitch before Christmas Day and you will receive payment of two-thousand pound—no negotiating—and for every day after that date your profit will drop by a hundred pound.” She held out her other hand, waiting. “Do we have a deal?”
Richard did not hesitate in shaking her hand. “We have a deal.”