Authors: Isabel Cooper
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Also by Isabel Cooper
No Proper Lady
Lessons After Dark
Legend of the Highland Dragon
The Highland Dragon's Lady
Copyright Â© 2015 by Isabel Cooper
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Cover art by Shane Rebenscheind
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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eBook version 1.0
To Serin Hale, for friendship, patience, and advice.
“Loch Arach?” The girl shrugged, flipping a straw-colored braid over her shoulder. “Aye. They're all queer up that way.” Her accent was almost too thick to follow, but William easily recognized the just-for-your-information tone at which girls of twelve seemed to excel in every place and generation.
Her brother elbowed her in the side. “No such thing,” he said to William. “It's only that 'tis a very small village, ye ken.”
“And backward,” said the girl, refusing to be squelched. “Havena' even got the telegraph in.”
“Have you gone there?” William asked.
The boy shook his head. “The farmers come in for the market day, some of them. We're there with the wool, so we've a chance to talk at times.”
“Mostly with their daughters,” said the girl, and she received another elbow for the informationâsharper, if her indignant squeal was any sign.
William smiled and reminded himself to be patient. Youth was youth in all corners of the world; shouting or snapping wouldn't get him the answers he wanted. He would have found the bickering funny another time, if he hadn't been thinking about murder.
Neither of the youngsters knew his thoughts, any more than they knew about the body in the woods. William wanted to keep it that way as long as possible. With luck, he'd be long gone before they heard rumors about the dead boy. With more luck, nobody in Belholm would connect him or his questions with those rumorsâat least, not where his quarry could hear.
He focused on the siblings again. Elsie and Tom Waddell lived at the edge of the forest, like all the poor-but-honest woodcutters in fairy tales. By local standards, they weren't poorâtheir father owned a healthy flock of sheep as well as his house and farmâbut William hoped they were honest and that they knew the land well enough.
Under his gaze, they left off their argument. Tom, a few years older, had the grace to look embarrassed. “Sorry, sir. We're not very much acquainted with them up at the Loch, to tell the truth. I wouldna say anyone is. But they're fine folk, I'm sure of it,” he added with a glance at his sister. “Will you be wanting to go up that way?”
“Perhaps,” said William, and he took a measuring look northwestward, where the mountains rose to meet the bright autumn sky. In theory, there was a lake somewhere beyond that line of hills, and a village nearby where “backward” people lived, “queer” individuals who were nonetheless “fine folk”âexcept that one of them might be a killer.
One of them might be a victim too. The dead boy might not have been local. By English standards, or at least by William's, Belholm was a small village, but it was big enough for the train to stop there twice a day, and there were plenty of farms on the outskirts where people kept to themselves. Nobody had reported a missing man, whether son, husband, brother, or farmhand, and William wasn't in a position to go making that sort of inquiry.
Even if he had been, he wouldn't have been able to give much information. The body he'd found had been almost unrecognizable. He'd made out sex, species, and rough age, but that had been all. Animals had done some of the damageâby the time William had arrived, the poor chap had been lying out for three days in a forest full of scavengersâbut the worst of it had come from human hands. The killer, whoever he or she was, had pulled the boy apart in a manner that called to mind the killings in Whitechapel a decade back or the dissecting tableâ
âor a sacrifice.
Save when a mission called for it, William wasn't a gambling man, but he knew where he'd have put his money if he had been.
“Does the road lead anywhere else?” he asked and gestured toward the mountains. “Going that way, I mean.”
Elsie shook her head. “Who else would want to live up
?” she asked, wrinkling her freckled nose. “Bad enough to be this far away from everything, isn't it? At least here there are the train and the telegraph, and we're getting the papers from Aberdeen every day now. Up that way's just Loch Arach and the devil of a lot of forest.”
“She's right,” said Tom, albeit reluctantly. “If anyone else lives that way, they keep to themselves even better than the folk of Arach. I suppose you'd get over the mountains eventually, but there are plenty of easier ways to do that.”
“And the people there areâ¦strange? Backward?” William kept his voice light, sounding simply curiousâif a shade tastelessârather than as if he was fishing for information. So he hoped, at least. It had been a long few months.
“Ah, well,” said Tom with a more stoic shrug than his sister's, “they are a bit closed-mouthed, is the truth of it. And there are stories, of course, but that's just fancy,” he added in a skeptical-man-of-the-world voice.
,” said Elsie, eager to contribute where her brother was too embarrassed, “that people disappear up there.”
Ignoring him, Elsie dropped her voice. “And I heard that the lady doesna' ever grow any older.”
“The lady?” William asked.
“Lady MacAlasdair. She lives in the castle, and she's been there years, but she stays young and beautiful forever. And how would ye do that?”
“Hair dye,” said Tom, “and rouge. And having silly little girls tell romantic stories about people they've not seen once.”
Ignoring Elsie's violent outburst at
, William chuckled. “I see,” he said. “Have you met this young and beautiful lady?”
“Nay. She doesna' come out of Loch Arach much, 'tis true,” said Tom, once he'd successfully dodged his sister's foot. “But the giâthe
I've talked to say she's in the village often enough. And they do say she's comely.”
“Stories,” said Tom firmly. “Stories, and maybe old men who went hunting in their cups and broke their necks, or a man's wife running off with a peddler. There's no one bathin' in maiden's blood up at the Loch, sirâand none who should believe it, Elsie.”
“Jolly good,” said William and laughed again, as if he were just as skeptical as Tom. It was a bit hard on Elsie, of course, but there was more at stake here than the feelings of one youthful maybe-Cassandra. “People
go there and come back again, I assume.”
“Oh, aye, of course. Not a terribly great many of 'emâ”
to?” Elsie put in, sullen now.
“âbut there was a painter came through the summer before last. He stopped here on the way back and gave me sixpence for carrying his wee painting kit,” Tom added in what might have been a hint.
“I think I can do a bit better,” said William and dug two half-crowns out of his pocket.
Elsie squealed again, this time with delight. Tom just grinned and bobbed his head. “Thank you, sir. Very much obliged.”
“Think nothing of it,” William said, wishing he had the power to turn the polite saying into a command. “I won't trouble you any further.”
He could ask nothing else. Oh, he could
of things to ask, but the children probably wouldn't know the answers, and they might start wondering why he wanted to know.
A day or two from now, someone elseâhunter, peddler, painter, or possibly but hopefully not another child out playingâwould stumble over the body in the woods. Then the hue and cry would go up. Men would go around to the houses to ask and find out whether the poor soul had belonged to Belholm. They might even find out who he'd been. They
be Scots, those men, and they would have no connections to D Branch, nor prior encounters with the Consuasori, the Brotherhood of the Grey Duke, or any other of the mad and maddening cults that grew these days like mold after rain.
Nobody would be surprised at such an investigation, and the guilty party would take no particular alarm from it.
William couldn't afford to seem interested.
The children left, keeping to a polite walk as long as he was watching, but he knew they'd break into a run afterward, eager to get home or down to the shops with their windfall. As he followed their progress, he went over the facts he knew.
Item the first: the dead boy's ghost had managed to get itself to Miss Harbert in Edinburgh before going on to whatever lay ahead. By the time the medium was in position to receive, the boy's spirit had been fading, but he remembered the essentials: the chloroform, the Latin, the sense of what Harbert and William knew was magical force, and perhaps most importantly, the location. From what Harbert had said and William himself had encountered, remaining so long and so coherent when away from his body had taken both considerable strength from the ghost and some relaxation of certain boundaries from the other side.
Neither of those was a good sign.
Item the second: the killing itself. Chloroform argued that pain hadn't been a necessary component, but the killer had bled the boy thoroughly, then removed eyes, tongue, and hands. Symbolically, that probably meant sight, communication, and actionâbut William didn't know whether the killer had been enhancing his or her own faculties or restricting someone else's.
Item the third: tracks. There hadn't been many in the physical world. Even in good weather, a footprint wouldn't last for three days in the forest. But William had a few resources most men didn't, especially when he was certain he wouldn't be seen. The equipment that let him look into the pastâtwo silver chains etched with runes and tipped at either end with onyxâwas clunky and obvious, and the procedure not always reliable, but it had proved a godsend more than once in the last five years.
This time, the results had been mixed. As always, he saw the past through a thick haze, as bad as the worst of the London pea-soupers. While a clearer view would have been more
, the blurred sort was often better for his peace of mind, as in this case. He'd seen the killer's form stooping over the boy's unconscious body and witnessed the slow process of the death, but the fog had hidden all details.
The killer was human, or human-shaped. He or she was tall for a woman or middling height for a man, relatively thin, and moved like someone whose joints still obeyed without a hitch. Otherwise, the murderer had only been a dark shape, lost in more darkness soon after he or she had left the body.
Before the shape vanished, it had headed up the road. It had gone up toward the mountains, where the children said there wasn't much but a reclusive village with a strangely young-looking lady, and past a forest where men had been known to disappear.
Up the road then was William's destination too. If he left now, he might get there before sundown, but that didn't seem very likely.
He adjusted his bagâclothing, the silver chains, guns and ammunition, and a book for the trainâon his shoulder, faced the road, and couldn't help but sigh.
He envied young Tom. He envied the boy's parents, who'd doubtless had some part in his hardheaded skepticism. He envied any man who could look down the road that faced him now and tell himself that this was practically the twentieth century, that he was in Scotland, not darkest Transylvania, and that really and truly nobody around here
bathing in maidens' blood or ever would.
Maidens' blood would be fairly mildâespecially as one could only go through so many maidens, even in a wholesome rural community.
As bad as the legends were, the truth would probably be worse. William had found that it generally worked that way.