|Crossing I: Keys
Author: Guede Mazaka
Roaring. But he wasn't near the sea, was he?
No, those were voices crashing into each other, and stomping feet the undertow. Cockfighting? But what was he doing near a ring?
"Come on, wake up. Wake up, damn it!"
And his head hurt, and his throat felt as if strips had been cut out from the inside. His wrists weren't moving properly, and his ankle was a throbbing, squeezing ring around the end of his leg.
"Abberline-whatever your name is-Fred! That's it. Wake up. Goddamn drugged…wake up. Wake up."
Kidnapped. That was what'd happened. But who, and why, and where?
Near-sobbing breath. "Please wake up. Please, for the love of God…"
His eyes slowly cracked open to reveal a fragile, bruised Corso staring down at him. The next second, the world came crashing in and the other man's face assumed the hard mask Fred had suspected him of wearing. Corso helped Fred sit up, then suddenly flinched and threw himself against Fred, sending them both into the bars.
Bars. Cage. And then hands, grabbing and feeling and ripping and God-
Fred wrenched himself free and scrambled for the middle of the circular bottom, barely out of reach of the lewd clutches. A second later, Corso landed next to him, then curled up, desperately kicking at the fingers still wrapped about his ankle. An arm came in at the other side, groping for their hair, and Fred brought his fists down on it, then dragged Corso free. They tangled into a tight knot, as far from the leering onlookers as they could be. "What's going on?" Fred hissed, chest heaving.
"What-" Corso pushed at the locks flopping into his face, a red swipe following his hands. When he brought his wrists back down, the ropes knotting them together were spotted with blood. "What do you think?"
Water, and a huge mildewed warehouse filled with strollers of all kinds of criminal persuasions. Ragged and rich, they were milling about the various stacks of fine goods, undoubtedly stolen, and in the greatest concentration, around the cage in which Fred and Corso were. "Auction."
"Excellent piece of deduction, Inspector." Someone jumped up and hung onto the bars, which threw the entire cage sideways. Fred heaved and hooked onto the other side, dragging Corso with him. The links shrieked and strained, then keened as the man fell off. Everything swung, crazed pendulum, and the two of them had to hurry to get back into the center in order to avoid the snatches. One of those ripped off a good portion of Fred's coat sleeve. In fact, the only part of his coat that he'd still had.
"How long has this been going on?" The cage lurched again, and salty skin grazed over his mouth. Corso dropped his head onto Fred's shoulder so the blood wiped itself off on the other man's shirt collar, resulting stain ironically adorable in its likeness to a lipstick imprint.
"I have no idea. Too busy keeping you out of reach." It was a muttered, near-unintelligible confession, with Corso not looking at Fred when he said it. "Closest thing to an ally here," the other man added, even more softly.
As Fred had a similar reason for letting Corso continue to clutch at him, he didn't probe into the matter. "Is this about the book?"
"I don't…" grimace "…probably. All right. A man came to see me about it, but he took it when he left. And whoever dragged me out here was looking for it."
Just then, a swarthy face banged up against the bars, far higher than should be possible. Then a second face loomed into view, and Fred understood: sitting on shoulders so as to reach high enough into the cage. "Damn pretty, all right. Hey, Billy, which d'you wan-"
Thwack. Smack. Wet crunch. Blood fountained up in a huge spray, then gradually shrank back down to reveal a tall figure, wrapped closely in dark clothing. Only the eyes were visible: dark as death, deep as hell, and glittering as…Fred dug his nails into his palms, shocking himself out of the near-trance.
The stranger stepped into the parting crowd, carelessly avoiding the bodies and blood on the floor as…the hat and scarf were doffed…as he used the scarf to wipe his cane clean, then threw the stained cloth aside. "Frederick Abberline and Dean Corso?"
Low rasping velvet, sliding down Fred's spine. He shivered, but kept his eyes on the other man. "Yes?"
"Good. This did not take as long as I thought. I am Ahmed Ibn Fadhlan Ibn…" His voice trailed off in direct relation to the increasing sound of pounding feet. In two minutes, he was surrounded by nondescript but very heavily-armed men. Chains, knives, pieces of wood and crowbars. No guns, however.
Ahmed glanced around and sighed, rubbing at his forehead. He slowly turned his cane horizontal to the ground, one hand on the middle and one on the silver-inlaid top. "Gentlemen. Frankly, I'd rather not kill you. My quarrel is with your employers."
Silent advance, noose of men tightening. Something brushed by Fred's side, startling him into a stifled exclamation, but it was only Corso, crawling up to get a better view. After a moment of reflection, Fred did likewise. "You know him?" he whispered.
"No." But the other man sounded very intrigued; his eyes, narrowed to compensate for the lack of glasses, nevertheless betrayed the unmistakable glint of interest.
Ahmed looked up and mumbled something to himself, then looked down and said something else. It didn't sound like English-the cadence was more liquid and soft.
"Sir. You are intruding on a pri-" the eyes on the farthest man in the ring bulged and teared up scarlet a moment before he toppled to the floor, a dagger in the back of his head. Standing in his place was a blonde woman, gorgeously contemptuous.
"Well?" she said. The circle of men instantly shifted to encompass her. Beyond, Fred could see people quietly but hurriedly beginning to exit the warehouse.
Ahmed gave her a sharp look. "You could use a little more patience, G." Then the first assailant leaped at him. Metal flashed out, and Ahmed was spinning around, stick-sheath slamming into a throat and long thin blade already pulling itself free of a groaning body. Slice, kick and slash. Precision silver clockwork, stopping this valve and opening that one so the scarlet flooded across the floor.
And then they were done, cleaning weapons and putting them away. As the murmuring onlookers hastily fled from the still-twitching bodies, Ahmed flicked blood off the bottom of his coat and returned to the cage. Prickles trailed the movement of the man's eyes, and Fred unaccountably felt his cheeks heat up. He flinched away when Ahmed's hand lifted to touch the bars, and stayed well back as a section of the cage slowly swung open. "If you know my name," he said, struggling to hold onto his fragmenting composure, "Then you know my profession."
"In two hours, this warehouse won't look the slightest bit suspicious. And those bodies will never be reported by anyone." Ahmed stripped off his gloves and tucked them into a pocket, then put his hands on the edge of the floor, a few inches from Corso's knee. "It wouldn't be wise for you to risk an accusation of insanity, Inspector Abberline. Your superiors…"
"What about them?" Fred snapped, swallowing against the parched burn in his mouth.
"Later," the woman interrupted. She daintily picked her way over to Ahmed's side, large eyes cool, considering green. "We don't have time for this. Do you want out of there, or not?"
* * *
Well, whatever else was going on, Dean knew one thing for sure: he wasn't going to be sold into slavery, or die in a gigantic birdcage, if he could help it. And his ribs still ached too much for him to make it back to his store on the fringes of Whitechapel-by himself, at any rate. It possibly might have something to do with the frisson that went through him whenever Ahmed happened to glance his way, but he marked that up to simple instinctive attraction to the strongest. "I'd like out, thank you. How are we doing this?"
"Come here." Ahmed reached out a hand, and after a moment, Dean took it. He was promptly yanked out of the cage and into a jarring catch…though Ahmed was much, much stronger than he looked, barely staggering when Dean's weight hit him. While Dean was busy seeing white blotches and hissing against the screaming pain, a hand somehow made it up the remnants of his shirt and began gently probing. "Serious bruising, but only that. None broken."
"Is this where I say thank you for small mercies?" Something shifted into a streak of hurt, and he sank his fingers into Ahmed's bony shoulder. "Fuck!"
"American," G snorted. Then she put her hands on her hips and regarded Abberline, who was still huddled in the cage. "How about you?"
Reluctance in his every gesture, he crawled over to the open side and peered out. "Fine. But my ankle-if I jump, it might break."
"Give me a moment," Ahmed mumbled into Dean's neck. Then the heel of his palm rammed into Dean's side, temporarily blanking out his vision. When his sight returned, his feet were on the floor and he was leaning heavily into Ahmed as deft fingers converted his tattered clothing into a makeshift bandage. Leaving him little protection from the cold.
Before he could mention that detail, heavy cloth draped over his shoulders. Coatless Ahmed displayed a rather nice set of muscles shifting beneath his fine clothing. "Ah…"
"That's where you should say thank you." G winked, only her angelic features saving her from salaciousness.
Ahmed ignored them both as he stripped the cleanest overcoat from the bodies, then turned to the cage. A wary Abberline gingerly lowered half of himself out before closing his eyes and allowing himself to fall the rest of the way. Dark fabric billowed up, rising to meet him, and then the other man was a head and a pair of hands poking over Ahmed's shoulder, and two feet sticking out from a thick bundle.
"Outside. We've a coach," Ahmed ordered as he walked past. And when Dean limped outside, jostled along by a relentless G, there indeed was a respectable-looking hack on the corner. He was summarily shoved in to join Ahmed and Abberline, but before the door swung shut, he did get a glimpse of G's slim form swinging up into the empty driver's seat.
"What's going on?" Abberline's harsh inquiry slapped Dean's attention back to the strange foreigner slouching in the corner. "Who were they, who are you, and-"
"It's complicated." Ahmed had produced a cigarette from somewhere, and the flare of his match threw dangerous shadows over his face. "Which is why I haven't untied you yet. I need you to listen."
Dean had to laugh then, because it was all so ridiculous. Slaughtered coachmen behind his store, midnight assaults, and now this qualified rescue by a fascinating newcomer. It was enough to drive a man mad, if he wasn't careful. "I am, I assure you. And…could I have one?"
"These aren't filled with tobacco." And the smoke wafting from Ahmed's direction was oddly textured, almost like unspun cotton, and bluish whenever a thin beam of gaslight managed to make it inside. It stung and swept out Dean's nose with brooms of rosewood and pine twigs, and made him wander near sleep.
For that matter, Abberline seemed to be enjoying the smoke far more than he liked: he would drift in, catch himself and jerk back with a faint scowl on his face. "I'm seeing…" he murmured.
That sparked something in Ahmed's eyes, and the man stabbed out his butt, then dropped it into the street. He fastened the shutter before continuing his explanation. "The Book of the Nine Doors--"
"That damned thing. I'm beginning to wish I'd never even heard of it," Dean admitted. Even with the kind of profit that was at stake, the risks were mounting much too rapidly for his tastes. And yet…he was staying in the carriage, having a calm conversation with a man he knew was an extremely efficient killer. Not only because he wanted to know what threads had tangled him, he was beginning to think. He wanted to know what else was happening, and that urge was starting to become too strong for mere curiosity.
"It's currently being pursued by two powerful societies: the Illuminati, who are newly-come to this country, and the Masons, who've integrated themselves into the uppermost echelons of British society." Ahmed slanted a look at Abberline's forming protest and suddenly smiled, cynicism cutting through the dimness. He rolled his eyes in the opposite direction, hand coming up to curl a thoughtful finger against his lip. "Believe me or not, sir. But know this: there's more than one agenda involving that book. And some of them, apparently, also include you two. As long as that's true, people will be after you."
Dean nodded, filing away the information. He made a note to research Torchia's life work as soon as he could. "I don't suppose you'd have any advice on dealing with that?"
"The safest thing for you to do would be to come with me, but somehow, I doubt that either of you would agree to the terms that go with that. For now, keep a low profile and a sharp eye." The coach unexpectedly slowed, and Ahmed thumped his cane on the floor. Coldness snicked through Dean's wrist bindings while he was distracted, and the ropes fell away. A moment later, Abberline's joined them. "This is where you should leave, if you are going to."
Which Dean was remarkably loathe to do, despite all his earlier misgivings. Misgivings that were still very much present. But so were the enticing mysteries, crowding round the saturnine man sitting across from him. And, well, the only apparent source of friendly power with whom Dean had so far made acquaintance.
"You can have the coat," Ahmed added as he unhooked and pushed open the door with his cane.
"Do you want the book?" Abberline asked, a little quieter and much less hostile than previously. He too didn't seem to want to get out, only taking very small steps toward the door.
"No. But I need it. Try to remember the difference." Then Ahmed was leaning back inside as he shut the door, and Dean and Abberline were standing on the curb together, frosting the air before them as they watched the dark form of the coach speed off, its horse so black it almost was invisible.
Abberline coughed and turned away, rather too hastily. He glanced behind him, and then looked again, harder and longer. "My home."
"Mine's within the Whitechapel borders. Barely so, but I would imagine he didn't want to chance that district at this time of night." Dean bundled the warm coat around him, and for a moment, he fancied he could distinguish between his heat and Ahmed's residual warmth. A stupid notion that he quickly shook off as he prepared to trudge off. If he sneaked around and came in the grocer's side of the neighborhood, he probably could avoid any potential trouble. Thank God he knew the area well enough to navigate it even without his glasses.
"Mr. Corso." Abberline was staring at a cracked cobblestone as he spoke. "There's no point in you risking Whitechapel now, either. If you don't mind a sofa, I could lend you mine for the night."
Interesting. Dean hadn't figured the other man for that much, given the tragic, guarded cast to his eyes. And the particles of self-destruction that surfaced every so often. Be that as it may, an invitation was an invitation. "You might as well call me Dean, given tonight."
"Fred." Still not looking at him, Abb-Fred-pivoted and heavily limped up the steps. Dean hung back a moment, then shrugged and gave the other man a hand. Pretty, as those bastards back at the warehouse had said.
On the other hand, it was very obvious that Fred wasn't even interested in the possibility of being interested, let alone trusting another person long enough for anything of consequence. No point in chasing a rainbow, when Dean could track plenty of other, attainable treasures on the ground.
* * *
G held herself back until they'd both washed up and had started on the evening's castings before she asked. Quite an accomplishment, she thought, considering that usually she was pestering Ahmed the moment they were out of earshot.
He could use it, she told herself. Entirely too serious, and he'd definitely been without congenial company for too many years. Not for lack of trying on G's part, but she'd finally come round to his opinion that they'd never manage anything more than a combustive fling, whereas as friends and working partners, they went very well together.
"So?" She'd searched around as best as she could, but the cleanest water she could find in the neighborhood was still frustratingly cloudy. No good for scrying.
Ahmed gave her a narrow-eyed stare, then knocked away her fingers from their rapping on the bowl's rim. He swirled the water so it became even muddier, then twisted around and began poking in their wooden carry-case. "So I've fallen desperately in love and am prepared to take on the armies of hell in order to have one kiss from the beauteous lips of-ow."
She hit him again, for the sarcasm. "Ahmed."
"As everyone says, they are appealing. But I fail to see why…" he found whatever he was searching for: a bottle of clarifying liquid. Whereupon G wanted to smack herself for forgetting about that, but she decided that dealing with Ahmed was slightly more important. "G. I know, and it is kind of you to think of me. But looks do not equal compatibility."
"You spent all that time in the far north. One would think you'd picked up a little of their free-living habits by now." He snorted and she flinched, determinedly shoving down her exasperation. "That wasn't what I meant. But really, assuming someone wouldn't be a pleasant companion just on a first impression and some background investigation is also bad judgment."
A few drops of the clarifier, and the muddiness was clearing in distorted shapes and forms. Colors hazed into the surface of the scrying bowl, painting a damning image in the ripples. She and Ahmed exchanged knowing looks, noting down the information, and then he dashed the vision out of the water. "Liana," he muttered. "I'd wondered where she got off to. Marrying Taillefer, and then driving him into exile here-that would be her style. Suppose she was rather upset he took the prize with him."
"But if she's got one book, then why is she still here?" It didn't make sense; their former colleague never wasted time, once she'd achieved what she wanted. And that generally didn't involve covering up the messes she left. There was also the puzzle of why her man had been round to see Corso, and why she was risking exposure by the Masons, the Illuminati, or both with the reckless murders.
"She has two." Ahmed steepled his hands before his face and closed his eyes, then slitted one open, as if he was lining up a rifle sight. "I had it confirmed this afternoon; the copy stolen from the Illuminati is in her hands."
"Two. Two out of three. Something significant about that, I'd guess." Numbers and books. Men. Secret mystical groups. G tumbled the pearls of knowledge about her brain, feeling the slight grit of one, the dip in one and the hump in the other. They slowly sorted themselves into a perfect string, and she grinned. "Clever Torchia, I think. What did he say-one copy survives? But there are three. So one is a fake?"
He nodded, putting his hands down and quickly putting away all their tools. "Good chance of that. And Corso's reputation in the book-collecting world makes him the best local authority for identifying the real one. Abberline's most likely involved due to proximity to the murders."
"Because he's the practicing psychic." G hesitated, choosing her next words very carefully so as not to accidentally offend Ahmed. He was renowned for his unflappability, but there'd been times that she had seen nerves struck in him, and it was never pretty. Especially when it had something to do with his northern acquaintances. "Listen…I didn't bring them up only because of their faces. Did a few star charts, checked a few other things…they're identical with-"
"I had mortal companions. I saw them die. I'm tired of that. But you've never had anyone die on you yet, have you?" His tone was fierce ice, like a true blade, and the knuckles of his clenched fists stood out like white runestones, howling along the hidden dimensions of awareness.
Then he relaxed, staring off in the distance. "I apologize for that."
"It's all right." Her voice was uncharacteristically shaky, and she took a deep breath before repeating herself. "It's all right. But…why didn't you ever…bring them over?"
Ahmed bowed his head, sour laugh ricocheting off the scarred planks. "G, you're so…it isn't that simple. They have to agree, first. And it isn't so easy for most people to leave everything for the uncertain."
* * *
Dean squinted at the round lump sitting on his foot, and the dog eyed him back. In a depressingly mournful way that didn't do a damn thing for his current mood. The adrenaline was finally dying away, but its residue was making his nerves hop and skip at the slightest noise. Were they actually safe here? How much of what Ahmed had said was truthful, and how much mere furthering of his own motives? And why was that stupid animal staring at him as if he were a condemned man? "Ah…Fred?"
"Oh. Sorry." Having finished treating their wounds, the other man scooped up the mutt and carried him off to another room. "I'm almost never around, so he gets lonely. I've been meaning to give him to someone who can take better care of him."
"What's the delay?" Dean asked in a light tone. Of course, nothing this night ever went as it was supposed to, so the atmosphere immediately transmuted to pure lead.
"He was my wife's." Fred stuttered a little on the last word, and judging from the lack of feminine objects in the small but comfortable set of rooms, Dean could extrapolate the rest of the conclusion. "She died, one…no, two years ago."
Death, or any mention thereof, always had two effects on Dean: he experienced a feeling of detachment due to his firm belief that all people had their price, including their lives, and he felt an unfamiliar awkwardness due to his acute comprehension that he wasn't having a socially-acceptable reaction. Not that he usually cared, but he did appreciate the effort needed to keep up enough of a façade to make a profit in Victorian society. And that was a task made only more difficult by uncontrollable gut reactions. "I'm sorry," he murmured, hoping that the usual somber tone would be enough.
Fred shook his head as he took down some sugar cubes and a bottle of absinthe. "You aren't, really, but I'm not offended. You probably never even met her."
"I…" The lack of glasses must be catching up to him, Dean mused. His temples were pulsing agony through the rest of him, and his indifference was starting to resemble dizziness. He groped for a chair, but his hand just missed and he crumpled clumsily to the floor, grabbing at his head. "Fuck. Fuck."
"What's wrong-oh, my God." Fred's fingers brushed against Dean's shoulder, then clamped on as the other man collapsed next to him.
Light. So much light. Beautiful burning too much and Christ, he couldn't stand it. All this, overwhelming until it wasn't marvelous any more, but harsh and brutal and yes, ugly--
--then it was gone, and he was left panting on the floor, a fold of Ahmed's coat having somehow folded over his nose so fir and incense scent razored into his lungs. Periodic waves of warmth against his chest made him glance down to where Fred had buried his face in more of the coat fabric. "Murder…" the other man breathed.
"What?" Dean started to get up, but Fred pushed him back and pinned him on the floor with surprising force.
"Don't. It's-" the other man's eyes hazed over, and his voice grew almost dreamy "-it's all over your doorstep. And going around the corner."
"Fred-Abberline-hell, Inspector-" Dean shoved at the imprisoning arms, but only managed to reawaken the screaming in his ribs. "Shit!"
Well, nothing else was working, so only one other method left to try. He lunged up as far as he could go, biting down on the strain to his chest, and smashed their mouths together.
Oh. That was nice-no, that was-that was very, very…something. Fred kissed like a devil, banging Dean's head back against the floor. That hurt, but this time he didn't quite mind as much. And the hands holding his arms down flexed, loosened their grip. Did a lovely slide along some of his bruises before jerking away.
"What…what am I doing?" Fred gasped, tumbling onto his back and staring at the ceiling.
"You want an honest appraisal?" The look Dean received could have vaporized steel. And in keeping with the past few hours' theme of surprise, it made him feel a little ashamed. Because they'd been thrown around and around, and for those first hours in the cage, Dean had been absurdly glad to have company. Even unconscious company, since that was still presence that wasn't automatically offensive, and the grounding feel of flesh and blood in the horrifying whirl of the auction warehouse. "If you want, chalk it up to the bad night we've had."
Fred's gaze deepened, and then the other man returned his eyes to the ceiling. "I don't think you should go back to your lodgings. Until this is over."
And while Dean hated to admit it, admit it he had to, if he wanted to be sensible. Fred was probably right. "Show me to the sofa, then."
* * *
Victor Fargas had just laid his hand on the doorknob to Dean Corso's store when they struck. Tall shadows whipped out of the night and effortlessly heaved him into a waiting coach, while others rebroke the battered-looking lock and slipped inside the store.
He told his former brothers he didn't know where it was, because he truly didn't. And when the surgeon's coolly baleful face peered down at him, he laughed as Torchia must have laughed. Let whatever come to him that pleased to; he knew of what sins he was guilty, and he did not shy from meeting their cost. Not when he had thwarted them.
A chance glance at a newspaper, and a name. A small package, slipped in with his usual weekly trip to the post office, and that was one worry forever off his hands. God knew where it was now, in transit, but tomorrow morning it would be sitting on Inspector Frederick Abberline's desk. One of the few members of the London police force that he knew hadn't been indoctrinated into the Masons.
So Fargas laughed, right up until the first incision silenced him forever.