|Crossing II: Bridge
Author: Guede Mazaka
Standing across the street from Corso's store and lodgings, Ahmed struck a match off the lamppost and lit up while watching as the constables wove in and out of the store. Two break-ins within the night, gossip said, and the owner nowhere to be seen. So the two of them had decided to stay together; he'd have to give them more sense than he'd originally thought them capable of. Corso didn't appear to be the naturally social type, aside from what was necessary to conduct business, and his history showed no inclination toward group cooperation. Abberline might have his Sergeant friend, but his current attitude was more or less the same.
Birds of a feather, perhaps. Ahmed shook his head and casually ducked around the side of the crowd, pacing the street away from the store. One, two…a scrap of cloth. He pressed the tip of his cane down on it and sucked on the cigarette, then blew a stream of smoke against the nearest wall. Cheekbones and jowls molded themselves in the gray, then shrank back to display a flashback on the brick.
Owner of the third book, Victor Fargas. Newly off the Channel boat, come all the way from Spain only to be snatched from Corso's door. And what was he doing there?
A flicker of familiar black caught Ahmed's eye, and it became a question of what Corso was doing here, lurking around the corner. A slightly easier-to-answer inquiry. Ahmed crushed his butt under his heel, then calmly circled around to spin his overcoat and its occupant into an empty alley. "Good morning."
"You! Damn it, you know my ribs are…" Corso broke off, also halting his ineffective shoves at Ahmed's shoulders. He'd gotten replacement glasses from somewhere, and they were slipping down his nose, so Ahmed pushed them back up. Behind the lenses, the other man's pupils widened, then narrowed. "I happen to live on the second floor. If I'm to change habitation, then I need a few things from there."
"Are you to change habitation?" Ahmed's voice inflections were not going anywhere he wanted them to, and it was showing. Corso's breath caught, even as the shields slammed up over the backs of his eyes.
"You did suggest a low profile." A hand settled on Ahmed's arm, gloveless fingers fitting between the fabric bunched up around his elbow. "And what are you doing here?"
"Victor Fargas. He's…most likely catatonic, in a mental asylum." Recognition flitted over Corso's face. "A friend of yours?"
Corso shook his head and slumped against the wall, wincing. "Just an occasional client. He was eccentric, and only trusted a few people to appraise and sell his books. One of them being me." Sideways glance. "Are you telling the truth when you say he's in an asylum? He wasn't that crazy."
"He is now. The Masons have made him so. I can take you, if you want." Of course Ahmed could. And he could lie to G when he said that Corso and Abberline hadn't interested him at all, and he could essay a bit of flirting. Not entirely in the name of tracking down the third book, he had no difficulty confessing. Honesty was a personal trait he tried to maintain, whenever practicality allowed him, and boredom could be as deadly as any weapon in his line of work. As long as he kept his objectivity, there shouldn't be a problem. And that was easy, when he already knew nothing serious would come of his flirtations. None of them were looking for that.
He had come to the conclusion that with only one book still at large, and that bitch Liana behind the whole debacle, it would be best to keep Corso and Abberline a little closer. Dramatic rescues took too much time and energy, and they prevented him from going after the main perpetrators of the mess. Furthermore, Corso at least knew more than he was telling, and Ahmed preferred that any new information come to him firsthand, without any distortions.
They were all eminently reasonable precautions and rationales, so it was mildly puzzling why they didn't ring true to him. No, not puzzling. But Ahmed wasn't going to deign to acknowledge that ridiculous wish. If he ignored it long enough, it would go away, just as it had every other time.
"It does look like I won't be able to get in for a while. And those idiots are probably tromping all over my editions." The other man squirmed free of Ahmed and produced his own cigarettes; his fingers trembled, ever so slightly, as they held the flame to the end of one. First sign of frayed nerves from Corso.
Second sign was tugging at his collar, trying to adjust a perfectly-tied cravat. He smoked two cigarettes in quick succession while Ahmed patiently waited, fussing with the front of his shirt. Faint outlines of bandages beneath the rumpled clothes, and now that Ahmed was looking for them, shadows of pain still lingering beneath each eye. "We can come back for your things."
"Word on the street says I had two break-ins in one night. A murder in the backalley, a few days ago. And now, Fargas gets snatched from my step. As insane as it is, your story's starting to sound very plausible." Voice was beginning to rag apart into nervous shreds, though Ahmed had to listen very closely for it. Corso glanced down the alley as a constable swaggered by, then twitched minutely at the coarse laugh of some whore joshing her man in the next sidestreet over.
"Why would Fargas go to you?" Something about Corso's behavior bothered Ahmed; it was a little too pat. Too sympathy-inducing. Last night, just after what had to be one of the worst experiences of his life, Corso had still been much more together than he was now.
Demurely meeting his eyes, the other man resembled nothing so much as a rabbit caught in the gaze of a crouching wildcat. "If I went with you, and helped you find the book…"
Ah. Predictable. But a useful opening, and one that Ahmed had no compunction about taking. "There would be no point in my saving you once, only to have you taken again. Come on."
"Coach around the corner?" Corso took a step up to Ahmed's side, which put him a bit too close for propriety. Unless Ahmed offered an arm, as he was plainly expected to do. Just another couple strolling through Whitechapel. Business or pleasure, who knew?
As Corso wished. Ahmed didn't particularly care, as long he finished his assignment. Mutual manipulation wasn't something of which he was innocent, and he suspected it was the same for the other man. "Yes," he replied, crooking his arm.
G had been right, after all. None of this was the book, or books, so much as it was the men and women involved. Which put Ahmed right in the middle of territory so familiar he could walk it even staggering his way through the last seconds of life.
* * *
Godley stared as he slowly put down his cup of tea. "Good God. What happened to you?"
"It wasn't a good night." Fred ignored the stares and the growing murmurs as he hung up his coat and painfully limped over to his desk. Which had a package on it. Wrapped in brown paper and string, about the size of a…book. "Anything happen over at Corso's store?"
"Two robberies, one early in the night, and one round two in the morning, it looks like. And he's not where anyone can find him." The sound of Godley's footsteps overlaid the crackling of the paper as Fred undid the package coverings. He glimpsed pages and a black leather cover, then quickly shoved it into a drawer before the other man finally reached his desk. "You saw it?"
Extra emphasis on the second word. Sometimes it seemed like Godley should be the one with the sight, considering how seriously and devotedly he took it. "One of them. And I know where Corso is, so you can cancel any missing persons reports."
"Sir?" They both looked up at the head that had popped in the door. "Warren wants you, Inspector. At eleven, if y'please."
"All right, I'll be there," Fred sighed, bracing himself for another round of meaningless pleasantries and underhanded meddling from above. "Godley? Anything new?"
"No, not really. Just the usual strange coach and well-dressed gentlemen story we've been hearing." The other man paused, then made a strained cough. "Would you like anything for those-"
"I'm fine, Godley." Fred rubbed at his temple, then took a desultory sip at the coffee sitting on his desk. "But…now looks like a good time to catch up on the paperwork. I think we can put off touring the store until after my meeting with Sir Warren. Unless there was anything unusual you noticed?"
Godley shook his head, an expression of relief on his face. Undoubtedly because he didn't have to worry about Fred collapsing in the middle of Whitechapel, and the trouble with carrying out an Inspector on a stretcher.
Given the attraction that scenario had for Fred at the moment, he probably shouldn't be at work. But two murder cases on his plate, and Dean slinking about his rooms, didn't leave him with many alternatives.
At any rate, working would offer a distraction from all the other dilemmas squatting on his reason. For one, occult books with strange legends, made even more chilling by their likenesses to certain current events. Even Dean, with his iron smoothness, hadn't seemed very comfortable when he and Fred had been discussing the matter last night.
They had carefully avoided the subject of Fred's vision, and of whatever experience Dean had had at the same time. Which was probably the other man's first time, to judge by his unwillingness to admit it had happened. Eventually, they would need to talk about it, if only to figure out how that episode had been triggered, and whether it would happen again. Frankly, Fred would be much happier if it didn't, because then he would feel the obligation to help Dean adjust, and that would require a much deeper relationship with the other man than Fred cared to have. And thinking about the kiss. Complication after complication in Fred's life, and then-
--Ahmed standing at the center, apparently holding all the answers. Fred wasn't fool enough to ignore the fact that it had been the scents on the man's coat that had brought Dean and Fred both out of their induced trances. And he'd dreamed about those, dreamed he'd seen the sources. Some wild northern land, interspersed with flashes of desert, heat so brutal it had burned off his clothes and rolled, sticky and clinging, up the length of his body.
God damn the man, and his timely rescues and his…Fred furiously cut off that train of thought and forced himself to concentrate on the reports in front of him. He idly wondered if he could leave early and find an opium den, then dismissed that idea as a reflexive shudder went through his body. He'd be lucky if he could ever think of opium again without that horrifying memory clouding over everything.
That should please Godley, Fred grumpily thought. Strong association of drugs with vicious kidnapping leading to a cured addiction. Except the cravings were still there, coiled in his belly and just waiting for a moment to strike. Habits never really went away; they simply found a new object of fixation.
Like…rolling around on the floor, kissing through two different states of mind, visions colliding with visceral human experience. Or like sitting in a dark coach, watching the swirls of smoke paint esoteric symbols in the air, reflecting the wind bound up in a pair of large black eyes.
Damnation. He should have stayed in bed.
* * *
G closed the huge tome and stretched in a yawn, but choked when two faces unexpectedly leaped into view. She quickly got herself under control and glowered at Ahmed. "Stop doing that."
"Walking?" Ahmed smiled at her growl, then came around the side of the table while Dean Corso hesitated by the bookshelves. ::Anything?::
::Not really. You…brought him.:: She grinned at Corso, receiving a wolfish smile in return, and waved the man over to a chair before he fell over. Despite the amusement in his face, his skin was unhealthily pale in between the bluish-purple patches of bruising, and he held himself very awkwardly. ::Take it you found something?::
::The third book's probably in London. I've told Corso about the theory that only one is real, and he's agreed to help us find it. He needs to do preliminary research.:: Remarkably eager to do that, G wryly noted as she passed over half her notes. Ahmed, however, remained impassive as always; he didn't even bother to take off his hat. "I'll leave you two to it, then."
Corso blinked, then got half out of his seat. He was anxious, and it looked like he wasn't used to showing that emotion. "You're not staying?"
"I have other business to attend to. G will watch for you." Oh, now. Brusquer than usual, which hinted at a deep inner disturbance in the well. Possibly approaching earthquake proportions, if Ahmed was letting it be visible.
Unfortunately, he hadn't lost any of his speed. Or his uncanny way of avoiding her. "Goddamn frustrating…well, he is." G leveled her gaze at Corso and smiled, sweet and sticky like a honeytrap. "So…pleased to meet you again. What do you know about devil-worship?'
* * *
To Fred's surprise, more than his direct superior was awaiting him in the room. Sir Charles Warren was accompanied by two well-dressed, unfamiliar gentlemen, and a stark white beast, Special Branch's Ben Kidney, lounging at the window.
Warren slowly rose, resting both hands on the table, and spoke in the measured, ponderous tones of a judge. "Inspector Abberline, I've reviewed your progress on the Taillefer case and its related crimes, and-"
Behind Fred, the door suddenly creaked open, startling everyone. Kidney started forth, gaunt hungry hound leaping for the throat, but abruptly fell back as Ahmed's face emerged. "Sir Warren."
Whose face began to redden with outrage as he pointed a shaking finger. "And who are you, barging in on…on…"
Ahmed didn't immediately answer, but instead leaned insouciantly against the doorframe and pulled off his gloves. The air had gotten inexplicably cold, condensing into a palpable thickness against the skin, and the lights seemed to waver, jaundiced yellow veils across the others' faces.
"Sir, should I-" Kidney began.
"Don't be a fool!" snapped Warren. His whole demeanor had altered to become surprisingly deferential, almost to the point of fawning. "My lord, may I help you?"
"Do not touch that which is not your concern." A brief glance at Fred that reverberated through his marrow, and then Ahmed was gone.
With him went all the strangeness, all the ice and lurid shades. And all the fervor. It was like falling from a great height, then lying broken while everything passed by overhead. Fred stared into the vacant hallway, trying not to shiver.
God. So many unreported murders, and yet-he glanced at Warren, then down at the sparkle in the man's hand. A seal ring with the symbols of the Masons, which Fred had seen for years, but had never really paid attention to until Ahmed had brought up the mysterious society. And the same ring on all three other men, and the same expression of naked fear. "Do you know him?" Fred asked, just shy of a demand.
Warren's head snapped back down, and he made an effort to steady himself. "Inspector Abberline, you are off the case, and on vacation for the next month. With-with pay. Please go home."
"What-" Fred rose and started for the other side of the table, but Kidney loomed up from the side and warded him off with sheer menacing aura.
"Go, Inspector. And thank your prayers that you have powerful friends, or else you would not have been treated so kindly."
After that last seething remark from Warren, Fred was forcibly ushered back to his office, where he found Godley already being assigned. His files and notes were being taken, and it was by pure luck that he managed to recover the black book, unseen by the officiously bustling bastards.
Godley pulled him aside during an attempt to sweep him out of the building, shouldering off the other men. "Sir, what's going on?"
"Many things, Godley. Most of which are probably bad for your health." Annoyed and afraid, Fred shoved his way free and put his hand on the door, then sighed. "Keep your head down, all right?"
"'Something's rotten in the state of Denmark.' And don't forget your coat. It's a bit gusty outside." The other man handed over the item, but it took a moment for Fred to shift his bag so he could take it, muttering a thanks. He turned back to the door and pushed it open.
And was disappointed to see no Ahmed waiting for him. Far more than he should be. Fred thought about simply sitting down on the steps and cursing, then gave himself a sharp shake. Never mind that. He still had at least murders on the brain, and a very interesting book in his bag that he had a feeling Dean would recognize.
* * *
When the footsteps sounded on the stairs, Ahmed put down his cane and picked up one of the bandages he'd been busy making. He closed his medicinal kit and stashed it in his satchel, then rolled his shoulders, grimly preparing for yet another fight. All he seemed to do these days, scholarly reputation aside.
Tingles in his fingertips, waverings on the edges of his sight. The book was coming to pay a call.
The click of a key sliding into a lock puzzled him for a moment, but then they were walking in and there wasn't any time. Trip the leg, dodge the kick and the falling bag. Ahmed shoved the other man's face down, then grabbed the hands from their scrabbling at the carpet and bound them behind the back. Then he flipped the body over-
--and Abberline hissed, "What are you doing?"
"What am-why are you carrying the book?" Ahmed yanked over the other man's dropped bag and dug through till fire slithered under his skin. He jerked out the slim volume, then stared back at the other man. Who was trying to drag himself away, while more footsteps thumped outside and a dog whined somewhere in the rooms.
Damn. The book's feeling was overshadowing everything to the point that Ahmed couldn't even sense G. More importantly for this moment in time, he didn't know who was coming up. Spitting out Arabic curses, he lunged after Abberline and hauled the other man up against him. Snatched a wad of fabric from the floor and clapped it into Abberline's mouth, then threw his legs over the other man's. His back hit the wall, just left of the open door, and Ahmed grabbed his cane just in time for the clomping to stop, mere feet from the entrance.
"Great, not again," said Dean's voice, and Ahmed relaxed.
Then red flashed across the back of his mind, and Abberline stiffened in front of him, going very still.
"Get inside," G ordered. A second later, she was in the process of closing the door when she spotted Ahmed and Abberline. "What are you doing?"
"Being very confused." Ahmed took his hand off Abberline's mouth, hoping that the other man would be sensible about things. "Did you bring anything?"
"Just a handful of knives, and-is that it?" G picked up the book from the floor, then hurriedly tucked it back into the bag and threw that on the nearest chair.
Meanwhile, Corso was warily keeping his distance from Ahmed and Abberline. "Why is he-"
"Shit." G shoved Corso over the back of the sofa, which was facing away from the door. Ahmed did the same with Abberline, then hopped over and pinned down whatever was still sticking up: his right hand ended up over Corso's mouth, and his left hand was curving around the bony part of Abberline's hip. His cane went on the floor, within grabbing distance.
Strangely enough, Abberline seemed to have abandoned the struggling this time. Instead, he wriggled a little until he was more comfortable, then whispered, "What are you saying?"
"Incantations. So here isn't wrecked like the store." The couch was too crowded, so Ahmed quickly slipped off and knelt on the floor. "Now please shut up."
They did, and a tense silence reigned in the room. Standing beyond the end of the sofa, just by the door, G cocked her head as her hands slid within her clothes. Then pattering from one of the other rooms trailed right up to her leg and put a hopeful paw on her leg. "Oh, you're so cute," she cooed as she picked up the dog.
"Cute. Wonderful." Corso was smiling against Ahmed's hand, which he supposed was preferable to biting. "G, hallway."
"I know," she hissed, ripping and untucking her clothes as she petted the dog. The glowing lights in Ahmed's head resolved into two distinct groups, and he groaned into the nearest cushion.
Farce. That was what this was. A farce with a high body count and two pairs of very nice eyes watching Ahmed for cues…and he needed to stop letting his observational skills mix with his romantic side. Which he thought he'd managed to excise when he stopped writing poetry.
Abberline's eyes widened, then he snorted. Whereupon Ahmed moved his arm to block the other man's mouth and surreptitiously peered around to check out the entrance. A furiously-blushing man scuffed his feet on the threshold, holding a bundle of striped fabric.
"Hello," G purred. "You must be Peter Godley. Freddie's told me a lot about you."
The dog barked, somewhat mockingly, as she leaned in, most likely to smile seductively at the poor man. At least she was wearing a dress today instead of her usual men's clothing.
"Ah…well…he left his scarf and a few papers, and I was just stopping in to drop them off."
"Oh, thank you. Ah…Mr. Godley? Would you mind taking care of the dog for a few days? We'll be…well…"
Abberline looked about ready to strangle himself. Rolling his eyes, Ahmed leaned over and whispered, "Sorry. I'll talk to her later."
Corso twisted free of Ahmed's hand and shook his head. "It's fine. He was going to do that anyway. But why are we-"
"Oh, am I interrupting something?" caroled Liana's unmistakable soprano. Ahmed dropped soundlessly back and started up with the chanting again, hoping that it would be enough to disguise the book's presence.
"Not especially." G's voice had flattened out, and her entire posture had subtly altered from sultry to threatening. A child could have seen what was coming, and Godley was considerably more intelligent than that. He took the dog and made a hasty retreat, mumbling farewells to both women.
Rumbling in the earth, and acid water beneath Ahmed's tongue. He switched to the Germanic dialects, wrapping his throat and lips around the gravel-coated words, putting up their solidness against the cracking dams in his mind. Beneath him, Abberline was motionless as a stone, while Corso's eyes were flickering from side to side like a candle flame in a stiff breeze.
"Are the…men of the house out?" Liana delicately inquired. Corso flinched.
"Don't ask me again. One warning, Liana. Because I'm told you used to be with us." G was casually straightening her clothing, giving a quick deft tug to this flap, a flick to that. Like slicing her clothes back into place.
The other woman trailed an incredulous chuckle through the air, slouching artistically against the door. "Are you threatening me?"
"No. I'm informing you. On Ahmed's behalf. Now…" G studied her nails "…what do they say on the street here? Piss off?"
"Him." Liana's lip curled, and she flounced off. Just in time for the memories to break free and stir swamp mud, bitter ashes into Ahmed's soul.
* * *
Dean had untied Fred's hands just before Godley had shown up, but given the darkness lurking about the hollows of Ahmed's face, Fred had thought it best to lie still. Now, danger apparently gone, he hooked his arm over the back of the sofa and, wincing at the aches that awoke, pulled himself off of Dean.
"Mother of God." G was leaning against the wall, arms folded tightly over her breasts as she watched Ahmed stalk about the room. "What went on with you two?"
"I put two swords through her belly, and left her on a mountaintop." Clipped and too precise, just like Ahmed's movements as he donned his coat and picked up his cane. "Because she tried to ambush me with a pack of Scythians. She dragged herself down somehow, and burned my family alive."
And things only kept getting worse with every new player that showed up. Busy sorting through all the new information, Fred at first didn't feel Dean's elbow-jab. When it came again, he hissed and nearly punched the other man. "What?"
"That book you had-who gave it to you?" For once, Dean's face was deathly serious, fear ribboning in and out of his eyes.
"Um." Fred dropped his head into his hand, trying to remember. "There wasn't an address for the sender."
"We don't need one. It's Fargas' copy." Ahmed retrieved the book and walked over to the couch, his shadow enveloping both Fred and Dean. His face didn't show any emotion, but the space around him felt as if it'd been filled with sparks, shocking and scorching. And then Fred had been hauled up by his wrists, so fast his muscles didn't have time to scream. Dean opened his mouth and had a cane tip at his throat in the blink of an eye. "We don't have time to dance around each other anymore. Are you going to cooperate, or not?"
"I already told-" the silver tip prodded at Dean, and morose comprehension settled on his face. "All right. No more holding back."
"Thank you." Black gaze back to Fred, and he vaguely wondered if Ahmed could understand croaks. Because his skin was flushing and shrinking around him, and his breath had lodged in his throat, iron lump ripping into the base of his tongue. "Inspector?"
Fred managed a nod. He was dropped, and Ahmed was out the door before he could call after the other man. Leaving him to sink into the cushions, feeling warm bands permanently bind to his wrists, a whole new set of problems springing to the forefront.
"Does he-" Dean stopped to catch his breath and licked nervously at his lips. "Is he always like that?"
"No. Only when he's very upset." G was holding the book. Given to her at the last minute, Fred supposed. "You're supposed to keep researching this," she said to Dean.
"And me?" Fred asked.
She regarded him for a long moment, then nudged the door shut and locked it. "If you're not angry about my giving your dog away, you can help me deal with the Masons."