Iron and Blood

 

First published 2015 by Solaris

an imprint of Rebellion Publishing Ltd,

Riverside House, Osney Mead,

Oxford, OX2 0ES, UK

 

 

www.solarisbooks.com

 

ISBN (epub and mobi): 978-1-84997-917-7

 

Copyright © Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin 2015

 

Cover art by Michael Kormarck

 

The right of the author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owners.

 

To Kyrie, Chandler and Cody for encouraging us

and allowing us the time to make these books happen.

 

“T
HIS WOULD HAVE
been simpler if we’d done it my way.” The slender woman lifted her chin defiantly. Dark ringlets framed her face, and her violet eyes sparkled. Her black wool traveling suit was nipped in at the waist, making the bustle in the back more pronounced. Her voice was starting to rise.

“Your way involved dynamite. We wanted to remain discreet.” Jake Desmet tugged at the collar of his suit coat and tried to look nonchalant.

“We’d have been done by now.” Veronique LeClercq fixed Jake with a glare. “Rick’s taking forever to make the deal.”

Jake took a deep breath and counted backward from five. His cousin’s impatience was nothing new, nor was her penchant for more adventure than he fancied. And the dynamite had been a joke—maybe. “Nicki, be patient! Rick’s good at this sort of thing. We’ve got to be delicate about this.”

Jake hoped that passersby would take them for spatting siblings. While their disagreement was real, it was no accident that they were standing where they could keep an eye on the corridor in each direction. Jake smoothed a wavy lock of brown hair out of his eyes. Much as he hated to admit it, Nicki was right. Rick was taking a long time, and the delay was likely to cause trouble.

“Remind me again why you and Rick didn’t just steal the damn urn?” Nicki’s voice had dropped. “It would have been better than standing here like targets.”

“One: I’ve got no desire to see the inside of Queen Victoria’s dungeons for theft.”

“Oh, piffle. Queens don’t have dungeons anymore,” Nicki said with a dismissive gesture.

“Two: The urn is very valuable to our client. It might be dangerous. We don’t need to take additional risks.” Jake could see Nicki’s faint smile, which meant she wasn’t really hearing a word he was saying.

“Tsk. If the urn is that dangerous, why hasn’t it harmed the fellow who thinks he owns it? Eaten him, maybe, or sucked out his soul?” She was clearly relishing the argument, a pattern that hadn’t changed since childhood.

“Andreas impressed on us that it could be dangerous, but he didn’t say how,” Jake responded. “Rick and I take him seriously when he says things like that.” Jake focused on keeping his breathing regular. He’d been awakened in the night by a nightmare, and had had a sickening feeling of impending doom ever since. He’d told Rick and Nicki, but couldn’t give them more details, just a gut feeling. Unfortunately, Jake’s gut feelings were right more often than not.

“Just because your client is a centuries-old vampire-witch with a tendency for drama doesn’t mean he’s always right.”

Andreas isn’t the only one with a fondness for drama,
Jake thought. Just as he was about to respond, the door opened. Out stepped a good-looking, young blond man in an impeccably tailored Savile Row suit with a bulky bundle, wrapped in oil cloth and tied up with twine, under one arm. Rick Brand was smiling broadly, and shaking the hand of a man who was hidden to Jake by the door. Their pleasantries suggested a meeting gone well.

Jake let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding as he saw his friend safely back with them. The door closed and the smile disappeared from Rick’s face as he strode toward them. His mouth became a grim line, and his sky-blue eyes flashed a warning. “Let’s make a quick exit before the seller changes his mind,” he murmured as he passed Jake and Nicki, forcing them to keep up.

They strode three abreast down the corridor, as fast as they could go without breaking into a run. Their footsteps echoed on the tile, mocking their desire for stealth. A black carriage awaited them at the curb. Jake gave the driver a hard stare, assuring himself that no substitution had been made. He kept back a pace, watching the street for danger, as Nicki climbed into the carriage, surrounded by her voluminous skirts.

Just as Jake started toward the cab, he caught a glimpse of movement and alerted Rick. Three burly men rounded a corner on the right and headed toward them at a dead run, while from the left, four more brawny strangers stepped out of an alleyway and started in their direction.

“Get in, get in!” Rick gave Nicki an ungentlemanly shove. Her protest was muffled. Rick swung up, handing off the wrapped urn to Nicki as he ducked into the carriage. “Come on, Jake.” Jake already had a Colt Peacemaker in his hand, and was not surprised to see Nicki withdraw a pearl-handled derringer from her purse.

“Go!” Jake shouted, jumping for the doorway of the carriage. His foot had barely landed on the running board before the carriage lurched forward and the horses took off like the start of the Royal Ascot.

A shot splintered the rear left corner of the carriage. “I thought you said this coach was bulletproof,” Nicki snapped.

“Part of it is,” Jake said, ducking out of the carriage door long enough to size up their pursuers and get off a warning shot. Jake saw more men entering a waiting carriage down a side street.

“Only part?” Nicki’s voice rose a few notes.

Rick opened his door, clinging to the carriage frame as he squeezed off two shots from his Remington revolver. An answering shot zinged past, putting a hole in the door just above his head.

“The carriage body is steel-reinforced,” Jake said, before repeating Rick’s move on the opposite side of the vehicle. “About to the height of the top of your head.”

Nicki ducked. “Why not all of it?”

“Trade off, weight and speed,” Jake replied, getting off another shot through the narrowly opened carriage door.

The carriage careened onto two wheels, taking the corner at breakneck speed as the pursuing carriage struggled to keep pace. Several of their pursuers’ shots missed their marks, clattering against the brick walls of the buildings lining the road. Pedestrians and carts scrambled to get out of the way of the two carriages. Their driver had long been in the employ of Rick’s father, and was one of the best in London, having survived more than one run like this. Still, as the carriage bumped and jostled, throwing them from side to side, Jake could not help wishing he were already safely back home in New Pittsburgh.

“Nearly there,” Rick muttered under his breath, and Jake wondered if his friend had been counting the turns. Another volley of gunfire sounded around them, but this time, it seemed to come from every direction. Jake threw Nicki to the floor on top of the urn and dove to cover her with his body as Rick sank as low as he could into the seat.

A bullet tore through the top of the carriage, just missing the edge of the steel reinforcement. Several more clanged against the body of the carriage, leaving depressions in the metal. The shots were near-misses, despite their driver’s efforts to keep their pursuers at bay.

Pinned between his chest and the urn, Nicki was muttering curses in French. Jake met Rick’s gaze. “Why do our buying trips always end like this?”

Rick shot him his best crooked grin. “Because our usual business isn’t business as usual,” he replied, looking as unruffled as if he had just finished a cricket match back at Eton.

Jake kept his head down. There was good reason why the import/export company owned by his father and Rick’s father employed ex-military sharpshooters for its drivers and secured former cavalry horses for its carriages. This sort of thing happened far too often.

“I thought they weren’t supposed to be able to follow us,” Nicki grumbled.

“Obviously, they’re not as stupid as we took them for,” Jake returned.

“I rather prefer dimwitted henchmen,” Nicki muttered. “And I’ll thank the two of you to mind not to sit on me. It’s hard enough to breathe in this corset.”

A few more twists and turns through the narrow streets, and the carriage finally slowed to a more acceptable pace. Another hail of gunfire sounded close at hand, then silence.

“Do you think we’ve lost them?” Nicki asked.

Jake shrugged. “Either that, or they ran out of ammunition.”

 

 

T
HE CARRIAGE SLOWED
to a halt. Rick and Jake exchanged a wary glance, rising carefully, guns at the ready. A sharp rap came at the carriage door. “Safe to come out now, guv,” a familiar voice said.

Jake cautiously peered around the edge of the battered door, the Peacemaker still in his hand. Behind him, Rick also had his gun at the ready, and Nicki was struggling with her mass of skirts as she climbed off of the carriage floor. Jake’s heart was still pounding, but his gun hand was steady. They had arrived in a walled private garden, where they were hidden, at least for the moment, from prying eyes.

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