Read The Eterna Files Online

Authors: Leanna Renee Hieber

The Eterna Files (2 page)

“You've always been gifted,” the visitor replied. “Sensitive.”

“And we see what good
sensitivity
has done me.” Clara choked out her words. “I'm a freak of nature. My ‘fits' render any hope I might have had for a normal life or a place in society laughable. I curse my gifts for all the misfortune they bring.” Embarrassing, traumatic memories paraded through her mind, her past lives staring on in pity. Clara hated pity. Perhaps it was best, then, that the visitor had none.

“Don't be ungrateful, child,” the visitor chided. “You've two friends in a world of loneliness, you had a lover when many never know such pleasure, you've worked when hordes seek pay, you've had a guardian who dotes on you when countless orphans have no one, and you've money and a fine house in a city that denies both to thousands of its denizens.”

Clara wanted to lash out at the creature. But it was right, which only sharpened her pain.

“Something terrible has happened, hasn't it? To the Eterna team?” she whispered, her throat raw as if from screaming even though she had loosed no such sound. “To my Louis? My love is among them.…”

An amulet of protection, tucked beneath her corset stays, was a knot against her shaking breaths. The amulet had been given to her by Louis, an item charged and blessed by his mother. Clara never felt she had the right to it, and now, he, who needed protection, lacked it

“I am very sorry for your loss,” the visitor said solemnly.

“I must go,” Clara insisted, trying to fight free but failing. “Maybe I can help the team—”

The visitor held up a hand. “It's no use. They're gone.”

“Why can't you stop terrible things if you're aware of them?” Clara demanded. “Why can't I?”

“Not in our skill set,” the visitor replied. “You've taken too much ownership of something that is not your responsibility, Templeton. What is your responsibility, is to—”

“‘
Wake up?
' Yes, I hear it, on the wind. In my bones. What does it mean?”

The woman gestured before her, to Clara's iterations. “You see the lives, don't you?”

“Yes.” Clara swallowed hard. “Do you?”

“Of course I do,” the visitor replied. “I'm here to tell you that a great storm is coming. It will break across two continents; two great cities, the hearts of empires. Your team is gone and storms are coming. Weather them, find special souls and shield them. Second-guess your enemy. Find the missing link between the lives you see. Do this for yourself. And for your country.”

Clara snorted bitterly. “Do I hear patriotism?”

The visitor shook its head. “I owe allegiance to no land.”

“Then what are you here for?” Clara begged.

The visitor's voice grew warm. “I care about certain people.”

“Why me?”


Show
me why you, Templeton,” the visitor proclaimed. “You're at the center of the storm. Be worthy of the squall.”

The mockingbird made the strange, roaring sound again and the woman was gone.

Clara's hands shook. The people she had been in her many lives turned and looked at her, male, female, all with certain similar qualities that she recognized as uniquely hers. Curiosity. Hunger. Restlessness. Intensity. Independence. A desperate desire for noble purpose. And lonely.

She was
awake
. But Eterna had died, taking with it the lover no one knew she had.

CHAPTER

ONE

London, 1882

Harold Spire had been pacing until first light, crawling out of his skin to close his God-forsaken case. The moment the tentative sun poked over the chimney tops of Lambeth—though it did not successfully permeate London's sooty haze—he raced out the door to meet his appointed contact.

Conveniently, there was a fine black hansom just outside his door. Spire shouted his destination at the driver as he threw open the door and launched himself into the carriage. He was startled to find that the cab already had an occupant: a short, balding man, immaculately but distinctly dressed; as one might expect of a royal footman.

“Hello, Mr. Spire,” the man said calmly.

Spire's stomach dropped; his right hand hovered over his left wrist, where he kept a small, sharp knife in a simple cuff. Surely this was one of Tourney's henchmen; the villain was well connected and would do anything to save his desperate hide.

“Do not be alarmed, sir,” the stranger said. “We are en route to Buckingham Palace on orders of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

“Is there a problem?” Spire asked, maintaining a calm tone, relaxing his hand but offering up a silent prayer to whatever God was decent and good that the queen would not have interceded on the wretch's behalf.…

“No, sir. You are being considered for an appointment. I can say nothing more.”

“An … appointment.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I'm afraid I cannot attend to this great honor at present, sir.”

The man arched a preened brow. “Beg your pardon?”

“With all due respect,” Spire continued, not bothering to hide the earnest desperation he felt, “I am a policeman at a critical juncture, awaiting receipt of vital material without which a vicious criminal might walk free—”

“And what shall I tell Her Majesty? That you're too busy for her?”

Spire set his jaw, looking anxiously out the window, seeing that they were heading in the opposite direction from where he needed to be at precisely seven. “Please tell Her Majesty that I'm about to stop a ring of child murderers and resurrectionists. Burkes and Hares. Body snatchers—”

“That will have to wait. Mere police work does not come before Her Majesty.”

“I think highly enough of Her Majesty to think she'd deem this important.”

“I am under orders to take you to the palace regardless of prevarication—”

“I wouldn't dare lie about a thing like this!”

“Once Her Majesty has determined your suitability, you'll be returned to your duties.”

“You'll have to give the empress my sincere regrets. She may be able to live with one more child dead in her realm but I, sir,
cannot
.”

With that, Spire opened the door of the moving carriage and cast himself onto flagstones slick with the foul mixture of the London streets. His heel turned slightly under him and he came down painfully; his elbow jarred against stone and his forearm cut against the brace that held his knife sheath. He jumped to his feet and ran—with a slight limp—veering onto a bridge across the busy, teeming, brown Thames and onward to a life-or-death rendezvous.

He'd likely be arrested for his evasion, but his conscience was utterly clear.

*   *   *

Spire's right hand hovered over his left forearm as he entered the damp brick alley, which was lit sporadically by gas jets whose light was dim behind blackened lantern glass. Even though the world was brightening with the gray of morning, sunlight didn't penetrate into these drear, winding halls of sooty brick, London having its labyrinthine qualities. He made his tread soundless on the cobblestones, his eyes aware of every shadow and shape, his ears alert, his nostrils flared.

While he doubted his informant was dangerous—it was all bookkeeping, really, he imagined the source was a bank clerk or the like—what the ledgers revealed was something else entirely. The proof itself was dangerous and many men would kill with far less provocation. If “Gazelle” proved trustworthy, Spire would recruit the man for his department.

He palmed the key Gazelle had left in the drop location at Cleopatra's Needle. If all had gone according to plan, Gazelle would have left enough evidence at this bookstore to prove without a shadow of a doubt that Francis Tourney was bankrupting charitable societies in a speculation racket that would make any betting man blush. That he was also involved in a child-trafficking ring of both living and dead young bodies was harder to prove, but far more damning.

The key opened the rear-alley door of the bookshop. A small lantern was lit somewhere within, casting a wan yellow light over stacks of spines. Spire knocked on the wooden door frame: three taps, a pause, and two more.

A quiet rap in response, from somewhere within the maze of books, confirmed that his informant was waiting. Spire edged his way through boxes and stacks—one stray limb could cause the whole precarious haphazard system to tumble—toward the source of the light.

He turned a corner of books and stopped dead in his tracks. There sat a woman who had gotten him into a good bit of trouble—the prime minister's best-kept secret, his bookkeeper, one Miss Rose Everhart. Poised as ever, seated at a long wooden table; the lit lantern cast her scowl of concentration into sharp relief as layered bell sleeves spilled over a stack of thin spines. One ledger lay, open, under her hand; she ran ungloved fingertips over the pages.

She wasn't stunning, but unique; her full mouth, set now in a frown, gave her a gravitas offset by the few loose brown curls around her cheeks, an almost whimsical contrast to her fastidious expression. When she looked up at Spire, the intensity and razor-sharp focus of her large blue eyes made her intriguing, magnetic.

“You're surprised to see a woman,” she said. It was not a question.

“Yes.” Spire spoke very carefully. “Especially one I recognize.” At this, she smiled, a prim, self-satisfied smile. “You made quite an impression, Miss Everhart. A cloaked female figure glimpsed wandering the halls of Parliament, only to disappear into a wall? I didn't buy the story that you were a specter.”

“The too-curious Westminster policeman. So we meet again,” she said with an edge. “The eager dog sniffing out a fox. My employers, who were granting me the easiest access to my job while hoping to avoid any national outcry, were not fond of you. And I confess, nor was I. It was bad enough to have to sneak about, then to be thought suspect for it when I am a patriot? Horrible.”

“Yes, I was quite chastised about that by your superior, Lord Black,” Spire muttered, “so you needn't pile on.” He wondered with sudden fear if that's why the queen wished to see him: more scolding. Spire's purview was Westminster and its immediate environs. When he'd stumbled upon Miss Everhart, he'd merely been doing his job. Tourney's speculation ring involved members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so it was perhaps not surprising that Spire had thought that the prime minister's bookkeeper had access others did not.

At the mention of Lord Black, Miss Everhart smiled and warmed. She stood suddenly, as if on ceremony, gesturing for Spire to sit at the bench opposite. While she was primly buttoned in dour blues and grays, her skirts and bodice were tailored in unique lines and accented with the occasional bauble that made Spire think a subtle bohemian lived somewhere deep beneath her proper corset laces.

“We have enough on the racketeering for a compelling case,” she said, handing several ledgers across the table.

“Good,” he said, nodding.

“But it's
this
that will deliver the decisive blow,” she murmured, and shuddered. She passed him a narrow, thin black book that she didn't seem eager to touch. The cover said, “Registry.”

“What's this? Did you collect this from the banks?”

“No. From Tourney's study.” At Spire's raised eyebrow, Miss Everhart clarified, “After I showed him the numbers, Lord Black arranged for Sir Tourney to attend some sort of speculators' gala. Black stamped a warrant and found this.”

“Himself?” Spire asked, incredulous.

“Lord Black had been feted at the Tourney estate, so sending him in was the most efficient. He knew to look for anything out of the ordinary. And
this
is hardly ordinary.”

Shocked by a lord's unorthodox method but impressed by the man's initiative, Spire opened the book. Small, dark marks and round smudges marched down the pages in boxes made up of thin graphite lines. A few letters—initials, Spire guessed—were penciled above each dot.

On one side of the page, the dots were dark red. On the other side, the small marks were black. At the top of each page was a single large letter: “L” above the red marks and “D” above the black.

Horror dawned, slow and sick, as Spire stared at the lines of dots and initials. Dots the size of a child's fingertip.

“Living.” Spire's finger hovered over the “L.”

Then he moved to the “D.” “Deceased”

Oh, God. They were children's fingerprints. Swabbed in their blood. Or, if their bodies had been stolen when dead, their fingers dipped in ink and pressed to the page.

A registry of stolen children.

Used for God knows what.

“I…” Spire stared at Miss Everhart, whose face was unreadable. “I'm sorry you had to see this.”

Her jaw tensed, pursed lips pressed thinner. “I am thirty and unmarried. I doubt I'll ever have children, so I do whatever I can. I owe it to those poor children not to flinch.”

Spire nodded. He hadn't thought to place any women assets in his police force. But women could keep secrets, tell lies, deceive, and connive with an aptitude that frightened him. Women made
bloody
good spies. He knew that well enough.

Spire rose, sliding the ledger, breakdown, and “registry” into his briefcase. “Thank you, Miss Everhart. Please give Lord Black my regards, I was unaware he was involved. I'm not wasting any time on the arrest.”

“I didn't imagine you would.” Everhart rose and wove expertly through the labyrinth of books. As she disappeared, she called back to him. “Go on. I'll alert your squadron. I doubt you should go there alone.”

He stared after her a moment, resentful of initiative taken without his orders … but it would save him valuable time.

*   *   *

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