Authors: Leanna Renee Hieber
“His name is Harold Spire,” Black said. “What do you make of him?”
The man in question, seated on the velvet chair in the white room, wore a modest black suit. Scowling, he rested his hands in his lap. His green cravat gave the impression of having been hastily tied; it was rumpled and a bit askew. There were smudges upon his suit as if he'd encountered dust or soot and there was a dark stain on his cuff. At a median British height with light brown hair, Spire's average appearance might be gamesome, possibly even handsome, if the scowl didn't make him somewhat of a bulldog.
“What do you see?” Black murmured to his companion.
“Well,” Lord Denbury began matter-of-factly. “He's had a terrible day by the look of him. He bears a general white aura with hints of blue, which represents that he means well and is at heart a good man, untroubled and unbiased by exterior forces. He will do the right and moral thing. Provided that is what you want, Lord Black, you and he should not be at cross purposes.”
Lord Black smiled as he shut the observation panel. “I assure you, my friend, that I want what is moral, just, and fair.”
“I see the same light about you,” the dark-haired man replied. “But should those colors change, you'll no longer have my friendship. I'm sorry if that seems harsh, but the trials of the last two years have inured me to niceties.
“Is that all, milord? I've left my dear wife anxiously awaiting her surprise: a trip to Paris. She's impossible when she's impatientÂ â¦ and she's never patient,” he added with a smile that spoke of the throes of young love.
Black chuckled. “Indeed, you are released and I cannot thank you enough. Safe travels to you and yours.”
Denbury bowed his head and strode away, escorted by an immaculately clad footman.
Black turned to his aide. “Tell Her Majesty that Mr. Spire passed the test.”
Lord Black hadn't told Lord Denbury that the scientists and doctors stationed at Rosecrest, the Denbury estate, had recently gone missing, along with the security chief assigned to them. If the cable he'd received from a contact in America was to be believed, the Americans weren't having a good time of it either. He had to wonder if the incidents were related, somehow. Impossible as that seemed.
He turned as a rustle of skirts heralded the formidable presence coming his way.
“Ah, Your Majesty.” Lord Black bowed low to the diminutive sovereign. Her stern face with its round cheeks was framed in white lace while the rest of her was engulfed in black taffeta, dripping beads of Whitby jet. “Spire has been cleared.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Spire waited, not entirely patiently, for several minutes before Lord Black opened the door and gestured for him to leave the tiny, plain room. Eager to bring the handsome, slender, fine-featured blonde up to date, Spire began, “Tourney, Lord Blackâit's done. But what I foundâ”
Black held up a hand. His tense smile flexed the scar that ran from above his right eyebrow down into his cheek. Spire often wondered about the origin of that scar, but never asked. “Good work, Spire. The queen awaits you. But firstâ¦”
The sour-faced footman stepped up with a black suit coat in hand. “You look as though you've traversed every layer of Dante's inferno,” the man said.
“Oh, just come right out and say I look like hell,” Spire muttered, staring at Lord Black. “I
hell. It's worse than anything you could have imagined.”
The footman grabbed his sooty coat and slid it off his arms, then muscled on the fresh jacket though it in no way fit. Spire feared he'd split the seams with the least shift of his shoulders, which were far too broad for the fine fabric. The too-short sleeves didn't entirely hide the patch of blood on his shirt cuff. Shuddering at the memory of where he'd acquired the stain, Spire tried to tuck it out of sight. Black nodded Spire toward the receiving room.
He was shown in wordlessly; the door closed quietly behind him.
The surreality of Harold Spire's day was heightened by the lavish setting of Buckingham Palace, worlds away from his life and laughable when compared to the horror of his morning duties. He'd passed around the outside of the building during parades and once had visited the main foyer, but never before had he gained entrance to one of the receiving rooms. It was full of things; lacquered things, mirrored and crystalline things, tasseled and brocaded things. Strains of music wafted into the tall, bright room, perhaps from a ballroom: a string quartet playing Bach. Spire preferred dark-paneled rooms filled with books. And good whiskey. And Chopin. And a coat that fit.
“Your Highness,” Spire said, paying due deference to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, who stood facing away from him, hand upon the crest of a large armchair, turned toward a tall window with lace curtains partly drawn. Spire stepped forward, noticing that the marble-topped writing desk beside the queen was covered with maps of New York City and schematics for an ocean liner. A telegraph machine sat silent on the desktop, gleaming in the sunlight.
“Mr. Spire,” she began without turning to look at him, speaking in a grand way that left no room for interruption, “I have called you here to give you an appointment. You rose quickly through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police. I've been assured you are fair and just, keen to recognize patterns and aberrations that catch criminals, swift and smooth with your decisions. But perhaps too quick to
Spire felt heat rise in his face; he glanced into the golden-framed mirror on the wall next to him and saw his fair skin had colored all the way up to the roots of his light brown hair.
“I was afraid that's what this was about. Please, your Highness, I've personally apologized to the prime minister and to Miss Everhart. A cloaked female utilizing secret passages within a subsection of Parliament does seem suspicious, surelyâ” He hoped he didn't sound whiny.
“As you know, that was to hide the fact that the P.M. had employed a
as his chief bookkeeper. Imagine the outcry. But this isn't about the prime minister or his employees. You come highly recommended by Lord Black.” She turned around at last. Her eyes were shrouded by dark lenses connected by a curving filigree bridge. He must have looked quizzical, because she paused and said, “Lenses cut from a scrying glass, in hopes I'll see the dead.”
When Spire simply nodded, the queen cocked her head. “Not
necessarily,” she scoffed. “I know what you're thinking.”
That the queen still dressed in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, many years deceased, and entertained all sorts of ideas of how to contact himânot to mention sleeping beside a picture of him and placing out his fresh clothes each dayâhad become a quiet joke in the realm.
“What am I thinking, Your Majesty?” Spire asked innocently.
“Oh, come now”âshe batted her hand in irritationâ“it's as if you all think I go about dragging his coffin behind me everywhere I go.”
“I thought I saw parallel scratches on the wooden floor,” Spire said, gesturing down the hall. “That explains it.” He smiled.
The queen tried to scowl but instead coughed a laugh. She removed her glasses, piercing him with a stare. The short, plump-cheeked woman was downright disconcerting when she deployed her steely gaze. She was
with you, Mr. Spire? You look dreadful and you need a better tailor.”
“I came direct from a crime scene, Your Majesty, my apologies. I thought your gentleman explainedâ”
“Ah, yes, yes, Tourney and the resurrectionist ring. Tell me, how large of an operation do you deem it?”
“Between the financial speculation and the body snatching, I imagine it may be a wide net. The ledger we found will condemn the ring, though there was aâ¦” He trailed off, unsure how much of the dreadful scene to speak of. The Queen simply stared at him expectantly. At last he swallowed back a wave of sour saliva and continued, “A peculiar crest was discovered.â¦ Well, it all had a ring ofÂ â¦ ritual to it, Your Majesty.”
The queen snapped her head to the side and it was only then that Spire noticed Black had slipped into the room behind him. “Ascertain that crest,” she snarled. “If it remains from Moriel's tenure, I want them all to hang.” Lord Black nodded reassuringly. Spire was pleased the queen was taking the matter as seriously as she should.
“Mr. Spire,” the queen said, “I am about to tell you a state secret known only to a few. The Eterna Compound was first sought in America after the assassination of President Lincoln. A bold idea, born of grief. I well understand Mrs. Lincoln's woes. A small team of theorists made no progress in their research until two years ago. But now there is a fresh impasse. As I have full faith in
realm, I believe we can fix the Americans' mistakes and make the compound viable.”
“May I ask what the Eterna Compound is, Your Majesty?”
“A cure for death. A drug that confers immortality. I've had a team compiling information and studying the idea for years.”
Spire kept his face unreadable, his skepticism hidden. “And do we? Have the cure for death?”
The queen shook her head. “Our plant within the operation has not reported as scheduled. We hope to retrieve information and material from New York; material that you, Mr. Spire, will safeguard. Other Special Branches of investigation and prosecution will counter various political threats.
division, Omega, will counter the greatest threat of all: a nation that could make its leader immortal. We cannot allow America to gain the upper hand in immortality. I empathize with Mrs. Lincoln but have no desire to confront an utterly impervious American president.”
Lord Black stepped forward and spoke carefully. “The British operation isÂ â¦ paused. Our facility was recently compromised. You will safeguard fresh intelligence and a new team, in offices that are presently being prepared. You must focus on life and death in a whole new way, Mr. Spire. All other matters of mundane police work must be cast off to the fellows you leave behind at the Metropolitan Police.”
Spire reeled. This appointment was a nightmare. The queen had the wrong man. Spire didn't believe a word of any of this. A cure for death? How could he manage an operation he couldn't take seriously? He broached the only comfort he could cling to, the resolution of the horror he'd faced.
“But today's findings were hardly
; the work not of mere Burkes and Hares but something even more insidious.â¦” Panic threatened to overtake him as the images rose in his mind.
Lord Black stepped close and flashed Spire a look of warning as he poured whiskey from a crystal decanter into a pair of matching snifters. “Material and information will arrive from New York,” Black said smoothly as he handed Spire a glass, “and your focus must be upon it, Mr. Spire. I will
see to it that the Metropolitan follows every Tourney lead.” From the flash of fury in the man's eyes, Spire knew Black meant what he said and recalled it was Black himself who had obtained the ledger Miss Everhart had given him. More than he'd ever have expected of an aristocrat in the House of Lords.
Spire fought the urge to drain the snifter as the queen delicately lifted a cup and saucer of tea. Then she stung him.
“That you have suffered grave loss and then been betrayed by love, and in such a way as to cost state secrets may be something a man might be ashamed of,” the queen began, “but I look upon it as a gift. Your cautious care, a healthy ability to second-guess, a lack of trust, this will all be very valuable. Trust no one. Not at first.”
Spire swallowed hard. The queen had most certainly read up on him. His mother's death had been a bit of a media circus at the time, and his father had done nothing to calm the frothing “journalists.” Then,
. He'd been too naive to have imagined that an officer like him, assigned at that time around the Houses of Parliament and surrounding neighborhoods, would have been of interest to French agents. He'd never dreamed they'd employ a
âand Alice Helms, now Madame Lourie, had easily taken advantage of him. He had been a fool and women were a source of woe.
“And so I look at the whole of your history and see the sort of solid man I can depend on, one who has been scarred in all the right places. One must build up scars in war. And we are engaged in a most unusual war here, Mr. Spire. I need you scarred. Sane. And unafraid.”
“As we speak, all your belongings are being transferred to rooms in Westminster; Rochester Street, lovely accommodations unregistered and unlisted, a vast improvement from your current subsistence,” the queen continued casually. “Bertram will give you the keys. You will share your address only with the most trusted members of your assigned team, and only once you have ascertained their loyalty.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Spire bristled but managed to keep his tone level. He was a private man. That persons had been in his home and uprooted his possessions made him clench his fists.
“Lord Black will see to your new offices. Tell your Metropolitan fellows nothing save that you've been transferred. You'll liaise further with a contact at the British Museum.”
“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” Spire offered quietly, “I cannot in good faith abandon the Tourney case.”
“I insist that you do,” she replied stridently.
Spire swallowed hard. He would not disobey the queen. Not to her face. Instead he changed the subject.
“Your Majesty, I'm sorry, I have to ask, considering the bent of this commissionÂ â¦ Did my father put you up to this?”
The queen arched a brow. She was not amused. “Victor Spire?” She scoffed. “Author of penny dreadfuls, Gothic novels, and sensationalist plays? Have audience with Her Majesty the Queen?”