Read The Eterna Files Online

Authors: Leanna Renee Hieber

The Eterna Files (5 page)

“Ah, no, of course not. Forgive me for bringing him up,” Spire said, mustering sincerity, biting back the urge to say that he knew firsthand she had secretly attended his father's latest show; after all, his men had seen to her protection. “But a race for immortality. It sounds like something he'd serialize in Dickens' magazine.”

The regent stiffened. “Dare you imply, Mr. Spire, that this position is not to be taken seriously?”

“Of course not, Your Majesty, pardon me,” Spire said, bowing his head. “Unlike my father, I have retained appreciation only for the concrete, tactile, apprehendable, and solvable.”

“Apply those very principles going forward, Mr. Spire.” The queen clapped her hands once. Her serious, jowled face grew even more intense. “Tell your father his last novel was dreadful.”

“You read it, Your Majesty?”

“Every word,” she said with exaggerated disdain. “Truly
dreadful
stuff.”

“Agreed, Your Majesty.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Spire. Good luck and do good work.”

Spire bowed his head as the regent swept away amid the clicking of beads and the swishing of silk. The sour-faced footman showed him out a different door, first retrieving the excellent, though too small, coat and, with a curled lip, handing over Spire's soot-stained jacket as well as a brass key with a number on the fob.

Stuffing the key to a whole new existence into the pocket of his long, black, velvet-trimmed, fitted coat, Spire couldn't deny he was curious. He could go examine the place, test the walls, see if they'd granted him hidden compartments and revolving bookcases. Hopefully there was a wine cellar.

To leaven his darkening mood Spire lost himself as he loved to do: in the smoky, sooty, horse-befouled, hustling chaos of London proper, reveling in the onslaught of sensory input that drowned out all concerns, doubts, and anxiety. The crashing, audible waves of London always trumped the drumming of the mind; the roaring aorta churning the very heart of the world won out every time over one's own racing pulse. He let the chaos of London in like a man might smoke an opium pipe, allowing the high to carry him about the city on a cloud of stimuli.

Spire trailed a nervous man in a brown greatcoat for two miles simply for the sake of proving he could do so unnoticed. He chose his subject after overhearing him lie to a pretty girl leaning out the window of a brougham—narrowing in on one conversation out of the melee, it was as though Spire could hear a single, subtle line of dissonance in a rollicking symphony. The young man sent the blushing, giggling girl off, saying he was going west. Instead he took off east, stuffing his hands in his pockets, a sheen of moisture over his lip.

It wasn't that Spire assumed everyone was guilty of something, but years of honing perceptions, translating body language, reading movement and expression, ascertaining habits, casting judgments, all made him suspicious of nearly everyone at first glance. Trust no one, the queen had said. Spire had abided by that edict for years, ever since Alice … Since her, he hardly trusted himself.

Now he was being entrusted with state secrets coming from the highest channels. Ridiculous ones at that. Should he have said outright that he didn't believe in the supernatural? Skepticism had its uses. If the queen needed him to be a believer, she should have asked him.

That the man in the brown coat went into a jewelry shop and came out with an engagement ring—Spire had leaned against the shop window on Farringdon Road to eavesdrop upon the conversation with the clerk—filled him with a certain joy. He loved to be proven wrong. It didn't happen often enough. And if he didn't treasure those instances when the brighter side of humanity showed its face, he'd have to throw himself in the Thames.

He doubted the sights of that basement would ever leave his thoughts, and offered something of a prayer upward, toward an entity he regarded with as much skepticism as he did anything outside his own mind and body, hoping something about his new appointment might make for the ability to seek out further answers. For what could drive creatures to do such horrific things if they were not possessed, maddened, by the intrigue of life and death?

Regardless of motive or madness, to the point of risking treason, he'd hardly abandon the case.

CHAPTER

TWO

New York City, 1882

The tumult of New York harbor was deafening. There was confusion, concern, even panic on the docks at the tip of Manhattan Island. Ahead of Clara, as she looked out past schooners and ferry boats, lay the first tier of the pedestal that would eventually host Bartholdi's Lady Liberty … if New York could ever pay for her. Clara thought with a profound sadness that perhaps Liberty would never lift her lamp high over the water, not if all those warships meant anything.

A fleet of Britain's warships, the Union Jack flying high and proud upon every mast: the world's greatest navy, amassing at the tip of America's greatest city. A dread chill coursed through Clara's veins and she clutched her shawl tighter around her neck.

England would make America theirs after all. A colony it simply could not let go.

The act of a monarchy that could never die.

Never die.

“Wake up!”

Clara's eyes shot open as she bolted upright. The ruffles of her nightdress, which she'd bunched up around her neck during her nightmare, fell back down in a splay of fine layered lace.

Given the words that had roused her, Clara Templeton expected the visitor to be sitting at the foot of the wide bed she had once hoped to share with Louis Dupris. But the visionary young chemist and theorist had died yesterday, and the voice was not the visitor's but a renewed urging from beyond. More was being asked of her than mere living.

She had returned from the park to the Pearl Street town house she shared with her guardian, Senator Rupert Bishop. Having written a note stating her instinctual certainty that something terrible had happened to the team, Clara slid the sheet of paper under the door of Bishop's study and locked herself in her room. She'd have ignored his orders that she never visit the laboratory site if she'd thought anything could've been done. But the visitor had confirmed her instincts. Whatever the disaster—a fire, an explosion, an unexpected reaction of any kind—she prayed they had not suffered.

The senator kept late hours and traveled often, his schedule changing on a dime, so despite her best efforts to know his calendar, Clara wasn't sure when he'd see her note. But as the secrecy of the commission couldn't be broached by sending policemen to the laboratory, she needed him to decide on their next steps.

Sunlight streamed in through the exquisite craftsmanship of the Tiffany glass window of Clara's bedroom, through glowing, textured milky magnolia petals that cast pale yellowish spots upon her white satin bedclothes. Turning to one side, Clara stared into the mirror of her rosewood vanity, meeting her own terrified gaze. Waves of dark-blond hair framed her oval face in a wild mane. With wide eyes that were more eerily golden than they were green, and her mouth open, she looked like a mad Pre-Raphaelite painting, Ophelia just before the drowning.

In her hand, a saffron-colored strip of fabric.

A fine silk cravat.

Louis Dupris had left it behind after one of their harried tumbles of lips and hands and she'd been too fond of him to return it, instead secreting it away in a compartment of her jewelry box. The amulet he had bequeathed to her and this cravat was all she had of him; she'd fallen restlessly asleep clutching it.

She rose and went to her wardrobe to begin the feminine ritual of donning innumerable layers. She opened her bedroom door for a moment to listen for sounds from elsewhere in the house, but all was silent. That was for the best, lest she spill everything to the senator in one look.

Rupert Bishop gave her everything she needed; he was her mentor and her joy. He'd taught her everything she knew and remained her spiritual counselor. Her relationship with him was complicated and nearly impossible to describe. Once he might have been her Great Love. Epic, sweeping, and all-consuming. But was that this life? She doubted so. Once she'd asked him if he felt whole.

“Frankly, I don't know,” he'd mused. “This life is full of fragments. We're all torn apart.”

It was not an answer, but it told her enough: she was not what he was missing. She buried her feelings. “Do you feel whole, then?” he asked her in turn.

She shook her head. But until she understood the exact shape of the puzzle-piece holes within, she did not dare pinpoint exactly what might fill them. With Rupert she had to take immaculate care. When all her school and society friends abandoned her at age thirteen, when her seizures started—none wanted to be seen or associated with such an unfortunate—Rupert was all she had. She dared not do a single thing to jeopardize that. Even calling him Rupert often felt too familiar, an intimacy she relished but one that frightened her. And so, as everyone else called him either Bishop or Senator, so did Clara, pressing love for him so deep into the recesses of her heart that it had fossilized.

Who did the visitor mean by her “missing link?”

Clara had toyed once with channeling some of her overwhelming sentiment into something productive. A novel. A memoir. She still
felt
with that ardor that, at twelve years of age, had had her blurting impossible things to powerful people. But when she tried to put her thoughts into words, the result was unwieldy and read like the scribblings of a naive schoolgirl. No reader would believe the intensity of her feelings; none would understand that she was a soul with every nerve ending accessible. Perhaps in childhood, all souls were similarly exposed. But grown persons were calloused; keeping a fragile heart was physically and psychically dangerous. The bounds of human flesh were finite. After all, when dead, the heart was mere flesh. Clara's material world was small, but her spirit was as vast as the sky.

So Clara did not write. Instead, she went to work. Good, honest, busy work; the salve to both emotional deficits and oversensitivities.

In the Pearl Street offices she balanced the books on the Eterna teams' expenses, ensuring fresh supplies of basic chemicals and minerals, the most modern medical manuals and textbooks of interest, with a budget left over for items of “spiritual” interest.

When it came to matters “paranormal,” she was more directly involved. She interviewed those who reported strange phenomena, then filed the results at the office. She and Senator Bishop kept an eye on theatrical psychics and other spiritualist charlatans, warning them when they went too far in taking advantage of the grieving or bored.

Clara occasionally accompanied the senator on campaigns. She volunteered for New York City's ASPCA, a cause the Templeton clan had long championed as friends of the organization's inimitable founder, Henry Bergh. She visited her parents' mausoleum in gorgeous Greenwood weekly, taking the trolley to the Gothic gates and passing the day in lavishly carved stone shade. What company could be more beautiful than those stone angels? She kept herself occupied. She needed no lovers or close friends.

Until Louis Dupris came along as the capstone to the Eterna research team and upended her entire, prematurely spinsterish, calcified universe.

They had met at a soiree at the infamous Vanderbilt mansion. The details were emblazoned in her memory. She had stepped into a shadowy alcove, deliberately out of Bishop's line of sight, when suddenly an exceedingly handsome, olive-skinned man in a fitted black suit blocked her path.

Clara took a moment to psychically evaluate him and determined she was in no physical danger. His piercing hazel eyes bored into her with thrilling intensity. “You're in my way, sir,” she said quietly.

“So I am. I've been instructed not to introduce myself,” the man began, in a rich, deep voice. “And while I do value my new job as my life, that life would be forfeit if I did not at least tell you that you are, by far, the most interesting creature in this entire room, if not this entire city. Save, perhaps, your guardian, my employer, who insisted you were quite off-limits. This would make any woman all the more fascinating were you not so utterly time-stopping on your own. I understand now why the senator is so protective of you.”

Clara laughed. “Did my dear Bishop employ you merely for flattery?”

“No, my lady, he employed me for theory and faith. How I might apply spiritual concepts and principles into the quest of immortality as pursued by your department.”

“Ah, you're one of ours!” she commented brightly. “You're new. Where do you hail from? Your accent is distinct.”

“New Orleans, my lady, a distinct city indeed.” He bowed. “Louis Dupris, at your service, Miss Templeton. I hope my overtures do not offend. It may be that I never speak with you again, as I value my work and the senator deeply. But there are times when a man must speak or forever regret the chance, and you evoke that prescient timeliness.”

She cocked her head to the side gamesomely, the plumes of her fascinator rustling. “You should come to call, Mr. Dupris.”

“I couldn't … I can't.”

“But you should,” she insisted sweetly. He looked uncomfortable. She chuckled. “In secret, then, if you're so worried about the senator's wrath.” She batted her silk-gloved hand. “Come stroll with me on Tuesday, through the Greek and Roman relics at our glorious Metropolitan Museum. At two. Tell me about spiritual disciplines I know little of.”

And then she'd had a seizure. Right in middle of the Vanderbilts' home.

Whenever too many ghostly voices or psychic phenomena pressed in upon her at once, Clara had an “episode.” Generally her body gave her an aura of warning and she would exit a place before any damage was done. Distracted by the party, by Louis, by all the glamour and finery, she'd missed the telltale signs. She hadn't had a “fit” in years and was more mortified than ever by the condition she'd been fighting since the age of thirteen. While she knew she had nothing to be ashamed of, the world wasn't so generous. Especially not at a Vanderbilt party.

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