Part I: Learning From Experience
The glass shattered.
He hit the ground amongst a shower of splinters and rolled, forcing himself to his feet and a stumbling run. A loud, screeching howl echoed through the night after him, spurring him to greater speed. Scrubby grass grew in clumps on the mansions grounds, and it tripped him, reaching like stubby, osier hands, gripping at his boots as he ran, cursing towards the high iron fence surrounding the manor.
The screeching raised in pitch as he reached the fence and began to force himself upwards, heaving his body over the top, catching his arm on an iron spike, leaving a jagged wound.
He hit the ground, rolling, cradling his wounded arm to his body, his other hand clutching at the object he had come to retrieve.
He forced himself to his feet, gasping, and moved off towards the dimly lit town below. Shunning the road, he dodged into the overgrown thicket that led down the hill towards Gomorra.
Several minutes later, after a zigzag course through the thick undergrowth, he allowed himself a moments rest. Shoving his treasure between his legs he tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and wound it around the wound. It was a clumsy bandage, but it would do until he was safely back into town.
"That was--commendably fast," said a dry voice nearby.
He whirled, grabbing at his prize, his other hand reaching automatically into his shirt pocket.
A silhouette crouched slightly uphill from him on a rock protruding from the hillside, bathed from behind in silvery moonlight. A tall silken hat perched on its head, an opera cloak wrapping it in a grotesque embrace.
He glared up at it and clutched the book closer to his body. His eyes darted
around, looking for a safe place to hide.
The silhouette unfolded, standing to its full height. The cloak rustled slightly, like a disturbed bat irritated by a pesky flea. A pair of gloved hands came into view, worrying at a pack of well-worn cards. "I do find running so vulgar, dont you?"
"Not compared to the alternative," he replied in a rich, cultured voice.
The silhouette chuckled, unpleasantly. "Touche," it said. "Now give me that book."
"I think not, Nicodemus," he replied, backing slightly away and keeping his eyes locked on the cards flowing through Nicodemus hands.
"It was not a request," growled Nicodemus, the unpleasantness in his voice shifting into threatening. "You dont know what youre dealing with."
"I know enough," he replied, his own voice matching Nicodemus threatening tone.
"You dont know Jack," spat Nicodemus, shuffling the cards rapidly.
"As I said," he snarled back, five cards appearing in his own hand, eldritch energy crackling across his body and into a nearby shadow. "I know enough."
He stepped along the cris-crossed bolts of energy into the shadow, as Nicodemus leapt forward, five cards appearing in his own hands. Sickly grey forms raced along Nicodemus arm and erupted into the adjoining air at the dissolving figure, howling through the space where it had once stood and splashing against a nearby tree as ineffectively as a spume of milk might, cascading back into nothingness.
Nicodemus grimaced and shuffled the cards back into his deck. He straightened
his hat upon his head and looked up at the house on the hill with something akin to trepidation crossing his face. The screeching wail was still audible, and only added to his sense of unease.
Grandmother was not going to be pleased.
* * * * *
Five of them waited in the drawing room in various states of discomfiture. The unholy wailing was continuing, and was beginning to get on Nicodemuss nerves. Upon his return to the house, Jebediah had informed him that there was to be a quorum in the drawing room at his earliest convenience. It didnt take a lot of intelligence to realize that that meant as soon as possible.
Nicodemus had arrived in the drawing room to find the others already present.
Basil, an indolent looking youth wearing a maroon, velvet smoking jacket slouched against a mahogany cabinet, his pudgy, bored expression spoiled only by the obvious agitation showing in his eyes. Standing stiffly on the other side of the cabinet was the raggedly dressed Moses, his black eyes staring hungrily at Nicodemuss arrival.
Perched on a moth-eaten sofa, a spiderweb of thread twined through her delicate fingers sat the tattered Dolores. Her wide, unblinking eyes followed the mad tangles of her cats cradle, and occasionally she let out a giggle as they reminded her of something that only she could find funny. A chain at her feet led to the neck of the feral-looking Ezekiel, his beady eyes and crooked mouth leering at Nicodemus, as he entered the room.
Jebediah, the eldest, leaned against the fireplace, his tall, lanky form casting a long shadow across the room. He held a tumbler of brandy in his hand. He nodded slightly to Nicodemus, and went back to watching the fire, cocking his head slightly, as if to better hear the screaming.
After several uncomfortable minutes, the howling abruptly ceased, and the encroaching silence added to the oppressive atmosphere. The six family members fidgeted, none meeting the gazes of the others. Nicodemus endlessly shuffled the cards in his hand, occasionally flipping one or two towards his eyes, and then quickly back into the ever moving pile.
"Well, my poppets," came a stern, trebly voice from one corner of the room, "who would like to tell me what happened here tonight?"
No door had opened, no footfall had announced her presence. The overstuffed red, velvet armchair had not been occupied a moment ago, and now it was. The space around his grandmothers form twisted and writhed in an agitated manner, as though the emptiness had been shoved roughly aside to make room for her wizened form.
Jebediah cleared his throat, not meeting her angry glare. "We had a--visitor, Grandmother," he said uncomfortably.
"His name?" she asked.
Nicodemus grimaced. "Sir Whitmore, Grandmother."
Her eyes snapped from Jebediah to him, skewering him with her disapproval. "How nice," she said in a cloying tone that suggested anything but. "And where is he now?"
Nicodemus shifted under her stare. "He got away," he admitted, through gritted teeth.
"It would seem Sir Whitmore had more wit than we believed, hmm?" she muttered. The non-rebuke sent shivers of dread down Nicodemuss spine.
"Yes, Grandmother," replied Nicodemus, looking at the floor wretchedly.
"How far had you gotten?" she asked, turning her stare back to Jebediah.
"Not far enough," he sighed. "Two more days, perhaps three, and I might have found what we were looking for."
Wilhelmina Whateley tapped a blue-veined finger against her cheek, thinking. "This alters things a little," she grumbled, "but we may be able to salvage something out of it. It means putting one or two things in motion faster than we had planned to, but--" her eyes glared back at Nicodemus, "I suppose it couldnt be helped."
She seemed to come to a decision. "Very well. Basil, Moses, you will clean up the mess in the library." Basil nodded and he and his raspy breathed relative strode away.
"Dolores, you take our Ezekiel down and sit with our Saul for a while. Hes had a very exciting evening, and you may have to calm him down." The pale girl in the torn dress giggled and clapped her hands, grabbing the chain around Ezekiels neck and hauled him from the room.
"Jebediah, you will go into town and arrange a meeting with Master Flatbush. Tell him I shall be along to speak with him at the usual place at two bells of the tower." Jebediah bowed slightly and set about his task.
Alone with his grandmother, Nicodemus braced himself for the full brunt of her displeasure. Instead, she smiled at him.
"Grandmother?" he asked, confused.
Her eyes snapped back into focus, as if she had been seeing something other than the room before her. She fixed on his worried expression, and her smile widened, adding to his discomfort. "You think Im angry?" she chortled.
He cleared his throat, looking at the floor.
Her smile dissolved in an instant. "I am," she said, darkly. It reappeared, as though it had never left. "But even the best players lose their games from time to time. And the best players learn from their mistakes. Have you learned, Nicodemus Whateley?"
"Yes, Grandmother," he said, firmly. "I have."
She appeared to consider. "Perhaps," she tutted, rising. "Still, another lesson, I think. You will accompany me when I go to meet Master Flatbush--tonight."
"Yes, Grandmother," he agreed meekly, falling into step behind her as she left the room. "And what kind of lesson shall this be?"
She let out a horrible cackle, filling the darkened corridors with her mirth.
"A dancing lesson, my chick," she said, answering his confused look.
"A dancing lesson."
Part II: Dancing by Moonlight
Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Oh dear."
He snapped his pocket watch shut, replaced it in its pocket in his waistcoat and glared impatiently at the offending tower. After several silent seconds, it let out a pair of booming peals, announcing the hour of two.
"I really must speak to someone about that," he muttered to himself, as he smoothed down the creases in his duster and arranged the furry Cossack hat upon his head.
Charles Flatbush looked disapprovingly upon the darkened streets of Gomorra. Strains of faint, plinky piano music floated quietly through the streets, coming from one of its many saloons, which were open at all hours. He straightened his handlebar mustache, turning to look at the tree, a knobby oak that stretched over a small plot near the Town Square, which seemed to attempt to give an illusion of life and normality to the town.
"Town," he said softly to himself. "Humph." More like a collection of badly behaved rabble sticking like barnacles to the rotten hulk of a ghost galleon, than a town. It was not a place he would have imagined hed find himself several years ago. Well, he admitted, not even a year ago, really. But Gomorras faults were overshadowed by her promises. The promises of wealth, of status, of advancement. He grimaced slightly, thinking of the events that had led him here. Advancement. Yes. Keep that in your mind, he thought quietly, and youll do just fine.
Footsteps scraped upon the dusty road behind him, and he straightened up. "Time to go," he said quietly, and forced a smile as he turned.
Two dark figures moved down the shadowy road towards the tree. One was short, dressed in a severe black matrons dress, an aura of austerity barging along before it. A fur-lined hood rested over the back of its head, steel-grey hair tucked primly back into what could only be a schoolmarms bun. A black stovepipe hat jammed roughly onto its head completed the ensemble. Altogether, you could rarely find a more imposing figure for her size than Wilhelmina Whateley.
Stepping along behind, opera cloak billowing slightly behind him, walked another figure. This one was also dressed in black, a tailored suit of impressive cut. However this one had shunned the exclusive black for a white shirt with an elaborately stitched waistcoat. A pair of gray gloves rested on his hands, and his long hair blew slightly behind him as he looked at Charlie over the tops of tinted spectacles of a faintly purple hue. This figure also wore a hat, but this one a silk topper with a gray band. In his hand rested a cane with a silver knob at its top and he moved with a slightly predatory air. Charlie gritted his teeth slightly, casting a nervous eye upon the spire of St. Martins Church, as though it might protect him somehow from this clandestine meeting. Jebediah, while a bit starchy in his demeanor, was hugely preferable to speak to, rather than the disquieting Nicodemus.
Charlie planted his cane before him and bowed his head slightly. "Ill met by moonlight, proud Wilhelmina," he quipped, willing his smile to return.
"Master Flatbush," she replied, curtly. "Thank you for being so punctual. As usual. One feels one can always depend on you for that."
He lowered an eyebrow slightly; not knowing if he had been paid a compliment or a jibe. Shrugging, he stepped forward. "I was most surprised that you wanted to meet tonight. Have you come across any further news of interest?"
She shook her head. "No. That wasnt why I wished to speak with you."
He frowned. "May I ask then why you requested I be here? I have many pressing matters that need tending to. I am, as you well know, a very busy man."
"I am well aware of your pressing matters, Master Flatbush. However, in light of the services provided to you by myself and my family in the past, I think I feel safe in believing that this is not too staunch an imposition on your time."
He cleared his throat, his frown deepening somewhat. "Very well, my dear lady. Please do go on."
Her face crinkled into a disturbing smile, reminding him of an apple that had been left in the sun for too long. "There was an--incident up at my estate this evening."
"What sort of incident?" he asked, noncommittally.
"Someone broke in," she said darkly. "Trespassed on my property. Entered my home uninvited, and made off with a rather treasured family heirloom."
"Was anyone hurt?" he asked, his manner changing to one of apparent concern.
"Fortunately not. My youngest grandson, Saul, was a bit frightened, but otherwise, no one came to any harm."
Charlie paced a bit, listening to her. "I see. Do you have any idea of who it might have been?"
Nicodemus stepped slightly forward, his superior air of smug confidence setting Charlies teeth on edge. "Indeed. I have seen him about the town. He calls himself Sir Whitmore."
Charlie stopped. "No first name?"
Nicodemus shrugged. "If so, he has never used it when I was nearby, only the honorific. An alias perhaps?"
Charlie snorted. "Possibly." He paused, pacing slightly, tapping his cane against his chin as he turned the situation over in his mind.
He stopped. "But why," he asked, turning to look at the pair, "did you have to come out here to meet me to tell me about it? You could have come to the sheriffs office and reported it. Why all the skulking about?"
Wilhelminas smile altered slightly. It was nothing that Charlie would have been able to explain had anyone asked. One minute it was merely unnerving and the next it was almost an overt threat.
"This is a matter we would rather be kept somewhat quiet for a number of reasons. For one, my family prefers to keep itself out of the public eye. For another we dont want every scruffy layabout this town has to offer chasing Sir Whitmore throughout Gomorra in an attempt to receive some recompense for returning what it is he took from us. We would like for the matter to be handled discreetly, by yourself and your most trusted colleagues," she said pointedly.
Charlie sighed. She did have a point. If some of the more disreputable elements of the town thought they might be able to gain something from one of Gomorras wealthiest families, there was no telling what kind of trouble might be caused. A witch hunt, perhaps, or even worse.
These days, there was no telling what the people of Gomorra were capable of. "What was it he stole from you?" he asked.
He blinked. "A book?" he exclaimed incredulously. "You call me out here in the middle of the night and ask me to put the best men I can muster on the trail of a man who stole a book?"
"It is a rather rare first edition treatise on the art of games," said Nicodemus, stiffly. "The only one of its kind I have ever seen."
"May I remind you," growled Charlie, beginning to lose his patience, "that I am currently dealing with two rogue bands of outlaws currently stealing everything that isnt nailed down? Or that the First Bank has been robbed? That Sheriff Coleman has been brutally murdered? Not to mention the fact that the various petty factions around Gomorra are attempting to gun each other down every other night? I am sorry, madam, but I do not have the time or the resources to spare anyone to specifically track down one missing book!"
He turned to leave, but her voice stopped him in his tracks, snapping out at him like a whip at an unruly dog. "I think you are very much mistaken, Master Flatbush. I think, in fact that this is one of the more important things you can be devoting your time to."
He stopped and turned to face her. Her eyes pinioned him where he stood, chilling him to the core. "What do you mean, madam?" he asked, unnerved by her sudden intensity.
She chuckled softly. "Thats more like it, my boy. Politeness will get you much farther along in life, you can be sure. And you can also tell Mistress Xiong Wendy Cheng to come out from behind the church, where I can see her."
Charlie started like a frightened rat, his eyes darting about as if surprised at the revelation. "I--I--dont know what youre talking about."
Wilhelmina shook her head, as if disappointed. "You dont fool me, my duck. I would have done the same thing."
Nicodemus turned around to see a small figure step lightly out from behind the nearby St. Martins Chapel. Her long, dark hair framed a serious face, watching the tableau intensely. Strapped across her back was a Winchester rifle, a silver star upon her denim shirt.
Wilhelmina smiled at her as she walked slowly forward, nodding approvingly. "Thats right, my sweet. Young ladies of proper upbringing shouldnt skulk about in shadows." She turned, her eyes fixing upon Charlie again. "That is, of course, unless one of their elders has instructed them to."
Charlie straightened up and cleared his throat. "What did you mean?" he asked, attempting to rally. "Important how?"
She smiled her horrible smile at him again. "Because it is important to me," she said sweetly.
Charlies expression darkened. "Nevertheless," he started, his courage rising.
"I had tea with Silas Peacock recently," interrupted Wilhelmina, turning slightly away from him and arranging her hat.
Charlie stopped. "Really?" he asked guardedly.
"Yes," she continued, not looking at him. "He said you had sent your greetings to us the last time he had come to see you."
Charlie didnt answer, instead looking down at the ground.
"He said he was worried about you," she went on. "About how overworked you seemed. I said that a diligent man like yourself thrived on the responsibilities you had, and that you would find some way to deal with any new challenges that came your way." She paused and turned back to look at him. "I am right, arent I, Master Flatbush?"
Wendy looked from one to the other, confused. "What is she talking about, Charlie?"
"Not now, Wendy," he answered shortly, looking back at Wilhelmina.
"Oh, I do apologize," tutted Wilhelmina. "I wasnt aware that the young lady hadnt been taken into your confidence yet."
"Charlie?" asked Wendy.
"Hush, girl," he growled, glaring at Wilhelmina.
"Do we understand each other now, Master Flatbush? All we want is our property returned, with a minimum of fuss."
"And in return?" he asked suspiciously.
Wilhelmina chuckled. "I see no need for the current situations," she emphasized this last word, "to change."
They both paused, each locking gazes with the other. Charlie looked away first, as if stung by the intensity of Wilhelminas stare and sighed. "Very well. I shall do my utmost to see to it that your book is returned to you as soon as possible."
Wilhelmina hopped slightly, softly clapping her wrinkled hands together. "Splendid, Master Flatbush. I knew we could count on you. You will speak to Jebediah, when you find anything out?"
"Of course," he replied, resignedly, looking up to regard her and Nicodemus. "When shall we three meet again?"
"I dislike thunder, lightning and rain," she quipped back, "and in Gomorra, the hurly-burly is rarely done. Shall we say, a weeks time?"
"As you say," he agreed. "And what is this missing book called?"
"It is called Pembrokes Analysis of Hoyle," answered Nicodemus, looking over the tops of his spectacles at Wendy.
"Very well," he replied, giving Nicodemus a frosty look. He began to set off down the road. "Come along, Wendy."
Wendy moved to follow, but Wilhelmina murmured her name, making her pause. The smile she directed at Wendy was almost sad. "I know all that looked very strange, my dear," she said softly, "but believe me, we all only have Gomorras best interests at heart."
Wendy nodded, bemused, and made to follow Charlie. He had stopped to wait, and the look he gave Wilhelmina was cold as ice. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," he muttered, and turned away.
As the two of them made their way up the darkened street, Wilhelmina
waited until Charlie and Wendy were out of sight before she began to titter.
"Grandmother?" asked Nicodemus.
She stopped, and turned her glee-filled eyes towards her grandson. "Do you see how the dance is done, my sweet? How even the clumsiest stumble can be turned into a deft maneuver?"
"Yes, Grandmother," he replied, looking back to where Charlie and Wendy had turned a corner.
"But?" she asked, anticipating his unease.
"I dont trust him, Grandmother."
She nodded, continuing her steady pace as though he had said nothing.
"Also," he continued hesitantly, "Sir Whitmore has proven to be more resourceful than we had guessed. Do you think Master Flatbush will be able to get the book back from him?"
She snorted. "Of course not. Master Flatbush is, to all appearances," she said the word with some distaste, "first and foremost a lawman. Hell go through the acceptable channels to try to catch him, to try to prove his guilt--" she paused, and turned to look sidelong at him "--which
is why you will wait until Master Flatbush flushes him out, and then get the book back yourself."
Nicodemus blinked. "But why--?"
"Did you learn nothing from your dancing lesson, Nicodemus Whateley? I am disappointed in you," she sighed. "In one short meeting, we have set about the flushing out of Sir Whitmore, established our position with Master Flatbush, and cast doubt upon his own position. A triple coup, if I do say so myself."
"Doubt upon his position?" Nicodemus pondered for a moment. Realization dawned. "The girl."
Wilhelmina tittered again. "Of course, my darling boy. We have planted a seed in the girl. Time will tell us clearly what grows from it."
They turned up the lane leading to their estate. Wilhelmina looked proudly up at the house as they neared the fence surrounding it. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions?" she asked quietly, echoing Charlies parting statement.
Nicodemus did not comment.
"The road to hell is paved with many things," she continued somberly, as the wrought iron gate clanged shut behind her.