SO STILL THE NIGHT
Book 2 in the Shadow Guard Series
Willomina Limpett tilted her face toward the voice.
A man stood there, just off to the side, tall and elegant, against the lush backdrop of the steep, grassy hill. The afternoon grew late, and the shadows long, but how could she not have seen him before? A shadowy thrill rippled through Mina, from the top of her crape trimmed bonnet to the square point of her black leather shoes. A highly inappropriate response, given the event of the moment … but no one else needed to know.
“Miss Limpett,” he repeated, approaching in measured steps.
He wore a precisely cut suit of rich cloth, the sort only the wealthiest of gentlemen could command from the tailors of London’s famed Savile Row. His silk top hat rose high and gleaming. Opaque, blue-lensed spectacles prevented her from directly meeting his gaze.
She glanced toward her uncle, Lord Trafford, who stood just a few paces away, speaking to one of the funeral guests. Moments before she’d politely excused herself from the conversation, and wandered off the path to view the striking beauty of Highgate Cemetery.
“Have we been introduced?” Mina inquired. She knew they had not. He was not someone she would forget.
“Forgive my breach of etiquette.” His voice was rich, and warm. He deftly removed his hat to reveal jaw-length blonde hair, streaked an even paler shade of moonlight. “I am … Lord Alexander. I saw the newspaper announcement, and knew I must come to offer my condolences.”
“You knew my father?” The gravel shifted and crunched beneath her soles.
Not a single one of the professor’s professional or academic peers had seen fit to attend his funeral service. The guests who presently made their way toward the rows of waiting coaches were society acquaintances of Lord and Lady Trafford, all strangers to Mina. They would have been strangers to her father as well.
“I dabble in languages. A personal interest, really. Nothing on the level of your father’s expertise.”
“Alexander … ” she murmured. Had her father ever mentioned the name?
“I’ve found myself in possession of something, and wanted you to have it.”
“Oh, yes? What is it?”
Again she looked toward her uncle, who remained engrossed in conversation. Her aunt and cousins had disappeared into the funeral carriage.
Mina returned her attention to Lord Alexander, who produced a dark, rectangular object from his hip pocket. He solemnly offered his gift. Their gloved hands briefly touched. A rush of heat coursed high into her cheeks. She lowered her chin, purposefully retreating into the shadow of her bonnet, at the same time, considering the leather case in her hand. She slid her thumb against the clasp, and inside found a tintype of two men crouched side-by-side atop an immense slab of stone.
Her breath caught in her throat. For the first time since her father’s coffin had been sealed in Bangladesh, tears rushed against her lashes. They blurred her vision of the photograph – an image of her father as a young man, his hat cocked aside, and his face beaming with excitement. He had never lost that fervor, that zeal for adventure. Not even in the final moments, when they had said their goodbyes.
Lord Alexander murmured, “The photograph was taken at the ruins at –”
“Petra. Yes. He took me there, once. Who is this man with him?” She pointed, lifting the frame for a closer look. “His face is blurred …”
“He favors you though. He is your father, is he not?”
Alexander cocked his head.
“Thank you,” Mina whispered. “We traveled so much, from place to place. By necessity, I collected few mementoes. I shall treasure this always.”
“I am glad.” He pressed his lips together, as if pondering the words he would speak next. “Miss Limpett …”
“I hope I do not overstep the bounds of propriety in choosing this moment to broach a particular subject, when the pain of your loss must still be so fresh.”
In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to reach up and pull the spectacles from his face. She wanted very badly to know the color of his eyes.
“Please speak freely.”
He nodded. “The professor, I know, possessed an extensive personal collection above and beyond the one he curated at the Museum. In particular, I know he owned two very rare scrolls … copied from Akkadian tablets.”
Unease, feather-soft, spiraled up Mina’s spine. She stared down into the case, into her father’s eyes.
“Perhaps now that your father has passed, you might be willing to part with them?”
She shut the case. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“I’m prepared to pay handsomely for them.”
She shook her head, and attempted a polite, easy smile, whilst her mind threw out options for quickly extricating herself from his company — a necessary reversal, given his line of questioning. “The scrolls are not available for purchase.”
“Perhaps you have already sold the scrolls to someone else?”
He edged closer. So close she could hardly breathe for the magnitude of his presence. The boning of Mina’s tightly laced corset pressed uncomfortably against the undersides of her breasts.
His voice lowered, grew almost hushed. “If you could simply provide a name, I would be more than happy to approach them myself.”
Mina’s heart pounded. There had, indeed, been offers. There had also been a few very nasty threats — which was why a pistol presently weighted the tasseled, jet-beaded bag on her wrist.
“I can give you no such name.”
She could not see his eyes, but knew they narrowed by the crinkling of lines that formed at his temples. Her thoughts veered around inside her head, as if he prodded inside her mind. No doubt an unfortunate result of her tortured conscience. She experienced the sudden, overwhelming desire to confess everything.
“Where are the scrolls, Miss Limpett?”
Yet she could not confess.
Instead, she blurted, “With Father.”
The smile dropped from his lips, and suddenly she felt as if she were being considered by an emotionless, flat-eyed wolf. “What do you mean, with Father?”
She looked pointedly toward the Street of the Dead, where it disappeared into the shadowed corridor of evergreens. By now, the coffin would have been lowered on its hydraulic bier, into the tunnel below, and transported by unseen cemetery workers to the catacombs.
Even in the dimming light, his skin appeared to blanch a shade lighter. “You can’t be serious. The scrolls were … interred with your father?”
“In the end, they were his most treasured possessions.”
“We are talking about ancient papyri, never translated or transcribed, and you mean to tell me –” He laughed, a deep, incredulous sound. “That they are lost forever?”
“I’m afraid so.” She twisted her hand in the velvet cording of her bag. “It’s been four long months, you see.”
“Oh, now that’s stellar.”
She glanced out from beneath her bonnet brim. “I suppose you’d like your photograph returned?”
He responded with a rueful chuckle, but the smile he wore — though a bit tight — appeared surprisingly genuine.
“No, Miss Limpett, I do not wish to have my photograph returned.” As he repeated her words, he imitated her cadence and tone, a light flirtation that even now, sent a pleasurable tremor through her.
“I am disappointed, of course, but who am I to object to the last wishes of a dying man? I should have anticipated the same. William always was rather eccentric. Or so I’ve been told.”
Mina nodded. Her father’s eccentricity had been the bane of her existence, yet she had adored him completely, through and through.
“I must take my leave of you now, Miss Limpett.”
“Thank you for coming,” she said quietly, both relieved and disappointed. “Your attendance would have meant so much to Father.”
The edge of his mouth quirked upward, and he returned his hat to his head. “I’d like to think so.”
She watched him stride toward the gatehouse, and eventually disappear through the shadowed archway, toward the main road where additional coaches waited to convey guests away from the cemetery.
“Who was that you were speaking to?” Her uncle approached, black cane in hand.
“I’m not exactly sure. He introduced himself as Lord Alexander.”
Lord Trafford grinned. “I thought I recognized him.”
“You know him?”
“The Viscount Alexander. Haven’t seen him at the club in months.” His gaze wandered toward the gatehouse. “Wonder if I could catch up to him?”
He escorted her past the glass-sided hearse, where six ostrich-plumed horses stamped their hooves, impatient in their harnesses.
When they came alongside the carriage, he said, “Dear Mina, do go on to the house with the ladies. Tell her ladyship I’ll follow shortly behind.”
One of the Trafford footmen, arrayed completely in black, rushed forward to open the door, and pull down the steps. Lord Trafford tipped his hat and hurried off in pursuit of the viscount.
Mina looked into the carriage. Three feminine faces, framed by glossy black fur and feathers, peered out from the shadowed interior. She wondered if anyone had ever drowned in black silk. She couldn’t quite bring herself to climb the steps.
The cemetery called to her … a keeper of secrets. Her secrets. Her conversation with Lord Alexander left her uneasy. How could she eat? How could she sleep, until she was sure? Sure that her father’s coffin had been interred in its final resting place, behind a locked iron door … forever.
She stepped back from the carriage. “Do go on without me.”
“Go on?” Lady Trafford repeated, her blue eyes wide with incredulity.
“I just need a bit more time with Father.”
“Astrid. Evangeline. Accompany your cousin—.”
A chorus of petulant refusals sounded from within.
“I’d prefer to be alone. I can walk back to the house when I’m finished. It’s not far.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, dear, there are gypsies camped in the field just across the way.” Her ladyship peered into the darkening sky, and grasped a gloved hand against the fur at her throat. “And it’s getting dark.”
“If we stay another moment, it will be I who expires next,” muttered Astrid in a dour tone.
“Please,” Mina entreated. She lifted her handkerchief to her nose for dramatic effect, acting upon lessons she’d learned observing her cousins. “I’m simply not ready to leave him just yet.”
“Oh, dear. Very well, then,” her aunt ceded, faced with the threat of tears. “We’ll collect Trafford, and leave the second coach and two footmen to attend you. I must insist you don’t stay past dark.”
Moments later, after instructing the footmen to remain behind at the carriage, Mina hurried along the tree shadowed lane. She knew the way. She had walked the path the day before when her uncle had shown her where her father’s coffin would be interred. Only then the sun had hung high in the sky, and the cemetery had been crowded with visitors. Now darkness seeped up from the earth, along with low, curling wisps of fog. A stone angel appeared to ward her away with open palms. Only the sound of her shoes on the path, and the furtive scratching of birds and other unseen creatures in the trees and underbrush, broke the silence.
Mina paused for only a moment outside arched entrance to The Egyptian Avenue, braced on either side by twin columns and matching obelisks. A dense veil of ivy tumbled down from above. She swept beneath, into the darkness. Immense, Etruscan-style crypts lined the Avenue, each bearing a massive iron door and two inverted torches symbolizing lives extinguished. She quickly broke free of the smothering tunnel and emerged into Lebanon Circle, where two rows of mausolea surrounded a towering cedar.
Although the Traffords owned a centerpiece crypt for the interment of their titled members, her father, who had married into the family, was to be placed beside her mother in the less exclusive Terrace Catacomb above. Mina grasped her skirts and ascended the stone steps. A sudden gust of wind lifted the boughs of the evergreens all around, filling the circle with a thousand unintelligible whispers.
In the subsequent silence came the repetitive chink of metal striking against metal.
Chink. Chink. Chink.
Fear twisted in her throat, and deeper, into her chest, but she swallowed it away. Over the past year, she had faced far worse than evening shadows and imaginary phantoms. The sounds she heard were likely created by the cemetery workers doing their final bit of work for the day.
Her lip throbbed dully, where she bit into her flesh. What task could possibly require such repetitive blows? She arrived at the catacomb where her father’s coffin was to have been deposited. The door featured a small, square opening, scored with iron bars and banded with decorative rivets. Shuffling sounds came from within.
She launched herself onto the tips of her toes and grasped the edge, peering inside. In the darkness, she could barely perceive coffins, stacked on shelves … and a shadow that moved.
“You! You there. What are you doing? Stop!”
Mina grasped the handle, and tugged, to no avail. The door was locked. To her horror, the sound of splintering wood emanated from inside.
She whirled, returning to the edge of the circle, searching for any worker, any guest, to whom she could shout out her accusations of grave desecration. She saw no one. Again she returned to the door, pressing her fingertips against her mouth, suppressing the urge to scream. She twisted the ball clasp on her bag, and snatched out her pistol.
“I’m warning you. Come out of there!” she bellowed.
Desperate to stop the shadow, desperate to protect her secret, she thrust her arm between the metal bars, gun in hand. She would merely fire a warning shot, and flush the person out – at least then she would know with whom she dealt.
A large stone hurtled from the darkness to strike the door beside her head.
The shadow grew larger. Bronze eyes blinked … and glowed.
Mina screamed. The creature roared, and twisted toward her.