The Jennings

Inheritance

At first nothing happened, but something told Elizabeth that her mother’s ring was more than an heirloom. The weight of it on her finger felt different somehow, and it tingled on her skin. It tingled, and then it burned, and she saw that it was glowing with silver-white light.

“Mother,” she breathed, staring at the ring. “It’s real.”

Words entered her head, and then her ears; a soft voice was speaking to her. “Call upon me,” it said. “I will render what aid I can.”

“Mother,” Elizabeth said again, and struggled to sit up.

The fire blazed higher, and turned bright blue. Sparks shot out of the fireplace and skidded across the floor, followed by a score or more of yellow lights that floated up out of the flames one by one. The demon turned its attention to these lights; its grip on Jennings’ throat relaxed. Jennings seized this opportunity to wrench himself away.

“Elizabeth!” he cried, his voice hoarse. He stumbled toward her.

She held up her hand, pointing to the lights. “Look!” Her eyes were wide with wonder. “Look at all of them!”

Jennings turned, and what he saw left him dumbfounded. The yellow lights had become more substantial, taking on the shape of people. He felt their presence in his heart – the familiar sensation in his chest, compounded a hundred times – and he fell back, winded.

Each light was a spirit. Each face was little more than vague wisps of features and shadows, but Jennings recognized them as though he had always known them – they were the spirits who had spoken to him through the slate. As Jennings watched, a dozen more lights burst out of the fire, and they too transformed into the people he had only ever encountered with his emotions.

The cluster of lights converged on the demon, surrounding it and resolving into translucent beings. For its part, the demon stood as still as a statue, its face impassive, its head moving imperceptibly as its eyes scanned the circle of ghosts around it. It seemed to waiting for something.

The ghosts closed in until their shoulders touched; in a moment, they had formed a solid glowing band that obscured the demon from the Jennings’ sight.

Delacourt had wasted precious moments goggling at the lights. He stood now, and stumbled backward. “What is this?” he asked, not knowing if the spirits belonged to his demon or not. “What is happening?”

The demon peered at Delacourt over the heads of the ghosts. In a rasping voice that put a dagger of fear and revulsion into Elizabeth’s heart, it answered its master: “They will try to prevent me.”

Delacourt stared bewildered at it. “Well, prevent them!” he commanded, frowning.

The demon looked away from Delacourt and again surveyed the ghosts. It gave no response to Cedric, but its hands lifted, almost as though it were prepared to surrender. The fire changed from blue to red, and surged so high that the flames touched the mantel. The air around the demon shimmered, and Jennings was assailed with the notion that the ghosts girded themselves against some sort of attack.

By now Elizabeth had come to her feet, and was standing beside Jennings. “What are they?” she murmured, her hand reaching out for Jennings’. “They are not demons?”

“No,” Jennings replied, shaking his head without looking at Elizabeth. His attention was fixed on the glowing circle, and the demon inside it. “They are the spirits from the slate.”

Elizabeth nodded in understanding. “Of course,” she said, squeezing Jennings’ hand. “They have come in answer to the ring.” They had come at her mother’s request.

The demon’s hands began to tremble, or rather, their motions disturbed the atmosphere, and caused the eyes to tremble as they attempted to watch. The ghost-circle tightened, so that their human shapes dissolved together into a fog with hints of limbs and heads dotted throughout it. Their yellow light intensified, but the demon’s hands were somehow disrupting the inner borders of the circle, and Jennings could sense the spirits’ struggles to stay in formation.

The fire raged blue again.

A woman stood on the hearth; she was as transparent and amorphous as the other spirits, but where they shone yellow, she radiated white. Her eyes blazed, and she glared at the demon for a brief second before launching herself toward it.

Its hands lifted to stop her, but it was driven back. The strange trembling of the air ceased, and from every point of contact between the spirit and the demon, black and red sparks flew out in all directions. The ghost-circle grew stronger; its yellow light began to pulse bright gold. The demon seemed unwilling or unable to leave the circle; it jerked away from the spirits’ touch as though it burned.

Delacourt had observed this display with incredulity, but now, realizing that he would likely be obliged to handle matters on his own, he turned on Elizabeth. He noted the glowing ring on her finger, and frowned at it curiously.

“This is your doing,” he said, his expression hovering between amusement and irritation. “Your mother tainted my ring! I cannot imagine how.” He stalked toward Elizabeth, who quickly stepped backward, covering her mother’s ring with her other hand.

“You?” she cried. “You cannot imagine how? You have used forces of dark magic for a hundred years, but you cannot imagine that good people can do the same?” Her retreat from Cedric ended when she bumped into the study wall. “All the spirits Christopher has helped – they will stop you!”

Delacourt considered her words. “What I cannot imagine,” he said. “Is how your mother’s abilities escaped my attention. I could easily have chosen her instead. But perhaps she would only have defied me.” He smiled condescendingly. “The two of you are very much alike, after all.” He stood inches from her, and brought his face so close to hers that his nose was almost touching hers. “But her little army can’t truly hurt my demon, and even if it could, I don’t really need him to get rid of you.

Jennings appeared behind Delacourt, and slammed the butt of the blunderbuss into the side of Cedric’s head. Cedric dropped to the floor.

“And I don’t need spirits,” Jennings said. “To get rid of you.”

Cedric’s head was bleeding, but he looked up at Jennings with a taunting grin. “I will heal from all your hurts, Jennings,” he said, staggering to his feet. “But you will not recover so easily.” He lunged forward and grabbed the blunderbuss; the two men stumbled across the study, fighting for control of the gun.

Beside them, the demon still stood in the center of the circle. The white spirit had disappeared, but the other spirits remained, linked arm-in-arm and shoring up all their strength to keep the demon contained. It spun one way and then the other, its hands lifted to attack, but despite any weakness it may have perceived or attempted to create, it was unable to breach the barrier. Time and again, it charged the circle, only to be thrown back into the center.

Elizabeth gaped first at the circle of spirits, and then at her husband wrestling with Delacourt. The demon was immortal; how would these spirits of the dead be able to hurt it? It seemed more likely that they would only be able to confine it for a small while, and if there was any hope that they could return the demon to the netherworld, there was surely no way for them – or for anyone – to keep the demon there. As long as Cedric Delacourt held sway over this demon, it would no doubt stay in this world, performing all the wretched deeds that Delacourt carved out for it.

Elizabeth glared at Delacourt in fury. All that she had suffered had been at his hands! But how could he be stopped? He was much stronger than she, and, as he himself had noted, his injuries would heal in a trice. What sort of weapon could possibly affect a man who had been rendered immortal? – especially now that Jennings was locked in combat with him: any sustained attack on Cedric would also be an attack on her husband.

“Mother,” she called out. “Please! I don’t know what to do!”

The white spirit, who had a moment before abandoned her assault on the demon, reappeared now inside the chalk circle; she rose up through the floor to stand floating and translucent, surrounded by the ring of glowing runes. “Elizabeth,” she said, her words more like a thought in Elizabeth’s head than an actual voice. The spirit’s arms reached out for her.

“Mother,” Elizabeth murmured, and stepped forward. Her feet crossed the runes, and she felt the spirit’s arms closing around her. There was a strong smell of roses, and a warmth that Elizabeth had never felt, as though her very soul were being pulled into a loving embrace.

“Elizabeth,” the spirit – Elizabeth’s mother – said again. “Our efforts will falter.” She put her ghostly hands on either side of Elizabeth’s face. “Our strength is built on the foundation of Jonathan’s magic, and this rune-spell will wane any moment. Lizzie, you must take your birthright.”

Elizabeth frowned in confusion. “What do you mean? What am I to do?”

Her mother smiled. “My sweet girl,” she said. “You can take Isabelle’s place, and command the demon.”

Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide. Of course, she thought. She stared unblinking at her mother’s ghost, then slowly, as though she were in a dream, she bent down and picked up the dagger that Cedric had dropped. Across from her, she saw Delacourt and Jennings still grappling with one another; beside her, the light of the ghost-circle had all but vanished, and only the very slightest remnants of the spirits remained. Their linked arms were fast becoming invisible mist, and the demon’s attempts to break the circle were meeting with less and less resistance.

Elizabeth stood and looked once more at her mother. Her mother nodded, and Elizabeth nodded back. She was rather terrified at what she was about to do, but there was nothing for it – it was this course of action or, she feared, all would be lost. She raised the dagger in one hand and, after a pause during which she clenched the dagger tightly in her shaking hand, she brought the blade down into the palm of her other hand, driving its point through her flesh. The pain shocked her; she cried out, and jerked the dagger back.

Her blood welled up from the wound and dripped onto the floor.

The runes glowed brightly once more, and the fireplace exploded into aggressive flames. The fire that had spread to the mantel and walls now surged with lightning speed, until half of the study was engulfed. Smoke began to fill the room, and both Cedric and Jennings, taken by surprise, fell away from one another and stumbled quickly back from the fire.

Elizabeth wasted no time on incredulity. “Demon!” she shouted. “Heed me!”

The demon turned to her, his expression quizzical and – although his visage was too strange to be sure – somewhat amused. He stopped rushing the ghost-circle, and the spirits themselves released their grip on each other. The circle broke, and the demon was allowed to walk toward Elizabeth.

“Lizzie!” Jennings cried, but Elizabeth did not answer. Instead she squared her shoulders, and, bringing every conceivable shred of bravery to bear, she faced the demon.

What should she do? she wondered. What sort of birthright had she taken on? What had been her mother’s plan? It was too late now to ask her, for the demon stood scarcely two feet away. He was clearly awaiting instructions. What on earth was she supposed to tell him to do?

Well, she thought. What do I want him to do?

She held her bleeding hand out to the demon, who gazed at it for a few seconds before extending his own. The skin was somehow both scratchy and clammy at the same time, and it was with more revulsion than she had ever felt that Elizabeth took the demon’s hand in her own, and pressed her blood into its palm.

“I release you from your bargain with my family,” she said.

“No!” Cedric screamed, lunging forward in panic. Jennings grabbed at him, dragging him to his knees.

Both Elizabeth and the demon noted Cedric coldly. “Demon,” Elizabeth said, turning her attention once more to the creature whose clawed hand still rested almost amiably in her own. “Take this man who has contracted with you, to whatever judgment he faces. Release the souls of my family, and do not return to this world, or torment any of us any further. In this way, our bargain will be forever ended.”

The demon tilted its head to the side. Its voice emerged from its mouth as rancid vapours might escape from a festering grave. “As you wish,” it said, and its eyes glinted with what Elizabeth could only describe as humour.

“No!” Cedric bellowed again. He kicked away from Jennings and clambered to his feet, but his knees suddenly failed him, and he fell again. It soon became clear that he was labouring, not only to stand, but even to breathe, and his countenance changed rapidly from outrage to anxiety to dread. “What –?” he gasped, sinking down onto his elbows. “What’s happening?”

“Our bargain,” the demon announced in a gravelly monotone. “Was thirteen deaths in exchange for immortality for you and your bride, for the duration of our bargain.”

“I gave them!” Cedric protested. His skin was turning colours; his breath wheezed in and out with increasing difficulty. “I gave all thirteen!”

“And I gave immortality,” the demon replied impassively. “For the duration of our bargain – one hundred fourteen years.”

Cedric collapsed entirely. “No,” he murmured, his words inaudible over the roar of the fire. “That’s not … not …” His movements ceased, and his skin grew instantly mottled grey. It wrinkled into blackening parchment that cracked and broke; powder escaped from each fissure, and an oozing yellow slime that flowed out to become a dank puddle underneath Delacourt’s shrinking corpse.

“Our bargain is ended,” the demon said, and let go of Elizabeth’s hand. It turned then without any other word or glance, walked unscathed through the spreading flames, and disappeared into the red bowels of the fireplace.

The mist that comprised all that was left of the spirits coalesced around the Jennings. Elizabeth’s mother, her form nearly dissolved, manifested just enough to smile at her daughter. “You must leave,” she said. “The house will be consumed by both fire and magic. The rain cannot save it.”

As if to punctuate her words, the fire raced across the ceiling of the study and dripped down onto the books and furniture. The smoke was now so thick that it burned Elizabeth’s eyes and lungs.

“We have to go, Lizzie,” Jennings said, putting his arms around his wife.

Coughing, the Jennings hurried from the study and into the kitchen. There they found the servants slowly rousing from their induced sleep. “We have to go!” Jennings told them, and Elizabeth bustled from one of them to the other, pushing them out of their chairs and toward the back door. They were groggy and disoriented, but they had recovered enough to stagger with the Jennings out into the yard.

“What’s happening?” a girl asked in consternation. “Where’s Miss Isabelle?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Isabelle is already lost.”

Behind her, the lake house had transformed into a mountain of fire. As Elizabeth’s mother had warned, the driving rain had no effect on the conflagration; whatever magic Cedric Delacourt had commanded had been funneled into the frame of the house, and into this final cleansing act.

The Jennings and the servants rushed to the far side of the stables, and watched in horror and fascination as the lake house turned into ash.

______________________________

Despite the steady rain that fell through the night, the fire raged for hours, until nothing was left but the chimneys. It smoldered for many more hours after that, and it was afternoon before the bodies of Charlotte Carlisle, Miss Isabelle Fetherston, and Sir James could be brought out.

The servants and many others from the nearby village discussed amongst themselves that both the fire and the smoke possessed a strange colour and odour, as though fueled by something well outside the usual. They also noted that the body especially of Sir James had been reduced nearly to charred bones, so that he was completely unrecognizable; the two ladies were far less assaulted by the flames, and some who had known Sir James and his acidic personality saw this discrepancy as an indication of his character being suitably brought to task by a higher power.

Of Cedric Delacourt and Edmond Fitzhugh there was no sign. Only Delacourt’s and Sir James’ rigs were on the property, leading people to speculate that Delacourt had run off with Ned in Ned’s carriage, but no one, for all their conversations over the next few days, could offer a reasonable motive for such an amiable man as Delacourt to be capable of murder. If it was Sir James’ fortune he was after, then he was the most foolish of men, for now any attempt on his part to claim his inheritance would result in his arrest. People were equally shocked at Fitzhugh’s role, for his reputation was solid and good, and the notion that he had had anything to do with this horrid business was seen as almost incomprehensible. But there it was: both men were gone without a trace, and the servants were only too happy to describe Delacourt’s strange behaviour earlier in the evening.

“He insisted that we drink with him,” the cook explained with a cluck of her tongue. “All of us, even the men in the stable. He said it was part of a grand celebration, and he would not rest until we had taken wine. I had wanted to make a supper for our guests – Mr. Fitzhugh and Sir James were expected at any moment – but Mr. Delacourt would have none of it, and I felt helpless to remonstrate with him.” She clucked her tongue again. “I don’t remember at all after that until Mrs. Jennings roused me and took me from the house.” For this she was most grateful to Mrs. Jennings, and had nothing but praise for her.

Indeed, everyone spoke of Mrs. Jennings with a respect bordering on reverence. Word of her alleged premonition had spread quickly, and it was clear from her mad dash from Northampton that she had done everything within her power to avert calamity. The injuries Delacourt had given her were evident upon her, yet she comported herself with a graceful equanimity that was rightly perceived as the epitome of strength of character. In truth, she had been more concerned for Mr. Jennings’ injuries, and for the health and safety of the servants. She said little to anyone, other than to thank them for condoling with her on her grievous loss, and to answer their flabbergasted questions as to Delacourt’s possible motive with the simple suggestion that her cousin seemed to have fallen onto the path of dark magic and had viewed the murders as some sort of sacrifice to a dire power.

Such a thing was unheard of, and intriguing enough to keep people talking; soon, gossip had created an image of Delacourt and Fitzhugh that was, surprisingly, very close to the truth that the Jennings had felt it prudent to keep to themselves.

The Jennings put up at the inn down the road from the lake house, or rather from the eerie skeleton of the lake house, and stayed there some days recovering from – as the locals came to call it – the Tragedy. Elizabeth decided wisely to sell the lake house property, and to see the servants safely employed elsewhere. She could not imagine ever wanting to see the place again.

Her letter to Mrs. Fetherston had filled her with dread; she was sure that Isabelle’s mother would blame her for being unable to save her daughter. But in the end, Mrs. Fetherston travelled to the lake house herself, and shared her grief with Elizabeth, whom she regarded with deep gratitude for being, as she said, “the only one of Isabelle’s acquaintance who cared enough for her to risk life and limb in such a way, and to put personal differences aside to try to save her.”

The two women spent a week together, and Mrs. Fetherston helped Elizabeth contact those who would need to deal with Sir James’ estate. “For I cannot want it, ma’am,” Elizabeth said emphatically. “I will take some portraits from it, I believe, and I will make sure the servants are well looked after, but I am certain that nothing is in that house that I would care to have.” She had, after some consideration, revealed to Mrs. Fetherston the whole truth of Delacourt’s identity, and it was therefore with real understanding that Mrs. Fetherston pulled Elizabeth into her arms, and told her that all would be handled however she wished, and that she need never be obliged even to walk past that part of town again.

“But you must promise to be my family, Lizzie,” she said, smiling through tears. “Especially now that I understand why Sir James became so cold, I regret abandoning you all those years ago.”

“How could you possibly know what he was?” Elizabeth asked her. “Even I did not know, and I lived in the same house with him all my life.” She returned Mrs. Fetherston’s embrace. “And I am most gratified and fortunate to call you family, ma’am,” she averred. “I only wish …” A tear ran down her cheek, and she brushed it away. “I wish I could have saved Isabelle, ma’am! I was his target, not she!”

“You saved your whole family, Lizzie,” Mrs. Fetherston told her gently. “Your actions removed a curse from us that had been so insidious in its evil that we did not even notice our sacrifices to it.” She too wiped away tears. “Of course I wish Isabelle was here. But it was Delacourt who killed her.” She took Elizabeth’s face in her hands and looked pointedly at her. “Don’t forget that, my pet. It was he.”

Elizabeth had difficulty heeding these words, but, after some days, she finally allowed that she had done her very best, and had been as resourceful as anyone could ask. It was true enough that she had ended the curse – no more women would be lost for the sake of one selfish man, or for any other reason. For the first time in over a hundred years, her family was safe.

And, at the end of it all, she had been given the opportunity to see her mother, to feel her mother’s arms around her and to see the love in her eyes. She had seen and heard a woman who, until that moment, had only been a character in Elizabeth’s imagination; who else could make such a claim? She could only count herself fortunate, and to see such an extraordinary occurrence as a sign of divine approbation. Both Jennings and Mrs. Fetherston concurred wholeheartedly with her in this, but it was not until she spoke with Perry that she relinquished her need to feel somehow culpable in Delacourt’s crimes.

Perry had been beside himself that he had not brought her to the lake house soon enough to save her father and stepmother; he allowed that the rain and mud were not under his control, and that he was obliged after the crash to focus on Tom, whose injuries were not severe but who needed to be tended to, but he still chided himself that he had not found a better road. Elizabeth would have none of this, and told him in no uncertain terms that he was in no way to blame for anything. “For you know, Perry,” she told him somberly. “No matter how strongly I believed that something bad would happen, I cannot think that any of us, not even Mr. Jennings, would have been able to predict such a disastrous outcome as that which awaited us at the lake house.” She impulsively reached out and patted his arm. “I am, in fact, monstrously relieved that Tom was not more badly hurt, and that you looked after him and made sure he was well. He will be all mended in a month! – and I had feared that my decision to journey in the rain had gotten him killed!”

She spent some time with Perry, relating to him her immense gratitude for all that he had done, and by the end of the conversation, he seemed willing to place blame solely on Mr. Delacourt. It was then that Elizabeth realized that, if she believed her own words to Perry, then she must follow them as well.

“Delacourt is the villain here,” she reminded herself, and was even able to appreciate that she had been spared from a great evil, not because of luck or even because of others’ fortitude, but because she herself had vanquished it.

She made her way to the little garden behind the inn. Jennings awaited her there; he was sitting on a low stone wall that separated the garden from the road. When he saw Elizabeth, he smiled broadly and held his hand out to her. “I thought you might find me here, my love,” he said. “It is a beautiful morning.”

“Indeed it is!” she said, smiling back at him. She took his hand and sat beside him on the wall. “I have just spoken with Perry,” she told him. “He was most concerned that somehow he had done something untoward. I hope I have dissuaded him from such a notion.”

Jennings chuckled. “It was all I could do,” he said. “To convince him that I was not upset with him. Between the unusual haste, the storm, the crash, Tom’s broken arm, and your running off on horseback in the middle of the night, poor Perry was sure I was going to execute him!” He shook his head. “But, as I told him more than once, he did exactly as he was supposed to do, and I would not have had it any other way.” He looked at her, his eyes twinkling. “I do not like to think what might have happened to me if you had not arrived when you did.”

She still smiled, but her eyes were serious. “I was only following your example,” she said. “I would have died weeks ago if not for you. You have saved me in every conceivable way.”

He raised her hand to his lips. “I was saved,” he argued. “From a wretched life without you.” He grinned, and added, “I am in awe of you, you know. I daresay you could move the course of a river if you put your mind to it, and so I told Perry, when he suggested he should have tried harder to stop you.”

Elizabeth, embarrassed by this praise, did not know what to say to it, and sat instead in silence for a moment, her hand cheerfully ensconced in her husband’s.

“I wonder,” she said at last. “What sort of man my real father was.”

“I am sure he would have loved you more than anything,” Jennings said.

“I have met my mother,” Elizabeth said. “Who has been gone these nineteen years. Perhaps somehow I will meet my father as well.” She leaned her head on Jennings’ shoulder. “After all that has happened, I begin to feel that anything is possible.”

Jennings gazed down at her, and squeezed her hand. “I believe that more every day, my love.” He kissed the top of her head. “More every day.”

The Jennings – Chapter Eighteen

Promises

In an instant, the creature’s fangs were scarcely a foot away from Jennings.

“Get down!” a familiar – and most welcome – voice said, and Jennings crouched abruptly.

The resounding blast of the blunderbuss shook the air, and the head of the creature exploded into sickly-green blood and torn flesh. The creature froze for a moment, its wings stiffening, then it slumped to the floor. Its skin began immediately to sizzle and smoke, and, after a very few seconds, to dissolve into ash. Soon nothing was left but bones and entrails, and then even these began to collapse in upon themselves, disintegrating until only charred stains and patches of yellow slime remained.

Isabelle cried out in disgust and alarm; she ran to Cedric, who held her rather mechanically, and stared at his dead “pet” with an expression of surprise and disappointment.

“That was not very kind of you, Cousin,” he complained, turning to Elizabeth.

She stood in the doorway, the smoking blunderbuss clutched in her hands. The rain had soaked her clear through, so that water dripped from her hair and the hem of her dress onto the floor. She was covered in mud. She held the blunderbuss with the ease and confidence of someone who was quite accustomed to the use of firearms, and Delacourt noted this with a rueful twist of his lips.

“I had forgotten your proficiency, Lizzie,” he said. “I should never have allowed you to learn it.”

Elizabeth frowned at him. “What are you talking about?” she asked, her voice angry and peremptory. She glanced at Jennings, who had risen and now stood beside her. “Are you all right, Christopher? I arrived as soon as I could.”

“Never better, my love,” Jennings responded. “You are here earlier than I expected.”

“I have been here several minutes,” she revealed. She glared at Cedric. “Listening to you explain all the ways that you have burdened and tormented my family!” Her eyes narrowed. “My mother!” She squared her shoulders and waved the blunderbuss in a menacing manner toward him. “And I believe, Cousin, having heard your tale, that your life has extended far enough!” She moved forward, stepping into the chalk circle as Cedric backed out of it.

He reached behind him to the little table where the dagger still sat; he gripped it in a steady hand and brought it between him and Elizabeth. The firelight glinted off its steel blade as he turned it to and fro. “On the contrary, dearest Lizzie,” he said affably. “It is your life that has gone on too long.” He grew suddenly serious, and his eyes became dark and cold. “It is your destiny, Cousin, to be given in sacrifice. There is really nothing you can do about it.” He advanced, crossing into the chalk circle.

Elizabeth, her eyes never leaving Delacourt’s, swung the blunderbuss with all her strength, delivering a shocking blow to the side of Cedric’s head and dropping him to his knees.

Miss Fetherston screamed and rushed Elizabeth, pushing her out of the circle and across the study. Elizabeth swung the blunderbuss again; it poked sharply into Isabelle’s gut, causing her to double over in pain. Elizabeth took this brief opportunity to hit her again, slamming the butt of the gun into the juncture between Isabelle’s shoulder and her neck. Isabelle cried out and fell to the ground, but, as Elizabeth turned her attention once more to Cedric, who struggled dizzily to regain his footing, Isabelle scurried to the fireplace and wrenched a poker from its stand.

“Get away from him!” she shouted, her face contorted with rage, and, raising the poker over her head, she charged Elizabeth a second time.

Jennings lunged forward, hoping to stop the swinging poker, but Miss Fetherston saw him coming and quickly brought the poker down on his outstretched arms. He stumbled backward, and Isabelle swung the poker at Elizabeth, who parried it with the blunderbuss.

The two women spun around, Isabelle trying repeatedly to move the poker past the blunderbuss and Elizabeth countering her efforts.

By now, Cedric had come to his feet. Blood trickled from the side of his head, and he stood hunched over, still too dazed for proper balance. He had managed to keep the dagger in his hand; as Isabelle and Elizabeth danced into the chalk circle, he summoned what equilibrium he could, and stabbed out at Elizabeth.

“No!” Jennings cried, leaping forward too late to stop Delacourt’s attack. The knife met flesh, sinking to its hilt into Isabelle’s heart.

Elizabeth fell back, horrified. “No!” she croaked. “Isabelle!”

Isabelle stared at Elizabeth in absolute confusion. Blood spread out across her bodice, and she slumped against Delacourt. “Jon?” she said weakly, gazing up at him. “What – what have you done?”

Delacourt pulled her to him, and gazed back at her with a look of resigned pity. “So sorry, my dear,” he said gently. “It was truly meant for Lizzie.” He lowered her to the floor, into the middle of the chalk circle, and lovingly brushed her hair away from her face. “No matter,” he went on with a slight shrug. “There’s thirteen.”

Isabelle’s eyes revealed all the disbelief and heartbreak that she no longer had the strength to vocalize; she coughed, blood spraying out from her lips onto her white cheeks, and her fingers clutched at the collar of Cedric’s shirt. She pulled him close to her as though she would speak, but her throat could only sputter and click. In a moment, she was dead.

Cedric sighed and stood up. “How vexing,” he announced. “Now the joining of the fortunes will be more … protracted.” He looked from Isabelle to the crumpled form of Charlotte Carlisle that lay in the entryway. “And I’ve lost Charlotte too,” he added in long-suffering tones. “Such a waste.”

“‘Lost’ her?” Elizabeth protested. “You’ve murdered her!”

Cedric blinked at her. “But I liked her!” he explained. “I had planned to keep her!” He frowned down at Isabelle, whose sightless eyes stared back at him. “Her … exuberance … has always been a welcome departure from Isabelle’s simpering affections.” He sighed again. “Well, it doesn’t really signify,” he said. “I shall simply turn to one of the other Misses Fetherston in my ‘grief’.” He laughed. “Would it not be amusing if one of Isabelle’s sisters married Ned and the other married Sir James? Or better yet, Cedric! … I have long thought that it was time for Sir James to die.”

Elizabeth scowled in bewilderment. “What are you talking about?” she said harshly. “Where is my father?”

Jennings put a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Did you not see, my love?” he asked gently. “He was killed along with your stepmother. His is the other body in the hall.”

She glanced at him for a second before bringing her attention back to Cedric; shaking the blunderbuss to remind her cousin – and herself – that she would be more than capable of caving in his skull with it, she said, “There’s only Charlotte in the hall.”

Jennings whipped around and peered into the hall. Only Charlotte Carlisle now lay there; Sir James’ body was indeed gone. But he had seen the body himself – it did not seem possible that Sir James could still have been alive, but if he was, why would he make no sound upon waking? Why would he sneak away without involving himself in the happenings in the study?

Cedric saw Jennings’ thorough confusion and laughed again, a far more sinister sound now than before. “You are wondering, dear boy, where Sir James has gone,” he said. “Why, he was only playing dead, you know!” He grinned at Jennings and then at Elizabeth. “Well,” he went on. “That is to say, I was only playing dead. Sir James – the real Sir James – has been dead for eighteen years.” He tilted his head to one side. “Your father, who was gone so often into the country without you, dear Lizzie, was also Edmond Fitzhugh, and, most recently, Cedric Delacourt, whose business in London has kept him from home more often than not.”

Elizabeth, attempting to digest what Delacourt was saying, could do no more than stand frozen and dismayed, shaking her head and frantically blinking away sudden tears. “This cannot be,” she whispered at last, her heart pounding in her chest. “It cannot be.”

“It’s impossible,” Jennings murmured. He could barely comprehend what he was hearing. “All this while,” he said. “You’ve been keeping Lizzie close to you.”

“Oh, not by choice, I assure you,” Cedric said. He bent down and pulled Isabelle out of the circle, then began taking off his coat. “But I wanted Sir James’ fortune, so I took it. And because of his standing, any number of women were eager to be chosen, even if he was a dreadful curmudgeon.” He tossed his coat unceremoniously onto the floor outside the circle. “His was a most difficult role to play. He is – was – a very unpleasant sort of man, and, unfortunately, the spell does not work as well if I make too many changes to the original man’s character.” He untied his cravat. “I did my best to stay away from Lizzie, in fact,” he said, smiling warmly at her as though this information should comfort her. “I did not want to become too close to her, for quite often children can see through the magic. It helped that she was so young when I arrived.” He removed his shirt, and stood now bare to the waist; around him, the chalk runes had begun to glow with white light.

Elizabeth, goaded from her mental shock by the glowing circle, stepped back. Beside her, Jennings felt his chest tighten in a way that was at once familiar and suddenly far more severe – something even more dire than Cedric’s monster was about to make an appearance. His breathing became jagged, and he was obliged to steady himself by leaning against the wall, his hand tugging his collar away from his throat.

“You might well be concerned, Jennings,” Cedric said, observing him. “Isabelle was the final sacrifice.” He crouched down in the circle and ran his fingers through the puddle of Miss Fetherston’s blood. “My long wait is now at an end.” He lifted his hand and drew a symbol in blood across his chest. “I have at last paid my part of the bargain.” He positioned himself in the exact center of the circle and spread his arms out wide.

“Good God!” Elizabeth breathed, stepping further back as the runes became intensely bright, and the fire turned so wild that it threatened to break free of the fireplace and engulf the room.

“My blood will seal the bargain!” Cedric shouted over the roar of flames. He jabbed the tip of the dagger into the flesh above his heart, and, as his own blood welled up, he himself began to glow. His eyes lit up in exultation; he dropped the dagger, and it clattered onto the floor. “I will live forever!” he cried. “Generations will be mine to command!” His blood ran down his chest in a thick, red-black thread.

Behind Cedric, a figure appeared in the fireplace. It was not so huge as the winged creature had been, but it was somehow more frightening. It bore the shape and size of a man, but the skin was as glossy and red as painted leather, and the face was twisted into a fearsome grimace. The figure stood naked and hairless, its features as smooth as if it were molded out of living clay, and where its eyes should have been were instead dark caverns that swirled with the black aether of the abyss.

“His blood,” Jennings said, staggering forward. “Can’t touch the floor.” The demon figure saw him and lifted its hand, squeezing its fingers into a fist. Jennings was seized with a gripping pain in his chest that brought him swiftly to his knees.

Cedric watched him fall, and a sneer curled his lips. “You cannot stop me now!” he proclaimed. “I will have what is mine!” He laughed in delight as the light that surrounded him pulled him a few inches off the ground. “I will have it all,” he informed the Jennings. “And people like you will be helpless before me!”

“Or not,” Elizabeth replied. She grabbed the blunderbuss once more by its muzzle and swung it into Cedric Delacourt.

He flew backward, tumbling out of the circle and slamming against the fireplace mantel. “No!” he bellowed, but his anger turned instantly to triumph. “You’re too late, Cousin!” he said.

Elizabeth looked down to see that, even as she had pushed Cedric away, four drops of his blood had landed on the runes.

The fire exploded out of the fireplace and began to creep up the study walls. The figure stepped out of it just as the beast had done, but, unlike the beast, this demonic man stood in silence, turning neither one way nor the other, and favouring the Jennings with not even a single glance. It waited on the hearthstone, its eyes – if they could be called such – riveted on Delacourt.

Delacourt pushed himself away from the mantel and strode back into the circle. In a flash, his hand was around Elizabeth’s neck, and the pressure of his fingers caused her vision to go black. She feared she would faint, and her pulse beat so loudly in her ears that she could barely hear Cedric’s words. “Your husband’s gifts have proven a curse,” he said, his voice seeming to come from a long distance. “He is sensitive to my demon’s hand, and is rendered quite unable to move, or even to breathe. In a moment I will command my demon to kill him.” He smiled down at her. “But you have been such a bother to me, Lizzie, that I believe I will kill you myself.” He brought her face close to his, and she could feel his breath. “I will kill you both and take his fortune, and I will blame all this …” He waved his free hand expansively to indicate the entire house. “… on you. You, Lizzie, have poisoned the whole household, and murdered your father and stepmother, and your cousin, and you’ve run off with Isabelle’s Ned, never to be heard from again.” He clucked his tongue. “How dreadful of you, Lizzie! How … uncivil.” He came so close to her that their cheeks touched, and his words hissed in her ear. “And I, Christopher Jennings, was helpless to do anything! You poisoned me too, of course, and even though I managed to escape, there was no one for miles to come to my aid.” He chuckled. “Thank you, Cousin, for finally being useful to me.”

come to my aid, his words echoed in her brain. Come to my aid. Come to my aid. The phrase triggered a memory – something important. Something important. Come to my aid. Come to …

Her mother’s letter! “If ever you find yourself in harm’s way, call upon me, … and I will render you what aid I can.”

She let the blunderbuss slip from her fingers and began fumbling frantically for the pocket of her cloak. Please let it be there! she prayed. Don’t let it have fallen out in the carriage. Cedric’s grip on her throat had tightened, and everything was swimming before her eyes. With some difficulty, she wriggled her fingers into her pocket and touched the drawstrings of her reticule. Thank God! But even as she tugged at the opening of the reticule, she felt her legs give way beneath her. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she went limp.

Cedric gazed at her for a few seconds, before releasing her and allowing her to drop to the floor. He raised one eyebrow in surprise at how easily she had been dispatched – after so much trouble! – and then turned to Jennings, who still knelt with his hand to his throat, the skin of his mouth and fingers a frightening shade of blue.

“You don’t look so well, old boy,” Cedric said amiably, bending over and clapping Jennings on the shoulder. He glanced at Elizabeth. “I suppose you’re not too happy about that,” he said. “But never worry! You’ll be with her soon enough!” He shoved Jennings roughly to the ground, and kicked him in the stomach. “You even arrived before her,” he said pityingly. “And you’re still too late. How maddening for you! Or perhaps comforting,” he added musingly. “You would never have been able to save her, you see. It was never really within your power to do so, despite your gift.”

Jennings, desperate for air, stared helplessly at Elizabeth. He had failed her, again. He was tempted to give up his struggle to breathe, and to let himself slip into death, but the thought that she might yet, somehow, be alive would not allow him to do so.

Yes, there! He saw her move. Ungh! He received a second, fiercer kick in the stomach from Delacourt. Involuntarily, he doubled up and shifted backward, but before Delacourt could turn back to Elizabeth, Jennings summoned every ounce of strength that he possessed, and hurled himself at Delacourt’s legs.

Cedric was thrown off balance and toppled over, landing with a loud thump at the feet of his own demon. The demon did not move, but looked on Cedric with apparent curiosity.

“What are you waiting for?” Cedric growled, glaring up at it. “Kill him!”

The demon’s head pivoted slightly to the side, and it watched Jennings for a few seconds before striding toward him and picking him up by the collar. Jennings, nearly insensible from lack of oxygen, and assailed by the notion that his heart was not beating as it properly should, hung like a ragdoll in the demon’s powerful grasp. His only hope was that his actions had bought Elizabeth enough time to get away.

Elizabeth, having feigned unconsciousness to escape Cedric’s throttling, took full advantage of her husband’s distraction; no one noticed as she wrangled her reticule out of her pocket and pulled open the drawstrings.

Mother, she thought. Please be able to hear me.

She drew the peridot ring out of the reticule.

“Mother,” she whispered. “I am very much in harm’s way.”

She slid the ring onto her finger.

The Jennings – Chapter Seventeen

Reunion

Perry was ill inclined to proceed at what he called the breakneck speed his mistress had requested. The groom seconded his decision to travel at a more seemly pace, and, in light of the muddy roads and the threat of continued rain, Elizabeth eventually agreed as well.

“But we must make all possible haste, Perry,” she reminded him. “As quickly as the horses will safely take us.” She glanced up at the dark clouds. “We are scarcely two hours behind Mr. Jennings, and I daresay he will not be in a monstrous hurry, since he does not know about Ned and Isabelle. We may be able to overtake him.”

Perry handed her up into the carriage. “We may indeed, ma’am,” he said. He looked askance at her. “You are set, ma’am, on reaching the lake house tonight? It will be well past dark.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Time is of the essence, Perry,” she said firmly. “I do not yet know who it is that has been duplicitous, but it is clearly someone, and I believe since the lie was about the lake house, that my father and stepmother – and Isabelle too, I fear – may be in harm’s way, even this very moment.”

Perry could hardly gainsay her, since he had seen his master more than once take unusual actions that proved later to be the best course. But it concerned him that they would be travelling after dark, and he was glad beyond measure that they had thought to bring the blunderbuss. “As you wish, ma’am,” he said with an air of worried resignation. “I’ll take us quick as I can.” With this half-hearted assertion, he climbed up onto the box and steered the carriage onto the road.

____________________

Jennings stood, unable to do more for a moment than stare nonplussed at the lifeless forms of Sir James and his wife. He had no reason to berate himself – he had made all haste in coming here – but he could not help feeling, as he had when he found Elizabeth in the park, that he should somehow have been able to go faster, to arrive sooner. How long ago had the Carlisles been killed? He had stopped nearly an hour in Luton to escape hail and lightning; if he had braved it instead, would he have made his destination in time to save them? The knowledge that his horse would surely have foundered had he forced it to endure such a pummeling was of little consolation.

She was so sure her father was in danger, he thought. She cared about him, even after all.

The murmuring voices had stopped when he entered the front hallway, and he realized now that someone stood behind him, even before she spoke.

“You are Mr. Jennings, no doubt!” she said brightly. “I have heard so much about you!”

Jennings turned to face the woman. She was petite, not quite as tall as Elizabeth, but her golden curls were piled high on her head, giving her the illusion of height. She was extremely slender, and her skin was so pale that she seemed to glow in the dimness of the hallway. Behind her, the door to the study was open, casting the orange light of a roaring fire into the hall. She looked briefly over her shoulder into the study, then turned back to Jennings with a welcoming smile.

“I hope you will join us, Mr. Jennings,” she said. “We’ve been waiting for you.” Her smile became rather sardonic. “And for your lovely bride, of course.”

Jennings raised an eyebrow. “I am distressed,” he said, his voice as cold as ice, “to think we would have any place in such a matter.” He gave a small nod toward the Carlisles. “Were we expected to allow this? Or to be your next victims?”

The woman stood with her hands clasped in front of her. “It was unfortunate,” she said, her regret seeming almost genuine. “But unavoidable.” She frowned. “Mrs. Carlisle would not drink ale or wine!” she complained. “It was really most perverse of her, and quite vexing!” She glanced down at Charlotte’s body. “And since she could not be got out of the way, we were obliged, I’m afraid, to remove her entirely.” She beamed at him. “But now you are here, everything will soon be set to rights – well, for us, anyway.”

“Will I not also need to be ‘removed entirely’?” Jennings asked. He glanced toward the study; he had heard a man’s voice earlier, but its owner had not as yet come into the hall. “Especially since Mrs. Jennings is not with me?”

The woman revealed some surprise at this news. “Why ever not?” she asked. “What would possess you to come here by yourself?” She frowned again. “You weren’t invited.”

“Neither was Lizzie,” Jennings noted coolly. “Yet you expected her.”

“Because she has been tracking the rings,” the woman explained. “No doubt because of clues given her by you, sir. Your gifts are rather well-known in certain circles, despite your circumspection about them. When I stopped in London and learned you had travelled north, I knew that, if you had not yet deduced enough to lead you here, you soon would.” She tittered. “You do have an excellent property, sir! I’m sure I shall enjoy it very much!”

“How did you know she was tracking the rings?” Jennings asked. “We told no one.”

“Lizzie’s been casting about for weeks, sir!” the woman said. “First to our cousin Marcus Tate, and then to me. Poor Marcus,” she added with a disingenuous pout. “His little Eliza taken so suddenly, when it really ought to have been Lizzie. She must feel just terrible about it!”

“You must be Cousin Isabelle,” Jennings said drily.

“Why, yes!” she answered proudly. “Your gifts are indeed prodigious!”

Jennings’ expression was impassive. “I recognized your shallow heartlessness,” he said. She bridled at this, but said nothing, stepping back involuntarily as he moved toward her. “You’ve taken Eliza,” he went on. “And Annie Baker. What use is Lizzie to you now? And – I believe I already asked – what use am I? Do I not simply await some sort of execution, either by you or your winged henchman?” He remained in absolute control, but his anger was evident. “Why do you stand here chatting with me as though I cared a fig for anything you had to say?”

Isabelle pulled herself up as tall as possible. “There’s no need to be rude!” she announced haughtily. “I can’t help it if he picked me over all the others! I certainly can’t help it if others don’t quite measure up!” Her eyes shifted briefly to the floor. “Or if they are meant for other fates.” She turned and peered once more into the study, and broke into a delighted grin. “Do come, Mr. Jennings!” she cried, reaching out to take his arm as though he were a dear friend. Leaning toward him, she whispered conspiratorially, “There’s nothing for it, after all. No point in struggling.”

Jennings hoped fervently that Miss Fetherston was wrong about that, but he saw no immediate value in trying to escape. Isabelle was hardly able to overpower both Charlotte and Sir James; clearly the man whose voice he had heard was her accomplice, and was likely the one in charge of the beast and of the dark magic that had shielded the cave – without more knowledge, Jennings did not see by what method he could either stop or flee such a formidable opponent, and if he died in the attempt, he would not be in any position to help Elizabeth when she arrived.

And he could feel, as strongly as any message he had received through the slate, that she was indeed on her way.

He was pulled into the study by Miss Fetherston, who looked at him triumphantly before bringing his attention to the other occupant of the room.

It was Cedric Delacourt.

_______________________________

Elizabeth waited impatiently in the carriage for a change of horses. They had made good time, but she could see that they had just missed a great storm, and the roads ahead did not look promising at all. She leaned out of the carriage window.

“Are we very far, Perry?” she called.

Perry had been talking with the ostlers; he left them with a nod of his head and came to the carriage window. “We’re barely an hour behind ‘im, ma’am.”

She was surprised. “We’re overtaking him?” she asked incredulously. “In the carriage?”

He nodded again. “He was obliged to stop here for some time, ma’am,” he said. “There was a downpour of hail, and a good bit of lightning. Horse wouldn’t go through it.” He glanced at the muddy road and at the stormy evening sky; his expression suggested that he thought the horse was in the right of it.

“If we can overtake him, we should try to do so,” Elizabeth said. At her urging, they left Luton at a smart pace, but after only a few miles, the roads became almost impassible from mud, and Perry slowed the horses down to what seemed to Elizabeth to be a disastrously leisurely crawl. Knowing there were still above twenty miles to cover, she scowled at the sun that already hung very low in the sky. At this rate they would be lucky to arrive at the lake house before dawn, and, if the rain took up again, which it seemed very likely to do, Perry would no doubt put his foot down on the matter, and demand that he not be expected to risk the safety of either the horses or his mistress.

“I could walk faster than this,” she grumbled, but knew in her heart that, however pressing the matter may feel to her, Perry was doing his level best to accommodate what was in truth a very silly directive. Why, the only reason they had reached Northampton so early in day was that she and Jennings both enjoyed getting a preposterously early start on long journeys, and had left Brightwood at the first notion of daylight. Jennings liked to travel fast, as well, and Elizabeth realized with a pang of guilt that, if she were overtaking him, then she was probably pushing the horses.

Feeling rather like a murderess at the thought of hurting animals – who had been dragging her all over the countryside, no less! – Elizabeth leaned toward the carriage window with the intention of telling Perry to stop at the next village for an actual rest and some supper. But as her hand reached out, the carriage lurched hard to one side, and began to slide rather than roll along the muddy road. Elizabeth found herself flung first against the seat, and then onto the ceiling, as the carriage tilted off the edge of the road and tumbled ten feet down to a ravine.

_________________________

Cedric stood beside the fireplace, his hand resting on the edge of a small table upon which sat a number of thick candles, grouped around an ornate dagger that lay on a white cloth. The furniture had been pushed away from the center of the room, and the rug rolled up and shoved to the side; on the wood floor thus revealed were two enormous concentric circles, drawn in white chalk and studded with runes and cryptic words.

Jennings took in the scene at a glance, and gazed dispassionately at Cedric. “You have covered your tracks quite well, sir. My compliments.”

Cedric’s smile was as sincere and warm as it had always been. “I know you jest, cousin,” he said amiably. “But I must say that I have done quite a bang-up job of it, for such a very long time.” He ran his fingers along the hilt of the dagger. “I must say too,” he acknowledged. “That you are truly a capital fellow! If I were ever in a jam, I would call upon you, without question!”

Jennings realized that Cedric’s appearance was shifting, so that at times he looked like himself, while at others his face seemed to belong to another, or even to several others. “So the magic in the cave,” he said thoughtfully. “It was as I saw it in my vision: you have taken over more than Ned’s name and fortune. You have taken over his appearance as well.” He frowned, his eyes struggling to pin down Cedric’s true face. “Somehow.”

Cedric grinned even more broadly. “You had a vision of me?” he asked, apparently delighted by the notion. “With Neddy? That was a difficult one, I allow. I liked Ned very well, and I will miss him desperately! But you are quite right, Jennings, quite right; I have put a great deal of effort into protecting the cave. It is a sacred place – an anchor, if you will.” He raised an eyebrow and added in a conspiratorial voice, “It is the best possible place to transfer their essence to my own. Without that, my ruse would be discovered in a trice, I fear.” He noticed that Jennings was squinting at him, and blinking his eyes in irritation. “Oh, of course!” he said. “Your ‘gift’! It is allowing you to see me as I really am.” He stepped away from the table and stood with his shoulders squared. After a moment, his appearance solidified, and he looked now even more like the portrait of Elizabeth’s ancestor than before. “This is my true countenance,” he said. “I had been able to shield myself from your … talents … while the enchantment remained on the cave. But when you entered it and broke the spell, I suddenly found myself at quite a loss to maintain any sort of disguise whatsoever. And so I knew, you see, that someone had uncovered my secret, and I assumed it must be you and dear Elizabeth. Of course, since I could not keep any face but my own for more than a few minutes at a time, I was obliged to speed things up a bit from my original plan.” He glanced toward the entryway where Sir James and Charlotte Carlisle lay, and his smile dimmed considerably. “Poor Charlotte would not take a drink with me – for no good reason! – although, now that I think on it, she had been looking at me strangely all afternoon, and so I imagine she was very suspicious of my unsteady appearance. I considered sending her on some sort of outing with Isabelle, but the rain prevented it.” He sighed. “I was forced, in the end, to eliminate her in a most unseemly fashion!”

Isabelle moved to stand closer to Cedric. “It cannot signify, can it?” she asked him. “You could not have her anyway.”

Cedric took Isabelle’s hand and brought it to his lips. “I still liked her, my pet!” he explained. “I do not enjoy killing people. Especially when their deaths can do me no good.”

Behind them, a gust of wind blew the front door against the wall of the entryway, and leaves skittered across the floor, accompanied by the splash of heavy rain. Isabelle jumped, startled, and then laughed at her own nervousness. “She was trying to flee, you know,” she told Jennings. “As though anything she did would stop what will happen.” She scoffed at the notion.

“And what will happen?” Jennings asked. “Why do any of this?” He tilted his head to one side and eyed Cedric Delacourt with undisguised contempt. “It is you, is it not, who unleashed the monster that killed Ann Baker?” He frowned darkly. “And Eliza Tate? Did you contrive to eliminate her as well?” He stepped further into the study. “Why have you visited this dark legacy upon Lizzie’s family?”

“Not her family!” Isabelle interrupted angrily. “My family! She’s barely part of it at all! Her only value is in dying!” She folded her arms in front of her petulantly. “Which she should have done months ago,” she grumbled. “Annie Baker would have come most willingly, and all would have been done with no one the wiser! Now we must wait for Lizzie, who does not seem to want to come at all!”

“I’m sure Lizzie will apologize for inconveniencing you so selfishly,” Jennings said sardonically. “But I’m confused; I was under the impression that each generation paid a price of two women.” He turned to Mr. Delacourt. “Why are you waiting for Lizzie, when you’ve already taken Annie and Eliza?”

Cedric smiled, not quite as warmly as before. “Two females every nineteen years,” he said. “I’ve been following the cycles of the moon – earning my prize – for one hundred and fourteen years.” He sighed again, and his eyes gleamed in the firelight. “It’s been so long,” he went on, his voice filled with emotion. “Taking new identities, bequeathing my fortunes to my new selves by increasingly circuitous means, spending decades waiting for this magical immortality to be made permanent.” He gazed at Isabelle for a moment. “And to be able to share it now with my beautiful bride.” His attention returned to Jennings. “Six generations,” he explained. “Twelve females all together. But the requirement, of course, was thirteen. Cousin Elizabeth will be the final offering.”

Isabelle sniffed and rolled her eyes. “If she ever comes!” she said. “Since Mr. Jennings has seen fit to come here without her!”

“You’re very impatient,” Jennings noted drily. “You have waited over a hundred years; why is tonight so important?”

I haven’t,” Isabelle protested. “I’m only twenty-two!” Her pout dissolved into unabashed joy. “And now I shall be twenty-two forever!” she announced triumphantly. “Because Jon – I mean, ‘Ned’ – has picked me to be the eternal matriarch!”

“So you are Jonathan Fitzhugh,” Jennings said to Delacourt. “Your portrait hangs in Sir James’ house; Lizzie recognized you.” He glanced down at the chalk circles. “But I still don’t understand why you’re in such a hurry.”

“It is, in part, your own fault, Jennings,” Mr. Delacourt said with incongruous amiability. “You broke the spell at the cave – my anchor, as I said – and I was not able to achieve any consistent disguise. But in truth I have been rather surprised, all these years, that it has never been breached by some curious lad or fearless fox. So I cannot be too upset with you about it, I suppose, since the spell has certainly given its all.” He squinted at Jennings. “Your gifts, too, may have had a hand in it,” he realized. “Which were not of your design, after all, but were truly visited upon you. So you see,” he said, splaying his hands out in a helpless gesture. “It is really unfair to be irritated with you about it. But it was undeniably most inopportune.” He sighed and toyed again with the dagger on the little table. “Mostly, though,” he continued. “This final sacrifice must be completed before the next full moon, so we have barely a fortnight to do it. And since I have been compelled to remove Mrs. Carlisle, I have very little time indeed to perform the ritual before people begin asking a lot of pesky questions.” He looked around him a bit wistfully. “I suppose fire would be best,” he decided. “It is a pity to lose the lake house – it’s so delightfully located! – but no one will suspect anything, I would imagine.”

“Who would suspect anything anyway?” Isabelle said scornfully. “Who’s going to miss Charlotte Carlisle? She isn’t anybody!” She smiled archly. “My family deserve this reward!” she informed Jennings with an air of absolute superiority. “We’ve upheld the bargain all these years! Amassing a huge fortune through advantageous marriages, offering up our own people as payment – we’re the ones who matter!” She rolled her eyes again. “And I have certainly put up with all the Lizzies of the world for far too long!”

Jennings decided he had heard more than enough. “‘Bargain’!” he repeated derisively. “In exchange for what?”

Isabelle looked sincerely surprised at the question. “In exchange for immortality!” she said, as though she were explaining a rudimentary fact to an imbecile. She indicated her betrothed with a toss of her head. “He is the holder of great power!” she went on, her eyes lighting up. “And we were chosen to share in it. For generations, we have known that from our ranks would come the woman who gains immortality at his side. We’ll control a fortune beyond imagining! Our children will join us, until our family sways the whole world!”

Jennings snorted. “You fool!” he snapped. “Why would someone with so much power need anyone? Why would someone who is immortal require heirs? His practiced method of taking over other men’s lives does not sound like the sort of habit he would be likely to give up, simply because his youth had been made permanent. He will no doubt continue killing men and taking their fortunes, their homes and lands, their wives and families; he has no use for you or for your family beyond your willingness to sacrifice your own kind for his ends. I will be greatly surprised if he marries you at all, and if he does, it will be for the fortune which, once secured to him, will render your personal contribution completely unnecessary. He will dispose of you just as he has the others, and take over the lives of your father, your uncles, me … without a thought for you or your family, or for any bargain into which you have entered so passively and so naively!”

Isabelle’s outrage left her momentarily speechless. She turned to Mr. Delacourt for support, who told her soothingly, “You needn’t listen to him, my dear. It is he who is largely unnecessary.” He put one arm around her shoulders and hugged her to him. “I will transfer his essence to myself, and then we will have his fortune as well, and all of Brightwood, just as I promised.”

She looked slightly mollified. “I did like Brightwood,” she said. She looked up at him quizzically. “Will I be able to alter my appearance as you have done? Will people imagine that I am Lizzie?”

“I am quite sure you will be able to, my dear,” Cedric assured her. “A spell is a spell.” He looked apologetically at Jennings. “I am sorry, old boy,” he said. “But Charlotte is not the proper bloodline for the sacrifice, you see; it must be Lizzie. And of course, especially now that you are a witness to these events, you cannot be allowed to leave here.” He seemed truly remorseful. “You and I could have been great friends, I believe,” he said. “Pity.” His attention drifted into the wind-swept hallway. “You must believe Lizzie to be on her way here,” he guessed. “Else why would you not flee, since you have had every opportunity? You hope to afford her protection by standing between her and me. But it’s no use, I’m afraid, no use at all.” He smiled lovingly down at Isabelle. “I wonder how far away she is?”

_______________________________

“Mrs. Jennings!” Perry wrenched open the door of the carriage, which had survived its tumble largely unscathed save for a broken wheel. The door swung up, and Perry peered down into the depths of the carriage.

“I am quite all right,” Elizabeth replied. “Only a bit shaken up.” She came unsteadily to her feet, struggling to right herself in the tilted carriage. “Do you mind helping me, Perry?” she asked, raising her arms up to him.

“Good God, ma’am!” Perry exclaimed in relief. “When I saw how it rolled, I was fearful to find you!” He took her arms and pulled her as gently as he could from the carriage; there was little purchase on her side, but she did her best to help him, and soon she had climbed down onto the muddy ground. “Are you quite sure you’re all right, ma’am?” Perry asked anxiously. “It must’ve tossed you about somethin’ awful!”

Elizabeth managed a reassuring smile. “I am all intact, Perry, I assure you,” she told him. “I have certainly been through worse.” She looked around her. “Where is Tom, Perry? Has he been hurt?”

“Aye, ma’am,” Perry replied. He gestured a little way down the road, where the groom sat holding one arm cradled in the other. “He’s broken his arm, ma’am. But it could’ve been a lot worse, as far as he got thrown.”

“Heavens!” Elizabeth cried. “He looks as pale as death!” She hurried to the young man and crouched down beside him. “I’m so sorry!” she said, tears in her eyes. “This is all my fault!”

“No, ma’am,” Tom said. “Things happen. We were hardly movin’ at all, in truth, and I’m quite surprised it slipped.”

“The wretched mud!” Elizabeth said. “And all because I wanted to push through tonight!” She inspected his arm gingerly. “Does it hurt dreadfully?”

“As to that, ma’am,” he replied. “It barely hurts at all unless I try to put weight on it. It’ll be right as rain in a few weeks, don’t you worry about it at all.” He seemed more concerned about Elizabeth than with his own injury, and asked her solicitously, “Are you all right, ma’am?”

She nodded. “A bit bruised,” she said. “But I’ll be ‘right as rain’ as well in a day or two.”

“I’ll ride back to Luton,” Perry said. “The horses broke free of the carriage when it twisted over; they’re a bit spooked, but none the worse that I can tell. I’ll take them back and hire another carriage, and it’ll be here for you before you can wink an eye. We’ll be tucked up at the inn before ten o’clock, I wager!”

Elizabeth was instantly besieged by a feeling of dread. I can’t go back to Luton, she thought. I must reach the lake house. “I cannot explain it, Perry,” she said. “But I believe – most strongly – that something bad will happen if I do not reach my father tonight. I cannot return to Luton.”

Perry could see her sincere distress; whether or not he shared her belief, he knew that she would act upon it with or without his help, and he had experienced too many strange things while in Mr. Jennings’ employ to be dismissive of ‘bad feelings’. “We can press on tonight, ma’am,” he said, surprised himself to hear the words come out of his mouth. “But the horses can’t take all of us, and I think it would be unwise to leave Tom here by himself. So I’ll ride to Luton, and hire a carriage, and you and Tom can wait here with the blunderbuss. I’ll return as quick as I can, and then we’ll go on to the lake house.” He sighed gustily and eyed the muddy road. “If there’s a carriage or wagon or aught to be had, I fancy we might reach the lake house some time after midnight. I can’t make no promises, but we can try.”

“That will be excellent,” Elizabeth said. She stood and held her hand out to Perry, who took it in some confusion. “I know what I ask,” she added. “I know that Mr. Jennings would not countenance such urgency.” She glanced guiltily at Tom. “None of this would have happened if I had not stayed behind in Northampton, or if I had not decided to reach the lake house today. But it seemed to be a very sound plan at lunch-time, for many very good reasons, and although I had thought earlier to stop for the night, my heart tells me now that I must get to the lake house as soon as possible, even if I must walk there.” Great drops of rain began to fall as she spoke, and a low rumble of thunder punctuated her words. Her dread became overpowering, settling in her chest like a cold, angry fist; she could hear her blood pounding in her ears. “Mr. Jennings’ pistols are under the seat,” she said. “Unless they have been thrown clear of the carriage altogether. You must take them, Perry; you should not be unarmed on such a dark road.”

Perry had known about the pistols but had forgotten. He welcomed her reminder with relief, and made his way quickly to the overturned carriage. The sooner he got back to Luton the better, especially now that it was beginning to rain. After a few moments, during which he contorted himself through the canted opening of the carriage, he called over his shoulder, “They’re here, ma’am! Safe and sound.”

“Perry!” Tom cried out, and Perry turned in time to see Elizabeth, her skirts gathered up in a most undignified manner, sitting astride one of the horses. In one arm she carried the blunderbuss, while the other kept a practiced hold on the reins.

“Mrs. Jennings!” Perry shouted. Carrying Mr. Jennings’ pistol case, he ran up the hill to the road. “Ma’am, what are you thinking!”

She spun the horse around. “I’m sorry, Perry!” she told him over her shoulder. “But I can’t ask you and Tom to do anything more for me than you already have. I’ll send someone for you straightaway, I promise!” She took off then at a near gallop, skillfully keeping the horse on the driest parts of the road.

Perry stood looking after her, struggling to comprehend what his mistress had just done. He debated riding after her, but could not leave Tom alone and relatively helpless. Finally, his shoulders slumping in dejected resignation, he squatted down beside Tom. “The master won’t like that one bit,” he said.

Tom shrugged and gave Perry a half-smile. “He might be well pleased about it,” he said. “If Miz Jennings is right, and he’s in some kind of trouble.”

Perry raised his eyebrows. “I had not thought of that,” he admitted. “But then … do we hope he’s fine, or do we hope he’s not fine?”

Tom let out a bark of laughter. As the droplets of rain became more of a steady shower, he gestured with his good arm toward the carriage. “I think she had a parasol. It’s better’n nothin’, I suppose.”

“Aye,” Perry agreed, coming to his feet and heading back to the carriage. “And then we’ll put you on the other horse, and walk us back to Luton. If we’re gonna be stuck in the rain, it might as well be on the way to somewhere.”

Tom laughed again. “Can you imagine it?” he asked. “Me, bein’ escorted into Luton, carryin’ my parasol!”

______________________________

Jennings gazed with pity on Isabelle Fetherston. “You know, he promised Annie Baker a lot of things as well,” he said. “You should take care, I imagine.”

Before Isabelle could retort, Mr. Delacourt said smoothly, “Annie Baker was a sacrifice, Jennings. She was never intended to be anything else.” He stepped into the chalk circle. “Since I cannot take you unawares,” he went on. “I shall be obliged to let my pet do the honours. I prefer to do such things at the cave, but this will certainly suffice, as long as I have your blood.” He spread his arms out from his body, and lifted his face to the ceiling. Behind him, the fire built to a roaring crescendo, and the white lines of the circle began to glow faintly. Isabelle, watching with wide eyes, moved away from the circle, until she stood with her back against the far wall of the study.

Jennings felt a stab of fear in his chest, as well as the familiar sensation of otherworldly presence. Whatever Cedric Delacourt was doing, it clearly had nothing to do with this mortal earth, and Jennings waited with a mixture of apprehension and fascination.

He did not have to wait long.

Coalescing in the fireplace as though drawn from the stone itself, a great beast appeared in the flames. It was the beast Jennings had seen in visions – the one that attacked Elizabeth and murdered Ann Baker. It looked like no earthly creature, but its body had the form of a man, while its head resembled that of a wolf. Its massive arms rippled with muscle and sinew, and its yellow eyes shone even brighter than the fire in which it stood. It stepped over the hearth and into the room, trailing burning cinders behind it that fell sizzling to the floor, and its wings as it spread them out wide spanned the whole room from wall to wall. Miss Fetherston cried out in spite of herself, and shrank away from the towering monster.

The beast, pinning Jennings with a piercing stare, emitted a long, shrill shriek and advanced toward him.

The Jennings – Chapter Sixteen

Splitting Up

Having found a suitable inn at the nearby village, Jennings and Elizabeth took shelter from the rain and arranged to have luncheon in one of the inn’s small sitting rooms.

Jennings had recovered from the shock he had sustained at the cave, but he felt now a strong urgency to bring Cedric Delacourt to earth, and his mind raced to fit together the pieces of the puzzle he had been given. “Clearly,” he said, almost as much to himself as to Elizabeth. “The spell on the cave was prodigious. If we can be so deceived in our own feelings, how can we ever know for certain that we have finally stumbled onto the truth?”

Elizabeth shook her head, and bit wearily into a sweet biscuit. “I do not know,” she said. “But one way or another – no matter which way we consider it – I believe we must act in haste now to avert calamity.”

Jennings looked at her curiously. “What do you mean, ‘which way we consider it’?” he asked. He drank deeply from a mug of ale. “Cousin Delacourt is our man, is he not? As much as it pains me to say, both of this generation’s victims have already been taken; if he is true to form, then there will be no more sacrifices from your family for another nineteen years.” He leaned back in his chair and added wryly, “But your father is a direct impediment to Cedric’s fortune. We must, then, go as quickly as possible to the lake house, and prevent him doing your father a harm.”

“Yes, if indeed your dream has been of past events,” Elizabeth replied. “But I question its being so.” She saw that Jennings would argue this point, and hastened to continue. “The enchantment on the cave was prodigious, as you said, but would it affect those already dead? Perhaps Ned could not communicate through the slate because he is not yet a spirit. Perhaps your dreams are echoes from a future that we can, in fact, forestall. Why else would we be drawn on this journey, and to the cave and the signet ring, except to hear the warning of what may be?”

Jennings shook his head. “The signet ring belongs to the Fitzhugh clan,” he reminded her. “It is very likely Ned’s. And I have never had any sort of prophetic vision in my entire life; why would I now?”

“Picking up the ring dispelled the enchantment,” Elizabeth said. “Why would the murderer use his victim’s ring to create such magic?”

“I know very little of magic,” Jennings said drily. “I suppose there might be any number of reasons he would do so.”

“And Ned’s body?” Elizabeth asked. “Why would he take the body from a place that is entirely removed from anyone, hidden from view, and protected by an enchantment? There was no body, sir, which suggests to me that the real Ned is still alive. Someone may very well have been posing as Ned to trick Annie Baker, and Ned himself is in danger from that person who, at some future time, will lure him to that cave.”

Jennings considered this in some surprise. “I had not thought about the body,” he acknowledged.

“You said you felt urgency,” Elizabeth went on. “But is it directed toward the lake house, or toward Cedric himself? If it is toward Cedric, then I believe we must consider the words of Joshua Heron – that ‘there are more like’ him. He told us this for a reason, did he not? Just as that horrible Richard fellow posed as Mr. Heron, so there is a possibility of someone posing as Cedric; if that is the case, then he could even now be on his way to Northampton, while the real Cedric is at the lake house with my father and Charlotte.”

Jennings lifted one eyebrow. “You may very well be correct,” he said. He could not easily dispute the importance of evidence from the slate, but he felt strangely troubled by the notion of being able to see into the future. Perhaps it was the burden of it; he did not want to be obliged to know what should be, as though his guesses were better than another’s. He took a long drink of ale. “It may be that the man who betrayed Ned was not the real Cedric,” he said after a moment. Sighing in resignation, he added, “Perhaps I can see future events. Perhaps that is the meaning of my dreams.” He leaned forward and folded his arms in front of him on the table. “But where does this take us?” he asked. “Either Ned is alive and in danger from Cedric, or from someone pretending to be Cedric; or Ned is dead because Cedric – or a false Cedric – killed him and assumed his identity; and Cedric is either in danger himself from a false Ned, or he is himself the danger that faces Sir James and Mrs. Carlisle.” He gave a sudden bark of laughter. “Have I forgotten anything?”

Elizabeth laughed in spite of herself. “I believe those are all the possibilities that we have as yet encountered.” She grew serious once more. “I cannot justify my sense of haste,” she admitted. “I only know that the situation feels both urgent and dire. A murder has been shown to you, over and over, in hopes that you would be able to heed the warning. And my cousin Delacourt, who has never bothered to meet me before, arrives on my doorstep just as two women in my family are sacrificed, and on the eve of his best friend’s wedding. It may very well be coincidence – it was Charlotte, after all, who asked him to come to town, and not a design of his own making – but I cannot imagine that we should treat anything as mere coincidence when the consequence might be someone’s life.” She looked down at her hands folded in her lap. “Enough people have died,” she said, thinking particularly of Annie Baker and little Eliza Tate. “And while I don’t have your gift, and can only say that I feel strongly about it, you, sir, do have a gift, and that gift has led you down this road, to the cave, to all the clues my mother left for me and all the clues the spirits of the dead have left for you. We are meant to be here, sir, in this place and in this time, so that we might solve this mystery as quickly as possible.”

Jennings heard her out in silence, then, when she had finished, he reached out and gently touched her face with the fingers of one hand. “I never discount people’s strong feelings,” he said. “And your words make sense. If we make haste, the worse that happens is that we look a trifle foolish – a situation I have often faced and do not fear now. If we are wrong in our theories, then it’s best to find out sooner rather than later.” He sat back and drained his mug of ale. “We will journey on to Northampton after the rain lets up, and find your cousin Isabelle and, hopefully, Ned. Then afterward, we will go on to the lake house without delay.”

Elizabeth’s expression told him that she did not agree with his suggestion. “I believe, sir,” she said quietly. “That such a plan would not be hasty enough.”

He tilted his head quizzically. “What would you rather we do?” he asked.

“I know I may simply be exaggerating the matter because it is my own father,” Elizabeth acknowledged. “But at the cave, you saw Cedric kill Ned, and now Cedric is with my father and Charlotte. If he was truly the murderer of his own friend, then I think we should go to the lake house straightaway.”

“Of course,” Jennings nodded. “That was my first inclination. We can return this direction in a day or two, or we can send a letter to Miss Isabelle. She may dismiss it out of hand, but at least the knowledge would then be in her possession to do with as she will.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “She will certainly dismiss it out of hand,” she said. “And perhaps not even read it all the way to the end. Why, indeed, would she doubt her own betrothed over the decidedly odd notions of a cousin she can barely abide? No, if we mean to offer her any help – if she is in fact in danger – then we must journey there ourselves. If her Ned is the real Ned, then we may be able to prevent his murder, if we arrive immediately.”

“My love,” Jennings interjected in some confusion. “We cannot go both places first.”

“Of course we can,” Elizabeth said placidly. “I will go on to Northampton, and you will go to the lake house. I will speak with Isabelle and, if possible, Ned, and force them to hear me out, even if they believe me to be mad. And you will be at the lake house in a trice – why, you could reach there tonight if you spring the horses! – and you can confront Cousin Cedric and protect my father and Charlotte. If I don’t join you on the morrow, you’ll know that I’ve stumbled onto the truth.”

Jennings struggled to absorb Elizabeth’s words. “You wish to go on alone?” he asked her. “You believe that I would allow you to journey alone into what might be a very dangerous situation?” She opened her mouth to speak, but he interrupted her. “And if I do not see you tomorrow at your father’s house, then I will know you have found the ‘truth’ – in other words, I will know you have confronted a monster and that he has prevented your leaving. In what desperate imagining did you think I would be amenable to such a notion?”

She smiled softly. “You are as anxious to discover the truth as I am,” she pointed out. “And you are as concerned as I that this ‘monster’ who has preyed upon my family for six generations is about to cause more harm. I am a married lady now, you know,” she added archly. “It is perfectly respectable for me to travel to my Cousin Isabelle’s alone. I will feel much better knowing that you are on your way to protect my father, and I will join you there as soon as I can determine what has happened to Ned.”

Jennings sat for a long moment without speaking. He knew on the surface that she was correct, both in her sense of urgency and in her plan, but he was reluctant – no, in truth, he was terrified! – that something would happen to her. He did not want to let her out of his sight.

“Oh, God,” he said at last, his shoulders slumping forward. “I want to keep you in a cage as your father has tried to do.” He ran his hands nervously through his hair. “I don’t like it,” he said. “But I think you are right.”

“You are very wise, sir,” Elizabeth said gratefully.

He looked at her drily. “I’m sure you may think so,” he said. He took her hand in his and stared pointedly at her. “I have a pair of pistols under the seat in the carriage. Be prepared to use them.”

She had never used a pistol in her life, and the thought of it made her heart skip a beat. “Of course,” she said.

______________________

An hour later, she found herself entrusted to the care of Perry and the groom and sent on her own toward Northampton.

“Stay with her, Perry,” Jennings instructed with uncharacteristic intensity. “Circumstances are even stranger than usual, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, and I am compelled to go east. You must see her safely to Miss Fetherston’s and you must stay with her there as best you are able. Whenever she gives the slightest hint of wishing to leave, you must bring her as quickly as you can either to her father’s lake house or to Brightwood. Understand?”

Perry, not unaccustomed to his master’s unorthodox behaviour, neither batted an eye at the request nor bothered to ask any questions. “I’ll guard her with my life, sir,” he assured him. “You’re certain of your route, sir?”

Jennings nodded. “It is not that far from London,” he said. “I should be able to reach there in a trice.”

“It’s sure to be above five hours, sir,” Perry said. “But I believe there are any number of stops on the way to change horses.” He glanced up at the sky. “I fear it may rain again, sir, sooner rather than later.”

“I’ll be fine,” Jennings said. He turned to Elizabeth, who had climbed into the carriage and now sat waiting with an air of slight impatience. “I’m still not entirely sure this is necessary,” he said, frowning.

She smiled and held her hand out to him. “Enough of my family have suffered, Christopher,” she reminded him. “I cannot allow another to do so, if I can prevent it at all.” She grinned then. “Even if it is Isabelle!”

He chuckled, but swiftly grew serious again. “I vowed, my love, never to let anything happen to you again,” he said, his face drawn with worry.

She squeezed his hand. “That was an admirable vow, sir,” she told him gently. “But I think it was not a vow you could make.”

He gazed at her soberly for a long moment, then leaned into the carriage and kissed her. “Take care, my love.” He pulled away from the carriage abruptly and swung up onto the horse that Perry had been holding for him. “Stay with her Perry,” he instructed again. “I would be greatly unhappy if anything happened to her.”

“Don’t worry, sir,” Perry said. “We’ll stay close by her.”

Jennings nodded rather tersely, and spun the horse around, urging it onto the road and heading away from the inn at a brisk pace.

Elizabeth watched him for a moment, but then turned and addressed Perry briskly. “We must make haste, Perry,” she said. “Let us find Northampton as soon as possible.”

“Aye, ma’am,” Perry said, and climbed quickly onto the box. He soon had the carriage on the road to Northampton, and within an hour, they had reached the carefully manicured grounds of the Fetherston estate. As they approached the house – at a much more sedate pace than Elizabeth had demanded on the journey – servants appeared as though they had been waiting for the carriage’s arrival, and spoke with Perry and the groom.

After a moment, Perry, having climbed down from the box, pulled open the door to the carriage. “Fetherston Manor, ma’am,” he announced, and held his hand out for her to take as she stepped out onto the gravel drive. “I told them you were Miss Fetherston’s cousin, and one of ‘em’s gone to fetch Mrs. Fetherston.”

“Excellent,” Elizabeth said, straightening her skirts and tucking back wisps of hair. “Hopefully they won’t think I’m entirely barmy.”

“I’m sure they won’t, ma’am,” Perry offered.

A moment later, Elizabeth was welcomed inside, first by an obsequious porter and then by Mrs. Fetherston herself, who seemed at first glance to be an imposing woman of stout figure and elegant dress. This air of arrogant grandeur was immediately dispelled, however, as soon as Mrs. Fetherston laid eyes on her young cousin.

“Elizabeth Carlisle!” she cried in apparent jubilation, and greeted her guest with a warm embrace. “Oh, I beg your pardon – Mrs. Jennings!” She beamed at Elizabeth and held her at arm’s length, and subjected her to a thorough but benevolent scrutiny. “I daresay you do not remember me at all!” she said. “But I knew you when you were a little girl – you must have been three or four, I think. You were the sweetest thing, and so like your mother! – I recognized you at once, my dear, for you are entirely her, as though she herself stood before me!” She turned, wrapping her arm around Elizabeth’s shoulders and walking with her into the house. “I sent Isabelle to see you – I thought it would do you both good to know each other – but I confess I could not bring myself to return to your father’s house! He was so much changed after your mother died, and he became – I hate to say it, but it is the truth! – he became completely insupportable! Hatcher, do bring us some tea in the pink sitting room, and some biscuits; Mrs. Jennings must be famished! – did you come here all the way from London today, my dear? What a long journey!”

She brought Elizabeth into a small sitting room and, after making sure that Elizabeth was comfortably ensconced on the sofa, sat herself in a chair across from her and clapped her hands together. “I am so glad you have come!” she said.

“I should have sent some sort of warning,” Elizabeth said with an apologetic smile. “But Mr. Jennings and I had been on a drive, and took it in our heads to come to see Isabelle – she sent word some days ago of her upcoming wedding, and I thought it might be pleasant to see her and wish her very happy. And so we drove north without having planned it at all. I hope I am not importuning you.”

“Not at all!” Mrs. Fetherston assured her. She could not be more different from her haughty and dismissive daughter; her demeanour was exceptionally affable and welcoming. “I have wanted any time these fifteen years to invite you here, but your father would never agree to it. And I had thought to write to you, but after a few attempts, your father communicated his disapprobation in no uncertain terms – he did not want to be reminded of his late wife by members of her family, or so he said – and I was in fact quite surprised when he invited Isabelle to come to visit you.” Her smile dimmed. “Please forgive me, my dear,” she said. “I had thought that when you were older, I would begin writing you again, and then, somehow, time got away from me, and I had not reached out to you in so very long.” She grinned again. “But I was informed of your marriage to Mr. Christopher Jennings; what an excellent match, my dear! You are all that is fortunate! And I daresay he is more pleasant to deal with than your father!”

“He is a very agreeable man, ma’am,” Elizabeth answered. “I am indeed fortunate. And I do remember you. You were very kind to me, and I remember receiving a letter from you. I was very little, and I do not think I particularly remembered before this moment, but now, having met you again, I cannot understand why I would ever have forgotten!”

Mrs. Fetherston looked decidedly pleased to be remembered in such a way. “I am so glad, my dear! When I sent Isabelle to you, it was with a message from me, but I doubt she delivered it.” She pursed her lips. “My daughter – I love her prodigiously – is not like her mama at all! She is very concerned with the appearance of things, and the maintaining of social distances, and the proper configuration of people into their respective categories. She is rather like your father in that regard! – except that she is always quite pleasant, especially to me, and indeed how can I fault her perception of the world when so many others share her view?” She shook her head. “It’s all a pack of silliness, if you ask me, and I am glad at least not to have to live in London any longer, and to be surrounded by a lot of silly people.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I quite agree with you,” she said, her eyes twinkling merrily. Hatcher, the deferential porter, appeared then with a tray of tea and cucumber sandwiches, and placed the tray on the small table beside Elizabeth. She thanked him and gratefully took a cup of tea from him. “It has been rather a long journey today,” she acknowledged. “But I felt some urgency to come and see Isabelle.” She sipped the tea. “Is she at home, ma’am?”

“She is not, I’m afraid,” Mrs. Fetherston replied, sipping her tea. “She and Tillman – Polly Tillman, her old governess – have been invited by Ned’s friend Cedric to come into the country and spend some days at your father’s lake house.”

Elizabeth nearly choked on her tea. “Indeed?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice lighthearted. “I did not realize she was so close to Cousin Cedric.”

Mrs. Fetherston looked at her quizzically. “Cousin?” she repeated. “Do you know Mr. Delacourt?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth answered. “He is my father’s cousin, and will inherit his estate.”

“Oh, of course!” Mrs. Fetherston exclaimed. “I knew that! I cannot imagine how I came to forget it!” She laughed. “What a singular coincidence!”

“It certainly is,” Elizabeth agreed, forcing a chuckle. “I suppose,” she added, speaking carefully. “That Mr. Fitzhugh has also gone to the lake house?”

“Well, as to that,” Mrs. Fetherston said. “I believe he has been there some time, with Mr. Delacourt. Their tale was that they are hunting, but I cannot imagine so at this time of year. I believe Cedric wanted to abscond with his friend for some merriment before the wedding, and they both have been gone for over a fortnight now.” She leaned forward. “Confidentially,” she went on in dramatic tones. “I think Ned hopes to convince Isabelle to elope. He has no taste for the grand occasion Isabelle has planned. I suppose I do not care for it overmuch myself! – except that the expense has already been laid out for it, so it might as well take place!” She noticed that Elizabeth’s expression had become thoughtful. “Are you all right, my dear?” she asked. “Has something disturbed you?”

Elizabeth gazed at Mrs. Fetherston, and mulled over her choices. Finally, arriving at the only decision she felt she could make, she placed her tea cup on the table, squared her shoulders, and began somberly, “Mrs. Fetherston, I daresay you will find me quite mad, but I cannot leave without apprising you of my concerns. I believe that either Ned or Cedric or both are planning to do Isabelle – and perhaps my father – a harm. I have no basis for it except a recurring dream, and a strong feeling on the matter – the feeling, in fact, that urged me here so precipitously. But I believe I must make all haste to the lake house, and attempt to prevent anything untoward.”

Mrs. Fetherston sat in surprise, blinking a few times before finding her voice. “A dream?” she asked at last, setting her own teacup on the table beside Elizabeth’s. She shook her head. “I have known Ned these many years,” she said. “I have never known him to be anything but affable and kind.” She frowned slightly. “But my mother often had dreams,” she revealed. “And your mother too.” She grew serious, remembering her friend. “She foretold her own death.” She sat in silence for a long moment, then raised her eyes to Elizabeth’s. “So I don’t discount dreams,” she announced. “Especially in our family. But I cannot understand how it would be Ned. He has been an excellent man – even more so now that the wedding approaches – and indeed why would he harm Isabelle? He seems decidedly besotted with her, and in any event would have nothing to gain by harming her now, before the wedding. But Cedric now,” she added, waggling her finger in Elizabeth’s direction. “I have never heard anything but good of him, but I allow he stands to gain a great deal if anything should happen to your father. But my dear, what are we saying? Is this some sort of farrago, that we would imagine such nefarious intentions on the parts of these two men about whom no one has ever breathed a negative word?”

“Indeed, ma’am,” Elizabeth said quietly. “I very much liked Cousin Cedric myself, when I made his acquaintance.” She raised one eyebrow and added pointedly, “I made his acquaintance only a few days ago, ma’am. And he said at that time that he could not stay long with my father and stepmother, for he was wanted in Northampton, where he was going to fetch Ned.”

Mrs. Fetherston digested this, her expression becoming increasingly crestfallen. “So one of them is lying,” she said. “And it seems Ned is the likelier culprit, since he’s been gone for two weeks on the pretext of visiting Mr. Delacourt.” She pondered this revelation for a moment, then sighed, and said briskly, “I will send Brothers at once to collect my daughter and Tillman. I never discount dreams, however saddened I am by their tidings.” She smiled warmly. “Whatever is the truth, it will be brought to light now,” she said. “In the meantime, I would be delighted if you stayed here; I will have Symons prepare a room for you.” Her hand reached out to ring a bell that stood on the table, but Elizabeth put her hand out as well.

“I cannot stay,” she said. “I would love nothing more, for I have truly enjoyed renewing our acquaintance. But I told Mr. Jennings that I would proceed post-haste to the lake house as soon as I had spoken to Isabelle, and if I don’t arrive soon, he will assume that I have encountered some trouble here.” She put a hand to her breast. “It’s true enough that Ned would lose a great deal if he harmed Isabelle before the wedding,” she went on. “My concern for her may simply be that, having lost trust for Cedric and Ned, I don’t want to leave her alone with either of them. But I cannot deny my strong feelings in this matter, and I believe for more than one reason, therefore, that I must leave as soon as possible for the lake house.”

Mrs. Fetherston impulsively took Elizabeth’s in both of hers. “Mr. Jennings,” she said. “He doesn’t dismiss your feelings as a pack of silly notions?” When Elizabeth managed a small smile and shook her head, Mrs. Fetherston continued cheerfully, “Good man! Mr. Fetherston has a terrible habit of saying I’m filled with silly notions, and I heartily dislike it.” She sighed again, and rang the bell. “I will still send Brothers to fetch Isabelle,” she said. She squeezed Elizabeth’s hand. “And when all this has been sorted out, I do hope that you will return to Fetherston Manor,” she said. “I too have prodigiously enjoyed seeing you!”

Elizabeth felt tears sting her eyelids. “I would be very happy to visit here, ma’am,” she said. “I would have long since if my father had told me you wished it. But I am dreadfully sorry to have brought you such strange and distressing news.”

“Never mind about that!” Mrs. Fetherston said brightly. “I have missed Mama’s dreams and notions, which always proved to be very interesting.” She scowled suddenly. “And if Mr. Edmond Fitzhugh has revealed himself to be a cad or charlatan, then I can only say that I am greatly indebted to you!”

Hatcher appeared in the doorway.

“Hatcher, Brothers must be dispatched immediately to the Carlisles’ lake house,” Mrs. Fetherston informed him. “He must retrieve Miss Fetherston and Tillman over any objections and bring them back here on the morrow. You must also change the horses on Mrs. Jennings’ carriage, and give her driver whatever provisions he requires. Then find Mr. Fetherston – I believe he went riding toward Lord Shelton’s estate – and tell him I have an urgent matter to discuss with him. That is all.”

“Right away, ma’am,” Hatcher replied, bowing and then swiftly retreating.

Mrs. Fetherston turned to Elizabeth. “I will have Cook send you with a bit of cold beef, my dear,” she said. “You have a long journey ahead of you.”

______________________________

 

Jennings stopped to change horses at an inn not five miles from the lake house. The sun had only just gone down, but the sky had been dark for some hours, and spots of rain fell on him as he stood impatiently waiting for the fresh horse. Rumbles of thunder sounded as a girl from the inn approached him.

“Here you are, sir,” she said, handing him a pint of ale. “You’re most welcome to come inside, and have a bit of supper.”

He took the ale and downed half of it before answering. “I would, my dear,” he told her. “But I’m in a great hurry.” He glanced at the sky. “Hopefully I won’t be too wet by the time I get there.”

“How far do you have to go, sir?” the girl asked, also looking anxiously at the lowering clouds. “The storm won’t wait more than half an hour, I wager.”

Jennings drained the mug and gave it back to her with a few coins that he hastily pulled from his pocket. “If it waits that long,” he said. “It’ll be good enough.”

Unfortunately, the rain only waited another ten minutes, and by the time Jennings arrived at the lake, he was soaked through by what quickly became a driving rain. He approached the house, seeing in the all-too-frequent bursts of lightning a cozy and respectable cottage situated on a slight hill overlooking the water. This cottage was surrounded by trees, and a lengthy set of steps led from it down to a long pier. On any other day, the scene would have been quite pretty, but tonight the water was choppy, crashing noisily up against the pier and the rocky shore, and the trees whipped angrily to and fro in the wind. Two broad patches of yellow, barely visible through the rain, suggested windows, but for the most part, the cottage was dark, and Jennings advanced cautiously, not entirely sure he had found the correct house.

He rode up to the stable and dismounted; no one emerged to greet him, but he had hardly expected it, given the late hour and the storm. With fingers grown numb and stiff from the cold, he managed after some effort to open the door to the stable and to bring himself and the poor drenched horse inside.

“Hello!” he called. “Is anyone here?”

He did not receive an answer. After a moment, he found a stall for his horse, promising it with a few gentle strokes on the neck that he would return very soon to look after it. “I’ve got rather an urgent mission,” he explained. “But you have done more than your duty, and I shall set you up as soon as I can.” He made sure the horse had water and hay, before turning once more toward the door.

It was then that he saw three men – or rather, a man and two teenage boys – lying alarmingly still in a nearby stall. They had fallen off of stools that had been set up around a barrel; half-empty mugs of ale sat on top of the barrel, and a plate of biscuits and ham. Bending over them, Jennings shook each by the shoulder, but none of them made the slightest movement or sound. He saw no sign of struggle, or any kind of wound, and he looked around him completely perplexed. What on earth had afflicted them? He was relieved to discover that all three men were breathing, but not even vigorous shaking and shouting made a dent in their absolute unconsciousness.

Jennings picked up one of the mugs and sniffed its contents. It smelled bitter, but that was not surprising. Still, he could only assume that these men had been drugged.

He looked out the open door toward the cottage. One of the dimly lit windows was on this side of the house, and when the lightning flashed again, he saw the door to the kitchens. He could not tell whether the suspicious situation in the stable had merely put him on his guard, or if perhaps he was receiving a more otherworldly message, but as he walked toward the house he was filled with great foreboding, and moved as carefully as though he expected at every step to be attacked by unseen enemies.

When he entered the kitchen, he found nothing out of order. A large fire crackled in the fireplace, and he stood gratefully beside it, letting the warmth settle into his shivering limbs. From the looks of things, a hearty supper had been prepared and eaten, but no one had as yet tidied up. He saw the entrance to a little alcove, tucked into the wall on the far side of the fireplace; he could make out a small table there, and realized that this must be where the servants ate their own meals.

“Hello?” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. Something told him it was best to stay hidden, but something else, just as strongly, told him that he needed to find people here, that he needed to act quickly to avoid calamity. “Is anyone here?” He stepped into the alcove, and saw then that four people were seated around the small table. “I beg your pardon,” he began, only to realize that these four, like the men in the stable, were slumped unconscious in their seats. Two of them, a man and a young woman, were leaning against one another and against the wall behind them. Across from them, an older woman sat with her head on the table, and beside her, a girl, her own head resting on the ample shoulder of the older woman, had dropped a mug onto the floor. The mug had broken, spilling its contents.

Everyone’s been drugged, Jennings guessed.

He moved as silently as he could through the kitchen and into the dining room. The room was empty, although lamps and candles burned here, and Jennings could make out the faint murmur of conversation elsewhere in the house. He detected the voices of a man and a woman, but, because of the noise of the wind and rain, he was unable to hear what they were saying.

He entered the front hall, and was surprised to find the front door open. Even though the entry was protected by a wide porch, rain had blown in to the house, and a puddle was slowly forming. Lightning briefly illuminated the entry, and Jennings saw two large shapes stretched out across the floor; he imagined at first that animals – perhaps dogs – had come into the house to shelter from the storm. But why then had they not greeted him, or taken any notice of him at all? He crept toward them, realizing after only a few steps that they were human.

Another flash of lightning revealed them to be Charlotte and Sir James Carlisle.

Drugged too, no doubt, Jennings thought. He crouched down beside Charlotte and gently took her hand. They must have been trying to leave when they succumbed to it. Mrs. Carlisle’s hand felt unnaturally cold in his, and, with a sudden sense of alarm, he bent down and tried to detect signs of breathing. None appeared, and, when he pressed his fingers against her wrist, and then against her neck, he could find no pulse. He fell to his knees and put his ear to her chest; he pled with her silently to wake up, but to no avail, and he was obliged finally to accept the grim truth.

She was dead.

Hoping that Elizabeth’s father might still be alive, Jennings turned to Sir James, but the older man’s eyes were opened wide and stared sightlessly into the storm.

As fast as he had ridden, Jennings had arrived too late.

The Jennings – Chapter Fifteen

Rings

They sat for some time with Mrs. Baker, speaking frankly about Anne and her father. Elizabeth supported Mrs. Baker’s decision not to tell Marcus Tate about Anne now, feeling that it would be unnecessarily cruel, and injurious to his family who were already suffering so dreadfully the loss of their little Eliza. But, after reminding Mrs. Baker that they were, in fact, family, Jennings insisted that she call on him if ever she were in need. “After all,” he explained. “However prepared and conscientious Mr. Baker might have been, he no doubt had planned to grow old with you, Mrs. Baker, and to see Anne safely married, and for her children to be there for you in the future. He could not have predicted such a bizarre circumstance, or that you would be left on your own.”

Mr. Baker had indeed left money for his widow, but Mrs. Baker admitted that she depended a great deal on Anne’s wage from the shop, and she accepted Jennings’ generosity gratefully. “I should refuse, I suppose,” she said, her expression one of overwhelming heartbreak. “But without Anne, I didn’t know what I would do.” She pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, and tears glistened in her eyes. “I don’t know what I will do without her,” she went on. “All the money in the world cannot fill this hole in my heart!” She sat for a moment, quietly weeping into her handkerchief, while Elizabeth held her hand. “But I thank you most extremely, sir,” she said finally, struggling to collect herself. “Because it will help me, and it’s most welcome and appreciated, because else I believe I would lose these rooms as well, and be put out on the street.”

“We will not let that happen,” Elizabeth assured her. “And we will discover this ‘Edmond’ who gave Anne the ring; whether or not it is my cousin remains to be seen, but we will bring him to earth and hold him accountable for his crimes!” She scowled, and a dark anger welled up in her. “He has taken so many lives!” she said, her voice gruff. “He cannot be allowed to take any more!”

Although Mrs. Baker could not fathom how the Jennings or anyone else would be able to combat a foe who apparently commanded forces well outside the ordinary, she was too grateful to them to say anything of her doubts. Indeed, when she had suggested to the constables that Anne’s suitor was a possible suspect in her murder, they had rather condescendingly declared to her that only a large animal could have caused such wounds, and, while she had no reason to question this conclusion, the Jennings’ assertion that it could be both Edmond and a wild animal supported her misgivings about Edmond without denying any of the evidence. As unlikely as such a notion would have seemed to her three days ago, Mrs. Baker could see the truth behind the Jennings’ words: Anne may have been brought down by claws and fangs, but they were those of some otherworldly creature commanded by human sorcery.

“Human sorcery,” she said aloud softly. She lifted her eyes to Elizabeth’s. “That’s very strange to say, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Elizabeth agreed. “And I see what you’re feeling – how can anyone hunt down such a man, or even find him? How can his guilt in these deaths be made plain? Where would we even begin? I assure you, I have asked myself these questions a thousand times in the past weeks.” She sat up taller and squared her shoulders, and managed a smile. “But if it can be done,” she added. “We are as suited to do it as anyone, and maybe more so!”

Eventually they took their leave of Mrs. Baker, Jennings insisting once more that she not hesitate to call on him for anything; Mrs. Baker, so obviously shattered by her loss, did at least, upon their departure, seem a little less overwhelmed, and as she saw them to the door, a slight bit of colour had returned to her cheeks.

Elizabeth turned to wave one last time at Mrs. Baker, who watched them from a window. Mrs. Baker returned the wave before retreating into the house, and Elizabeth said anxiously, “I hope our visit has done her some good.”

Jennings offered his arm to his wife, and walked with her down the street. “I believe it has,” he said. “As strange as our news must certainly have been, I think she is heartened by the thought that Miss Baker’s killer will be found. And she seemed glad to hear that you would call again soon; however sad the origin, your kind heart has brought you a new friend.”

She looked up at him. “Your generosity,” she pointed out. “Has put her mind greatly at ease.” She looked down at the ground, frowning. “I wish we could bring her Anne back to her.”

“So do I,” Jennings said, and patted Elizabeth’s hand. They walked a moment in silence, then he added resolutely, “But since we cannot do what we would rather, we will do instead what we can: we will find Miss Baker’s body, and I will try to glean some sign from it.”

Elizabeth stopped walking. “You cannot do that,” she told him. “The body has already been given to the undertaker. She’s to be buried tomorrow.”

Jennings looked quizzically at her. “All the more reason to find her now,” he said. “If I can touch her, it may trigger a vision – of her attacker, of his face, of his motives. It could be a crucial clue, and Miss Baker herself directed us to her.”

“That is true,” Elizabeth said. “And I know that on our journey here, I myself spoke of doing what needed to be done, however difficult or unseemly it might prove to be. But even I cannot think on what pretext we would accost the undertaker to allow us to see a body with whom we have no apparent connection. If she had still been with Dr. Oxley, I think it would not have seemed particularly odd at all, but to pursue her now would be highly unusual.”

“My entire experience with the slate has been highly unusual,” Jennings argued. “I have fabricated dozens of pretenses, faced countless strange looks, and endured hours of awkwardness. Why should today be any different?”

Elizabeth reached into her reticule. “Because I do not think we need to fabricate, face, or endure anything,” she answered, pulling her mother’s ring out and holding it up. “Do you not see?” she went on, pointing at a smudge that ran along the inside of the band. “It is a smudge of blood, I think, and also of some green liquid that might belong to the creature that attacked her – that attacked us.”

Jennings looked at the ring, and at the smudge. A smear of yellow-green residue lay over a dark brown stain – no doubt Miss Baker’s blood, covered by a substance that he recognized from Lady Morton’s balcony. “It is,” he breathed, reaching out to take the ring. “It’s what I saw at Lady Morton’s.” Remembering the intensity of that vision, he hesitated suddenly, and pulled his fingers away, but a second later, he willed his hand to close around it, and his finger pressed against the stain.

Instantly his head rocked back as though he had been struck in the face. He grimaced in pain, and cried out; Elizabeth, alarmed, took his hands in hers and called his name, but, other than to squeeze her hands almost convulsively, he could do no more than stand before her, his features pale, his eyes clenched shut. He could hear Elizabeth’s voice faintly, but, as the vision washed over him, he was unable to speak.

The street he saw was much the same as the street where they walked now, but it was shrouded in darkness, filled with horrible smells and strange noises. He could see through someone else’s eyes, and he could feel that this person was used to this street, to this nightly walk home and to the vague unease of wending through unsavoury alleyways, past innumerable faceless strangers whose glances seemed to Jennings to be lecherous at best.

The walker came to the end of a better street – a cleaner place, with fewer people and a sense of fresher air. Jennings could feel the walker’s relief at reaching this point.

Out of the deep shadows of an alleyway came the beast that had carried Elizabeth off the balcony. It ran out on massive, sinewy legs, leering at the walker with yellow, glittering eyes and a slavering mouth. Its claws were enormous; its muscular arms swung through the air toward the walker, and Jennings was besieged by the walker’s fear and panic. It threatened to overcome him, and he doubled over, his arms wrapped around his stomach.

“No!” he cried. “No! Leave me alone!”

Elizabeth realized that these were not her husband’s words. “Who is it?” she asked, bending over him and putting her arm across his shoulders. “Do you see Anne?”

“He’s clawing her apart!” Jennings gasped, watching helplessly as the monster in his vision slashed again and again at the defenseless walker. Blood sprayed up onto the creature’s head and torso, driving it into an even greater frenzy, and its growls became more like shrieks as it ravaged its victim. Just as it had with Elizabeth, the creature tried to wrench the ring from the walker’s hand, but in the distance came the sounds of revelers, stumbling their way home down the same alley, and the creature abandoned its efforts. Pivoting on one foot, it spread massive wings that stretched across the street and touched the buildings on either side; with a rush of wind, the monster disappeared into the night sky. The revelers, emerging into the street, stopped dead in their tracks, and Jennings watched as their drunken smiles turned into abject horror.

“We need a doctor!” one of them shouted, and Jennings echoed his words with a raspy hiss. He sank to his knees, and Elizabeth put both her arms around him.

“Christopher!” she cried. Two men who had been walking on the other side of the street hurried quickly to her aid, one of them gripping Jennings’ shoulders and pulling him to his feet.

“Are you well, man!” he barked, frowning at Jennings in concern. “Shall we fetch a doctor?”

Jennings was still lost in his vision. He saw the creature flying away over the rooftops; he saw the revelers circling the body that the creature had left behind. Then a face appeared, floating incongruously in front of him for a brief second before evaporating. Abruptly the vision ended, and Jennings leaned gratefully against the stranger who had picked him up.

“Thank you!” he said weakly, trying to catch his breath. “It – It must be something I ate.”

______________________________

It took some effort – and a fair bit of both Elizabeth’s charm and storytelling abilities – to convince the men that Jennings was all right, and that they needn’t summon a doctor. But the men insisted on escorting them both to their carriage, and admonished Jennings more than once about eating at the sorts of shops one found in this area, for, as one of them noted, “One can never be sure what’s in the meat, you know. Could be anything.”

As the carriage moved down the street, Jennings sank back against the seat and closed his eyes. “I believe you’re right, my love,” he said, his voice still a little breathless. “I don’t think we need find poor Miss Baker’s body. She has said quite enough.”

Elizabeth put a hand gently on his cheek. “Are you recovered, Christopher?” she asked. She had never seen him react in such a way, and it had affected her deeply.

“I am,” he assured her. “Blood is … very powerful.”

Elizabeth looked down at her mother’s ring, which Jennings had placed on the seat beside him. “You saw Anne?” she asked, picking up the ring and putting it back in her reticule. “What did she say to you?”

“Well, nothing, really,” Jennings said. “I saw through her eyes,” he explained. “I saw her walking home from the shop, down a rather unpleasant looking side street, and then the beast that abducted you descended upon her.” He paused, frowning at the memory. “It tore her apart; I could feel its claws and teeth sinking into my – into her skin. I could feel the blood pouring from the wounds. And then the monster tried to take her ring, but a group of men came down the street, and the monster was obliged to fly away.”

Elizabeth was puzzled. “Why would it feel the need to flee?” she wondered. “If it is truly a wild animal of some sort, let loose into the city, would it not attack any who approached it?” She shook her head. “It must indeed be controlled by someone who does not want it to be discovered.”

Jennings had opened his eyes and was watching Elizabeth. “You’re correct, I believe,” he told her. “But even then, why would this person be concerned over the discovery of his beast? I do not think the beast had the capability to speak, after all. It must be over concern for the beast itself.”

Elizabeth’s brow cleared. “The beast is not invulnerable,” she said with relief. “It hunts solitary prey because larger numbers scare it. It is mortal.”

Jennings nodded. “It can be killed,” he said.

Elizabeth’s joy at this news was short-lived. “But its master is still hidden,” she said. “And we cannot know if this beast was the only beast under his control. You said it flew away; it is, then, not a creature of our ordinary world. What sort of power does this master possess, that he can summon such things and send them to do his bidding?”

“More to the point,” Jennings said. “If it is Miss Baker’s suitor, why did he not kill her himself? She trusted him, apparently, and was in his company unattended – Mrs. Baker had never even met him. He could have taken her life at any time.”

“Perhaps he feared to leave clues behind,” Elizabeth suggested. “To have another do it would hide his identity and his guilt.”

Jennings sat quietly for a moment, lost in thought. “I saw his face,” he said eventually. “He was not actually there, in the street with Miss Baker. He appeared before me for just an instant.”

“Did you recognize him?”

“No,” Jennings said. “But he looked like the portraits in your father’s house.”

“Cousin Cedric?” Elizabeth asked apprehensively. She did not want to believe that he could be involved in this matter; she had become so instantly fond of him.

Jennings had recovered somewhat, and was able to sit forward and turn toward his wife. “No,” he replied. “It is clear, to be sure, that at some point in the past, Mr. Delacourt’s lineage and yours were one and the same. But the man I saw did not so much resemble Delacourt – or Jonathan Fitzhugh – but rather simply seemed to be a member of your mother’s family.” He took Elizabeth’s hand. “We must assume,” he went on. “That Miss Baker’s Edmond is possibly your cousin Ned Fitzhugh, and that he is the man responsible for this creature, and its attacks.”

Elizabeth digested this, and her expression became both sad and angry. “My ‘cousin’,” she repeated scornfully. “Who murders his own relations, and has clearly made a pact with diabolical forces!” She gasped, and stared wide-eyed at Jennings. “Isabelle!” she exclaimed. “She is no doubt in danger from this man! As dreadful as she is, she does not deserve to be murdered; we must warn her away from him!”

“I had considered that,” Jennings said. “I believe on the morrow, we should venture north, and take rooms in Isabelle’s neighbourhood.” He raised an eyebrow, and his eyes twinkled. “We shall call on her in a most uninvited fashion!” he announced. “And, since I doubt she would listen to – or believe – any warning we might deliver to her, we will attempt to suss out Ned’s guilt, and prevent him doing whatever he plans to do next.”

Elizabeth smiled at this. “I would very much like that!” she said. “It would be most irritating for her, I daresay!”

__________________________

They left quite early the next morning, heading north in a carriage laden with weeks’ worth of luggage. They day at first was quite fine, the sun burning off a slight mist, and shining down warmly on the travelers; by mid-day, however, clouds had rolled in, and a chilly breeze came up, so that Elizabeth was obliged to close the carriage window.

“Do you think we’ll arrive before it rains, sir?” she asked, glancing at the darkening sky. The driver and the groom apparently wondered as much themselves, gazing often up at the clouds and conferring with one another.

“We may be forced to wait in the next town,” Jennings said. He signaled for the driver to stop, and, letting himself down from the carriage, communicated to the driver his plan of taking lunch at the village just in sight on the horizon. “We’ll wait there until the rain has passed,” he said. “We may need to stay the night, but I imagine not. We are only three hours from our destination.”

“Aye, sir,” the driver concurred. “It doesn’t look to be a big storm. We should be able to travel on by mid-afternoon, and reach Northampton before supper!”

“Good man!” Jennings said. He turned to climb back into the carriage, but stopped abruptly as his glance took in the surrounding countryside. “Perry,” he said to the driver. “I know you will think me quite mad, but we must wait here for a bit; I need to go for a walk.”

“Go for a walk, sir?” Perry asked skeptically. He looked in the direction that Jennings was looking, but he could see nothing but rolling hills and a distant copse of trees. “It’s turnin’ a bit blustery for that, sir.”

“Yes,” Jennings said. “Nevertheless, I am compelled.” He opened the carriage door and spoke to Elizabeth. “I recognize this place,” he said. “It’s what I see in my dream.”

“The one with the cave?” she asked, instantly intrigued. She leaned out the door and surveyed the landscape. “We are but five miles from Cousin Cedric’s lands, sir,” she noted, and looked at him enquiringly. “Could your dream be prophetic after all?” she asked. “Cedric is Ned’s particular friend; could Ned be planning to harm him? Could that be the sense of betrayal you felt?”

Jennings pondered this. “I have never had a prophetic vision,” he said. “But I suppose it could be.” He looked at her askance. “I don’t suppose you are willing to wait here while I look for the cave?”

Elizabeth frowned at him. “Why on earth would I do that?” she asked, and, gathering her cloak tightly around her shoulders, stepped down from the carriage.

It was not the first time that Jennings had done something that his servants found strange, but as he and Elizabeth walked out into the field that separated them from the copse of trees, Perry watched them with a disapproving and worried eye. It was one thing to be odd for your own part, he thought. But to bring the young lady into it seemed unwise. He knew better than to criticize, however, and contented himself with telling the groom to keep watch on the couple.

“He gets some crazy notions,” the groom observed.

“Aye,” Perry agreed. He sighed. “But he’s the best master there ever could be.”

Elizabeth, stepping carefully over the uneven ground, felt as content as she ever had; her sense of adventure was certainly satisfied by her husband’s visions, and this current journey seemed very much to bring many pieces of a puzzle finally together. What shape they would take remained to be seen, but she cheerfully accompanied Jennings into the trees, certain that they would find here the answer to both his recurring nightmare and her family’s dark mystery.

“Perhaps,” she said teasingly. “Cousin Ned will have left a note for us: ‘I am the killer, and listed here is the way to stop me.’”

Jennings laughed. “That would be very welcome!” he said.

They walked far enough into the trees that the field and the road were almost completely hidden from view, and Jennings, pausing to look around him, felt a strong urge to step some yards to the west, where several trees had grown up on a small hill, their roots and branches intertwining.

“Here is our cave,” he said. Its entrance was little more than a gash in the earth, wrapped on either side by tree roots and tangled bushes. He recognized it at once, but, against his expectations, he felt no urgency or trepidation. He had thought that finding this site, that had plagued his sleep for so many nights, would trigger more intense sensations of discovery or foreboding, or even an overwhelming relief at fulfilling the wishes of a most persistent spirit; instead, he experienced only an anticlimactic sort of curiosity, and, as he walked toward the cave, he wondered if perhaps the dream, however unpleasant, had been only a dream after all.

Behind him, Elizabeth stood still as a statue, and, when he turned to offer his hand to her, Jennings saw that she had grown pale, and was staring unblinking at the cave entrance.

“What is it, my dear?” he asked, concerned. He came quickly to her side. “Are you unwell?” He glanced at the cave entrance, and then back at her. “If you are uncomfortable in such a dark place, please do not think you must accompany me. You can wait here, and I will return in a moment.”

She looked at him as though his suggestion were the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard. “I will not let you go in there alone,” she told him emphatically. “But I wonder if either of us should go in there at all.” Her gaze returned to the cave entrance. “It fills me with the strangest dread,” she explained. “As though something horrible will happen if we go in there.”

Jennings thought of the nature of their foe: whoever he was, he clearly possessed otherworldly abilities, and had covered his own tracks through mystical means. Perhaps he had worked some magic on this place, so that ordinary people would be afraid to approach it; Jennings’ own abilities may have caused the magic to affect him very differently, so that he could not see it as he normally would.

“Perhaps that is why I feel nothing special,” he murmured aloud. He took Elizabeth’s hand. “I think we must go in there,” he said. “But I do not think there is any present danger; I believe you may safely wait for me here.”

“No,” she said, squeezing his hand. “I’ll go with you.”

They stepped together into the uninviting crevice, ducking their heads to avoid tendrils of roots and spindly branches. The cave was not more than five feet around, and hardly that high, so that Jennings had to stoop. Everything was exactly as it had been in his dream.

“We should have brought a lantern, I suppose,” Elizabeth said. She was struggling with little success to control the sensation of panic that had welled up inside her. She could not account for it, and she trusted her husband’s judgment, but it was all she could do to stand in this place, and not sprint madly back to the carriage. “If the events in your dream have in fact already happened, then there should be blood stains here, and possibly other clues.”

The faint light that made its way through the narrow opening was not enough to illuminate the cave, especially since they stood blocking the entrance, but Jennings scanned the ground as best he could, and ultimately was rewarded with a slight glint in the furthest recess. “There,” he said, stepping forward and crouching down. “A piece of metal.”

“Be careful,” Elizabeth advised, watching him anxiously. Her panic threatened to overwhelm her, and she trembled violently; only her promise to stay by his side prevented her from fleeing.

“I believe it is a ring,” Jennings said, reaching out for the golden band that lay half-buried in the dirt. “A signet ri–”

As his fingers closed around the ring, a blast of cold assailed him, and searing pain gripped his stomach. He fell back and out of the cave as though flung by an unseen hand, and lay gasping for breath. He felt again the dread he had encountered in his dreams, and the now-familiar betrayal. Yes, there it was: the relief he had expected, now that he had come where the spirit had led. He was transported once more into the dream-vision, but the details were no longer obscured by shadows. He could see the victim this time, and the creeping shape with a weapon raised to strike; he could see the face of the assailant as the weapon descended upon its target. It was a face devoid of any emotion – neither anger nor hatred nor joy, but only a cold intensity, as though this brutal act were as necessary and as easy as shutting a door. It was a face he knew.

“Christopher!” Elizabeth cried, kneeling on the ground beside him. When he had picked up the ring, her panic vanished, as instantly as though she had awakened from a nightmare. Her only thought now was for Jennings, who lay in obvious pain, his arms clutching his stomach. “Christopher!” She grabbed his hand and pried the fingers apart, and wrenched the ring from his grasp. “Christopher!”

The pain subsided, and after a few seconds, Jennings opened his eyes. “Lizzie,” he said, trying to sit up. The blast had taken a great deal out of him; he was able only to lift his head, and then to set it back down on the ground. “Lizzie, we need to go home.”

“Why?” she asked, perplexed. “We need to protect Isabelle!” She put her arm under Jennings’ shoulders and helped him sit. “We need to find Ned.”

Jennings shook his head. “It’s too late,” he said. “I saw the murderer. I saw his face.” He looked up at Elizabeth; she could see that he did not want at all to tell her what he now knew, and she felt her heart sink with dread.

“Ned?” she asked, her voice a whisper.

Jennings leaned forward and put his hand on the side of her face. His fingers curled around her hair, and he brought her close to him, so that his forehead touched hers. Finally, he spoke.

“The spirit is Ned,” he said. “And Cedric killed him.”

The Jennings – Chapter Fourteen

“Eldest”

Their next visit to town came much sooner than the Jennings had planned, and for a reason that left neither of them anxious to make the journey.

The morning after Cousin Delacourt’s visit, the Gazette arrived, announcing, amongst the engagements and weddings, the untimely death of a young woman. She resided, apparently, in Whitechapel, and had been walking home from her work in one of the dressmaking shops not a stone’s throw from her front door. She had been found, in fact, by her own mother, who had been expecting her daughter for over an hour before venturing out to look for her. A constable and a doctor were immediately summoned, but the poor girl had been lifeless for some time, and had, according to the doctor, been “ravaged as though by a wild animal.”

If Elizabeth was hesitant at all to assume that this “wild animal” was the monster that had attacked her, her doubts were dispelled by her husband’s expression; he sat staring at the notice in the Gazette as though a puzzle had suddenly been solved.

“You feel this is the same creature?” Elizabeth asked him.

He nodded. “I do indeed,” he said. “More to the point, I believe this young woman left a message on the slate this morning: ‘Eldest,’ it said. And I saw a vision of a girl who looked very much like she might work in a dressmaker’s shop, and a dark street, and a sensation of something coming up very quickly behind her.”

“Eldest?” Elizabeth repeated, frowning. “How could that signify in such a tragedy?”

“I have no idea,” Jennings admitted. He looked at his wife, and then at the letter she held in her hands. “You were displeased with its contents?” he asked. “I thought I heard you scoffing over it?”

Elizabeth chuckled. “Several times!” she said. She laid the letter on the table and, smoothing out the paper that she had crumpled in irritation, began to read it aloud:

“‘My dearest Cousin Elizabeth’ – a promising beginning, to be sure, but don’t be fooled, sir! – ‘It was such a pleasure to hear from you. After hearing – as one does – of all that had befallen you, I was most concerned for your well-being! The polite world knows all too well your father’s rigid opinions, and my friends – with whom I spoke about the matter at some length, it being of such a serious nature, and enough to prompt more than one of my acquaintance to vow never to go to London again if such ruffians wander the public parks! – my friends all agreed that it was most unfair of Sir James to cast you out, only because you were walking alone.’” Elizabeth sighed at this thinly-veiled aspersion on her conduct, but continued without comment: “ ‘I well understand how unhappy your father’s actions must have left you – wondering upon whom you could rely in such a troubled time – and that naturally you wish to satisfy yourself that your family has not all deserted you. And so you may rest your mind on that score, dear Elizabeth, for I assure you, from the very depths of my heart, that I feel all the same friendship and tenderness for you that I always have!’ – I’m sure I know how to take that! She has never felt even the slightest regard for anyone on our branch of the family, except her rather obvious fawning in deference to my father’s money! – ‘And I would most certainly have invited you to visit if I had not thought of your sensibilities – for I know how kind you are, dear Lizzie, and that it would hurt you to think that you had importuned anyone! – and everything here is in such a hubbub planning for the wedding! It is only five weeks away, you know! And of course to have visitors now would be very distracting, and I would not be able to spend any amount of time with you, and I fear you would be quite unhappy and neglected!’ – well, I’m certainly happy she thought of my sensibilities – ‘But as soon as my dear Ned and I have settled in, we will be quite delighted to bring you for a visit! – and your dear father, too, of course, if you think that he would be willing to make the journey with you. I trust this letter finds you well! Your Mr. Jennings seems to be a decent sort of fellow; I’m so glad you found someone willing to look past all of this dreadful unpleasantness! Yours most sincerely, Isabelle Fetherston Fitzhugh.’”

Elizabeth sat back after reading this, her disgust evident on her face. “She is the most dreadful girl!” she said of her cousin, and pushed the letter away from her.

“Well, now,” Jennings said in soothing tones. “At least she told you what you wanted to find out.” As soon as these words left his lips, he frowned, contemplating them in puzzlement.

“How so?” Elizabeth asked, her own baffled expression mirroring his. “She has said nothing of any consequence whatsoever.” She lifted one eyebrow. “Much like always,” she added drily.

“I don’t know,” Jennings said. “It simply seemed to me that she had done so, but now that I consider her words, I have no earthly idea what I was thinking.”

Elizabeth tilted her head to the side. “Perhaps it was part of your gift,” she suggested. She reached out and picked up the ill-used sheets of the letter. “Perhaps some part of you sees something revealed here that we cannot otherwise recognize as any sort of clue.” She folded the letter. “I will keep this, I think,” she decided. “In case I am correct. In time, the clue might be better revealed.”

Jennings nodded. “Wise, my love,” he said rather abstractedly, his mind still searching for the reason for his odd pronouncement. It had come unbidden from him; Elizabeth was no doubt correct about its origins. But it was unlike him to receive information without an accompanying vision, and he remained preoccupied with the mystery all morning, not able to abandon it until he and Elizabeth climbed into the carriage to go to town.

“Although I cannot fathom how they would be willing to discuss it with us,” Elizabeth noted as she settled into the carriage seat. “We are no acquaintance of this girl – what was her name?”

“Ann Baker,” Jennings said, sitting next to his wife. “She and her mother, according to the Gazette, have lived in Whitechapel for many years.” As the carriage pulled onto the high road, Jennings took Elizabeth’s hand in his. “I am in hopes,” he went on. “That where our words and arguments might fail us, a few coins might suffice.”

Elizabeth stared at him. “You mean to bribe the coroner?” she asked.

“Or the undertaker,” Jennings said. “Whoever is in charge of the poor girl at the moment. But of course I am not ‘bribing’ them; I am simply paying them for their services.”

“Their ‘service’ of telling us information that is none of our business?”

Jennings eyes twinkled. “Yes,” he said, and raised her fingers to his lips.

When they arrived in town, they went first to Sir James’ house, and, as the carriage pulled up to the door, Elizabeth realized that her heart was beating rapidly, and that she was almost trembling with nervousness.

“I have not been here in so long,” she said, gripping Jennings’ hand tightly. “Well, I suppose it has only been several weeks,” she amended. “But it seems a lifetime.”

Jennings gazed at her in some concern. “Are you sure you wish to do this?” he asked. “I believe your stepmother said that they would leave for the Lake house today, but if you think they might still be here – if you do not wish to encounter your father just now …”

She shook her head. “I am sure they are gone,” she said. “If they are not, we will simply leave again.” She squared her shoulders. “It’s silly to be nervous to enter my own house!” she said, as much to herself as to him. “I have as much right to visit it as anyone.”

They climbed down from the carriage and approached the door of the house, and Elizabeth, to her irritation, felt even more trepidation than she had a moment before. Why is it so difficult to be here? she wondered. I grew up here.

When the door was opened by the porter – a man whose face she had seen every day of her life for nineteen years – her anxiety vanished. “Simmons!” she said, smiling warmly at him.

Simmons, abandoning his habitual stern expression, broke into a wide grin. “Miss Elizabeth!” he cried. “Or – forgive me – Mrs. Jennings!” He ushered them in, his face beaming. “If I may say so, ma’am,” he said. “You look most well, and it’s the most excellent thing to see you!”

Elizabeth reached out impulsively and shook his hand. “I am quite well,” she said. “And it is indeed the most excellent thing to see you!”

“Miss Elizabeth?” a voice called, and a woman bustled in from the far end of the hall. “Miss Elizabeth!” she said again, overjoyed to see the visitors. She looked from Elizabeth to Jennings, and then, with a cluck of disgust, at Simmons. “Take Mr. Jennings’ hat and coat!” she said. “Have you forgotten yourself?” She herself helped Elizabeth out of her travelling cloak, and draped it over her arm as Simmons hastened to do as he had been bid.

“Beggin’ your pardon, sir,” he said contritely. “I was just that glad to see her – to see you both!”

“I quite understand,” Jennings told him. “Am I correct in assuming that Sir James is not currently at home?”

“He is not, sir,” the housekeeper said. “He and Mrs. Carlisle and Mr. Delacourt have all gone to the Lake house, just this morning.” She turned again to Simmons. “Simmons, tell Cook to prepare a luncheon for the Jennings!” She smiled cheerfully at the guests. “It won’t be twenty minutes, Miss Elizabeth!” she said. “Shall I show you to the back sitting room?”

Elizabeth, relieved to hear that her father was already away, and as pleased to see the servants as they were to see her, laughed and nodded. “But in a moment,” she said. She pointed to the cabinet where rows of miniature portraits were displayed. “I wanted to see one of the portraits,” she explained. “Someone who, I think, was an ancestor of my mother’s.”

By this time, other servants had made their way to the front hall, all of them delighted to see Elizabeth, and several of them breaching the ordinary conventions of propriety to shake Jennings’ hand and thank him earnestly for saving ‘Miss Elizabeth.’ Without going so far as to criticize their master, or even to acknowledge how painfully aware they were of his ways, they made it clear to Jennings that they felt every tenderness toward his wife, and that they had all been quite worried for her since the attack, and that his being there for her was a relief to them greater than they could say.

“For I don’t mind saying, sir,” the housekeeper said solemnly. “That when we saw how Sir – how things were going to be, that you were very much the answer to my prayers!” Her eyes had actually misted over with tears, and she turned away. “And I’m ever so grateful!” She left the hall, hurrying to ready the back sitting room for company, and surreptitiously wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.

Elizabeth, amidst animated responses to the servants, who had begun peppering her with questions as though she had been gone for years instead of weeks, had made her way to the cabinet. “Here it is!” she said to Jennings, gesturing for him to come see the portrait. “I was right! – it looks exactly like Cousin Delacourt!”

Jennings leaned over the cabinet and looked at the portrait. It seemed, at first, to be a portrait of Cedric Delacourt, so much so that Jennings asked his wife, “Is this a new portrait? The one you remember has perhaps been removed?”

“Oh, no, sir,” one of the servants said, bobbing a slight curtsey to excuse her intrusion. “That’s a portrait of Jonathan Fitzhugh, and I had noticed myself, sir, that it was all over Mr. Delacourt. But that’s been there for all the time I’ve been here.”

Elizabeth nodded her agreement. “It’s been there as long as I can remember,” she said. “In exactly that spot, with exactly that face. Cousin Cedric’s face.”

“I did find it uncanny, ma’am,” the servant said. “I had even thought to mention it to Mr. Delacourt, but Frimmy told me not to be rude.”

The housekeeper had returned to the hall. “And don’t you be oppressin’ Mr. and Mrs. Jennings!” she said tartly. “Bring them into the sitting room, and I’ll check on Cook.”

The servant, casting a sheepish glance at the housekeeper, quickly showed the Jennings into the back sitting room, still asking Elizabeth questions about her new life. For the duration of the Jennings’ visit, and even while they ate the lunch that Cook had prepared, she and the other servants milled in an out of the sitting room and the small dining room, and made constant conversation with Elizabeth. They were clearly very attached to her, and Jennings was glad to see that the cold and haughty Sir James had not by any means been the only person in Elizabeth’s household. She had apparently been quite surrounded by loving people, and she in turn was vastly contented to spend these hours with them.

After luncheon, as the Jennings prepared to leave, Elizabeth asked the housekeeper to tell her about the man in the portrait. “Is he not one of Mama’s relatives, Frimmy?” she wanted to know, as she carefully reached into the cabinet and pulled the miniature out. Where it had been, a circle remained, a darker patch against the faded surface of the cabinet shelf; the portrait had been there for some time, and had not been moved until now. “Is this not a very old portrait?”

“Aye, Miss,” Frimmy replied. “Much too old to be Mr. Delacourt, which I told Tina, but she said it was most uncanny, and I suppose she’s right, but it can’t be Mr. Delacourt, nor even his father or grandfather.” She pointed a finger at the miniature. “That man is the head of the Fitzhugh clan, which was your dear mother’s clan, and that portrait is over a hundred years old.”

_________________________

As they made their way to the coroner’s, Elizabeth was unnaturally quiet and serious. Although she had much enjoyed her visit to her father’s house, she was puzzled, not only by the strange similarity between her cousin Cedric and the long-dead Jonathan Fitzhugh in the portrait, but by her fascination with it. People often resembled one another, after all, especially in miniature paintings the accuracy of which depended completely upon the skill of the painter. It was true, too, that family trees often intertwined at more than one place; perhaps Mr. Delacourt was her relation on both sides of her lineage, and perhaps those connections had simply been forgotten over the intervening decades. It made no sense, really, that this should bother her so.

Jennings noticed her altered mood, and asked her solicitously, “Are you disturbed to be going with me to the coroner? It would be most understandable if you did not wish to go.”

She looked up at him. “Oh, as to that, sir,” she said. “Although her death saddens me, it has already occurred; what would a fit of sensibility on my part benefit her – or myself – in the least? She has reached out to us through the slate, and I take rather seriously our responsibility to help her as best we can – I will not shirk it simply to avoid the coroner.” She gave a small laugh. “When one is being contacted by the spirits of the dead, one might reasonably expect to be required to see the dead, and to deal with the consequences of death. I cannot suppose it would do very well to be squeamish!” She shook her head. “No, especially since you feel her death to be connected to the attack on me, I am in fact rather curious to discover more about her. I am only thoughtful at the moment, about the portrait and about why the matter is so pressing to me. I cannot decide how it should seem so important.” She laughed again. “You must think me rather silly!” she said. “To fret so much over such a small thing!”

Jennings shook his head. “Not at all, my dear,” he told her. “I have spent my life acting upon feelings the nature of which others could not understand. If you feel this portrait is more than a remarkable coincidence, then by all means you should consider it. Perhaps, indeed, we should examine your cousin Delacourt.”

This thought struck Elizabeth as being distasteful as well as unwarranted. “But that would be so … rude!” she protested. “He is the most affable man! And completely forthcoming! I cannot imagine that he would be involved in any sort of plot to hurt others!”

“I quite agree,” Jennings said. “I felt nothing upon meeting him other than warmth and friendliness.” He pondered the matter silently for a moment. “We might instead look the other direction,” he suggested. “It may be your mother’s ancestor who is the key here; his direct descendent is marrying your Cousin Isabelle, after all, and is Mr. Delacourt’s closest friend.”

“But that also feels rather wrong,” Elizabeth argued. “I have never met him – although I knew of him, as part of a list of distant cousins I had no expectation of ever laying eyes on in my life – but I have not heard anything other than good about him.”

Something in her turn of phrase triggered a sensation in Jennings’ chest, a familiar sort of tingling breath that typically prefaced a vision, but no insights came immediately to him. “We’ve heard nothing but good of him,” he echoed. “From your cousins Isabelle and Delacourt.”

“His fiancée,” Elizabeth said. “And his best friend.” She regarded her husband curiously. “Are you seeing something?” she asked. “Something about the portrait?”

“No,” he said slowly. He had stopped walking, and he now turned to Elizabeth with a somber expression. “My dream,” he went on. “Betrayal. The man who was killed was betrayed by someone he trusted implicitly.”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “But Cousin Cedric is very much alive,” she pointed out. “The man in your dream was killed.” A thought occurred to her. “Unless,” she continued. “You believe your dream might in fact be a vision of the future after all?”

“No,” he said again, shaking his head emphatically. “I could sense the man,” he explained. “He is dead, killed by a friend. And whoever killed him seems in some way to be connected to your cousins – all three of them, perhaps.” He seemed suddenly worried. “It may be that they are in danger.”

“In danger?” Elizabeth repeated in consternation. “From whom? From my mother’s ancestor? – who has been dead nearly a hundred years!”

Jennings looked askance at her. “Do you believe Eliza Tate was killed by a fever?” he asked. “Or that the creature that left you for dead was of this world?”

Elizabeth blinked, staring at him mutely. “No,” she said at last. “I do not.” The things they had been discussing these past weeks – the deaths, the notions of dark magic and family secrets – had never seemed more real to her, and, as she thought again of the portrait, she could feel that her mind had been guiding her to this conclusion. “My ancestor,” she began soberly. “Is in some way still manipulating his family.”

She turned then, and continued walking. Jennings walked beside her, neither of them saying a word as they each contemplated the mysterious situation.

Upon arrival at the coroner’s establishment, they were informed that Ann Baker had already been delivered to the undertaker, who, even as they spoke, was no doubt preparing the girl for burial. The coroner was a stout middle-aged man named Oxley, who, once Jennings had indicated that Miss Baker was a relative, seemed perfectly inclined to discuss the matter.

“The poor girl was ripped apart!” Oxley said, clearly troubled by the incident. “Clawed all about as though by some animal, but the size of the animal passes all believability! – it should have been a bear, I would imagine, of considerable size, and I can’t imagine how such a thing would make its way into the heart of the city! Twice, too! – for another young lady was attacked in such a way, not a stone’s throw from her home, from what I understand, not two months ago!”

Oxley did not seem aware that Elizabeth was in fact this other young lady, and Jennings did not offer the information. “Strange,” he murmured. “For a bear to roam undetected for two months.”

“Indeed!” Oxley agreed vehemently. “It’s almost as though it’s being released to hunt, and then disappears whence it came.”

Jennings thrust his hands into his pockets. “Can’t be,” he objected. “Surely not. What sort of wretch would train a bear to go out hunting young ladies?”

“Just what I was wondering!” Oxley said. “And how would one do it? How would one control a creature of such size and strength? It makes no sense, sir, I tell you. But it makes even less sense that such a beast would simply be wandering loose, and no one the wiser.” He shook his head, and frowned. “The poor thing was most viciously savaged by it,” he went on. “There was hardly anything left of her.”

Elizabeth stepped forward. “Dr. Oxley,” she said softly. “Was Miss Baker wearing a ring, by any chance?”

Dr. Oxley, who had forgotten to some extent that Mrs. Jennings was in the room, was for a moment worried that his frank discussion about such delicate matters had upset Elizabeth. When he saw that she was unaffected, he was too relieved to concern himself with the reason for her question. “In a way,” he answered. “I found a ring upon examination, one that had fallen into …” He looked at Jennings, and then back to Elizabeth. “But I do not wish to upset you, ma’am, with any depiction of Miss Baker’s injuries.”

Elizabeth gave him a small smile. “The girl is connected with my family,” she reminded him, convinced as she spoke that this was no fib. “I am quite willing to hear whatever I must to learn what befell her.”

Dr. Oxley, still hesitant, nodded his head. “Of course,” he said. “Of course. Well.” He coughed, and continued, “There was a ring hidden deep inside one of the girl’s wounds. All of her fingers were broken – nearly wrenched from her hands! – so I surmised that the ring had fallen.” He was unused to speaking so graphically before a lady, and he coughed again, and flushed awkwardly.

“Do you have the ring, sir?” Elizabeth asked him. “I would very much like to have it back, so that we may deliver it to Mrs. Baker.”

“I do not, ma’am,” Dr. Oxley informed her. “But in fact I had already given it – and some other things found with Miss Baker – to her mother yesterday.”

“Mrs. Baker and I have not spoken in some time,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t suppose – would it be too much to ask you for her direction? I daresay she may not wish to see us, but news of Ann’s death has brought my heart to her, and I would like to try, if I can, to offer some comfort to her.”

Oxley’s brow cleared. “Of course,” he said again. “Mending fences. Of course.” He cheerfully gave them direction to the Bakers’ house in Whitechapel, and within a very few moments, the Jennings found themselves on their way to visit a stranger – a situation that was daily becoming less unusual to Elizabeth. As they made their way to Whitechapel, she composed several avenues of conversation with which they might speak to Mrs. Baker without arousing her suspicions or putting her on her guard.

In the end, however, no subterfuge was required, for Mrs. Baker seemed eager to bring them into her home and to speak with them. “For I’m not sure how to feel, ma’am,” she explained to Elizabeth as they seated themselves in her small front room. “I still can’t believe it. I keep calling to her as though she was just in her room, and then remembering that she’s not.” She looked up at her guests, her face pale and stricken. “Forgive me, ma’am,” she said. “I should have offered you tea.” She moved as though to get up, but Elizabeth put out a hand to stop her.

“We are quite fine, Mrs. Baker,” she said with sincere compassion. “We are here to offer you condolence.”

Mrs. Baker pressed a handkerchief to her mouth. “Thank you,” she said, her voice muffled. “I suppose you are friends of Annie?”

Elizabeth exchanged glances with Jennings. “I believe this must sound strange to you, Mrs. Baker,” Elizabeth began delicately. “But I believe that whatever attacked your daughter also attacked me, some weeks ago.”

Mrs. Baker looked startled, and stared for a long moment at Elizabeth. In a small voice, she asked, “Do you – do you know what it was?”

Elizabeth felt tears welling up, and blinked them back as best she could. “I do,” she said. “But I believe the monster was dispatched by some wretched master, who targets his quarry by means of a ring.”

Mrs. Baker’s eyes opened wide. “A ring,” she repeated. “What kind of ring?”

“I know of two,” Elizabeth answered. “One is a peridot, and the other is an amethyst. But I suppose there is the possibility of more.”

Mrs. Baker got up from her chair. “Please excuse me,” she said. “I’ll be back directly.” She left the room, returning not thirty seconds later with something clutched in her hand. “Is this one of them?” she asked, opening her hand to reveal a green peridot ring resting in her palm.

Elizabeth did not bother to hide the tears that now fell onto her cheeks. “That is my ring,” she said. “My mother’s ring, that the monster stole from me.”

Mrs. Baker held it out for Elizabeth to take. “Please, ma’am,” she said. “Please take this. It is of no particular significance to me; I only took it because Dr. Oxley said that I should take her things. But it was not hers for more than a fortnight, and I had thought to return it to the one who gave it her, but I never cared for him much, and have no knowledge where he might be, and since it is yours, ma’am, you should have it.”

Elizabeth thought of Mrs. Baker’s pain at losing her daughter. “I do not wish to take something that will remind you of your daughter, Mrs. Baker,” she said somberly. “I am content to part with it if it will give you some comfort.”

Mrs. Baker shook her head. “No, ma’am,” she said. “I have many other things to remind me, things that mean a great deal more. This was given her not two weeks ago,” she reiterated. “By a ‘gentleman’ suitor who never even told her his name, other than ‘Edmond’.”

Elizabeth reached out tentatively and touched the ring, but did not take it. “I have no proof for you that it is mine, Mrs. Baker.”

Mrs. Baker smiled faintly. “It’s clearly yours, ma’am,” she said. “I saw your face when you looked on it. It means a great deal more to you than it does to me or, I daresay, to my daughter.” She placed the ring into Elizabeth’s hand, and closed Elizabeth’s fingers around it. “It is yours, ma’am, and I am happy to give it to you.” She sat once more, and, revealing a touch of anger behind her grief, continued, “This ‘master’ … do you know who he is? Can he be held accountable for what he’s done to my Annie?”

Before Elizabeth could answer, Jennings leaned forward and, speaking as gently as he could, said, “His identity is unknown to us, ma’am. But we believe he has taken issue with members of Mrs. Jennings’ family. Are you connected, ma’am, with the Fitzhugh clan?”

Mrs. Baker did not answer at first, but then, looking down at her hands folded in her lap, she responded in a voice heavy with resignation. “I am not,” she murmured. “But Annie is. Was.” She sighed, and raised her eyes to Elizabeth’s face. “Mr. Baker,” she went on with a pained expression. “God rest his soul, was not Annie’s father. He was her stepfather, and as kind to her as any man could be to his child.” She began to weep, and pressed her handkerchief once more to her mouth. “Annie’s father never knew that he left me with her; I knew I would never be accepted by his family, and that coming forward would ruin him. I suppose that sounds stupid – I suppose I was stupid – but I chose to raise Annie on my own, and not tell her father about her, and when Mr. Baker proved to be such a good-hearted man, and very accepting of my situation, and loving toward my girl, I thought that I had made the right decision.”

Elizabeth clasped Mrs. Baker’s hands in hers. “I am sure you did, Mrs. Baker,” she told her. “No one is stupid who considers the welfare of others.”

“Mrs. Baker,” Jennings said. “Do you mean to say that Miss Baker’s father was a Fitzhugh?”

Mrs. Baker nodded. “His name was Tate, but his mother’s family was Fitzhugh, and he was very proud of it. He was so young, sir,” she said. “I knew it then as I know it now. We thought – well, we thought our actions would have no consequence, as the young typically do, and I know he never meant me harm. I know he would have done right by me if I’d told him, but I think it would have ruined his life, and I cared for him, and I didn’t want that for him. He moved away from London, and has married now, and is happy. And I had Annie, and I found Mr. Baker, and I was happy.” She sobbed. “Now what do I have?” she asked Elizabeth. “Now my Annie is gone!” She abandoned any pretense of composure, and lowered her head into her hands.

Elizabeth continued to hold the distraught woman’s hands in hers, and her heart broke for the woman’s loss. She was stricken too by the misfortune that had befallen her cousin Marcus – for it must be he! – that he should lose two daughters in a week. Indeed, he had never been given the chance to know Annie, and would now never know her. His little Eliza had been so cruelly snatched from him. The only consolation was that he could not feel grief for a daughter he was unaware had ever existed, but anger swelled up in Elizabeth, and flushed her cheeks, as she thought of the soulless deeds committed by her family’s unseen foe.

“We have to stop him, Christopher!” she said tersely. “We have to find him and stop him, before more girls are lost!”

“Yes,” Jennings said simply, his jaw tight and his expression cold. “And I have a notion where he might be found.”

Mrs. Baker stifled her weeping abruptly, and both women turned to stare in astonishment at Jennings.

“You cannot think it is Cousin Marcus!” Elizabeth said.

Jennings raised one eyebrow. “Indeed no,” he said. “Although I suppose we should not dismiss anyone out of hand. No, I refer to this ‘suitor’ who gave Miss Baker the ring. You said, I think, that his name was ‘Edmond’?” When Mrs. Baker nodded, he went on, “And you never met him?”

“No, sir,” she said. “But even though Annie thought he was the moon and the stars, something in the way she talked about him made me suspicious of him. She said he was engaged, but that he planned to break off the engagement, and that he gave Annie the ring to show his intention to marry her as soon as he had spoken to the other lady.”

Elizabeth scoffed. “I can well understand your suspicions!” she said drily. “At best, this is a man of inconstant affections.”

“Just so, ma’am,” Mrs. Baker agreed. “But Annie found him to be very charming and sincere, and I could say nothing to dissuade her.” She indicated the ring. “Annie wore that as though it were a wedding band. She was so in love with him!”

“Did he mention the name of this other lady?” Jennings asked.

“He did, sir,” Mrs. Baker replied. “Annie said the girl’s name was Isabelle.”