Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)


“Our little information-gathering excursion into high society's festivities yielded up far more fruit than we had hoped, and more quickly, my lord,” said Biffy. “When we returned home early to find you gone, we proceeded immediately to act upon the information most recently acquired—namely, that which bespoke suspicious activity and bright white lights late at night emanating from the recently opened scientific club, near the Duke of Snodgrove's town residence.”

“And a good thing we did too,” continued Biffy, wrapping a salmon-pink embroidered handkerchief about his own wrist and tying a knot with his teeth. “Not that I doubt your ability to handle the situation, sir,” he said respectfully to Lord Maccon, without the sarcasm the statement ought to have elicited considering the Alpha was still entirely naked. “I will say that the moving room contraption transport device gave us some stick. Figured it out in the end, though. We ought to get one of those installed at the town house, my lord.”

“I will think about it,” said Lord Akeldama.

“You did very well,” complimented Miss Tarabotti to the dandies. She believed in giving praise where it was due.

Biffy rolled down his sleeve and pulled his evening jacket back on over broad muscular shoulders. A lady was present, after all—even if her hair was most scandalously loose.

Lord Maccon said, “Someone must go to BUR and get a couple of agents over here to handle the formalities.” He looked about, taking stock: three dead scientists, one new vampire, a trussed-up Mr. Siemons, a blathering Mr. Mac-Dougall, the other mummylike body intended for Alexia's blood, and the remains of an automaton. The chamber was a veritable battlefield. He winced at the mounds of paperwork ahead of him. His own three kills alone would not be too much of a bother. He was chief sundowner, sanctioned killer for queen and country. But explaining the automaton would require eight forms that he could think of, and probably a few more that he could not.

He sighed. “Whoever we send will also need to tell BUR we need sweeps here posthaste to clean up the mess. Have them check to see if there is a local ghost tethered nearby. See if it can be recruited to check for hidden chambers. This is a logistical nightmare.”

Miss Tarabotti stroked his knuckles with her thumb sympathetically. Absentmindedly, Lord Maccon raised her hand to his lips and kissed the inside of her wrist.

Biffy signaled to one of the other drones. With a grin of eagerness, the man clapped his topper to his head and minced out of the room. Alexia wished she had that kind of energy. She was starting to feel the strain of the evening. Her muscles were sore, and all the little points of abuse—the rope burns about her ankles, the cut on her throat, the slice on her arm—had started to ache.

Lord Maccon said to Biffy, “We will need the potentate if we are to shut this operation down completely. Does your master have any drones with high enough rank to get into the Shadow Council without question? Or will I need to do that myself?”

Biffy gave the Alpha an appreciative but courteous once-over. “Looking like that, sir? Well, I am certain many a door might be opened to you, but not the potentate's.”

Lord Maccon, who seemed to be periodically forgetting he was naked, sighed at this. Alexia figured, delightedly, that this meant he did, in fact, tend to traipse around his private apartments in the altogether. Marriage was becoming more and more of an attractive prospect. Though, she suspected, such a practice might get distracting in the long term.

Biffy continued, unabashed, to rib the Alpha's appearance. “To the best of our knowledge, the potentate's inclinations lie elsewhere. Unless he is with the queen, of course, in which case you might get right inside.” He paused significantly. “We all know the queen likes a bit of Scottish now and again.” He waggled his eyebrows in a highly suggestive manner.

“You do not say?” gasped Miss Tarabotti, genuinely shocked for the first time that evening. “Those rumors about Mr. Brown, they were true?”

Biffy settled in. “Every word, my dear. You know what I heard just the other day? I heard—”

“Well?” interrupted Lord Maccon.

Biffy shook himself and pointed to one of the young men fussing solicitously over Lord Akeldama: a slight, effete blond, with an aristocratic nose, wearing top-to-toe butter-yellow brocade. “See the canary over there? That is Viscount Trizdale, believe it or not. Heya Tizzy, come over here. Got a bit of sport for you.”

The yellow-clad dandy pranced over.

“Our lord does not look well, Biffy. I am telling you. Quite ill, in fact,” he said. Biffy patted a yellow shoulder reassuringly. “Not to worry your pretty head. He will be just fine. Now, Lord Maccon here has a bit of a task for you. Should only take a jiffy. Wants you to nip round to old Bucky and rustle up the potentate. Needs some political clout, if you know what I mean, and it is not like the dewan's going to be much use this night. Full moon and all, haw haw. Go on now, shove off.”

With one more worried look in Lord Akeldama's direction, the young viscount wandered out.

Alexia stared at Biffy. “Does the Duke of Trizdale know his only son is a drone?”

Biffy pursed his lips in a cagey manner. “Not as such.”

“Huh,” said Miss Tarabotti thoughtfully—so much gossip in one night!

A different dandy appeared, proffering one of the long gray frock coats sported by the younger scientists around the club.

Lord Maccon took it with a grumbled “thank you” and pulled it on. He was such a large man that it was quite scandalously short on him without trousers, but it covered the most important bits. Alexia was a little disappointed.

So, apparently, was Biffy. “Now, Eustace, what did you go and do a thing like that for?” he said to his fellow drone.

“It was getting incommodious,” said the unapologetic Eustace.

Lord Maccon interrupted them all by issuing forth a series of orders, which, with only minor dissembling, the assembled gentlemen took in hand. They did, collectively, keep trying to arrange matters so that Lord Maccon had to bend over. There was a twinkle in the earl's eye suggesting the Alpha knew what they were about and was humoring their attempts.

One small gaggle left to canvas the premises for other scientists, upon whom they pounced and locked away in the very cells formerly dedicated to vampires. Lord Akeldama's boys might look like fruits of the first water, but they all boxed at Whites, and at least a half dozen wore clothing specially cut to disguise musculature. As per Lord Maccon's instructions, they left his imprisoned pack alone. No need to test Miss Tarabotti's abilities any further than was necessary. The trapped vampires they released, asking them to please stay behind and help with the BUR reports. A few did, but most needed desperately to get home to their respective territories or down to the blood alley for a feeding. A few took off about the club tracking down and exterminating, in a most horrific manner, those last remaining scientists who had until then believed themselves lucky in evading Lord Akeldama's dandies.

“Bah,” said Lord Maccon upon hearing this, “more paperwork, and on a night without Lyall too. How aggravating.”

“I will help,” said Miss Tarabotti brightly.

“Oh, you will, will you? I knew you were going to take every opportunity to interfere with my work, insufferable woman.”

Miss Tarabotti knew how to handle his grumbling well enough now. She glanced about: everyone seemed to be suitably busy, so she slid in close to him and nibbled delicately at one side of his neck.

Lord Maccon jumped a little and clapped his hand to the front of the gray frock coat. The hemline rose slightly.

“Stop that!”

“I am very effective,” Alexia insisted, breathing into his ear. “You should put me to good use. Otherwise, I will have to come up with other ways to entertain myself.” He groaned. “Fine, right. You can help with the paperwork.”

She sat back. “Was that so hard?”

He raised both eyebrows and shifted his protective hand so she could partly see the result of her teasing.

Miss Tarabotti cleared her throat. “Was that so difficult?” She rephrased her question.

“I suspect you are much better at paperwork than I am anyway,” he admitted grudgingly.

Miss Tarabotti had a brief horrific flashback to the state of his office last she had visited. “I am certainly more organized.”

“You and Lyall are going to run me ragged, aren't you?” grumbled the earl, sounding most put-upon.

After that, cleanup proceeded with remarkable rapidity. Miss Tarabotti was beginning to understand how Lord Akeldama always seemed to know so much. His young men were amazingly efficacious. They managed to be everywhere at once. She wondered how many occasions in her past had contained some young fop, apparently too silly or too drunk, watching everything.

By the time the five BUR agents—two vampires, two humans, and a ghost—arrived, everything was basically in order. The premises had been searched thoroughly, vampire statements taken, prisoners and werewolves secured, and someone had even managed to find Lord Maccon a pair of ill-fitting knickerbockers. Above and beyond the call of duty, Biffy, utilizing a few stray metal coils from one of Dr. Neebs's machines, had twisted Miss Tarabotti's hair into a beautiful rendition of the latest updo out of Paris.

Lord Akeldama, now sitting on one of the platforms, watching, with the eyes of a proud parent, his boys work, said approvingly to Biffy, “Lovely job, my dear.” Then to Alexia, “Do you see, my little marshmallow, you simply must get yourself a nice French maid.”

Mr. Siemons was carted off to prison by two of the BUR agents. Miss Tarabotti had to speak most severely to Lord Maccon about not paying him a call when she was no longer around.

“Justice must take its course,” she insisted. “If you are going to work for BUR and support the system, you must do so all the time, not simply when you find it convenient.”

Eyes riveted on the line of congealed blood across the lower part of her neck, he wheedled, “Just a short visit, enough for a mild dismemberment?”

She gave him a dour look. “No.”

The rest of the BUR agents and a competent-looking sweeps crew bustled about, scribbling notations and passing things to the earl to sign. At first they had been entirely shocked to find him in human form, but the sheer mountain of cleanup to be done at the Hypocras Club made them quickly more grateful than surprised to have him available and competent.

Miss Tarabotti tried to be helpful, but her eyes were becoming scratchy, and she was leaning more and more heavily against Lord Maccon's broad side. Eventually, the earl shifted his operation to the entry room of the club and sat them both down on the red couch there. Someone made tea. Lord Akeldama enthroned himself in the brown leather studded armchair. Despite the indignity, Miss Tarabotti soon found herself curled up on the couch, head pillowed on Lord Maccon's hard thigh, snoring softly.

The earl, issuing orders and signing forms, stroked her hair with one hand, in defiance of Biffy's protestations that this would mess up her new hairdo.

Miss Tarabotti, dreaming of brass octopuses, slept through the remains of the night. She did not awaken upon the arrival or the departure of the potentate and his argument with Lord Maccon, whose growls of annoyance at the politician's obtuseness only seemed to lull her further into dreamland. Nor was she awake to see Lord Maccon square off against Dr. Caedes over the disposition of the Hypocras Club's gadgetry and research notes. She slept through Lord Akeldama and his young men leaving, the sunrise, the release of the werewolves—now back in human form—and Lord Maccon's explanation of events to his pack.

She even slept through the earl gently transferring her into Professor Lyall's arms and the Beta carrying her rapidly past the arriving press, her head, and thus identity, covered by one of Lord Akeldama's ever-present lace handkerchiefs.

She did not, however, sleep through her mother's shrieks upon her arrival back at the Loontwill town house. Mrs. Loontwill was waiting up for them in the front parlor. And she was not pleased.

“Where have you been all night, young lady?” said her mother in the sepulchral tones of the deeply put-upon.

Felicity and Evylin appeared in the doorway of the parlor, wearing nightdresses and draped in heavy pelisses and shocked expressions. Upon noticing Professor Lyall, they squeaked in alarm and dashed back up to their rooms to dress as quickly as possible, horrified that decorum dictate they miss any part of the undoubted drama occurring downstairs.

Miss Tarabotti blinked at her mother sleepily. “Uh…” She could not think. I was off meeting with a vampire, got abducted by scientists, attacked by a werewolf, and then spent the remainder of the night holding hands with a naked peer of the realm. She said, “Uh…” again.