Soulless (Parasol Protectorate #1)

6,016
07.03.2019

Miss Tarabotti looked grave. “I already accepted Countess Nadasdy's invitation. It would be churlish to refuse now.”

“Why must you always be so difficult?” wondered Lord Maccon in utter exasperation. Alexia grinned. “No soul?” she suggested. “No sense!” corrected the earl.

“Nevertheless”—Miss Tarabotti stood—”someone has to discover what is going on. If the hive knows anything about this dead vampire, I intend to find out what it is. Lord Akeldama said they wanted to know how much I knew because they either understood more or they understood less. It is to my advantage to figure out which is the case. “

“Lord Akeldama again.”

“His advice is sound, and he finds my company restful.”

That surprised the werewolf. “Well, I suppose somebody must. How peculiar of him.” Miss Tarabotti, affronted, gathered up her brass parasol and made to leave.

Lord Maccon slowed her with a question. “Why are you so curious about this matter? Why do you insist on involving yourself?”

“Because someone is dead and it was by my own hand,” she replied, looking gloomy. “Well, by my own parasol,” she amended.

Lord Maccon sighed. He figured someday he might win an argument with this extraordinary woman, but clearly today was not that day.

“Did you bring your own carriage?” he asked, admitting defeat with the question. “I shall hire a hackney, not to worry.”

The Earl of Woolsey reached for his hat and coat in a very decisive manner. “I have the Woolsey coach and four here. At least let me drive you home.”

Miss Tarabotti felt she had rung enough concessions out of Lord Maccon for one morning. “If you insist, my lord,” she acquiesced. “But I must ask you to drop me a little ways from the house. My mama, you see, is wholly unaware of my interest in this matter. “

“Not to mention her shock at seeing you alight from my carriage without a chaperone. We would not want to compromise your reputation in any way, now, would we?” Lord Maccon actually sounded riled by the idea.

Miss Tarabotti thought she understood the reasoning behind his tone. She laughed. “My lord, you could not possibly think I have set my cap for you?”

“And why is that such a laughable idea?”

Alexia's eyes sparkled in merriment. “I am a spinster, long on the shelf, and you are a catch of the first water. The very notion!”

Lord Maccon marched out the door, dragging her behind him. “Don't ken why you should find it so devilish funny,” he muttered under his breath. “Leastways you are nearer my age than most of those so-called incomparables the society matrons persist in hurling at me.”

Miss Tarabotti let out another trill of mirth. “Oh, my lord, you are too droll. You are nearing what? Two hundred? As if my being eight or ten years older than the average marriage-market chit should matter under such circumstances. What delightful nonsense.” She patted him approvingly on the arm.

Lord Maccon paused, annoyed at her belittling of herself and him. Then he realized what a ridiculous conversation they were having and how nearing dangerous it had become. Some of his hard-won London social acumen returned, and he held his tongue determinedly. But he was thinking that by “nearer his age” he had not meant nearer in years but in understanding. Then he wondered at his own recklessness in thinking any such thing. What was wrong with him today? He could not stand Alexia Tarabotti, even if her lovely brown eyes twinkled when she laughed, and she smelled good, and she had a particularly splendid figure.

He hustled his lady guest down the passageway, intent upon getting her into the carriage and out of his presence as quickly as possible.

Professor Randolph Lyall was a professor of nothing in particular and several subjects in broad detail. One of those generalities was a long running study on the typical human behavioral response when faced with werewolf transformation. His research on the subject had taught him it was best to change out of wolf shape away from polite company, preferably in a corner of a very dark alley where the only person likely to see him was equally likely to be crazy or drunk.

While the population of the greater London area, in specific, and the British Isle, in general, had learned well enough to accept werewolves on principle, to be faced with one engaging in the act of conversion was an entirely different matter. Professor Lyall considered himself rather good at the change—elegant and graceful despite the pain. Youngsters of the pack were prone to excessive writhing and spinal gyrations and sometimes a whimper or two. Professor Lyall simply melted smoothly from one form to the next. But the change was, at its root, not natural. Mind you, there was no glow, no mist, no magic about it. Skin, bone, and fur simply rearranged itself, but that was usually enough to give most daylight folk a large dose of the screaming heebie-jeebies. Screaming being the operative word.

Professor Lyall reached the Canterbury BUR offices just before dawn still in wolf shape. His animal form was nondescript but tidy, rather like his favorite waistcoat: his pelt the same sandy color as his hair

but with a sheen of black about the face and neck. He was not very big, mostly because he was not a very big human, and the basic principles of conservation of mass still applied whether supernatural or not. Werewolves had to obey the laws of physics just like everyone else.

The change took only moments: his fur crawling away from his body and moving up to become hair, hiss bones breaking and reforming from quadruped to biped, and his eyes going from pale yellow to gentle hazel. He had carried a cloak in his mouth during his run, and he threw it on as soon as he was back to human form. He left the alleyway with no one the wiser to the arrival of a werewolf in Canterbury.

He rested against the BUR office's front doorjamb, dozing softly, until morning caused the first of the standard-issue clerks to make his appearance.

“Who are you, then?” the man wanted to know.

Professor Lyall eased himself away from the door and stepped aside so that the clerk could unlock it. “Well?” The man barred the way when Lyall would have followed him inside.

Lyall bared his canines. It was not an easy trick in the morning sun, but he was an old enough werewolf to make it look easy. “Woolsey Castle pack Beta, BUR agent. Who is in charge of vampire registration in this office?”

The man, unperturbed by Lyall's demonstration of supernatural ability, replied without shilly-shallying. “George Greemes. He will be in around nine. Cloakroom is 'round that corner over there. Should I send the boot-boy to the butcher for you when he gets in?”

Professor Lyall moved off in the direction indicated. “Yes, do: three dozen sausages, if you would be so kind. No need to cook them.”

Most BUR offices kept spare clothing in their cloakrooms, the architectural conceit of cloakrooms having spawned from generations of werewolf arrivals. He found some relatively decent garments, although not precisely to his exacting taste, and, of course, the waistcoat was significantly under par. He then gorged on several strings of sausage and settled in on a convenient ottoman for a much needed nap. He awoke just before nine, feeling much more human—or as human as was supernaturally possible.

George Greemes was an active BUR agent but not a supernatural one. He had a ghost partner who compensated for this disadvantage but who, for obvious reasons, did not work until after sunset. Greemes was therefore accustomed to quiet days full of paperwork and little excitement and was not pleased to find Professor Lyall waiting for him.

“Who did you say you were?” he asked as he came into his office to find Lyall already in residence. Greemes slapped his battered pork pie hat down over a pot full of what looked like the internal guts of several much-abused grandfather clocks.

“Professor Randolph Lyall, second in command of the Woolsey Castle pack and assistant administer of supernatural relations in London central,” said Lyall, looking down his nose at Greemes.

“Aren't you a mite scrawny to be Beta to someone as substantial as Lord Maccon?” The BUR agent ran a hand distractedly down his large sideburns, as if checking to ensure they were still affixed to his face.

Lyall sighed. His slender physique engendered this reaction all too often. Lord Maccon was so large and impressive that people expected his second to be of a similar stature and nature. Few understood how much it was to a pack's advantage having one who always stood in the limelight and one who never did. Lyall preferred not to illuminate the ignorant on this subject.

So he said, “Fortunately for me, I have not yet been called upon to physically fulfill my role. Few challenge Lord Maccon, and those who do, lose. However, I did attain Beta rank by fully following all aspects of pack protocol. I may not look like much for brawn, but I have other germane qualities.”

Greemes sighed. “What do you need to know? We've no local pack, so you must be here on BUR business.”

Lyall nodded. “Canterbury has one official hive, correct?” He did not wait for an answer. “Has the queen reported any new additions recently? Any blood-metamorphosis parties?”

“I should say not! The Canterbury hive is old and very dignified, not given to crass displays of any kind.” He actually seemed a little offended.

“Has there been anything else out of the ordinary? Vampires turning up unexpectedly without metamorphosis reports or proper registration? Anything along those lines?” Professor Lyall kept his expression mild, but those hazel eyes of his were startlingly direct.

Greemes looked annoyed. “Our local hive is very well behaved, I will have you know; no aberrations in recorded history. Vampires tend to be fairly cautious in these parts. It is not comfortable to be supernatural in a port town— too fast-paced and changeable. Our local hive tends to produce very careful vampires. Not to mention the fact that all those sailors in and out means a ready supply of willing blood-whores down dockside. The hive is very little bother so far as BUR is concerned. It is an easy job I have here, thank heavens.”

“What about new unregistered roves?” Lyall refused to let the subject drop.

Greemes stood and went to crouch over a wooden wine crate filled with documents. He rifled through them, pausing periodically to read an entry. “Had one in about five years ago. The hive queen forced him to register; no problems since.”

Lyall nodded. Clapping his borrowed top hat to his head, he turned to leave. He had a stagecoach to catch for Brighton.

Greemes, sorting the parchment sheaves back into the crate, continued muttering. “'Course, I have not heard from any of the registered roves in a while.”

Professor Lyall stopped in the doorway. “What did you say?”

“They have been disappearing.”

Lyall took his hat back off. “You made this fact clear in this year's census?”

Greemes shook his head. “I submitted a report on the matter to London last spring. Didn't you read it?”

Professor Lyall glared at the man. “Obviously not. Tell me, what does the local hive queen have to say on this particular topic?”

Greemes raised both eyebrows. “What does she care for roves in her feeding ground except that, when they are gone, things are easier for her household brood?”

The professor frowned. “How many have gone missing?”

Greemes looked up, his eyebrows arched. “Why, all of them.”

Lyall gritted his teeth. Vampires were too tied to their territory to roam away from home for long. Greemes and Lyall both knew that missing roves most likely meant dead roves. It took all of his social acumen not to show his profound irritation. This might not interest the local hive, but it certainly was significant information, and BUR should have been told immediately. Most of their vampire problems involved roves. As most of their were-wolf problems involved loners. Professor Lyall decided he had better push for Greemes's reassignment. The man's behavior smacked of drone thrall, those initial stages of over-fascination with the ancient mysteries of the supernatural. It did no one any good to have someone firmly in the vampire camp in charge of vampire relations.

Despite his anger, the Beta managed to nod a neutral good-bye to the repulsive man and headed out into the hallway, thinking hard.

A strange gentleman was waiting for him in the cloakroom. A man Professor Lyall had never met before but who smelled of fur and wet nights.

The stranger held a brown bowler hat in front of his chest with both hands, like a shield. When he saw Lyall, he nodded in a way that was less greeting and more an excuse to bare the side of his neck in obeisance.

Lyall spoke first.

Pack dominance games might seem complicated to an outsider, but very few wolves in England outranked Professor Lyall, and he knew all of them by face and smell. This man was not one of them; therefore, he, Professor Lyall, was in control.

“This office has no werewolves on staff,” he said harshly.

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