Vanquished, p.26

Vanquished, page 26

 

Vanquished
 


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  Dandridge's study would be the most reasonable hiding place for a photograph or indeed anything else. Coming out into the front hall, he turned right, guessing that the MP's sanctum would be on the main floor.

  His hunch proved to be on the mark. He found the wood paneled room without incident, the door standing wide open. Darting a quick glance behind him, he slipped inside and pulled the door quietly closed.

  Lifting the lantern aloft, he glimpsed the outline of twin built-in bookcases flanking a wide desk. The bookshelves alone presented innumerable hiding places though he rather suspected Dandridge would have the photograph sequestered in some sort of safe. If so, his lock pick would be put to true test.

  "Looking for something, Mr. Stone?"

  The now familiar voice had him halting in his tracks. Garbed in a dressing gown Dandridge rose from behind the desk, his rail thin figure casting ghoulish silhouette on the paneled wall behind. In the dim light, Hadrian took note of the bandage dressing the MP's swollen nose and wondered if that meant it was broken.

  Heartily hoping that were the case, he lifted the lantern so that the cone of light hit the MP square on the face. "You tell me."

  The MP only laughed. "You've got balls, I'll grant you that. A pity you lack the brains to go with them."

  "You had my flat turned over."

  Dandridge did not deny it. "For that, you've only yourself to thank. Were it not for your ill-conceived allusion to having proof of my past, I would never have thought to do so. Instead, we stumbled upon that deliciously damning photograph of the Rivers whore hanging out to dry in your studio's darkroom. Very fortuitous, don't you think?"

  "I want it back, Dandridge."

  "Even if you had anything to barter with, which you don't, it is too late, my friend."

  Staring into Dandridge's reptilian eyes, Hadrian felt a sick foreboding sinking his stomach. "What do you mean?"

  The MP shrugged his narrow shoulders. "The delightful image of Miss Rivers toying with her cunt is even now in the hands of the Fleet Street press. If all goes well, it should make the front page of every London daily newspaper by tomorrow morning, suitably censored, of course. Public morality is no trifling matter, after all."

  Hadrian felt as if the room were spinning like a top. Callie, what have I done to you? To Dandridge, he said, "You bastard." With nothing more to lose, he launched himself across the study floor. Grabbing Dandridge by his lapels, he slammed his right fist into the old man's face, catching him in the jaw and sending saliva spurting.

  He hauled back to hit him again, landing a second blow in the solar plexus that had Dandridge doubled over the desk, flailing hands clawing for the bell rope. Between wracking coughs, he said, "You'll pay for that, Stone."

  "I've been paying all my life, Dandridge. It's high time you and your lot anted up."

  Hadrian started to go for him again when hard hands grabbed him from behind. Fists raised, he spun about, the lantern crashing to the floor amidst three pairs of booted male feet. Ratcheting his gaze upward, he stared into the grotesquely smiling faces of Sam Sykes and Jimmie Deans.

  Looking like a guard dog salivating in anticipation of the kill, Sykes said, "Good eve, St. Claire. Fancy meeting you 'ere."

  Dividing his gaze between the two henchmen, Hadrian asked himself if Boyle and his lackeys hadn't been part of the plot to entrap him all along. He had only a handful of seconds to contemplate that likelihood when a ham-sized fist planted itself in his midriff. A second set of hands jerked his arms behind his back, an unbreakable human shackle. More blows caught him in the face, eyes, and gut until he doubled over, head hanging and eyes squeezed shut against a waterfall of snot and blood. Apparently not done with torturing him, someone drove a knee into his crotch. A lightening streak of pain, stark as a camera's flare, had his legs folding beneath him. He heard a heavy groan, a sound of unadulterated agony, and belatedly realized it had come from him.

  "That's enough; cease." Dandridge's muffled shout rose about the eddying pool of dizziness and pain. "He's bleeding all over my Aubusson carpet. Get him out of here--now!"

  The hands holding him up relaxed their grip. Hadrian dropped to the floor, a knee-bruising thud.

  "Where . . . where d'ye want us to take him?" Even with eyes closed, Hadrian could tell it was Deans, as slow-witted as ever.

  "That's what I pay you to figure out. Only see that you take him out the back through the kitchen."

  Hard hands grabbed him under the armpits, drawing him back onto his feet. "Come on with you, you filthy bugger, we 'aven't got all night."

  Between them, they dragged him as Dandridge had hauled him across the brothel bedroom all those years before. The next few minutes flickered in and out, snatches of consciousness punctuated by spells of blissful blackness. The screech of a door opening on rusted hinges; a rush of icy air hitting him in the face like a fist; the tang of sweat pouring down his face, stinging his swollen eyes and salting his wounds. Coming to, he wondered where the devil they were taking him. The weight of his head felt enormous, the effort to hold it upright nothing short of Herculean. Cracking open an eye, he saw they were crossing the cobblestone alley to the mews. A black-lacquered carriage stood at the ready, team in harness and driver seated atop the box. One of the henchmen, Deans, released him and went behind the conveyance to lift the boot. The next thing Hadrian knew, he was being pulled along to follow like a balloon on a string. It was then that he understood they meant to fit him inside like a corpse in a coffin. Panic flared, granting him the strength to struggle. He kicked out, his foot connecting with what felt like a shinbone.

  A kidney punch had him doubling over again, lungs choking on frigid air. "Get inside, you bloody fucker, or else." The speaker was Sykes, not that it mattered.

  A blow struck him from behind at the base of his skull. Stunned, he felt himself falling forward into the dark well, his captured arms powerless to break his fall. He landed and scrabbled to climb out but several well-placed punches stole the last of his will. They were going to kill him, he was going to die, and his only real regret was that he wouldn't have the chance to see Callie once more. He would simply disappear and she would live out her days hating him as her betrayer.

  "Ye're a stubborn fucker, St. Claire, I'll grant 'ee that."

  The boot slammed closed, leaving him entombed in musty darkness, elbows and knees pinned to his chest. For a handful of seconds, he teetered on the edge of madness, the closeness stealing what little breath he might draw. Then a strange peace descended. His life, or the little that was left of it, was about to come full circle. Hadrian St. Claire had been born on a similar winter eve fifteen years before when climbing inside a prime minister's carriage had seemed the start of a bright new future. Yet all his grand plans, fine airs, and fancy clothes had come to naught.

  Hadrian closed his eyes, giving himself up to the darkness. Not so bright now.

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  "It is never too late to be what you might have been."

  --GEORGE ELIOT

  Did you see that?" Rourke lifted his head from where he and Gavin hid behind the hedge bordering the mews behind Dandridge's townhouse. Their horses, let from the lending stable, were tethered nearby but out of sight. Turning back to Gavin, his breath came out in a puff of steam. "Come on with you, man, 'tis two against two, an even match. We can take 'em. Hell, I'm so bluidy mad, I can take 'em both myself if need be."

  He would have launched himself forward, but Gavin grabbed his shoulder, forcing him back down. "Hold, for God's sake. Unless you want to see Harry dead, you'll curb that Scot's temper of yours and stay hidden for now. And quiet."

  "But you saw what they've done to him as well as I did. Christ, I've seen haggis in better form than he is. Now they've packed him into the boot like so much baggage."

  Peering between the branches of hedge, Gavin watched as the bald henchman climbed onto the driver's box. The other, the bulkier of the two, stood outside the carriage, applying some substance, boot bla
cking he suspected, to cover Dandridge's crest.

  Turning back to his impatient friend, he whispered, "For the present, he's alive and he'll stay that way until they get him to wherever it is they mean to finish him. If we make our move now, who knows how many more of Dandridge's bullies may pour out of that house to aid them. No, far better to follow and see where they take him, and then attack while the element of surprise is ours."

  "Why, ladies, this is a lovely surprise, though it is rather late for a social call, do you not think?" Dropping the cloth-wrapped ice he'd been holding to his swollen face back in the champagne bucket, Dandridge rose to greet the two women his butler had just shown into his study. Thinking he'd got St. Claire cleared out and the blood cleaned up just in time, he gestured them toward chairs.

  Staring him down from the other side of his desk, Caledonia lifted her chin. "This is no social visit, sir, as well you know. I believe you have something that belongs to me, and I want it back."

  Beneath the blur of her hat veil, he glimpsed her puffy eyes and pale face, the irrefutable signs of female suffering, and hid a smile. It seemed that St. Claire had done his work even better than he'd credited. Not only would the chit be ruined politically and socially after tomorrow, but it appeared she already suffered the ill-effects of a broken heart--vanquished beyond even his fondest dreams. Despite his throbbing face, he could barely contain his glee.

  "Really?" He tapped a finger against his lower lip, one of the few spots that didn't hurt, and pretended to consider. "I do not believe so," he said at length. "Might you be more specific?"

  Charlotte Rivers, silent since entering, marched up to her niece's side like a mother lion prepared to defend her cub to the death. "Josiah, you know full well what we came for. Now where is it?"

  Born Charlotte Smythe, Caledonia's aunt by marriage was still a very attractive woman though she must be his age or near to it. Dubbed "Lovely Lottie" at her come-out ball, she'd been the reigning queen of her season, a diamond of the first water who'd had even the most devoted bachelors contemplating a trip to the altar. He'd been set to offer for her himself when Edward Rivers had stolen her out from under his very nose. Not that he'd loved her, love for women wasn't in his nature, but he did have an appreciation for rare, beautiful things, and she was certainly that. Charming, lovely, and accomplished she would have made a far more adept political wife than that brainless country mouse he'd finally settled on marrying--yet another reason to despise the Rivers family.

  He held his arms out at his sides as though inviting them to search his very person. "I'm afraid I am at a loss, although if you could only describe in some detail what of yours you think I have, perhaps I could be of more help." The latter was said by way of a dare. Casting his gaze on Caledonia Rivers, her photographed image flashed into his mind, and he barely bothered to contain his smirk.

  Even fuming, Charlotte was a lady to her very core. "This isn't over yet, Josiah," she said, words dripping ice water. Turning back to her niece, standing frozen as a statue, she said, "Come along, Callie, we are obviously wasting our time. We cannot appeal to the honor of a man who has none." Hooking her arm through that of the younger woman, she steered them toward the study door. On the threshold, she paused to look back at him. "Josiah, whatever has befallen your face?"

  For the first time since they'd entered, he felt his smile slip along with his mood. The bandage on his nose was bad enough but now there was his jaw, too, painfully swollen and likely still bearing the imprint of St. Claire's knuckles. "An unfortunate accident. I took a fall from my horse."

  In truth, he'd had to give up riding years ago along with a great many other corporal pleasures, and the penetrating look she sent him told him she knew that and more, putting him in mind of just how shrunken and gouty and old he'd become, a veritable shadow of the man he once was. The latter though had him reaching down to cinch his dressing gown's velvet tie.

  "That is most unfortunate indeed, Josiah. Why if I didn't know better, I could almost think you'd run afoul of someone's fist."

  The snow pelting the back of his neck and the mewling of gulls overhead pulled Hadrian out of the blackness. He came to, not so much in pain as numb. Sykes and Deans had him between them, pulling him along the pier. Resisting the temptation to open his eyes, he kept them closed and let himself be carried along. Judging by the stench of fetid water and decaying fish, there were in the East End somewhere near the docks.

  "Put a move on, why don't you? At the pace you're going, it'll be light before we get him to the water." The voice belonged to Sykes.

  "I'm doing my level best," Deans complained, giving off a pungent whiff of leeks. "But he's heavier than he looks."

  "He's dead weight is all or at least he will be soon enough." Sykes's barking laugh punctuated that pronouncement. Bracing him between them, they paused to catch their breaths. "Did you bring the rope?"

  "What for?"

  "For tying his hands and feet, idiot."

  "Why bother? He's out like a light."

  "He may not be once he hits the water, and Dandridge won't want us taking any chances. Betimes, St. Claire's like a cat. You never know what sewer hole he's liable to crawl back out of."

  "All right, all right, rope's in the boot. I'll fetch it."

  Eyes still closed, Hadrian let himself sag against the bully's bulk, keeping his ears trained to monitor Deans's retreating footfalls. It was his chance and though beaten as he was it would hardly be an even fight, he knew he'd never get a better one.

  Silently he counted to ten and then opened his eyes. Next to him, Sykes was an ungainly silhouette backlit by the beach, moonbeam striking atop his billiard ball head. "So it's rise and shine time, is it St. Claire?"

  "Rise . . . and shine." Whirling on him, he smashed his fist dead center of Sykes's fleshy throat.

  The bully fell back with a groan, crashing into a stack of empty shipping crates propped against the side of a transit shed. Staggering like a drunk, Hadrian limped away, a thousand invisible pins needling away at his feet and legs. Willing himself to ignore the agony, he kept the brick warehouse ahead in his sights. He couldn't possibly outrun them in the open, but if he were lucky he might be able to lose himself in the maze of shipyard clutter until dawn when the stevedores and watermen showed up to work.

  "Hold you, where do you think you're off to?"

  Hadrian darted a look back to where Deans had rounded the coach, shouldering a coil of sailor's rope.

  A voice, Sykes's, rasped, "Don't just stand there. After him!"

  Deans hesitated, then dropped the rope and gave chase. Heavy footfalls lumbered behind Hadrian, closing the distance on his narrow lead. Ordinarily he would have had no difficulty in outpacing the heavier man, but already his left leg was cramping badly, the muscles in both legs afire from his time folded into the carriage boot.

  Still he kept on, one thought, one hope, one woman fueling his fight for survival. Callie. If he could only manage to escape, to find his way back to her, he would throw whatever was left of him at her feet and beg for her forgiveness.

  Deans was at his back now, no more than an arm's length away, the warmth of his breath all but beating down on the back of Hadrian's neck. Heavy weight like a sandbag crashed into him, knocking him to the ground. Sprawled atop him, the henchman pinned him to the path, oyster shells cutting into his palms as the shattered camera glass had all those years before.

  The memory roused whatever fight Hadrian had left in him. He knew he'd never escape now, but he resolved he wouldn't go down easy. No, he'd give them a fight they'd remember for some time to come; the rest of their miserable, misspent lives. He reared up, knocking Deans off balance. He was upon his knees when beefy hands took hold of his collar, pulling him back down. This time, though, he managed to wrangle his way on top. Several well-placed downward jabs had Deans's face looking little better than his own must have appeared. Knowing it was either kill or be killed, he wrapped his hands about the thick throat and found the fragil
e larynx with his thumbs.

  The sharp poke of a blade in his back had him stilling his hold. "Leave off, St. Claire, or I'll run you through here and now." Sykes, voice husky, pressed the knife deeper between his shoulder blades, leaving him no choice but to pull back. "That's better." To Deans, busy dusting himself off, he barked, "Fetch that rope and bind him. We'll sit him down on that crate over there. No reason not to have a bit of fun before we feed him to the fishes."

  Not content with drowning him, they meant to torture him first. Limp, Hadrian let them shove him back over to the crates. Whatever hope he'd harbored of escape was lost now. Setting one of the boxes upside down, they shoved him down onto the makeshift seat, then pulled his hands behind his back and wound the rope with punishing tightness about his joined wrists.

  Deans, face bloody, grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked his lolling head upright. "Shall I start by lopping off your ears or maybe that cock of yours would make a better trophy for the pickle jar, eh?"

  Hadrian offered up a silent prayer to whatever God there was that he'd either pass out or bleed to death before they did their worst. Looking up into the two bullish faces looming over him, he said, "If you lads take my cock, at least you'll have the one between you."

  "You were always too clever for your own good, St. Claire," Sykes said, shaking his head. "I wonder if you'll sound half as clever as a soprano." Face stretched into a hideous leer, he nodded to Deans, who dragged the point of his knife from Hadrian's Adam's apple downward to rest between his legs. "It's moment of reckoning, fancy man."

  Not caring to witness his own gelding, Hadrian squeezed his eyes shut. A pistol's booming report had him opening them in time to see the two henchmen drop to the ground. He looked across the beach to see the silhouette of two men striding forward, weapons drawn.

  "I wouldn't count my trophies just yet were I you." A tall, dark-haired man elegantly turned out in a riding coat and breeches stopped a few paces away, smoking pistol in hand. His slightly shorter, brawnier companion stepped up beside him, his weapon cocked and a lantern in his other hand.

 
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