A Case of Possession available on 28th January 2014
Magic in the blood. Danger in the streets.
A Charm of Magpies, Book 2
Lord Crane has never had a lover quite as elusive as Stephen Day. True, Stephen’s job as justiciar requires secrecy, but the magician’s disappearing act bothers Crane more than it should. When a blackmailer threatens to expose their illicit relationship, Crane knows a smart man would hop the first ship bound for China. But something unexpectedly stops him. His heart.
Stephen has problems of his own. As he investigates a plague of giant rats sweeping London, his sudden increase in power, boosted by his blood-and-sex bond with Crane, is rousing suspicion that he’s turned warlock. With all eyes watching him, the threat of exposure grows. Stephen could lose his friends, his job and his liberty over his relationship with Crane. He’s not sure if he can take that risk much longer. And Crane isn’t sure if he can ask him to.
The rats are closing in, and something has to give…
On a hot summer’s night, in a small, bare clerk’s room in Limehouse, a few streets from the stench of the river and three doors down from an opium den, Lucien Vaudrey, the Earl Crane, was checking lading bills.
This was not his preferred way to spend an evening, but since his preferences hadn’t been consulted, and the work needed to be done, he was doing it.
His iron nib scratched down the paper. It was a functional, cheap pen, like the basic deal desk and the plain, sparse office. There was no evidence of wealth in the room at all, in fact, except for Crane’s suit, which had cost more than the house he was sitting in.
As Lucien Vaudrey, trader and occasional smuggler, he had made himself satisfactorily rich, and his unexpected elevation to the peerage had brought him a huge fortune along with the title. He was now one of England’s most eligible bachelors, to anyone who didn’t know or chose to disregard his reputation in China, and he was this very evening failing to attend three separate soirees at which he could have met perhaps thirty women who would be enthusiastically available for the position of the Countess Crane. On his bureau at home were several dozen more visiting cards, invitations, requests for money, requests for meetings: a thick sheaf of laissez-passer to the highest society.
He could have his pick of London’s beauties, socialise with the best people, assert his place in the top few hundred of the Upper Ten Thousand, claim the social status of which many people dreamed and for which some would sacrifice everything. He could have all that if he lifted a finger, and if someone held a gun to his head to make him do it.
Crane had spent his entire adult life in Shanghai, cheek by jowl with smugglers, prostitutes, gamblers, killers, traders, drinkers, shamans, painters, corrupt officials, slumming mandarins, poets, opium eaters and other such scum, and he loved that sweaty, vivid, intoxicated world. Polite soirees and elegant dinners with people whose achievement in life began and ended with birth held no appeal at all.
So he declined, or ignored, the invitations, because in comparison to high society, identifying where someone had shaved his shipment of Szechuan peppercorns was a much more rewarding pursuit.
Not as rewarding as the pursuit of a certain amber-eyed individual whose small, lithe, delightfully yielding body kept him awake at night, but that wasn’t an option right now because the little devil had once again vanished off to work.
Stephen’s elusiveness was a novelty for Crane, who had always found getting rid of lovers more of a challenge than picking them up, and who had never had a partner who worked harder than himself. His new level of idleness was the problem, really, since if his days were fuller he would spend less of them wondering what Stephen was up to, but to amend that by setting up a serious business would require a commitment to England that he couldn’t quite bring himself to make. Not when he had a perfectly good trading house in Shanghai, where life was easier, more comfortable, and so much more fun.
There would be no Stephen in Shanghai, of course, but then for all Crane knew to the contrary, he wasn’t in London either. He had disappeared two nights ago without a word, and would return as it suited him.
And that was quite reasonable. Stephen was a free man, and one with responsibilities that made Crane’s international business look like a casual pastime. They both had work to do, and since Crane had never tolerated lovers who expected him to put aside his business for their entertainment, he was hardly going to make those demands on Stephen’s time. It was merely irritating that the boot was so firmly on the other foot, for once; that it was Crane waiting for Stephen to turn up on his own unpredictable schedule, knowing that he would offer no more than a lopsided, provocative smile as explanation for his absence.
Thinking of his lover’s irresistible foxy grin led Crane to a moment’s consideration of more interesting uses his desk could be put to. He concluded that the damn thing would doubtless fall apart under the stresses he intended to apply as soon as he got his hands on the little so-and-so, and on that thought, at last spotted where the factor’s well-massaged figures didn’t quite work.
Not a bad effort, he reflected, and a nicely judged theft, enough to be worthwhile for the factor, and quite tolerable for Crane as part of a very competently handled bit of business. He nodded, pleased. The man would work out well.
He reached for the next bill, and there was a loud rapping at the door.
That was tiresome, since he was the only person in the building at eight in the evening, so he ignored it. There was another, more persistent knocking. Then a call, through the iron-barred but open casement.
“Vaudrey! Vaudrey! Crane, I mean.” The visitor peered through the window. “There you are. Nong hao.”
“Nong hao, Rackham,” said Crane, and went to let him in.
Theo Rackham had been something of a friend in China, as another Englishman who preferred local society to expatriates. Rackham was himself a practitioner of magic, though not a powerful one, and it was he who had introduced Crane to Stephen Day a few months ago.
“This is an unexpected pleasure. How are you?”
Rackham didn’t answer immediately. He was wandering about the room, peering at the maps tacked on the plastered walls. “This is your office? I must say, I’d have thought you’d have somewhere rather better than this.” He sounded almost affronted.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You’re rich. Why don’t you act like it? Why aren’t you at grand parties in the West End instead of slaving away in the Limehouse docks?”
“I do act like it, on occasion. This coat wasn’t cut on the Commercial Road. But my business is here, not the City, and certainly not in the West End.”
“I don’t see why you have a business at all. You don’t need any more money.” There was a definite note of accusation in Rackham’s voice.
Crane shrugged. “Frankly, my dear chap, I’m bored, and I would not be less bored in the West End. I need something to do, and trading is what I’m good at.”
“Why don’t you go back to China, then?” Rackham demanded. “If you’re so bored with England, why are you still here?”
“Legal business. My father left his affairs in the devil of a state. Why do you care?”
“I don’t.” Rackham scuffed a worn leather toe against the skirting board. “I suppose there’s been no recurrence of your troubles?”
“You mean the matter in spring? No. That’s all resolved.”
“Day dealt with it.”
“He did.” Crane had been afflicted by a curse that had killed his father and brother, and Rackham had put him in touch with Stephen Day, a justiciar, whose job was to deal with magical malpractice. Crane and Stephen had come very close to being murdered themselves before Stephen had ended the matter with a spectacular display of ruthless power. Five people had died that day, and since Crane had no idea if that was general knowledge or something Stephen wanted kept quiet, he simply added, “He was highly efficient.”
Rackham snorted. “Efficient. Yes, you could say he’s that.”
“He saved my life on three occasions over the space of a week,” Crane said. “I’d go so far as to call him competent.”
“You like him, don’t you?”
“Day? He’s a pleasant enough chap. Why?”
Rackham concentrated on straightening some papers against the corner of Crane’s desk. “Well. You were with him at Sheng’s last week.”
“I was,” Crane agreed. “Did you know I’ve taken a thirty percent share there? You must come with me again sometime. Tonight, unless you’ve anything on?”
Rackham, who never turned down free meals, didn’t respond to that. “What did Day make of Sheng’s food?”
Crane repressed a grin at the memory of Stephen’s first encounter with Szechuan pepper. “I think he was rather startled. It didn’t stop him eating. I’ve never met anyone who eats so much.”
“Have you had many meals with him?”
“I’ve bought him a couple of dinners as thanks. Is there a reason you ask? Because really, my dear fellow, if you’re after any particular information, you know him better than I do.”
“I know he’s like you,” Rackham said.
“Like me.” Crane kept his tone easy. “Yes, the resemblance is striking. It’s like looking in a mirror.”
Rackham gave an automatic smile at that. Stephen Day had reddish brown curls to Crane’s sleek and imperceptibly greying light blond, and pale skin to Crane’s weather-beaten tan; he was twenty-nine years old to Crane’s thirty-seven and looked closer to twenty, and mostly, he stood a clear fifteen inches shorter than Crane’s towering six foot three.
“I didn’t mean you look like him,” Rackham said unnecessarily. “I meant…you know. Your sort.” He switched to Shanghainese to clarify, “Love of the silken sleeve. Oh, come off it, Vaudrey. I know he’s a pansy.”
“Really?” This wasn’t a conversation Crane intended to have with Rackham or anyone else. Not in England, not where it was a matter of disgrace and long years in prison. “Are you asking me for my assessment of Day’s tastes? Because I’d say they were none of my damned business or yours.”
“You dined with him at Sheng’s,” repeated Rackham, with a sly look.
“I dine with lots of people at Sheng’s. I took Leonora Hart there a couple of weeks ago, and I defy you to read anything into that. Come to that, I took you there and I don’t recall you gave me more than a handshake.”
Rackham flushed angrily. “Of course I didn’t. I’m not your sort.”
“Or my type.” Crane let a mocking hint of lechery into his tone and saw Rackham’s jaw tighten. “But even if you were, my dear chap, I can assure you I wouldn’t tell your business to the world. Now, is there anything I can do for you?”
Rackham took a grip on himself. “I know you, Vaudrey. You can’t play virtuous with me.”
“I don’t play virtuous with anyone. But since Stephen Day’s love life is no concern of mine—”
“I don’t believe you,” said Rackham.
“Did you just call me a liar? Oh, don’t even answer that. I’m busy, Rackham. I’ve got a sheaf of lading bills to reckon up and a factor to catch out. I assume you came here for something other than lubricious thoughts about mutual acquaintances. What do you want?”
Rackham looked away. His sandy hair was greying and his thin face was pouchy and worn, but the gesture reminded Crane of a sulky adolescent.
“I want you to make me a loan.” He stared out of the window as he spoke.
“A loan. I see. What do you have in mind?”
“Five thousand pounds.” Rackham’s voice was defiant. He didn’t look round.
Crane was momentarily speechless. “Five thousand pounds,” he repeated at last.
“I see,” said Crane carefully. “Well, I’d be the first to admit that I owe you a favour, but—”
“You’re good for it.”
“Not in petty cash.” The astronomical sum mentioned was ten years’ income for a well-paid clerk. “What terms do you have in mind? What security would you offer?”
“I wasn’t thinking of terms.” Rackham turned, but his eyes merely skittered across Crane’s face and away again. “I thought it would be an…open-ended agreement. Without interest.”
Crane kept his features still and calm, but the nerves were firing along his skin, and he felt a cold clench in his gut at what was coming, as well as the first upswell of rage.
“You want me to give you five thousand pounds, which you in effect propose not to pay back? Why would I do that, Rackham?”
Rackham met his eyes this time. “You owe me. I saved your life.”
“The devil you did. You made an introduction.”
“I introduced you to Day. You owe me for that.”
“I don’t owe you five thousand pounds for it.”
“You owe it to me for keeping quiet about you and Day.” Rackham’s lips were rather pale and his skin looked clammy. “We’re not in China now.”
“Let’s be clear. Are you trying to blackmail me?”
“That’s such an ugly word,” said Rackham predictably.
“Then it suits you, you pasty-faced junk-sick turd.” Crane strode forward. He had a good six inches on Rackham, and although he was often described as lean, that was in large part an illusion caused by his height; people tended not to realise how broad-shouldered he was till he was uncomfortably close.
Rackham realised it now and took a step away. “Don’t threaten me! You’ll regret it!”
“I haven’t threatened you, you worthless coward, nor will I. I’ll just go straight to the part where I break your arms.”
Rackham retreated another two steps and held up a hand. “I’ll hurt you first. I’ll ruin Day.” He pointed a trembling finger. “Two years’ hard labour. You might be able to buy your way out of trouble, perhaps, but he’ll be finished. Disgraced. They’ll dismiss him. I’ll destroy him.”
“With what, tales of a dinner at Sheng’s? Go to hell.”
“He goes to your rooms.” Rackham moved to put a chair between himself and Crane. “At night. He came back with you after Sheng’s and didn’t leave till ten the next day, and—”
“You’ve been spying on me,” Crane said incredulously. “You contemptible prick.”
“Don’t touch me! I can ruin him, and I will, if you lay a finger on me.”
“The hell you will. You’re terrified of him. That’s why you’ve brought this horseshit to me. If you tried this on Stephen, he’d mince you into dog food, you hopeless fucking flit.” Crane spat out the last word, the worst insult he knew to offer a practitioner, with all the contempt he could muster.
Colour rushed to Rackham’s cheeks, and for a second, Crane thought he would lash out, and braced himself, but Rackham kept control with a visible effort.
“I know what you’re doing.” His voice trembled with anger. “Well, it won’t work. If you attack me, I’m allowed to defend myself. And I’m not going to touch you with power until then, whatever you call me. So your little boy friend can’t touch me. Justiciars have to obey mundane law too, you know, and sodomy is a crime, so I can say what I want and he can’t stop me, and if you want me to keep quiet, you’d better give me my money.”