Metamorphosis Part II
The first part of this story is located here.
It had easily been the best evening of Spider’s life. She had never been in a hansom and was embarrassed when Jax found out, but he made good and had the driver take them around the city. When Jax wasn’t looking she ran her hand over the plush seat in wonder. By the time they arrived at the public house for dinner, Spider had quit questioning Jax’s motives. It no longer mattered what he was after. It was the first time she could remember having fun since she was a child. Jax seemed to actually enjoy her company. He was the first person since her Gran who had treated her like a person and not like a means to an end. He made her laugh like no one ever had. When he laughed she felt joyous, and when he smiled at her, she felt warm down to her toes. That feeling was getting dangerously addictive.
They made it through dinner, back in the hansom, and back to High Street before he started asking questions again.
“I know you know who this is,” he said, pulling out the folded drawing.
Spider gave him a disapproving look. “I wondered how long it would take you.”
He flashed a killer smile at her. “Why will you not tell me?”
“Because that is how you end up missing: poking your nose where it does not belong.” She tapped her finger lightly on his chest with each word. “The girl is dead. Let it rest.”
He captured her fingers in his hand. “I don’t think she is. She’s been seen.”
“That’s what I am trying to find out.” She drew her hand away, and he frowned.
“Ask the person who saw her,” she said tucking the hand he had been holding into her pocket.
“I did, and she doesn’t know.”
“She?” She tried to keep her voice level, but she was afraid it went up a couple of octaves.
He laughed. “Are you jealous, little Spider?”
“Of course not,” she huffed. But the thought of him with another woman caused something just below her ribs to twist.
“She is a friend, nothing more. In fact, she is engaged to be married to someone else in a month. Does that make you feel better?”
“Who marries who is none of my business,” she sniffed. She scanned his face from under lowered lids. There was something more there, but she thrust it aside.
His dimples deepened as his smile grew broader. “Of course. But that does not answer my question.” He held her eyes.
“Delia.” The word slipped out almost of its own accord. Spider resisted an urge to slap her hand over her mouth.
“Delia? Delia what?”
In for a penny, in for a pound. “No one has last names in The Vaults. Delia. She worked at Madame Rose’s. Went out with a client a few weeks ago and never came back.” Spider shrugged. “I thought maybe she got out. She had at least one rich Topsider on her string.”
“I imagine he’s the one paying for her drawing to be run in every issue of my paper.”
She shrugged again.
“I need to know who her last client was.” He looked at her expectantly.
She crossed her arms in front of her chest and frowned at him. “No.”
“No what?” His face was such a parody of innocence, it almost made her laugh again.
“I am not digging that up for you. Do you know what happens to people who poke their nose in the wrong place?”
“They go missing?”
She nodded. “Exactly. I can’t stick my neck out.”
“We’re talking about your nose, not your neck.” Jax’s impish smile masked his relentless pursuit of her agreement.
“Either can be chopped off,” she snapped. Spider let out a long sigh. “Please don’t ask me,” she pleaded.
A shadow crossed his face and after a moment he said, “All right. I won’t. But if you hear anything…”
“You will be the first to know,” she said.
“Meet me again?”
Her face fell into the familiar mask of suspicion. “Why?”
He laughed. “Why not? Spider…you have to have another name. Your mother cannot have named you after an arachnid.”
A giggle bubbled up. “I did have one once,” she admitted.
She hesitated. “I…. it’s hard to tell you. It’s like giving you a part of me.”
He took her hand and held it gently and watched her. Pinned under those insistent blue eyes she could keep no secrets.
She was still for a moment then said so softly she wasn’t sure if he could hear her. “Isobel.”
“Isobel. Isobel,” he said as if trying it out. The music of his voice wrapped around her name made her dizzy. “That suits. Belle. It means beautiful in French. That suits, indeed.”
She was thankful for the darkness that hid her flaming cheeks, and cloaked them from prying eyes as her lips found Jax’s.
Jax pulled up to Kit’s door with Isobel’s kiss still on his lips. He only felt slightly guilty as he was shown into the drawing room. His guilt evaporated into annoyance as Kit strolled out of supper on her fiancé’s arm. He forced a smile onto his lips, but it did not reach his eyes. “Dr. MacAulay. How good to see you.”
He harrumphed and looked for the world like a fussing walrus. Jax let his smile warm for Kit, “Miss Katherine. You look lovely this evening.”
“Jax, I’m so glad to see you.” She reached out her hand and Jax took it reverently. She gave MacAulay a dazzling smile and said, “Run along, Alastair. Jax and I have business to discuss.”
MacAulay frowned through his mustaches. “Don’t be long, dear. It is late.”
She blew him a kiss and laughed at his scandalized expression as she ushered him out of the room and shut the door. As soon as it clicked shut, she pounced. “What have you found?” she asked, her eyes sparkling eagerly.
“Her name is Delia.”
“I told you she was real. What else?”
“She was a… femme galante working at a bordello in The Vaults.”
“Really?” Kit looked excited but shocked. “I wonder if they are all…from similar circumstances.”
“Probably. Kit, are you sure about this? The drawing has been in every edition of the paper. You may have just seen the picture and incorporated it into a dream…”
“No,” she said firmly. “This was more than a dream. Alastair thinks I’m mad, but I had hoped you…”
He reached out and took her hand. “I don’t think you’re mad. But possibly over tired? When is the last time you slept, Kit?” He scanned her face and was alarmed at how wan she looked. Dark circles stood out under her eyes and two bright spots of pink on her cheeks looked almost manic. Her hand in his seemed so slight, her skin slack and bones as light as a bird’s.
“I go to bed promptly at nine o’clock.”
“And to sleep?”
She gave him a sheepish smile. “I sleep, but I dream of walking out of the house and through the city to a ballroom. Last night there were crowds of gentlemen I had to walk past, but they were too busy arguing over a book to notice me. Then I dance. Dance all night with my mysterious stranger.”
“But it’s just a dream, Kit. Dreams don’t leave you tired.”
“This is more than a dream,” she insisted. “I feel as if I am dancing. I must be. Believe me.”
He sighed. “I do,” he said. “We will sort it out. I have a lead in The Vaults. I’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“A lead from The Vaults? Who?”
“Just a girl.” He felt a twinge of guilt when he thought of Isobel while looking at Kit’s excited face. “I’d best go. Rest tonight. Tell the stranger your dance card is full.”
She giggled as she showed him to the door and bid him goodnight.
MacAuley had been waiting outside the door pretending to look at the paper as Kit went upstairs. Jax made to leave, but MacAuley insisted on making tiresome small talk.
“How is the newspaper business, Sinclair?”
Jax inwardly winced. “Fine. Interesting times.”
“Times? I thought you worked for the Gazette?”
MacAuley harrumphed. “I always read The Times.”
Jax tried not to roll his eyes. “That’s interesting. If you will excuse me…” He tried to brush past MacAuley, but he caught Jax’s arm.
“Listen Sinclair, I do not appreciate you filling my fiancée’s head with these fancies.”
Jax bristled. “I believe Kit came up with this on her own.”
“You are indulging her in this, and it is not healthy. She is not a well woman.”
“What do you mean?”
MacCauley sighed. “You’ve seen her, man. She is not well. I suspect…consumption.”
“That’s a death sentence. Are you sure?”
He nodded grimly. “She needs rest and a quiet mind. Please do not encourage these fantasies.”
A nod was all Jax could manage in reply as he did not trust his voice. He made his way back into the city with all of these thoughts roiling through his brain. If it was true and Kit was dying, he owed her the answer to this last puzzle at the very least. He would get it no matter what he had to do.
Spider pulled at her hair in the cracked mirror, but the fussing felt unnatural. Her hair was too short, and she tugged at it as if that would make it grow. She pulled nervously at the one dress she had. It strained at the new curves that had appeared in her figure in the last few years. It would just have to do. The green ribbon around her neck matched her glinting eyes and the star charm glowed dully in the light. Despite all her nerves, the prospect of seeing Jax again filled her with so much happiness that she let herself sing softly. “The snow it melts the soonest, when the wind begins to sing.”
“You’re singing,” Eva interrupted. Spider pinched her lips together and jumped, making the water she was pouring slosh out of the basin. Eva’s eyes raked over her from the tips of her shabby shoes to the top of her head, taking in the tattered dress and freshly scrubbed face. Spider felt an uncharacteristic blush creep up her neck onto her cheeks. “You’re meeting someone.”
“No,” Spider protested.
Eva tilted her head in study. “Yes, you are. It’s about time you started pulling in real money. Make sure you get his wallet too.”
Spider felt lightheaded as rage washed over her. It wasn’t like that with Jax. This was real. She was not a whore. Spider turned away so she didn’t throw the basin at her, and said through clenched teeth, “Madame was looking for you.”
Eva made a face. “What does the old bitch want?” She rooted through the cabinet and found the ever present bottle of Dr. Franklin’s Tonic. “I’d best take this now.” Spider left before she could hear the ever present refrain of Eva’s various “ailments”.
A sliver of fear invaded Spider’s happiness. Jax was making her careless. Thoughts of him filled her brain and spread across her landscape like thunderheads on the horizon and clouded her vision. She was taking untenable risks even going Topside, but now she was risking Madame Rose’s displeasure.
Even though Jax had not asked her, Spider had made it her business to find out who Delia’s last client was. It was simple for one so used to being unnoticed to rifle through Madame Rose’s records, and Spider found the name quickly. She couldn’t wait to tell Jax the good news.
Working her way Topside was more difficult in a dress, but Spider managed and found herself up in the haze above with her stars. She grinned as they seemed to wink at her. Unlike Eva’s barrage, the teasing of her stars was gentle enough not to bruise.
Somehow Jax found her in the crowds outside the public house and caught her hand. The touch of his fingers ignited a flame in her chest. He smiled at her as he pulled her closer. Spirals of nerves and excitement circled through her stomach. For once, Spider did not keep her feelings off her face and met his smile with a glowing one of her own.
“Isobel. You look very pretty.” He ran a finger across the necklace he gave her. “A star suits you.”
“I’m glad you like it.”
“Come on,” he said and linked his arm through hers. He pulled her into the public house and over to a table.
“I have news to tell you,” she said. But before she could begin, a shadow loomed over them.
Jax looked up in surprise. A fashionably dressed young woman was standing by their table. Her cheeks were rosy and a bright smile was on her lips. Despite her high color, she was swaying on her feet. Jax leapt up and found her a chair.
“Kit! What are you doing here?” Jax exclaimed.
“I followed you,” she said beaming at them. “I knew you were meeting your contact. Is this her? Is this the femme galant?”
Spider felt every eye in the place turn to inspect her and then dismiss her like the piece of street filth she was as this woman called her a whore for everyone to hear. It felt as if all of her blood had drained into her feet. A whore? Really? That’s how Jax described her? Spider saw Jax shaking his head and saying something but she was just too upset to really hear any of it right now. They were talking again, but it was drowned out by the white noise in her head.
She felt Jax’s hand on her shoulder, drawing back to reality. She had to fight hard to concentrate on his words. “This is Kit, my friend I told you about. Kit, this is…”
“Spider,” she interrupted quickly. Jax seemed taken aback for a moment but Spider would be damned before she let this woman, who had just called her a whore in the middle of this restaurant, know her real name.
Kit looked between the two of them, a smile playing around her lips. “Glad to meet you. I’ve never met a femme galante before,” she said. The two words felt like daggers stabbing into her back. She looked at Jax in mute appeal.
“Kit, I told you. She’s not a femme galante. She’s my–”
“Could you please stop calling me a whore?” she hissed. Spider wanted to crawl under the table until everyone stopped looking at her.
“Oh!” said Kit in surprise, her eyes darting about. The other guests’ eyes gradually pulled away from the free show the three were putting on and went back to their food, but Spider could still remember the feel of them on her neck.
Jax cleared his throat trying to get a hold of the situation that had slipped wildly out of control. “You said you had news?” he asked looking at Spider with eyes begging for calm. Spider was not yet ready to fully forgive the insults, but Jax’s eyes held a power over her she could not deny and she felt her frustration fall back to a tolerable level. Her two guests looked at her expectantly. She had best answer and get it over with.
“I found who Delia’s last client was,” Spider said.
“That is the best news,” Kit exclaimed. “Who was it?” It took all the effort Spider had in her not to growl and drown out the mincingly sweet tone of Kit’s voice.
“It was a Lord Hepburn. That’s who Madame Rose had written down, anyway.”
“Are you sure? I have seen Lord Hepburn at the opera. I cannot imagine he would be involved in such a business….”
Spider simply looked at her. Was she really this stupid?
Jax cleared his throat uncomfortably “You said in your last vision there was a group of gentlemen. Could Lord Hepburn be one of them?”
Kit shook her head slowly. “I don’t know. I just saw their backs. I don’t know. There was something else I wanted to tell you. That’s my excuse for finding you,” Kit said with a mischievous smile.
Spider eyes went wide as she caught Jax reflexively returning her smile before he turned it to a frown. “You just wanted an excuse to sneak out,” he scolded.
“True. But there was more last night,” she said. She smiled into Jax’s frown. “I know you told me to take a rest, but the stranger was insistent. Stop chastising me. You’re worse than Alastair.”
Jax made a face. “Never that.” They exchanged a smile. Spider felt her stomach clench and her heart almost stop. Jax caught Spider’s expression and seemed to marshal himself before he continued, “What did you want to tell me?”
“The stranger has a name. I heard one of the gentlemen call him Lochlainn Arda.”
Spider felt a shiver run down her spine for no reason. Her gran used to call it geese walking on your grave.
Jax must have felt it too because he shifted in his seat uncomfortably, no longer paying attention to Spider. “Are you sure?” Jax demanded. “That’s quite a mouthful.”
“I’m sure,” Kit said firmly. “Lochlainn Arda.”
Spider was sure she felt eyes on her that time, but they were different from before. Colder. Calmer.
“I have to go,” Spider said abruptly.
Jax looked at her, but her face was unreadable. “Thank you for finding that information. I know you took a risk to yourself.”
“Yes, thank you, Spider.” Kit said with a glowing smile.
Jax smiled at Kit, and Spider knew. She watched Jax watching Kit, and in a flash it was all clear. She could not explain it, only that it was so. Jax loved this whey faced bitch, and Kit could not care less. Watching Jax offer his heart as Kit callously pushed it away was more than Spider could bear. She would have given her soul to have Jax look at her like that, and to have it wasted on that unfeeling, heartless trollop…comprehensible thought ended there. Spider had never wanted to harm another person as much as she wanted to hurt that girl. She wanted to twist Kit until she broke in two and hurt as much as Spider did.
Spider studied this Kit critically. Her dress could have fed a family in The Vaults for a month, but that was no matter. Fine feathers did not make fine birds, her Gran had always said. Lovely auburn hair, tall with a decent figure, but bad skin and a chin that went from one side of the building to the other. It was obvious she was used to being doted on. Spider could see it in the tilt of her head, the self-satisfied set of her smile. Jax was only one in a line to her. Spider felt the same twist in her ribs as before and something broke like ice rotten with thaw. Her heart ended up somewhere in her stomach. Her darling Jax, just one in a long line.
No. Jax was not hers. He had never been. It was all an illusion built out of nothing but air and smiles. He had used her to get the information he wanted. What a laugh the two of them must be having. The silly ragamuffin in love with a gentleman. That question was answered at least. This was love. Nothing else could leave her with this soul sucking ache in the center of her chest.
Spider fought her way out of the room. If she sat for a second longer, she would have howled her hurt to the sky like a wild dog. Jax followed her against the current of the crowd.
Outside the restaurant Jax finally caught up with her
“No! No. It’s Spider. It always has been.”
“Wait, come back,” he said, catching her arm.
“No. I have to go.” She twisted in his grasp, trying desperately to slip away to the safety of the shadows.
“You can’t disappear. You heard her. We’re close.”
“Go. Go back to your girl and forget me.”
“I can never forget you.”
She rounded on him. “You used me! You charmed me to get what you wanted. Have the decency to admit it.”
“Maybe at first, but–”
“Are you serious? You can say that to me after I watched you with her? What are you playing at?”
“I am what I am, but that–”
“You are what you are?” The question came out as an indignant screech then a laugh as brittle as broken glass slipped from her lips. “What kind of answer is that?” Tears were dangerously close and there was a catch in her voice that she hated. “Please. Just tell me what we’re doing.”
“I don’t know. It was a laugh, a lark. I don’t know.”
She shut her eyes for a beat, heedless of the tears that snaked down her cheeks. Her breath came out in a ragged sob. “It was more than that to me.”
He stood frozen by her revelation, though on some level he must have known.
“No that’s not what I meant! Isobe–”
“It’s Spider!” She yelled as she slipped her arm out of his limp fingers and ran for the back alley. Even though he tried to stop her, she knew it was useless. There was no competing with that. There was no way that Jax, a cultured young gentleman, would pass up a lady to pick up a guttersnipe. She should have known that was all she was. All she could ever be. The throw had been made and she had lost her stake. Gentlemen like him only took up with street trash like her for one thing, and love played no role in that kind of commerce. She had been a fool all the way around.
Fool, fool, fool. The word echoed in her brain with every step she took. She had been nothing but a fool. They had only really seen each other a few times. They were so distant socially they might as well have been ten thousand miles apart. She was a fool to give him her heart so easily. But it wasn’t given, she argued with herself. He had stolen it under her nose and used it to get what he wanted. Not that it mattered in the end. The result was the same.
She had to make it someplace safe before the tears came in earnest. At first there was only the ache that made her chest feel as if it was folding in on itself. Then came the tears in rivers that pooled and eddied in her cupped palms. The tears seemed like they would never stop. The world boiled down to only pain, the kind that knocked her to her knees and made her breath whistle.
The star charm shifted against her skin. She pulled the ribbon and thought about throwing it to the four winds. Its protection had been minimal against what could really harm her. She raised her arm and flung it away and it smashed into the wall with a clatter. Spider wished it was Jax smashing against that wall. She banged her fist against the silent bricks wishing it it was his face. His smug, beautiful Topsider face. She hated him. Hated him for giving her this pain, for making her feel, for giving her a taste of hope then snatching it back. As beautiful as his face was she wished she’d never seen it.
Her hands felt to the ground and skidded across the necklace. She hated him, but hated herself more as she stuffed into a pocket of her skirt. Spider could not give it up. Fool, fool, fool.
Spider was not sure how long it took until she was able to struggle back to her feet. There was only a hollow feeling left as she trudged back to The Vaults. She had ruined her only decent dress in the alleys and her face was streaked with grime. It did not matter. It was only a prop in a ridiculous farce. How he must have laughed when he saw her. She was safer in the invisibility of her hat and coat.
Shadows flickered through the gaslight. Shadows that should have sent her skittering for the back alleys, but she only recognized them when it was too late. Strong arms encircled her and pressed a foul smelling cloth to her face. She fought them, kicking and screaming, but too soon the darkness closed in and she was lost. Her last conscious thought was that she was not sure she cared.