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As two figures hurried past the dark, dripping walls of St. Giles, the bells in the tower tolled eleven. They were late.
High Street, which formed the spine of Edinburgh’s Old Town and ran from Castle Hill down to the palace, still pulsed with life in spite of the foul weather and the hour. A handful of revelers spilled out of a tavern door across the cobbled street, led by a pair shouting at one another and ready to brawl. Beneath the flickering oil lamps, others gathered to witness the imminent battle. And under the meager cover provided by overhangs and shop doorways, homeless people huddled together against the damp and turned frightened eyes on the impending violence.
Phoebe Pennington glanced up at the crown steeple of the cathedral, lost in the darkness and mist. Pulling up the collar of her coat against the persistent drizzle, she tried to match the strides of Duncan Turner, the surly Highlander she employed for nights like this. Dressed in men’s clothing as she was tonight, she expected no one to give them a second glance, but she was no fool. Occasionally, the places she needed to go required a strong arm, quick reflexes, and a thorough knowledge of the streets. As a former Edinburgh constable, dismissed after being injured on duty, Duncan possessed all of that.
This was one of those occasions.
Phoebe had never before been to the Vaults beneath South Bridge. Originally designed to form the arched supports for the bridge that spanned the urban valley known since the Dark Ages as Cowgate, the Vaults were now infamous as the seediest portion of the cellars, tunnels, and caverns that formed Edinburgh’s underground city.
Not fifty paces on, Phoebe found the dark wynd she’d been directed to take and looked at Duncan. He nodded wordlessly. As they turned into the alleyway, a meek voice called out from a murky niche.
“Spare a ha’penny, sir?”
A small, ragged girl appeared, keeping her distance from them. Phoebe stopped. In the darkness behind her, a bundle of rags stirred and the sound of a woman’s wheezing cough reached Phoebe’s ears.
“What are you doing here so late?”
Weariness clouded the girl’s eyes. “Me mum’s sick.”
Phoebe didn’t have to ask. This had to be another case of the sick being put out of a poorhouse.
Looking at this ragged figure before her, Phoebe felt a flush of anger wash through her. With a commission due to arrive from London to inspect the poorhouses, administrators all over the city had been covertly emptying their facilities for the past month of the sick and of those too old to work. The streets of Edinburgh, from the Grassmarket to Leith, were now crawling with women and children like these two.
And this was precisely the reason why she was meeting her informant tonight.
Secretly writing for the Edinburgh Review and using an assumed name to hide her identity even from the editors, Phoebe had been producing articles about corruption and providing a voice for those who could not make themselves heard.
What was happening now to the city’s poor was a disgrace, and she intended to expose it. The man she was meeting tonight had records of the evictions and minutes of meetings. Proof she could use in her articles.
She felt Duncan’s impatient presence behind her.
“Can your mother walk?” she asked. Getting a nod from the girl, she continued. “Rouse her and go down High Street to the close just past the Bull’s Head Tavern. It’s not far. At the end of the close, you’ll find a house with a green lantern in the window. They’ll take you in. Understand me?”
“Aye. Thank ye, sir.”
The government was failing these two, but shelters like the ones her sister Jo funded were scattered across the city.
“Good girl.” Phoebe put a coin into her hand and watched her retreat into the darkness.
Starting down the twisting wynd, she could feel the man at her shoulder biting his tongue as they walked.
“Say what you have to say, Duncan,” she ordered in low voice.
“You can’t save them all, m’lady,” he growled, his Highland burr echoing down the wet alleyway.
“I know that, but I can help the ones I find,” she replied in a whisper. “And don’t call me ‘m’lady.’”
“Aye, but that lassie could’ve been a badger worker for some thug lying in wait for us.”
“That’s why I have you,” she replied.
Duncan huffed and gestured down the passageway. “Why the Vaults?”
“I didn’t choose the place. He did. He wouldn’t meet me anywhere but there. Show a wee bit of that Highland courage I keep hearing about.” Phoebe slipped on the wet cobbles but caught herself. Twisting down the hill between crumbling stone tenements looming four or five stories above them, the wynd was treacherously slick.
“Courage? You know me. Everyone in Edinburgh knows me. I’m the man what took a bullet from Mad Jack Knox and still dragged him in,” Duncan said, bristling. “I know the ways of these back alleys better than any man in Auld Reekie, and I’m telling you, it ain’t a good thing, you going down there. And when my wife finds out I agreed to come down here with you, she’ll nail my hide to the door of St. Giles back there.”
Phoebe smiled in the dark, thinking it was a good thing there was someone Duncan was afraid of. After she heard the former constable had lost his job, she’d helped him set himself up as a mercantile agent. He was now serving as a supplier in the city’s efforts to begin installing gas lights on the streets.
As they continued on, she eyed the deep shadows of doorways and stone steps leading to the basements. It was a dark and treacherous maze, but they had to be close.
A moment later, Duncan put his shoulder to a low door in a wall, and Phoebe heard the scrape of a heavy rock moving back across the floor. He went in first, then turned and waved her in.
The dim light from the alleyway did little to illuminate the cellar, and the musty, tomblike smell of damp earth and vermin immediately assaulted her senses. On one wall, a stone stairway led to an upper floor, but he gestured past it.
“We’ll follow this through to the Vaults,” he said in a low voice. “Stay behind me and look sharp for thugs and other scoundrels. Many a robber has been known to hide out in rooms like these.”
She nodded and followed him through the darkness into another chamber, marveling at his ability to pick his way along in the nearly pitch blackness. Passing through another door, Phoebe saw they’d reached the Vaults.
Like dungeons she’d seen in old Norman keeps in the south of England, arched passageways led off into the darkness. Far off sounds of men’s voices and the shrill laugh of a woman echoed along the stone walls.
In the distance a lamp flickered outside a larger archway with a dingy, red cloth hanging across the opening for a door.
“So where’s your man?” the Highlander growled.
“He said he’d meet us there,” she told him, leading him toward the makeshift red door. “I’m paying too much for him to leave us in the cold.”
At the doorway, she paused. A smoky, sickly sweet odor hung in the air. Phoebe’s correspondence with the clerk asked her to be here. He’d be waiting, and there’d be a quick exchange. For a dozen heartbeats, her feet remained rooted in place. She listened to the sounds from inside and breathed in the distinctive smell.
“This is a drug den.” Duncan scowled. “The man’s an opium-eater?”
“So it seems.” She pulled open the curtain.
The barrel-vaulted chamber beyond was wide and deep, lit by candles perched in arched, catacomb-like shelves along the outside walls. Through the low-hanging smoke, Phoebe could see straw pallets, occupied by both men and women, lining the floor. Jacketless attendants scurried about, carrying trays with pipes and hot coals.
She peered in, but Duncan grabbed her elbow. “You can’t go in there. They’ll sort you for a blueblood in a wink. And if you’re a toff who’s not indulging, then you’re a mark for every thug in Old Town.”
Phoebe was no fool. She knew she couldn’t go in. “If he is in there, I want to see him.”
“You wait here and don’t move.” Duncan stepped past her.
As her bodyguard stalked between the rows of pallets, an attendant met him and, after a brief exchange, led the Highlander deeper into the vault. He already knew the clerk’s name and a brief description. She hoped that was enough.
Phoebe thought of the kind of people who visited a den like this. The confidence she had about her source and the credibility of the documents he was willing to produce were quickly losing ground. Though published under a false name, her articles were respected as honest commentary on the politics of the city. She was not about to have her reputation destroyed by inaccuracies or lies.
Without warning, a body that seemed to be no more than skin and bones barreled into her at a high speed, jarring her and knocking the curtain from her hand. She reached out to steady the falling creature. A young lad, almost a man in height, looked frantically over her shoulder.
The boy twisted free of her grasp and lurched off, stumbling and banging into a stone wall as he ran.
As she watched his retreating back in astonishment, Phoebe moved away from the door and directly into the path of a man, dressed in black, who nearly upended her as he rushed past.
She barely caught a glimpse of him as she tried to regain her balance. But the chill she felt was unmistakable. He was the dark movement one sees at the edge of the woods. The wind that howls and scratches at the windows on a winter night. He was the shadow of evil. The image of Death—with hooded robe and scythe—flashed before her eyes. He was Satan here to collect a soul.
A cry came back down the passageway.
“Let me live!” the voice echoed. “Don’t!”
The lad hadn’t escaped. The sounds of a scuffle reached her. Phoebe’s heart drummed in fear, and her stomach rose into her throat. Murder.
“Duncan,” she called. The red curtain lay thick and heavy across the door.
She couldn’t wait for him. Phoebe didn’t know how she gathered the courage to take a step, then two. But she was going after them.
Holding her walking stick like a club, she took off down the passageway. Not forty paces along, she came upon the two, struggling in an archway where a stout door stood ajar.
The attacker, cloaked all in black, was flesh and blood. He was half pushing, half dragging the boy, who was fighting as if he knew his life depended on it.
Phoebe didn’t hesitate but attacked, swinging her cane as she rushed at them. The first blow struck the man’s back, drawing a bark of pain. Swinging the stick again, she landed one on his shoulder, but the assailant latched onto it, yanked it from her grip, and sent it clattering against a wall.
The boy, freed, scuttled past her and was gone.
Unarmed, facing a monster she wasn’t strong enough to fight or fast enough to run away from, she backed away, looking for a route to escape. The assailant came at her, and she kicked at him, landing a booted foot hard in his crotch.
He was staggered for an instant, but she only managed to move two steps away when he came at her like an enraged bull. Phoebe saw, almost too late, the blade gleam in his hand as he slashed at her face. She ducked back and felt the point of the knife slice her throat above her coat collar.
He came at her again, and she kicked at his hand. The knife flew from his grip.
She turned to run and saw stone steps leading downward. Escape. But as she reached the top step, he caught hold of her ulster, jerking her backward as his fist caught her below the eye.
The sharp blow numbed her face, and Phoebe felt her knees give as she tipped backward into the shadowy void.
* * *
Ian Kerr Bell ducked his “head beneath the top of an archway and tried to ignore the nauseating odor of decay and death that permeated the air and the very stones down here.
The Vaults. Level after level of vile, stinking corruption. A rat’s nest of depravity and crime.
Here, beneath the bustling shops and taverns of South Bridge, this catacomb of rooms and passageways, originally used as storage space and workshops for the businesses above, had long ago been left to decay, closed off by the crumbling walls of tenement buildings crowding up against them.
Ian knew that when the businesses above sealed off access to the lower levels, new occupants found their way in. The hellish labyrinth of cramped, dark chambers soon housed the poorest of the city’s poor. Illegal pubs found a place to operate. Gambling hells. Brothels. And worse.
No sunlight, no fresh air, no clean water. No law either, other than the law of the streets. Robbery and murder were an everyday event in the Vaults.
But with every problem—even murder, he thought grimly—intrepid entrepreneurs saw opportunity. The dead had value. A market for cadavers had sprung up in Edinburgh. Bodies were in demand with anatomists. The city’s medical schools bought every corpse they could get their hands on.
Corpses like those of his sister.
Three years. Three years since Sarah had gone missing. The last time anyone saw her alive, she’d been browsing in a dress shop on South Bridge with a friend. And then she was gone. Vanished into thin air amidst crowds of people who frequented the busy stretch of markets every day.
As Deputy Lieutenant of Fife and a justice of the peace, Ian was a man of consequence. He had power and connections. But with all of this influence, it had still taken him months to solve the riddle of his sister’s disappearance.
She’d been murdered and left in the Vaults. Her precious body had been stripped of all finery, and her corpse sold to the surgeons at the university. It was only by gaining access to the meticulous records kept by clerks and anatomy students that Ian had been able to identify his sister. Four broken bones that Sarah had suffered in her right arm falling from a horse at the age of eleven had matched the injuries described in detail during the dissection of “unknown female subject.”
Struggling to breathe in spite of the familiar knot in his throat, Ian ducked through another archway. Even after learning what had become of his sister, he continued to come down here. He had to.
Finding her remains and moving them to the church crypt at Bellhorne did little to ease the pain. Her murderer had never been discovered. The mystery of how she’d become separated from her friend and found her way down here continued to plague him. Although Sarah was only twenty at the time, Ian knew she was smart and alert and wise beyond her years. She wasn’t reckless. She wouldn’t put herself in danger. There was no possibility of her coming down here willingly. Three years ago, the place was no less infamous for the dangers lurking here. The reputation of the Vaults was enough to keep any rational person away.
As he moved along the passageway, an echo of a scuffle and a soft cry drew Ian’s attention to the darkness at the top of a flight of stairs ahead of him. He’d often used his stout walking stick as a weapon down here, and he prepared to use it again.
Many times over the past three years he’d come upon some poor soul being attacked. More times than he could remember he’d intervened and managed to save a life, even if it were only for that night. And there were many times when he’d come upon victims left to die. Some had been beaten or stabbed. Many were drunk to the point of oblivion. Some were burning with fever.
As he reached the stairwell, a body came tumbling from the top, landing in a heap at his feet.
Peering up the stairs, he saw no one in the darkness of the upper level but heard the faint echoes of distant voices. Whoever this fellow had been fighting, the opponent didn’t want to pursue the encounter.
Ian crouched beside the body. The man was facedown, his legs akimbo on the lower steps and his ulster thrown up over his head. His hat lay nearby.
“Hard fall,” he commented.
No response. As Ian pushed the coat down to turn him over, he was stunned when his fingers brushed against soft hair braided and pinned in a coil.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered. “You’re a woman.”
He gently rolled her. The passageway was too dark for him to make out her features. She was unconscious, but she was breathing. He guessed she must have struck her head at least once as she fell.
“I don’t know what reckless game you were playing in coming down here, but I won’t leave you to it.”
Juggling the walking stick, Ian picked her up and started back in the direction he’d come. Tall for a woman but light enough to be carried easily, she lay completely limp in his arms.
Random possibilities of who she was and what she was doing down here ran through his mind. The men’s clothing piqued his curiosity. And the quality of the wool greatcoat told him she wasn’t one of the legions of poor who took shelter down here. Of course, she could easily have stolen the clothes.
Retracing his steps, he made his way up several flights of stairs and eventually emerged in an alley that led to the street level of the bridge.
His valet, Lucas Crawford, was waiting by the carriage, and Ian saw him exchange a look with the driver. Neither were surprised at the sight of their master surfacing from the Vaults with a body. The driver opened the door as Lucas approached to help.
“Netted yourself a trout tonight, Captain?”
Ian shook his head. “No net required. This one dropped in my lap.”
“Och, it’s a woman!” Lucas exclaimed, peering at her face as Ian carried her past a streetlamp. She stirred and moaned, but then was silent again.
“Well, she’s alive, at least,” the valet said, sounding relieved.
Reaching the carriage, Ian deposited her on a seat and inspected her for bleeding. She had a small lump on her head and a welt forming just below her eye, but he saw no stab wounds.
Lucas looked over his shoulder. “And she’s a bonnie lass as well.”
Ian glanced into her face. He sat back suddenly. He knew her.
Ian’s brain threatened to explode. It was almost too much to fathom. Alone. In men’s clothes. In the middle of the night. In the most dangerous place in Scotland.
And he knew the vile corruption that lay at the top of those steps where he found her. The wretchedness that consumed the Vaults.
Of all the places for a young woman to be traipsing through, why the devil was she in there?
Dressed like a man. Fighting . . . fighting! And with God-knows-who. Running for her life, from the looks of it.
He’d like to think she was a fool, but he knew she wasn’t. He’d known her for years. His temper grew even hotter at the thought that this woman at one time had a connection with his sister. Sarah had socialized with the family, considered her a friend, looked up to her with respect. She’d often visited their home at Baronsford when they were in residence. And invited her to come and stay with them at Bellhorne.
Why such foolhardy behavior? He seethed. He couldn’t get past that question. She could have died down there tonight, murdered just as his sister had been.
“Do you know her, Captain?” his valet asked.
“Blast me,” he cursed, staring. “She’s Lady Phoebe Pennington, the Lord Justice’s younger sister.”