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Read a sample from STRANGE PRACTICE Chp. 1 by Vivian Shaw

The first book in a contemporary fantasy series that introduces the fast-talking Greta Helsing, doctor to London's supernatural community.

CHAPTER 1

The sky was fading to ultramarine in the east over the Victoria Embankment when a battered Mini pulled in to the curb, not far from Blackfriars Bridge. Here and there in the maples lining the riverside walk, the morning’s first sparrows had begun to sing.

A woman got out of the car and shut the door, swore, put down her bags, and shut the door again with more applied force; some fellow motorist had bashed into the panel at some time in the past and bent it sufficiently to make this a production every damn time. The Mini really needed to be replaced, but even with her inherited Harley Street consulting rooms Greta Helsing was not exactly drowning in cash.

She glowered at the car and then at the world in general, glancing around to make sure no one was watching her from the shadows. Satisfied, she picked up her black working bag and the shapeless oversize monster that was her current handbag and went to ring the doorbell. It was time to replace the handbag, too. The leather on this one was holding up but the lining was beginning to go, and Greta had limited patience regarding the retrieval of items from the mysterious dimension behind the lining itself.

The house to which she had been summoned was one of a row of magnificent old buildings separating Temple Gardens from the Embankment, mostly taken over by lawyers and publishing firms these days. It was a testament to this particular homeowner’s rather special powers of persuasion that nobody had succeeded in buying the house out from under him and turning it into offices for overpriced attorneys, she thought, and then had to smile at the idea of anybody dislodging Edmund Ruthven from the lair he’d inhabited these two hundred years or more. He was as much a fixture of London as Lord Nelson on his pillar, albeit less encrusted with birdlime.

“Greta,” said the fixture, opening the door. “Thanks for coming out on a Sunday. I know it’s late.”

She was just about as tall as he was, five foot five and a bit, which made it easy to look right into his eyes and be struck every single time by the fact that they were very large, so pale a grey they looked silver-white except for the dark ring at the edge of the iris, and fringed with heavy soot-black lashes of the sort you saw in advertisements for mascara. He looked tired, she thought. Tired, and older than the fortyish he usually appeared. The extreme pallor was normal, vivid against the pure slicked-back black of his hair, but the worried line between his eyebrows was not.

“It’s not Sunday night, it’s Monday morning,” she said. “No worries, Ruthven. Tell me everything; I know you didn’t go into lots of detail on the phone.”

“Of course.” He offered to take her coat. “I’ll make you some coffee.”

The entryway of the Embankment house was floored in black-and-white-checkered marble, and a large bronze ibis stood on a little side table where the mail and car keys and shopping lists were to be found. The mirror behind this reflected Greta dimly and greenly, like a woman underwater; she peered into it, making a face at herself, and tucked back her hair. It was pale Scandinavian blonde and cut like Liszt’s in an off-the-shoulder bob, fine enough to slither free of whatever she used to pull it back; today it was in the process of escaping from a thoroughly childish headband. She kept meaning to have it all chopped off and be done with it but never seemed to find the time.

Greta Helsing was thirty-four, unmarried, and had taken over her late father’s specialized medical practice after a brief stint as an internist at King’s College Hospital. For the past five years she had run a bare-bones clinic out of Wilfert Helsing’s old rooms in Harley Street, treating a patient base that to the majority of the population did not, technically, when you got right down to it, exist. It was a family thing.

There had never been much doubt which subspecialty of medicine she would pursue, once she began her training: treating the differently alive was not only more interesting than catering to the ordinary human population, it was in many ways a great deal more rewarding. She took a lot of satisfaction in being able to provide help to particularly underserved clients.

Greta’s patients could largely be classified under the heading of monstrous—in its descriptive, rather than pejorative, sense: vampires, were-creatures, mummies, banshees, ghouls, bogeymen, the occasional arthritic barrow-wight. She herself was solidly and entirely human, with no noticeable eldritch qualities or powers whatsoever, not even a flicker of metaphysical sensitivity. Some of her patients found it difficult to trust a human physician at first, but Greta had built up an extremely good reputation over the five years she had been practicing supernatural medicine, largely by word of mouth: Go to Helsing, she’s reliable.

And discreet. That was the first and fundamental tenet, after all. Keeping her patients safe meant keeping them secret, and Greta was good with secrets. She made sure the magical wards around her doorway in Harley Street were kept up properly, protecting anyone who approached from prying eyes.

Ruthven appeared in the kitchen doorway, outlined by light spilling warm over the black-and-white marble. “Greta?” he said, and she straightened up, realizing she’d been staring into the mirror without really seeing it for several minutes now. It really was late. Fatigue lapped heavily at the pilings of her mind.

“Sorry,” she said, coming to join him, and a little of that heaviness lifted as they passed through into the familiar warmth and brightness of the kitchen. It was all blue tile and blond wood, the cheerful rose-gold of polished copper pots and pans balancing the sleek chill of stainless steel, and right now it was also full of the scent of really good coffee. Ruthven’s espresso machine was a La Cimbali, and it was serious business.

He handed her a large pottery mug. She recognized it as one of the set he generally used for blood, and had to smile a little, looking down at the contents—and then abruptly had to clamp down on a wave of thoroughly inconvenient emotion. There was no reason that Ruthven doing goddamn latte art for her at half-past four in the morning should make her want to cry.

He was good at it, too, which was a little infuriating; then again she supposed that with as much free time on her hands as he had on his, and as much disposable income, she might find herself learning and polishing new skills simply to stave off the encroaching spectre of boredom. Ruthven didn’t go in for your standard-variety vampire angst, which was refreshing, but Greta knew very well he had bouts of something not unlike depression—especially in the winter—and he needed things to do.

She, however, had things to do, Greta reminded herself, taking a sip of the latte and closing her eyes for a moment. This was coffee that actually tasted as good as, if not better than, it smelled. Focus, she thought. This was not a social call. The lack of urgency in Ruthven’s manner led her to believe that the situation was not immediately dire, but she was nonetheless here to do her job.

Greta licked coffee foam from her upper lip. “So,” she said. “Tell me what happened.”

* * *

“I was—” Ruthven sighed, leaning against the counter with his arms folded. “To be honest I was sitting around twiddling my thumbs and writing nasty letters to The Times about how much I loathe these execrable skyscrapers somebody keeps allowing vandals to build all over the city. I’d got to a particularly cutting phrase about the one that sets people’s cars on fire, when somebody knocked on the door.”

The passive-aggressive-letter stage tended to indicate that his levels of ennui were reaching critical intensity. Greta just nodded, watching him.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever read an ancient penny-dreadful called Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood,” he went on.

“Ages ago,” she said. She’d read practically all the horror classics, well-known and otherwise, for research purposes rather than to enjoy their literary merit. Most of them were to some extent entertainingly wrong about the individuals they claimed to depict. “It was quite a lot funnier than your unofficial biography, but I’m not sure it was meant to be.”

Ruthven made a face. John Polidori’s The Vampyre was, he insisted, mostly libel—the very mention of the book was sufficient to bring on indignant protestations that he and the Lord Ruthven featured in the narrative shared little more than a name. “At least the authors got the spelling right, unlike bloody Polidori,” he said. “I think probably Feast of Blood is about as historically accurate as The Vampyre, which is to say not very, but it does have the taxonomy right. Varney, unlike me, is a vampyre with a y.”

“A lunar sensitive? I haven’t actually met one before,” she said, clinical interest surfacing through the fatigue. The vampires she knew were all classic draculines, like Ruthven himself and the handful of others in London. Lunar sensitives were rarer than the draculine vampires for a couple of reasons, chief among which was the fact that they were violently—and inconveniently—allergic to the blood of anyone but virgins. They did have the handy characteristic of being resurrected by moonlight every time they got themselves killed, which presumably came as some small comfort in the process of succumbing to violent throes of gastric distress brought on by dietary indiscretion.

“Well,” Ruthven said, “now’s your chance. He showed up on my doorstep, completely unannounced, looking like thirty kinds of warmed-over hell, and collapsed in the hallway. He is at the moment sleeping on the drawing room sofa, and I want you to look at him for me. I don’t think there’s any real danger, but he’s been hurt—some maniacs apparently attacked him with a knife—and I’d feel better if you had a look.”

* * *

Ruthven had lit a fire, despite the relative mildness of the evening, and the creature lying on the sofa was covered with two blankets. Greta glanced from him to Ruthven, who shrugged a little, that line of worry between his eyebrows very visible.

According to him, Sir Francis Varney, title and all, had come out of his faint quite quickly and perked up after some first aid and the administration of a nice hot mug of suitable and brandy-laced blood. Ruthven kept a selection of the stuff in his expensive fridge and freezer, stocked by Greta via fairly illegal supply chain management—she knew someone who knew someone who worked in a blood bank and was not above rescuing rejected units from the biohazard incinerator.

Sir Francis had drunk the whole of the mug’s contents with every evidence of satisfaction and promptly gone to sleep as soon as Ruthven let him, whereupon Ruthven had called Greta and requested a house call. “I don’t really like the look of him,” he said now, standing in the doorway with uncharacteristic awkwardness. “He was bleeding a little—the wound’s in his left shoulder. I cleaned it up and put a dressing on, but it was still sort of oozing. Which isn’t like us.”

“No,” Greta agreed, “it’s not. It’s possible that lunar sensitives and draculines respond differently to tissue trauma, but even so, I would have expected him to have mostly finished healing already. You were right to call me.”

“Do you need anything?” he asked, still standing in the doorway as Greta pulled over a chair and sat down beside the sofa.

“Possibly more coffee. Go on, Ruthven. I’ve got this; go and finish your unkind letter to the editor.”

When he had gone she tucked back her hair and leaned over to examine her patient. He took up the entire length of the sofa, head pillowed on one armrest and one narrow foot resting on the other, half-exposed where the blankets had fallen away. She did a bit of rough calculation and guessed he must be at least six inches taller than Ruthven, possibly more.

His hair was tangled, streaky-grey, worn dramatically long—that was aging-rock-frontman hair if Greta had ever seen it, but nothing else about him seemed to fit with the Jagger aesthetic. An old-fashioned face, almost Puritan: long, narrow nose, deeply hooded eyes under intense eyebrows, thin mouth bracketed with habitual lines of disapproval.

Or pain, she thought. That could be pain.

The shifting of a log in the fireplace behind Greta made her jump a little, and she regathered the wandering edges of her concentration. With a nasty little flicker of surprise she noticed that there was a faint sheen of sweat on Varney’s visible skin. That really wasn’t right.

“Sir Francis?” she said, gently, and leaned over to touch his shoulder through the blankets—and a moment later had retreated halfway across the room, heart racing: Varney had gone from uneasy sleep to sitting up and snarling viciously in less than a second.

It was not unheard‑of for Greta’s patients to threaten her, especially when they were in considerable pain, and on the whole she probably should have thought this out a little better. She’d only got a glimpse before her own instincts had kicked in and got her the hell out of range of those teeth, but it would be a while before she could forget that pattern of dentition, or those mad tin-colored eyes.

He covered his face with his hands, shoulders slumping, and instead of menace was now giving off an air of intense embarrassment.

Greta came back over to the sofa. “I’m sorry,” she said, tentatively, “I didn’t mean to startle you—”

“I most devoutly apologize,” he said, without taking his hands away. “I do try not to do that, but I am not quite at my best just now—forgive me, I don’t believe we have been introduced.”

He was looking at her from behind his fingers, and the eyes really were metallic. Even partly hidden she could see the room’s reflection in his irises. She wondered if that was a peculiarity of his species, or an individual phenomenon.

“It’s all right,” she said, and sat down on the edge of the sofa, judging that he wasn’t actually about to tear her throat out just at the moment. “My name’s Greta. I’m a doctor; Ruthven called me to come and take a look at you.”

When Varney finally took his hands away from his face, pushing the damp silvering hair back, his color was frankly terrible. He was sweating. That was not something she’d ever seen in sanguivores under any circumstance.

“A doctor?” he asked, blinking at her. “Are you sure?”

She was spared having to answer that. A moment later he squeezed his eyes shut, very faint color coming and going high on each cheek. “I really am sorry,” he said. “What a remarkably stupid question. It’s just—I tend to think of doctors as looking rather different than you.”

“I left my pinstripe trousers and pocket-watch at home,” she said drily. “But I’ve got my black bag, if that helps. Ruthven said you’d been hurt—attacked by somebody with a knife. May I take a look?”

He glanced up at her and then away again, and nodded once, leaning back against the sofa cushions, and Greta reached into her bag for the exam gloves.

The wound was in his left shoulder, as Ruthven had said, about two and a half inches south of the collarbone. It wasn’t large—she had seen much nastier injuries from street fights, although in rather different species—but it was undoubtedly the strangest wound she’d ever come across.

“What made this?” she asked, looking closer, her gloved fingers careful on his skin. Varney hissed and turned his face away, and she could feel a thrumming tension under her touch. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The wound is . . . cross-shaped.”

It was. Instead of just the narrow entry mark of a knife, or the bruised puncture of something clumsier, Varney’s wound appeared to have been made by something flanged. Not just two but four sharp edges, leaving a hole shaped like an X—or a cross.

“It was a spike,” he said, between his teeth. “I didn’t get a very good look at it. They had—broken into my flat, with garlic. Garlic was everywhere. Smeared on the walls, scattered all over the floor. I was—taken by surprise, and the fumes—I could hardly see or breathe.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Greta, sitting up. “It’s extremely nasty stuff. Are you having any chest pain or trouble breathing now?”

A lot of the organic compounds in Allium sativum triggered a severe allergic response in vampires, varying in intensity based on amount and type of exposure. This wasn’t garlic shock, or not just garlic shock, though. He was definitely running a fever, and the hole in his shoulder should have healed to a shiny pink memory within an hour or so after it happened. Right now it was purple-black and . . . oozing.

“No,” Varney said, “just—the wound is, ah, really rather painful.” He sounded apologetic. “As I said, I didn’t get a close look at the spike, but it was short and pointed like a rondel dagger, with a round pommel. There were three people there, I don’t know if they all had knives, but . . . well, as it turned out, all they needed was one.”

This was so very much not her division. “Did—do you have any idea why they attacked you?” Or why they’d broken into his flat and poisoned it with garlic. That was a pretty specialized tactic, after all. Greta shivered in sudden unease.

“They were chanting, or . . . reciting something,” he said, his odd eyes drifting shut. “I couldn’t make out much of it, just that it sounded sort of ecclesiastical.”

He had a remarkably beautiful voice, she noticed. The rest of him wasn’t tremendously prepossessing, particularly those eyes, but his voice was lovely: sweet and warm and clear. It contrasted oddly with the actual content of what he was saying. “Something about . . . unclean,” he continued, “unclean and wicked, wickedness, foulness, and . . . demons. Creatures of darkness.”

He still had his eyes half-closed, and Greta frowned and bent over him again. “Sir Francis?”

“Hurts,” he murmured, sounding very far away. “They were dressed . . . strangely.”

She rested two fingers against the pulse in his throat: much too fast, and he couldn’t have spiked that much in the minutes she had been with him, but he felt noticeably warmer to her touch. She reached into the bag for her thermometer and the BP cuff. “Strangely how?”

“Like . . . monks,” he said, and blinked up at her, hazy and confused. “In . . . brown robes. With crosses round their necks. Like monks.”

His eyes rolled back slightly, slipping closed, and he gave a little terrible sigh; when Greta took him by the shoulders and gave him a shake he did not rouse at all, head rolling limp against the cushions. What the hell, she thought, what the actual hell is going on here, there’s no way a wound like this should be affecting him so badly, this is—it looks like systemic inflammatory response but the garlic should have worn off by now, there’s nothing to cause it, unless—

Unless there had been something on the blade. Something left behind.

That flicker of visceral unease was much stronger now. She leaned closer, gently drawing apart the edges of the wound—the tissue was swollen, red, warmer than the surrounding skin—and was surprised to notice a faint but present smell. Not the characteristic smell of infection, but something sharper, almost metallic, with a sulfurous edge on it like silver tarnish. It was strangely familiar, but she couldn’t seem to place it.

Greta was rather glad he was unconscious just at the moment, because what she was about to do would be quite remarkably painful. She stretched the wound open a little wider, wishing she had her penlight to get a better view, and he shifted a little, his breath catching; as he moved she caught a glimpse of something reflective half-obscured by dark blood. There was something still in there. Something that needed to come out right now.

“Ruthven,” she called, sitting up. “Ruthven, I need you.”

He emerged from the kitchen, looking anxious. “What is it?

“Get the green leather instrument case out of my bag,” she said, “and put a pan of water on to boil. There’s a foreign body in here I need to extract.”

Without a word Ruthven took the instrument case and disappeared again. Greta turned her attention back to her patient, noticing for the first time that the pale skin of his chest was crisscrossed by old scarring—very old, she thought, looking at the silvery laddered marks of long-healed injuries. She had seen Ruthven without his shirt on, and he had a pretty good collection of scars from four centuries’ worth of misadventure, but Varney put him to shame. A lot of duels, she thought. A lot of . . . lost duels.

Greta wondered how much of Feast of Blood was actually based on historical events. He had died at least once in the part of it that she remembered, and had spent a lot of time running away from various pitchfork-wielding mobs. None of them had been dressed up in monastic drag, as far as she knew, but they had certainly demonstrated the same intent as whoever had hurt Varney tonight.

A cold flicker of something close to fear slipped down her spine, and she turned abruptly to look over her shoulder at the empty room, pushing away a sudden and irrational sensation of being watched.

Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself, and do your damn job. She was a little grateful for the business of wrapping the BP cuff around his arm, and less pleased by what it told her. Not critical, but certainly a long way from what she considered normal for sanguivores. She didn’t know what was going on in there, but she didn’t like it one bit.

When Ruthven returned carrying a tea tray, she felt irrationally relieved to see him—and then had to raise an eyebrow at the contents of the tray. Her probes and forceps and retractors lay on a metal dish Greta recognized after a moment as the one that normally went under the toast rack, dish and instruments steaming gently from the boiling water—and beside them was an empty basin with a clean tea towel draped over it. Everything was very, very neat, as if he had done it many times before. As if he’d had practice.

“Since when are you a scrub nurse?” she asked, nodding for him to set the tray down. “I mean—thank you, this is exactly what I need, I appreciate it, and if you could hold the light for me I’d appreciate that even more.”

De rien,” said Ruthven, and went to fetch her penlight.

* * *

A few minutes later, Greta held her breath as she carefully, carefully withdrew her forceps from Varney’s shoulder. Held between the steel tips was a piece of something hard and angular, about the size of a pea. That metallic, sharp smell was much stronger now, much more noticeable.

She turned to the tray on the table beside her, dropped the thing into the china basin with a little rat-tat sound, and straightened up. The wound was bleeding again; she pressed a gauze pad over it. The blood looked brighter now, somehow, which made no sense at all.

Ruthven clicked off the penlight, swallowing hard, and Greta looked up at him. “What is that thing?” he asked, nodding to the basin.

“I’ve no idea,” she told him. “I’ll have a look at it after I’m happier with him. He’s pushing eighty-five degrees and his pulse rate is approaching low human baseline—”

Greta cut herself off and felt the vein in Varney’s throat again. “That’s strange,” she said. “That’s very strange. It’s already coming down.”

The beat was noticeably slower. She had another look at his blood pressure; this time the reading was much more reasonable. “I’ll be damned. In a human I’d be seriously alarmed at that rapid a transient, but all bets are off with regard to hemodynamic stability in sanguivores. It’s as if that thing, whatever it is, was directly responsible for the acute inflammatory reaction.”

“And now that it’s gone, he’s starting to recover?”

“Something like that. Don’t touch it,” Greta said sharply, as Ruthven reached for the basin. “Don’t even go near it. I have no idea what it would do to you, and I don’t want to have two patients on my hands.”

Ruthven backed away a few steps. “You’re quite right,” he said. “Greta, something about this smells peculiar.”

“In more than one sense,” she said, checking the gauze. The bleeding had almost stopped. “Did he tell you how it happened?”

“Not really. Just that he’d been jumped by several people armed with a strange kind of knife.”

“Mm. A very strange kind of knife. I’ve never seen anything like this wound. He didn’t mention that these people were dressed up like monks, or that they were reciting something about unclean creatures of darkness?”

“No,” said Ruthven, flopping into a chair. “He neglected to share that tidbit with me. Monks?”

“So he said,” Greta told him. “Robes and hoods, big crosses round their necks, the whole bit. Monks. And some kind of stabby weapon. Remind you of anything?”

“The Ripper,” said Ruthven, slowly. “You think this has something to do with the murders?”

“I think it’s one hell of a coincidence if it doesn’t,” Greta said. That feeling of unease hadn’t gone away with Varney’s physical improvement. It really was impossible to ignore. She’d been too busy with the immediate work at hand to consider the similarities before, but now she couldn’t help thinking about it.

There had been a series of unsolved murders in London over the past month and a half. Eight people dead, all apparently the work of the same individual, all stabbed to death, all found with a cheap plastic rosary stuffed into their mouths. Six of the victims had been prostitutes. The killer had, inevitably, been nicknamed the Rosary Ripper.

The MO didn’t exactly match how Varney had described his attack—multiple assailants, a strange-shaped knife—but it was way the hell too close for Greta’s taste. “Unless whoever got Varney was a copycat,” she said. “Or maybe there isn’t just one Ripper. Maybe it’s a group of people running around stabbing unsuspecting citizens.”

“There was nothing on the news about the murders that mentioned weird-shaped wounds,” Ruthven said. “Although I suppose the police might be keeping that to themselves.”

The police had not apparently been able to do much of anything about the murders, and as one victim followed another with no end in sight the general confidence in Scotland Yard—never tremendously high—was plummeting. The entire city was both angry and frightened. Conspiracy theories abounded on the Internet, some less believable than others. This, however, was the first time Greta had heard anything about the Ripper branching out into supernatural victims. The garlic on the walls of Varney’s flat bothered her a great deal.

Varney shifted a little, with a faint moan, and Greta returned her attention to her patient. There was visible improvement; his vitals were stabilizing, much more satisfactory than they had been before the extraction.

“He’s beginning to come around,” she said. “We should get him into a proper bed, but I think he’s over the worst of this.”

Ruthven didn’t reply at once, and she looked over to see him tapping his fingers on the arm of his chair with a thoughtful expression. “What?” she asked.

“Nothing. Well, maybe nothing. I think I’ll call Cranswell at the Museum, see if he can look a few things up for me. I will, however, wait until the morning is a little further advanced, because I am a kind man.”

“What time is it?” Greta asked, stripping off her gloves.

“Getting on for six, I’m afraid.”

“Jesus. I need to call in—there’s no way I’m going to be able to do clinic hours today. Hopefully Anna or Nadezhda can take an extra shift if I do a bit of groveling.”

“I have faith in your ability to grovel convincingly,” Ruthven said. “Shall I go and make some more coffee?”

“Yes,” she said. Both of them knew this wasn’t over. “Yes, do precisely that thing, and you will earn my everlasting fealty.”

“I earned your everlasting fealty last time I drove you to the airport,” Ruthven said. “Or was it when I made you tiramisu a few weeks ago? I can’t keep track.”

He smiled, despite the line of worry still between his eyebrows, and Greta found herself smiling wearily in return.

About the Author

Vivian Shaw was born in Kenya and spent her early childhood at home in England before relocating to the US at the age of seven. She has a BA in art history and an MFA in creative writing, and has worked in academic publishing and development while researching everything from the history of spaceflight to supernatural physiology. In her spare time, she writes fan fiction under the name of Coldhope.