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Read a sample from STRANGE PRACTICE Chp. 3 by Vivian Shaw

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Previous Chapter: HERE.

Chapter 3:

Ruthven set the kettle on a burner and lit it with a blue pop of gas. “Really, it’s no trouble at all,” he said. “I’ve got so many rooms in this place that never get used. Sir Francis could probably do with some company, anyway; he seems to be a thoroughly melancholy sort.”

Fastitocalon was leaning in the doorway of the kitchen, resolve crumbling by the minute. Of course he didn’t need the wretched vampire’s charity, he could get on perfectly well by himself, he’d been getting on perfectly well by himself for the past several hundred years, but… it was awfully comfortable in here. Really very comfortable indeed. And he thought that Greta just might have had a point with her insistence that he must not get chilled. He’d argued with her most of the way here on the tube and he was now feeling rather short on arguments.

“You’re wavering, aren’t you,” Ruthven said, and smiled: wry and sympathetic. His teeth were very white and very even, the upper canines ever so slightly longer than a human’s. “Sit down, for heaven’s sake, and stop arguing with yourself.”

“I’m not wavering,” Fastitocalon murmured, but he did sit down at the big scrubbed-pine kitchen table, rubbing at his aching chest. “I’m a melancholy sort as well, come to think of it. I might make him worse. What happened, anyway? Greta didn’t actually talk much about the whole episode, except to say that she’d been up all night; she was mostly too busy telling me off.”

The vampire leaned back against the counter, arms folded. “He was stabbed. By persons unknown, with a weapon unlike any I’ve seen before—which reminds me, where the hell is Cranswell? He said he’d be here this evening with some useful reference books, but it’s getting on for six o’clock and there’s no sign of him.” A strand of glossy black hair escaped its mooring and drooped over his forehead, and he pushed it away with an irritable little flick. The gesture was theatrical, Fastitocalon reflected, if unconsciously so. Come to think of it, Ruthven did have the exaggerated black-and-white looks of a silent-film actor.

His attention was wandering: the whine of the boiling kettle recaptured it just as Ruthven was saying something about a temperature of eighty-seven degrees Fahrenheit, which as far as he, Fastitocalon, knew was pretty much febrile-seizure territory for vampires. “Good heavens,” he said, taken aback. “But he’s… recovering?”

“Yes. Now that the poisonous bit of metal is out of him, he’s improving, but almost as slowly as a human. He ought to have healed within a few hours, at most, from the time it happened; that was in the middle of last night, and he’s still flat on his back.”

[[MORE]]

“Did… do… you have any idea why?” Fastitocalon looked up at Ruthven, thinking again how good he’d have been in the earliest of the early films, those big shiny silver eyes rimmed with dramatic makeup. Murnau would have adored him. “I mean, why Varney in particular? I didn’t know he was even still in England. Or alive, for that matter.”

“I don’t know. They apparently knew where he lived, broke in to his flat to poison everything with garlic, and then attacked him while he was still incapacitated from the fumes. But the particularly odd thing is that they were dressed up, he said, sort of like monks. Long brown robes, hoods. It’s a bit topically relevant, given the whole Ripper business. Greta is sure there’s a connection.”

Ruthven poured out tea into a mug, a sharp lemony smell filling the kitchen, and then added generous amounts of both honey and brandy. Fastitocalon hadn’t really been listening; he reflected dreamily that he’d never met a sanguivore quite so ineffably domestic, silver-screen looks and all. Ruthven ought to be wearing pearls and a frilly apron. Possibly with little bats on it.

Slowly Fastitocalon was beginning to suspect himself of being ever so slightly feverish, if the quality of his thought process was anything to go by. Nevertheless, the hot mug was extremely welcome, and he wrapped his hands around it and breathed in the steam gratefully. “Thank you. I, ah, I’ve decided to give up protesting. It would in fact be awfully nice to stay here tonight and not have to deal with balky electric fires and obstreperous upstairs neighbors.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Ruthven eyed him thoughtfully. “You ought to have some aspirin or something. Where’s Greta gone?”

“Back to her flat to collect some things. She said she might as well move in for the duration if you’re having houseguests, which struck me as somewhat presumptuous.” He coughed. “I wonder what her poor clinic patients are doing while she’s fussing over me. And Sir Francis, of course, who is actually in need of expert care.”

“I gather she has friends who can step in to run the place when she can’t be there,” Ruthven said. “I shouldn’t worry about that; she has things well in hand. Come and sit in front of the fire.”

Fastitocalon had run out of energy to protest, and just nodded and shuffled on after the vampire into the drawing room and let himself be installed in a chair beside a cheerful applewood fire. His chest ached, muscles sore from the exercise of coughing, and the warmth of the fire and the brandy were extraordinarily welcome.

In fact he was almost asleep when the doorbell rang three times in rapid succession, followed by someone banging on the door with a fist. Ruthven said a forceful word or two and hurried round to see what on earth the matter was, peering through the peephole. Fastitocalon heaved himself out of the chair and followed him, blinking sleepily. Another curse, and Ruthven yanked open the door.

For the second time in as many nights a desperate figure fell forward into the entrance hall. It had begun to rain, a nasty, icy, slimy sort of rain that got down collars and under hoods and up sleeves, and the newcomer was soaked and shivering.

Once Ruthven had scanned the street for any sign of danger and then shut and bolted the door, he helped the new arrival to his feet: a tall, young black man with curly hair. “You do know how to make an entrance, Cranswell,” he said. “Are you all right? What happened?”

The young man looked down at Ruthven, and then at the plastic-wrapped bundle he was still clutching to his chest. “Followed,” he managed through chattering teeth. “Think I lost them but—pull the b-blinds.”

Ruthven’s brows drew together. He turned back to the drawing room doorway, hurrying across to the windows. “Followed by what?” he said over his shoulder as he drew the curtains one by one. “Did you get a good look at them?”

“No,” Cranswell admitted, shivering. “Or not clearly. At all. I don’t… even really know what I saw, Ruthven.” His accent was tinged with American, not strong enough to indicate he’d been there recently or that he had originally hailed from that side of the Atlantic, but noticeable. The current uncertainty in his voice didn’t suit him in the least, Fastitocalon thought.

Ruthven finished with the curtains and came back over to them. “What did you bring? Did you find anything about the weapon?” He glanced at Fastitocalon and sighed, passing a hand over his face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “August Cranswell, may I introduce Frederick Vasse, an old friend of mine. Vasse, this is Cranswell. He’s a junior curator at the British Museum, and my manners have apparently deserted me.”

“Hi,” Cranswell said, glancing at Fastitocalon for a distracted moment before looking back down at the bundle in his arms, as if to reassure himself it was still there. “I looked through the collection and found a couple of books I really, really, really am not supposed to even have access to, and I kind of… got them out anyway—I can’t believe I did that—and I think maybe I have what you’re looking for, but it’s pretty gruesome.”

“So was the attack on Varney, I gather.” Ruthven nodded toward the fire. “Sit down and get yourself warm; you’re shaking. Tell me what happened.”

“I don’t know,” Cranswell said, still hugging the books to his chest. “Like I said, I don’t really know what I saw. I was… in the basement, which is creepy to begin with, especially if you’re alone, and obviously I shouldn’t have been there. I didn’t want anybody to know what I was up to. It took me a while to track down the books I wanted, and the whole time I kept thinking I heard someone coming. Or like… a tapping sound. Like water dripping in a cave. Every time I stopped to listen there was nothing there.”

Fastitocalon watched him, no longer feeling even slightly dreamy. Cranswell sat down in one of the chairs by the fire and set the books aside, holding out his hands to the flames: long, well-shaped hands, ringless, smooth with the tight skin of youth. “It would have been okay if I just kept hearing stuff,” he went on. “But—I didn’t have more of the lights on than I absolutely needed, and it’s dark down there even with the lights all on, and I saw—just these two pinpoints of light down one of the aisles. Like eyes. Just for a moment, and then they were gone, but I saw them again a moment later from another direction. I… kind of freaked out, and, well. Got out of there in a hurry.”

Ruthven had been listening to this in silence, and now went over to the sideboard and splashed whiskey into a glass. “Go on,” he said, coming over to press the drink into Cranswell’s hand. “I think we’d better hear the rest of it.”

Cranswell looked up at him, blinking, and then wrapped his fingers around the glass. The cut-crystal facets glittered as his hand shook. He swallowed half its contents, coughed explosively, and then settled back in the chair looking slightly steadier.

“I was okay when I left the Museum,” he continued, looking down. “But as I was walking down Drury Lane, I started… seeing little points of light again. Blue light. More than one of them. In pairs, just for a moment. Nobody else seemed to see anything out of the ordinary, I mean, it was dark and raining and everyone was in a hurry to get wherever they were going, but nobody else seemed to notice the… eyes.” He shivered, once, hard, like a dog coming out of deep water. “Then I happened to look down a side street where all the lamps were out, and there were lots of them. A whole swarm of little points of light. They were watching me—I don’t just think, I know—and then they moved, they were coming toward me, and—that’s when I ran.”

He drank off the rest of the whiskey and shut his eyes for a long moment. “But I got you the books you wanted. Sorry I’m late.”

Fastitocalon watched Ruthven’s face go through a rapid series of expressions, ending up with a kind of fond exasperation. “Never mind that,” he said. “Thank you for bringing them, and I want you to stay here tonight, Cranswell; I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t like it.”

Greta’s flat in Crouch End was quite a long way away from both her clinic and Ruthven’s house, and at times like this she often found herself thinking that she’d really rather suck it up and deal with the vagaries of public transportation for the commute instead of driving; she’d spent the past half an hour stuck in traffic on Farringdon Road, and her fingers on the wheel were crossed that her phone wouldn’t ring with urgent summonses to anywhere.

She had turned the radio off ten minutes earlier after flipping through the stations to see if she could find any useful traffic information, and now turned it on again in search of something other than car horns to listen to.

“… a second killing today,” someone on the news was saying, her smooth announcer’s voice not quite smooth enough to hide a kind of horrified fascination. “That’s ten murders now in six weeks. Neil, what do we know so far about the latest cases?”

“Well, Sheri, both seem to point unquestionably to the serial killer popularly known as the Rosary Ripper, from what the Met have released so far. The first victim of the day was found in Whitechapel, as we reported previously, early this morning. The second body was found in Soho just hours ago, and the MO and the signature rosary left at the scene of each crime are consistent with the other cases. Investigations are still under way to locate the source of the rosaries.”

I should hope so, too, thought Greta, staring at the radio, her eyes wide. Two more murders, one done in broad daylight? How the hell is he—or they—getting away with this?

Before last night, before she had had any reason to suspect that there was more than one individual involved in the killings, she had thought about it only at a distance. She’d felt strongly if obscurely that whoever was doing the killing was male. Most serial killers were men; those few women who committed multiple murders tended to do it with poison, as far as Greta knew, and for monetary gain. This—whoever it was, or they were—seemed to be doing it for the sheer hell of the thing, and so far it looked like they weren’t slowing down at all.

The unpleasant thought occurred to her that perhaps the unsatisfactory result of the attack on Varney had spurred them on to more active efforts, to make up for that particular failure. They hadn’t killed him, but hey, perhaps two humans were worth as much as one vampyre to whoever was behind this business.

Neil the announcer was continuing: “Police have issued safety recommendations for the public, which are available on their website as well as all main news agencies. It is strongly advised that people travel in groups and stay in well-lit areas as much as possible. Remain alert and aware of your surroundings at all times.”

“This may be the most prolific serial killer who has been active in greater London since Dennis Nilsen, often referred to as the British Jeffrey Dahmer,” his colleague put in, still with the tinge of fascinated horror in her voice. “Nilsen murdered at least twelve young men in the years between 1978 and 1983. So far it seems that the so-called Rosary Ripper’s motivation in these murders does not appear to be sexual, unlike Nilsen’s crimes, but police have declined to speculate on the real motives behind the recent spree of killings. We can be sure of one thing, Neil, I think.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“London is a frightened city.”

Greta turned the radio off. “London,” she told the darkened dial, “contains multitudes.” The apparent presence of a lunatic or lunatics plural running around the city stabbing people to death was certainly unpleasant, but the world in which she moved was rather more complicated than that inhabited by Neil and Sheri and the majority of their listening public.

Until now, the vicissitudes of the surface world had not impinged noticeably on the version her patients inhabited, and she liked it that way. The idea that the Ripper was responsible for the attack on Varney did not so much frighten Greta as offend her.

And it had to be stopped. It had to be stopped for a number of very obvious reasons, but among them was the fact that such a crossover from the ordinary human world to that of the supernatural represented a clear and present danger to the rest of the supernatural community. Secrecy was safety, and a breach in one was a breach in both.

Her first priority was Varney’s recovery. Once he was well again she could turn her attention to the problem of somehow tracking down whoever was responsible.

Greta had no illusions about her own capacity to go up against something like this herself. That was going to have to be Ruthven’s job; Ruthven, or one of the other people she knew who were capable of casually unscrewing somebody’s head.

Up ahead the traffic was finally beginning to thin out. Greta relaxed a little. It shouldn’t take her long to collect what she needed, and the drive back would be a lot less wearisome.

Night had fallen completely by the time she parked across the road from her block of flats, a row of white-painted town houses labeled improbably as Grove Mansions. The driver’s-side door was being its usual recalcitrant self. Greta banged it shut without bothering with the lock and let herself into the building. She was only going to be here for a few minutes to collect some spare clothes and some more tools and books, and anyway no one in their right mind would want to steal the Mini. The one time it had been lifted, years ago, the thief had promptly left it just a few streets away, in apparent disgust.

Her ground-floor flat was a mess, as usual, clothes hanging over chairs, books and papers stacked on every horizontal surface. It was the kind of impersonal, abstract clutter left by somebody who lived alone and didn’t use the place for much of anything other than eating or sleeping, who spent the majority of her life somewhere else. Greta’s limited housekeeping instincts were applied almost entirely to her clinic; by the time she got home at night, she didn’t have the energy to face tidying up or doing anything more complicated in the kitchen than microwaving frozen dinners. There was a certain weary sense of guilt that accompanied these solo meals, generally consumed at the kitchen table or cross-legged on the bed, hunched over whatever book she was reading at the time. Lecturing her patients on healthy eating habits always felt more than a little hypocritical.

The prospect of staying at Ruthven’s house and eating Ruthven’s reliably excellent cooking was therefore a particularly attractive one, even if the reason for her stay was both worrisome and unpleasant. It didn’t take her long to throw a couple of changes of clothes into an overnight bag and grab her toothbrush and comb. The mental picture of the luxurious spare bedrooms at the Embankment house rose again, and Greta made a face at her thoroughly inelegant pajamas. Whenever she stayed with Ruthven, she always felt vaguely as if she ought to be draped in lace and ruffles, or possibly diaphanous peignoirs, whatever they were, in order to live up to the surroundings; and then inevitably felt rather frivolous for minding the fact that she couldn’t.

Her phone was still blessedly silent as she headed back down the stairs. She took it out and looked at the screen, in case she’d turned off the ringer by mistake, but nobody had called or texted her. She knew that Ruthven would have gotten in touch if Sir Francis took a turn for the worse, but she couldn’t help worrying while he was still above eighty-four degrees. To be entirely honest, she couldn’t help worrying about him in general. This was not a situation she had ever seen precedent for, and she simply didn’t know what sort of clinical course to expect. And there was Fass to consider, too, although she was pretty sure this latest exacerbation wouldn’t turn into anything seriously worrisome now that he was back on his meds, if only he would be sensible about it.

Not that he ever had been, of course. She could remember her father shouting at him twenty years ago for doing precisely the same passively self-destructive things for which she currently found herself shouting at him, with roughly similar levels of success. Fastitocalon’s attitude had appealed powerfully to Greta during her early-teen sulky rebellious stage. Now it just exasperated her, in an affectionate sort of way. It was a little strange, being the one to do the shouting, which she avoided thinking about more than she could help.

She was still considering Fastitocalon as a role model for moody fourteen-year-olds when she got back to the car and let herself in. There was an unpleasant sharp and acrid sort of smell, sort of like something burning, and she wondered for a moment if the engine could have somehow overheated on the way up here without her noti—

At this point her thought process cut off absolutely, because something in the backseat rustled, and something very, very cold and sharp was suddenly pressed against the side of her neck.

Greta went completely still. The world seemed to have slowed down to half its normal speed and developed an eerie, glassy clarity. Her blood roared distantly in her ears.

“What do you want?” she said, and was surprised to hear her voice sounding steady and calm. Whoever was holding the sharp thing against her neck was also breathing heavily, as if with effort. The sharp smell had an undertone of rancid saltiness, like something pickled that had gone fulsomely rotten in a dark cellar corner.

“Thou hast done evil above all that were before thee, above all thy sins, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards; thou hast visited the dwellings of the wicked and given succour, thou hast wrought much evil in the sight of the Lord,” he said, and the knife pressed a little closer.

Beyond the sound of her own heartbeat Greta was aware of the faint ticking of the clock in the dashboard, the sounds of traffic on the main road, a hundred yards away; it might as well have been on the moon. She was entirely alone, more alone than she had ever been in her life. There is no one who can help me, she thought, feeling herself skidding closer to the edge of some mental precipice. No one at all.

Dimly, in another part of her mind, the thought surfaced for a moment and flicked its tail: What evil? I’m not the one holding a knife to someone’s throat.

“This is the punishment of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment,” the man went on. The voice sounded to her as if its owner couldn’t be older than his early twenties, reciting something learned by heart, and Greta wondered who had done the teaching, and why.

Her hand, in the darkness, still held the bundle of keys. Now, very slowly, very slowly indeed, her fingers began to move, even as her mind raced. “Why are you doing this?” she asked, still surprised at just how calm she sounded. “Who sent you?”

He hissed, a gust of rancid breath against her cheek, and the blade he was holding against her throat twitched. “In the name of the Lord God, the Sword of Holiness casts you from the surface of this world,” he said in her ear. “Into unending torment and the eternal fire.”

The Sword of Holiness, she thought. The Sword of Holiness, not the Rosary Ripper, and it is a group of them, Varney’s three attackers and God knows how many more. She wondered if the ten people who had been featured on the newscast had heard those words, too, before they died—the Sword of Holiness casts you from the surface of this world—and in that moment Greta’s determination froze solid and immovable. She would not be the eleventh, if she had any say in the matter.

Her fingers closed in the darkness around a small squat cylinder, hooked to the same ring as the keys to her house and the Harley Street premises. Her heart thudded rapidly in her chest as she turned the little cylinder between fingers and thumb, hoping desperately that it was still good after spending a year being bounced around in her purse. Everything was still so clear and so slow. Like being inside cold, thick, heavy glass.

She had to make him lean as close as possible, if this was going to work, get his face right down next to her shoulder. “I don’t understand,” she said, and her voice was as small as she could make it. “What do you mean? What have I done?”

Whoever it was drew in a deep breath—to explain, or condemn, or recite—and in the same instant her right hand came up holding the little can of pepper spray, pointing over her left shoulder, and pushed the button.

After that everything happened very fast. The hiss of the spray was almost completely lost in the bellow of surprise and agony from her assailant; the blade he was holding against her neck scored a thin line of bright acid pain before it fell to the floor, forgotten in his desperate attempts to stop his face from burning. In that instant she, too, cried out, her own eyes and throat on fire from the spray mist—and scrabbled for the door handle, yanked it open, and mostly fell out of the Mini. Oh, it hurt, Jesus Christ it hurt. What had he cut her with?

He was still thrashing around in the tiny backseat of the car and howling. Her first instinct was to run, in any direction, get as far away from here as she possibly could, but the part of Greta’s mind that had coolly objected to the accusation of evil took over. She was not in immediate danger, unless he had friends nearby; the incapacitant spray had done what it said on the tin, and she needed very much to know who and what it was that had attacked her.

Despite the flailing she could make out that he was wearing some sort of dark garment with wide sleeves and a hood, which fell back to expose a head utterly devoid of hair and plated with ugly red and white ridges of scar tissue. Between his clawing fingers tears flowed and glistened in the car’s dome light—and then her stomach seized up again in a knot of ice, because between his fingers she could also see a bright blue glow, where no light had any business being.

That’s not human, she thought. That’s wrong.

That meant it wasn’t a question of crossover, as she had thought on the journey here. Not humans attacking supernaturals and throwing the whole careful structure of secrecy into precarious imbalance. That meant supernaturals attacking both worlds at once.

She had to know more. Reluctantly—extremely reluctantly—Greta took a step back toward the car, and then another, the canister of pepper spray still clutched in her right fist. She made herself reach out to open the back door, stared at the writhing form of the man, at the rough-spun fabric of his brown woolen robe, the rope cincture round his waist, the livid scars on face and hands. Those were burn scars, and they were recent, too.

He had dropped whatever he’d been holding to her throat when she got him with the spray, and Greta badly needed to get her hands on it—she had to know as much as possible about the weapon that had injured Varney. A glint of metal on the floor almost under the driver’s seat caught her eye. Some kind of dagger. The man was still clutching at his face—if she could just reach past him and grab it—

Searing pain shot through her scalp as he seized a handful of her hair and wrenched her head round to look him in the face. It was not a nice face to look into. It would not have been a nice face to look into even had it not been twisted and piebald white and red, or if his eyes had not been giving off visible blue light.

“Witch,” he choked out. “Filthy… sinful… witch. All of you will die. All of you. The world will be, will be cleansed…”

I’m not a witch, I’m not a witch, Greta thought on a jagged hysterical wave of adrenaline. Nadezhda is the witch, and she’s quite clean already

She shut her eyes tight, and held her breath, and emptied the rest of the pepper spray right into his face.

He screamed again, a high, thin animal noise, letting go of his handful of her hair, and now Greta was sobbing as she scrabbled under the seat for the weapon he’d been carrying, as she backed away from the car, heedless of the rain that had begun to fall. The lights of the main road, the blessedly ordinary sounds of traffic, beckoned to her, no longer as coldly inaccessible as the surface of the moon.

She dropped the knife, whatever it was—she hadn’t even looked at it too closely—into her bag, and ran.

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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.