Read a sample from THE RED PLAGUE AFFAIR by Lilith Saintcrow

Chapter 1

Not How Things Are Done

I am too bloody old for this.

Archibald Clare spat blood and surged upward. He gave the struggling fellow opposite him two quick jabs to the head, hoping to calm the situation somewhat. Foul knee-deep semiliquid splashed, dark as sin and smelly as the third circle of Hell. Clare gained his footing, unwilling to deduce what deep organic sludge his boots were slipping in, and retched painlessly. Blood from his broken nose, trickling down the back of his throat, was making his stomach decidedly unhappy.

Where is that blasted Italian?

He had no worry to spare for Valentinelli. For Clare strongly suspected he had other problems, especially if what his faculties – sharpened by coja and burning like a many-sided star of logic and deduction inside his skull – were telling him was truly so. If, indeed, the man in the long academician’s gown struggling in Clare’s fists, spluttering wildly and half-drowned, was not Dr Francis Vance…

… Clare would not only perhaps have quite a bit of explaining to do, but would also have been bested again by the sodding criminal bastard.

The man in Clare’s grasp ceased thrashing quite so frantically. Since he was being held under some of the foulest sewage drained nightly into the Themis, it was not so amazing. However, Clare judged that his opponent was about to drown, and further judged his own faculties werenot stunned by the knock on the skull he’d taken earlier that night. Which made his opponent a potentially valuable source of information from whence to deduce Dr Vance’s whereabouts and further plans.

Besides, drowning a man in shite was not, as Emma Bannon would say archly, how things were done.

Now why should I think of her? Clare freed the obstruction from his throat with a thick venomous cough, wished he hadn’t because the reek was thick enough to chew, and dragged the false Vance up from a watery grave.

Choking, spluttering words more fit for a drover or a struggling hevvymancer than the man of quality Dr Vance purported to be, Clare’s bespattered opponent hung in his narrow fists like wet washing. Clare’s chest was uncomfortably tight, a rock lodged behind his ribs, and he wheezed most unbecomingly as his trapped opponent tried gamely to sink a knee into the most tender spot of Clare’s anatomy.

Bad form, sir. So Clare took the man’s feet out from under him and dunked him again, boots slipping in the sludge coating whatever passed as a floor to this foul tunnel. The echoes held a peculiar quality that made Clare think this part of Londinium’s sewers were built of slowly crumbling brick, which made them not quite as ancient as those built by the Pax Latium. Newer often meant sturdier, but not always. The Latiums had believed in solid stone even for a cloaca on the benighted edge of their empire.

An encouraging observation. Or not. He hawked and spat again, grateful he could not see the colour of whatever bodily fluid he had just thrown into the dark. His face would be a mask of bruising upon the morrow.

He hauled the man forth from the sewerage again, and wished his sensitive nose would cease its operation for a few moments. “Be reasonable!” he barked, and the echoes gave him more of the dimensions of the tunnel. Quite large, really, and quite a volume of almost-fluid moving through its throat. His busy faculties calculated the rate of flow and returned the answer that Clare was lucky it was a slurry; he would have been swept off his feet and drowned had it been any thinner. “Vance! Where is he?

The besmeared visage before him contorted; there was a sharp tooth-shattering crack. Another odd sound rose under the plashing and plinking. What little unhealthy gleaming there was showed a rather oddly coloured face under a stringy mass of black hair, a hooked nose decked with excrescence, and rotting teeth as the man Clare had been chasing howled with laughter.

Dear God, what

The laughter swelled obscenely, and the man in his grasp went into convulsions. More filth splashed, and Clare swore with a ferocity that would perhaps have shocked even Miss Bannon, who could – he had discovered – let loose torrents of language that would make even the ill-tempered drabs of Whitchapel blush.

Poison tooth, broken open. Of course. And the reek blocked his olfactory capability, so he likely would not discover what variety of toxin in time to halt its progress.

Dr Vance was not above sacrificing a hireling or two. They were pawns, and life was cheap on Londinium’s underside. For the promise of a shilling, much worse than this murderous diversion had been committed – probably several times over tonight, in the depths of the city. Or even in the past hour.

Clare swore again, dragging the suddenly stiff body towards the tunnel’s entrance. He now remembered falling off the lip of the adjoining tunnel, splashing into this fetching summer garden of a place with a bone-rattling thump. The rock in his chest squeezed again, his left shoulder complaining as well. Perhaps he had strained it, in the excitement. He had chased the good Doctor from one end of Londinium to the other over the past two days, and at least denied the man his true prize – or so Clare hoped.

“Eh, mentale.” A flat, queerly accented voice, falling against the thick water without so much as an echo. “You are loud tonight.”

“Poisoned tooth!” Short of breath and patience, Clare was nevertheless gratified to find the Neapolitan assassin, as usual, did not ask useless questions. Instead, sleek dark Ludovico Valentinelli splashed into the muck a trifle more gracefully than his employer had, and relieved Clare of the burden of his erstwhile opponent. A different foul reek arose.

The man had voided his bowels. It was, Clare reflected, almost a cleaner stink. Certainly fresher, though hardly better.

He took in tiny sips of the fœtidness and choked. “Damn the man,” he managed. “Damn him!”

“Too late!” Ludo was, as usual, infuriatingly cheerful. “He has risen to Heaven, signore. Or to Hell, who knows?”

“B-bring the b-body.” Why were his teeth chattering? And his chest was even tighter, iron bands seizing his ribs. “D-dissection.”

Ludo found this funny. At least, he gave a gravelly chuckle. “You are certainly no Inquisitore.” He hauled the corpse to the entrance, heaving it up with little grace but much efficiency. Then, the assassin splashed back to Clare, who was suddenly much occupied in keeping upright. “Mentale?”

How strange. I cannot breathe. Not that I wish to, down here, and yet… “V-v-val—”

He was still seeking to speak Valentinelli’s name when the pain clove his chest and felled him. The thick darkness was full of things no gentleman would wish soiling his cloth, and Clare’s busy faculties, starlike, winked out.