LILA WAS AFRAID.
She stood on the bare wooden floorboards in her rain-wet shoes, making a show of looking around the small room; inspecting the lodgings though there was very little to inspect. A single narrow bed topped with a thin straw-stuffed mattress, a battered chest of drawers with a chipped basin of water perched on top, and a chair missing one leg. The tiny grime-smeared window looked out onto a dank alleyway and the crumbling brick wall of the neighboring building; the fetid gutter stench drifted from below. Only a few months ago the very notion of her being in such a place as this would have seemed an unthinkable horror. Yet here she was, and her fear was a cold clenching weight in the pit of her stomach—fear of the great and terrible thing she must do here this night. I must not falter now.
Lila turned to the landlady who stood framed in the doorway of the room, watching her with eyes narrowed and arms folded. Mrs. Jennings was a heavyset, gap-toothed woman with her head covered by a ragged shawl even indoors; middle-aged yet already old beyond her years, as life in the city had a way of inflicting. Lila—who had lived most of her twenty-two years thus far on a sprawling, wealthy country estate—wondered how long her own youth would last now that she, too, had become one of London's crowded thousands of ordinary denizens.
“This will be acceptable,” Lila said, attempting a smile of reassurance, whether for herself or for the landlady she couldn't be sure.
Mrs. Jennings grunted. “It's a shilling a night, meals extra, no visitors after dark. Certainly no gentleman visitors,” she added with a lascivious twinkling of her eyes and a gummy grin.
Lila ignored the sardonic comment and paid a full fortnight's rent and board in advance. Mrs. Jennings bit the gold guinea and sniffed at it suspiciously. Then, appearing grudgingly satisfied, she made the coin disappear up her sleeve. The landlady hesitated; Lila could see a list of questions forming in her openly curious gaze. What was an unaccompanied young woman doing seeking lodgings in such an establishment on a rainy October evening? Particularly one whose dress, accent and ready payment spoke of certain means.
“If you will please excuse me I must prepare for an appointment,” Lila said firmly, forestalling any inquiries.
Mrs. Jennings sniffed. Though plainly unhappy at the lack of gossip material, she nodded then backed out of the doorway with a thwarted grimace. “As you wish, young miss.” The landlady stomped off along the hallway.
Lila closed the door of her new accommodation and sat down on the edge of the bed with a heaving sigh, her legs suddenly weak. She closed her eyes, tired following the long journey across the city. It was never easy. Not anymore. Not since her family had disowned her after—but she didn't want to think about that now. No doubt the memories would haunt her enough later on in the lonely dark, as they did every night. She opened her eyes and her gaze settled upon a cheap wooden cross hanging on the wall above the bed. A sign of protection, for some. But for her?
Lila shook her head and got to her feet, forcing herself to focus upon the task at hand. I must not falter now. She splashed her face with water from the basin and did her best to clean herself of the city's grime, despite knowing she would inevitably become dirty again soon enough. Her single case of luggage contained only a few items of clothing and scarcely any cosmetic with which to make herself more than presentable—or attractive to a man, as her task demanded. She adjusted her petticoat and the flared skirt of her gown, and used pieces of wicker to pile her hair as best she could. With the fashion for powdered faces and copious decoration in full vogue she would simply have to get used to no longer being in fashion. It was a small sacrifice to make, considering.
Taking her umbrella and pulling on a pair of satin gloves, Lila left the room and headed downstairs. Passing the open kitchen doorway she caught a glimpse of a sour-faced Mrs. Jennings watching her go.
On the street outside the Soho lodging house, the rain was still coming down in a cold drizzle and the early evening sky was a dull gray slate hanging over the dark spires of London. Carriages clattered forlornly over the wet cobbles among sedan chairs, wagons and horses, while pedestrians huddled in their heavy coats, hurrying by. Lila set off walking briskly since her destination was not too far away, which was one reason why she had chosen these particular lodgings. The other reason being anonymity amid the usual types of patrons such places housed: immigrants; artists; libertines; prostitutes.
As she passed along the teeming thoroughfares of the city's west, she heard music spilling from the recessed doorway of a public house and paused to listen. A woman was singing sweetly in melancholy French, to the accompaniment of a solo violin's high mournful strains; a new song Lila had not heard before. Having been tutored in several languages, the lyrics took her but a moment to translate. Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment; chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie. The pleasure of love lasts only a moment; the grief of love lasts a lifetime.
Pierced, Lila shivered and hurried on by.
* * *
The coffee house stood on a corner, facing a sodden cobbled square where flocks of pigeons fussed over scraps in the rain. The low entrance bore no sign and the ground floor windows were heavily curtained, allowing no passers-by to peer within and no light to touch those inside.
Lila paused on the doorstep, her heart suddenly hammering at the thought of what she must do. In response she filled her mind with memories of Richard; her betrothed as he had been before the change, before the monsters came, when life was sweet and gentle. Gradually, her fear became a cold burning rage; something she could control, something she could use. Her breathing settled and she was calm again, though the rage still simmered deep inside her, leashed but ready to let loose when the moment arrived. And she would have her moment. Lila pushed open the heavy wooden door and stepped inside.
Mingled aromas of coffee, perfume and sweat permeated the dim cavern-like space beneath broad low ceiling beams. The hubbub of conversation faded momentarily at her entrance as a dozen pairs of eyes flicked appraising glances in her direction, then resumed. Only half of the tables were occupied, mostly by young couples with their heads leaning close together, speaking in hushed, intimate tones. This place had a reputation as a venue for clandestine assignations, though perhaps not ones of a wholly romantic nature. Lila spotted Mr. Beaumont sitting alone at a table against the rear wall beneath an oil painting of a nude woman, half in shadow. He caught her gaze and cocked an eyebrow, giving her a toothy grin. She offered a tight-lipped smile in return. Leaving her wet umbrella by the door, Lila walked over and sat down on the vacant stool across from him, carefully arranging her skirts.
Jeremiah Beaumont lounged in his seat with a louche casualness, as of one who is confident in his power and authority. Though in his late forties he showed no signs of advancing age, his uncovered shoulder-length curling hair still a lustrous flaxen and his alabaster—if somewhat sallow—skin smooth and unlined. Handsome, she had to admit. His finely-tailored embroidered waistcoat and ruffled shirt bespoke wealth. Dark eyes regarded her laughingly, as if reading her thoughts. Despite herself, Lila felt a blush rising to her cheeks.
“I took the liberty of ordering a beverage for you, my lady,” Mr. Beaumont said, and she noticed the china cup already placed on the table before her. “I guessed black coffee would be to your taste.”
It was, but Lila didn't feel much like drinking anything at this particular moment. She observed, too, that Mr. Beaumont had not ordered a beverage for himself. “Thank you, sir,” she replied, smiling politely as she lifted the cup to her lips, pretending to take a sip. Would he try to drug her? She thought it unlikely but still chose to remain on the side of caution. She would need all her faculties alert for what was to come.
“Might I inquire as to the name I am to call you by?” Mr. Beaumont asked. She caught his gaze lingering for an instant upon her neck and fought to remain outwardly unperturbed.
“Lucy,” she said, knowing how this game was played. She set the cup down. “And yourself?”
“Call me Richard.”
Lila's breath caught at the mention of her deceased beloved's name. Was Beaumont toying with her? Did he know who she really was? But no, how could he? Unless she had been betrayed by her own informants, that is. She forced another smile onto her face to cover her hesitation. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Likewise, ma chérie, likewise,” Mr. Beaumont said, giving no indication if he had noticed anything was amiss. “I must say, your services do come highly recommended indeed, Lucy. And the reports of your beauty were not exaggerated, I now find.”
Lila, as Lucy, nodded demurely. It had taken weeks of inquiries and a small fortune in bribes to create a credible persona and thence to arrange this meeting. One as powerful and influential as he could not be approached by conventional methods. She could not allow this chance, likely the only one she would ever have, to slip away from her. But at that moment, she thought she would be perfectly willing to let herself be killed if that was what it took to ensure justice was done. “As does your own reputation, sir,” Lila began then paused. The next step was dangerous but she needed to be certain. “As it so happens, one of my former, ah, clients spoke very highly of you also. Indeed, it appears you share the same first name. Perhaps you recall a Mr. Richard Fairfax?”
Was there the slightest flicker of unease in his gaze? If so, he recovered almost instantly. “Of course, of course. Good old Fairfax.”
“Alas, I hear he has since passed away of some unfortunate malady,” Lila went on, striving to maintain a casual tone. “Such a great pity.”
“Yes,” Mr. Beaumont said, looking distracted. “A very great pity I should say.” He cleared his throat and leaned forward suddenly, bringing his face close to hers. “Shall we move somewhere a little more private, Lucy?”
Lila made a show of fiddling with her gloves, not meeting his gaze. “I have a room not far from here, if you wish. It is not much but it is private.”
“I am certain it shall suffice for our purposes,” Jeremiah Beaumont said, once more with a cocksure confidence. He tossed some coins onto the table then got to his feet, putting on a white-powdered wig and long coat. Retrieving her umbrella, Lila preceded him outside as he held the door open for her, with every appearance of gentlemanly manners. She even thanked him for the courtesy.
* * *
They took a hired carriage back to the lodging house, sitting beside each other in silence for most of the way as the gray evening streets of London rolled by. Beaumont no longer made any pretense at public manners, his dark-eyed gaze roving unabashedly over the curves of her body, lingering often upon her neck and throat.
“Will you be staying in the city for long, sir?” Lila asked conversationally, still playing the part she had given herself, trying to ignore the stabs of apprehension and uncertainty which assailed her thoughts.
“Not long, no,” came the reply. “I travel abroad often on business.”
Yes, Lila thought. Indeed you do. She didn't protest when his hand came to rest upon her thigh.
It was dusk when they arrived at Mrs. Jennings' lodging house. Beaumont paid off the carriage driver and Lila led him inside and up the creaking stairs. She saw no sign of the landlady. Lila knew that the warning given earlier about not receiving gentleman visitors after dark had not been in any seriousness. Such things were expected here.
They stepped inside the small room she had rented and Lila closed the door. It didn't escape her notice that Beaumont grimaced at the sight of the cross on the wall and quickly turned his head away.
She stood facing him with her back to the door, her heart beginning to pound once again. He was not a small man and they were unavoidably close together in the cramped confines of the room. Lila peeled off her gloves slowly and spoke in a low, husky voice which was only partially feigned. “Sit down on the bed,” she commanded. “Take off your clothes.” She needed him undressed, the cloth would only get in the way.
Beaumont smirked. “It would be my pleasure, miss.”
He was so sure of himself, Lila thought, so sure of getting what he wanted. For a panicked moment she wondered again whether in fact he was controlling her and not the other way around; whether he had somehow seen through her entire scheme and was simply waiting to pounce and end her life one way or another. But it was too late to back out of what she had started, now. She must see it through, come what may.
While Beaumont sat on the edge of the bed and pulled his clothes off, Lila moved over to the chest of drawers with the water basin perched on top. She stood with her back to him, affecting to undo the buttons of her gown. The short silver dagger slid surreptitiously from her sleeve into the palm of her hand. She dipped the blade into the basin, which she had filled with holy water from the vial in her luggage before leaving earlier.
Carefully palming the weapon she turned back to face Beaumont, who was by now shirtless and wearing only his linen undergarments. The top buttons of her gown were undone, exposing her breast and throat. His gaze went to her jugular, nakedly hungry. Fighting down her revulsion Lila walked slowly toward him then sat astride his lap, feeling the growing hardness there.
“Lucy,” he whispered, nuzzling his lips against her neck as she felt her pulse racing. “Oh, Lucy.”
Do it now, the voice in her mind urged. Finish it. But all of a sudden Lila needed more than that. Simple death was too good for this creature. He had to know why he deserved to die, to know who had enacted his sentence.
“I was engaged to be wed, once,” she heard herself saying.
“Oh, yes?” He was kissing her roughly now, nipping at her skin with his teeth.
“He was a good man,” she went on, closing her eyes. “I loved him dearly.”
“But someone killed him. No, worse than that, they turned him into something else. Something not human.”
“Hmm? What do you mean?”
“He became a monster,” Lila said through the lump in her throat. “Even so, I still tried to love him. But in the end…” Tears were forming in her eyes, running down her cheeks. “In the end I had to let go. So I did. But the creature which turned him into a monster … I could never ever let go of that.”
Beaumont froze. “What are you—”
“His name was Richard Fairfax,” she whispered, opening her eyes. “And I will always remember.”
She saw his face change, first in realization then in a rapid physical transformation; casting off its veil of humanity, twisting and shifting into the nightmarish visage of a daemonic, predatory beast, fangs erupting, lunging for her throat. But Lila was already plunging the coated silver dagger deep into its heart with all of her might and rage, the slender blade slipping easily between its uncovered ribs.
Beaumont let out a ragged, feral screech, shuddering violently, his eyes rolling back in his head to show the whites as Lila held on grimly.
After what seemed an eternity yet which was in reality but a few seconds, both its cry and its movements diminished; she felt the flesh shriveling and decaying beneath her as its body gave in to the pent-up ravages of true death.
As the fiend which had stolen her happiness crumbled away to dust in her arms, Lila Davenport wept both in victory and in sorrow, and, weeping, remembered.
The Davenport estate, five months earlier
RICHARD HAD CHANGED.
That June morning, five months and a lifetime ago, it seemed as though everything in her life was perfect—except for one thing, the most important thing. Summer had come early and bright golden rays of hope streaming through the bedroom curtains greeted her when she awoke. As always, she thought of him first.
“I believe I shall go for a ride this morning,” Lila announced to her parents at the breakfast table.
“Very good, dear.” Her father, sitting at the head of the dining table, engrossed by his food and the concerns of his banking business, favored his only daughter with a tolerant smile of affection. As their sole offspring, her recent engagement to a scion of a well-reputed family in Mr. Richard Fairfax had put him in a permanently good mood these past few months. Were it not for the fact that she adored Richard, Lila supposed she might have been annoyed by her father's readiness to hand her—and her dowry—over for the sake of social reputation and the production of an heir. Yet she was glad he was pleased.
Her mother, sitting opposite, raised an eyebrow at Lila in a knowing look. “You'll be heading over to the Fairfax estate then, I presume?” she said casually.
Lila could not prevent the heat from rising to her cheeks. “I am sure my betrothed and his family would be as welcoming as they have always been, mama, ever since I was a child. Surely my engagement should not change this.”
“No, dear, and I'm certain young Richard would be most welcoming, at that,” her mother replied tartly, spreading butter on her toast with a precise flick of a knife. “But I am only thinking of your social duties now that you are to be a properly married lady of society. You have been out riding almost every morning lately. What about your toilette? I cannot even recall the last time I saw you fully dressed and painted. We mustn't allow standards to slip, must we?”
Lila tried not to pull a face during this gently-delivered tirade. Though accustomed by now to the formal toilette's hours-long dressing by servants and the receiving of guests meanwhile, she was not sorry to spend more time in the saddle wearing only plain riding clothes. She did not care if others thought her unladylike in this regard—and Richard certainly didn't seem to mind.
Heading to the stables directly after breakfast, Lila rode out on Strawberry, her old red roan gelding, refusing the groom's help and saddling him herself. She trotted the horse at a sedate pace along the grassy lanes bordering the Davenport family estate lands, before breaking into a canter once she reached the open fields beyond. The summer sky was a perfect cloudless azure above the rolling green hills bounding the horizon in every direction. The riotous scents of wild flowers filled the air with their heady perfume. As she passed through patches of oak and cedar woods, birds made melody everywhere. If only for a short time, she was free of care.
As she drew closer to the neighboring lands of the Fairfax estate Lila slowed again to a trot and her thoughts turned once more to Richard. She had been seeing less and less of him recently, and when they did meet there seemed always to be some tension, some hidden emotion in him he refused to articulate. They were childhood sweethearts, she trusted him absolutely and yet she had never seen him so troubled before, never known him to behave in such a wanton fashion. Going out into the city late at night and coming back inebriated and disheveled the next day. Muttering about some strange new acquaintances when questioned, and becoming irate and still more reticent if pressed on the matter. With the wedding set for a couple of months hence and growing nearer each day, she could only wonder whether he was having doubts about their union. But why would he doubt? Who else could there be?
The manor house, Fairfax Hall, rose up before her; much like the Davenport residence it was a sprawling magisterial edifice of marble and whitewashed stone set among several acres of carefully manicured gardens. Indeed, old Joseph, the head gardener, was out kneeling among the rosebushes in the forecourt with pruning shears when she arrived; he greeted her with a cheerful wave, having known Lila since she was a little girl, his seamed nut-brown face crinkling into a broad grin. “Morning, Miss Davenport. Lovely weather we're having, isn't it?”
“Very lovely, Joseph,” Lila replied with a smile as she swung down off Strawberry and tethered the horse's reins to a nearby post. “Is Richard at home?”
“Aye, you'll find the young master inside. I'm afraid that I can't speak for his condition, however.”
“What do you mean?”
“I dare say you'll find out for yourself, miss. The lad only just crawled back home after another night out pickling his liver in London town. He ought to be ashamed, a fine young gentleman like him.”
“I see.” Lila thanked him and headed directly inside the long-familiar old house, exchanging friendly nods with passing servants in the hallways, all of whom knew her by sight.
She eventually found Richard alone in one of the rear ground floor drawing rooms, sprawled dozing on a couch by the big bay windows. He didn't move or otherwise respond when Lila entered, closing the door softly behind her and pulling up a chair to sit near him. His clothes were creased and bedraggled, his shirt loose and his collar hanging askew, and he stank of sweat and alcohol and some other odor she could not identify. Not perfume or smoke but something strangely like an animal smell, she thought. Starting suddenly at her presence he sat up, blinking blearily as if not recognizing her.
“Richard, my darling,” Lila said, taking his hand. “Are you well?”
“Lila.” He groaned and sank back again. “What … what are you doing here?”
“Is it so surprising that a woman wishes to see her soon-to-be husband?” she asked, unable to keep the note of irritation from her voice.
“No, no, I'm sorry, I just … I've been busy, that's all. I didn't want you to find me like this. You should have come later.”
“You were having a good time in London again last night, I presume?” Lila said, hating how much she sounded like her mother in that moment.
Richard didn't reply, closing his eyes again and shifting away from her on the couch. As he turned Lila noticed a fresh red wound near the base of his throat, exposed beneath his open collar. “Richard!” she exclaimed. “What happened to your neck?”
“Nothing,” he said, opening his eyes wide in evident alarm and hastily pulling his collar back in place to cover the injury. “I fell over. Listen, Lila, I'm tired and I need to rest. Please go. I shall see you later.”
“Why will you not tell me what you are doing in the city?” Lila said plaintively, clutching his hand tighter as though he might slip away. “Richard, we have always shared our secrets, you and I, ever since we were children. Please, if there is something I or my family can help you with, some trouble you are having, you must tell me.”
He shook his head listlessly without meeting her gaze. “There is no trouble, Lila, I promise. Nothing you need concern yourself with.”
“Then why will you not speak?” Lila demanded.
“It's … my friend. Jeremiah Beaumont. He's … a powerful man. I must not betray his trust. It's safer for you and everyone else this way.”
There was something in Richard's eyes as he spoke. Was it fear? Letting go of his hand, Lila stood up, more unsettled than ever by her betrothed's taciturn secrecy but forcing herself to remain outwardly acquiescent. “Very well. Will you be seeing this friend of yours again tonight?”
“Yes, I must.” He looked directly at her then, his gaze beseeching. “This will be the last time, my dear heart. I promise. The last time.”
Feeling cold despite the summer warmth pouring through the windows, Lila nodded and turned to leave without trusting herself to say anything in reply. She strode back through the corridors of Fairfax Hall, scarcely registering the servants' smiles, her thoughts a swirling cloud of questions and worries. It seemed plain enough to her that this man Beaumont had some kind of hold over Richard, and that her beloved was afraid to take action for fear of harming others. He claimed this would be the last time but Lila had her doubts as to whether this would truly be the case. She had witnessed her own father's previous struggle with gambling which had nearly cost the family its fortune a few years ago; she knew the pernicious ways of men's addictions.
Outside again in the bright morning sunshine, the old gardener was still kneeling among his rosebushes, appearing perfectly happy and content with his lot in life. For a brief moment Lila envied him his simple existence but she shook the unworthy thought aside. Yet as she untied the horse ready to take her leave, an idea began forming in her mind and she turned to address him. “Joseph, might I beg a small favor of you?”
* * *
Lila retired to bed earlier than usual that evening, claiming to her parents that she had a mild headache, which was not an outright lie. Once alone inside her bedchamber she swiftly removed her gown and petticoats, and pulled on breeches and riding tunic, high leather boots and a hooded cloak, then, checking to make sure the hallways were clear, crept from the house out to the stables. Thankfully it was a clear night and the light of the moon and stars were enough to see by. She took Strawberry and rode him bareback across to the Fairfax estate for the second time that day.
Old Joseph met her outside the gatekeeper's lodge a short yet private distance from the manor as arranged. Also as arranged, he had a small one-horse carriage readied and waiting. “Master Richard already departed a few hours ago as expected,” Joseph informed her as Lila dismounted. “I had one of the errand boys follow him like you wanted and then came back and told me. He's at a private gentlemen's club in the city.” The creases of his face deepened into a worried frown. “Are you certain you want to do this, miss?”
“I am,” Lila replied, more boldly than she truly felt. “We must find out what is going on if we are to help him. Do not worry, I will take full responsibility should anything untoward occur.”
Joseph did not look overly reassured but offered no argument as he assisted her aboard the carriage before taking the driver's bench himself. Leaving Strawberry tethered behind at the gatekeeper's lodge, they headed south and east along the high country road toward London. Despite the outward confidence of her words, Lila's pulse quickened at the thought of the inherent dangers of this illicit venture. She told herself over and again that she was doing the right thing, for Richard and for both of their families' sakes too—though with little conviction. Yet how could she simply stand by and see her beloved come to ruin as had almost happened to her father?
A little over an hour later the lights of the capital of the British Empire spread across the darkness ahead like an earthbound constellation, soon enfolding them in its ceaseless bustle. Lila had been into the city on many occasions before yet never so late as this, and she found the place had taken on a different and more ungentle character altogether; a far cry from pleasant daytime trips to the shops on Oxford Street, or attending the theater, or strolling in Hyde Park. Light and music and raucous voices spilled from the doorways of the close-packed surrounding buildings. They passed among crowds of drunken revelers carousing in the streets and squares, men and women both, wanton and uninhibited in their behavior. A sudden grotesque image struck Lila of the city as some breed of restless animal, and the people as the fleas dancing upon its back. She stared about her in repulsed fascination.
Shortly Joseph drew the carriage to a halt outside the front of a squat two-story edifice which resembled a public house—although there was no business sign—located not too far from one of the banks which her father's company operated. There was evidently some kind of commotion occurring and a small crowd had gathered around the entrance. A loud rattle began to sound in the distance, coming closer. After a moment Lila identified it as a night watch police constable's clattering wooden alarm.
“This is the address where the young master came, miss,” Joseph said, leaning down from the driver's seat to confer in hushed, grim tones. “But I like it not. There's plainly been some trouble here. Mayhap it would be best if we leave.”
“Perhaps…” But Lila was gripped by a sudden stark certainty that something terrible had happened to Richard. She pushed open the carriage door and, drawing up the hood of her cloak, dropped down onto the cobbled street. “Wait for me here,” she told Joseph and hurried across to the building before he could argue.
There were anxious looks on the faces of the crowd milling around the open doorway of the club in question. Lila tugged nervously upon the silk sleeve of a scandalously-dressed woman of middle years. “Excuse me, madam, what has happened here?”
“They say a man has been killed,” came the reply. “Oh, terrible it is. Eh, where are you going, then?”
Seized by a cold dread, Lila was already running inside with scarcely a thought of what she was doing.
The plushly-furnished, oak-paneled common room of the gentlemen's club was empty, abandoned pipes and cigars wafting clouds of smoke from ash receptacles on the tables. She took the stairs two at a time up to the next floor where she stepped into a long, carpeted hallway with several doors leading off to private rooms on either side. “Richard!” she called out and heard a furtive movement from one of the rooms off to her left. Hurrying toward the sound she halted abruptly, paralyzed in the doorway of the room as she stared in shock at the scene which greeted her.
Richard lay prone and still upon the floor, eyes closed and limbs splayed with his shirt ripped open to expose his bare chest. Fresh blood ran from the wound at his throat that she had noticed earlier, dripping over his shoulder and on to stain the carpet.
There was a woman leaning over him, an older woman yet a lithe and powerfully-built one, clad in black leather and boots, with her long silver hair tied back. She was holding a wooden stake in one hand, pressing the sharpened point against Richard's chest, raising a mallet to strike down with the other hand.
Without thinking Lila hurled herself screaming at the woman. She cannoned into her with her shoulder and succeeded in knocking her over, though Lila herself fell across Richard's insensible form and landed in a heap on top of the stunned assailant. The stake went flying from her grip to land somewhere across the room.
“Get off me, you little fool!” the woman in black cried, thrashing around beneath her as she tried to rise. “There is no time!”
Lila barely heard as she looked at Richard lying motionless and unresponsive beside her, no rise and fall of breath stirring his chest. “He's dead,” she heard herself saying numbly. “He's … he's dead.”
“He won't be for much longer if you don't let me—” The police alarm rattle came sharply from directly outside the building and there was a heavy thumping of booted feet coming up the stairs. The woman in black uttered a most unladylike oath, rolling out from under Lila and snatching up the dropped stake. With a wordless cry Lila threw herself bodily on top of Richard to protect him from whatever this insane individual was intending to do to him; but the woman gave a hiss of frustration and dashed from the room.
Lila pushed herself up to kneel next to Richard, grasping his nerveless hand and calling his name to no avail. He was dead. She knew it and yet the knowledge refused to permeate her numbed mind. No pulse, no breath, no life. And he was cold, so cold, the frigid skin of his hand chilling hers, as though he had already been dead for a long time. She heard footsteps coming along the hallway, became aware of people stepping into the room behind her, a deep voice asking what was going on here. She could give no reply, words choking in her throat. How could this be happening? Her beloved was dead.
Then Richard opened his eyes.