The old woman stared down at the photo, worn from age, the sepia tones fading with each year. Though the man in the picture was in his early thirties, his dark hair combed back, the black of his coat and cravat looking tan in the old depiction, she wondered what he would have looked like now…if he had lived.
She closed her eyes, her thumb brushing absently over the ink, drifting back in time…
Edward Pierce had a reputation. Tall, handsome, with a charming smile and velvet voice, he was never in want for attention, especially from the ladies. No one seemed to notice that he usually shied away from their interest, shrugging uncomfortably when some grew too forward. He didn’t care much for company, yet when forced to socialize, no one ever saw him alone.
The other odd thing was the fact that he only went out at night. What sort of person went creeping around in the dark? Especially dressed in black?
Any time someone asked, they were met with an unblinking gaze of clear, ice-blue eyes.
“And if I were to ask you why you go about to your parties, wouldn’t you think that impertinent?”
Desdemona Hale, however, was not intimidated the time she asked.
“Perhaps, but I am impertinent,” she returned. She arched an eyebrow, refocusing on the busy room full of dancing couples, the women’s jewelry and men’s watch chains glinting in the light. “Unfortunately, it’s a bad habit of mine, so I’m told.”
Edward Pierce studied her a little more closely; he had seen her once or twice before, even been introduced to her by her father, the wealthy banker, Andronicus Hale. She was of petite stature, reaching somewhere between his elbow and shoulder, dressed in a cream, lace gown, her chestnut hair piled neatly on the back of her head, which she held proudly, her flint grey eyes glittering.
He looked away again, suddenly aware that he’d been paying too close of attention.
“I tend to find the sun too hot,” he replied, not coldly, but, not warmly either.
Miss Hale looked back at him, her eyes taking in his strong profile, it being his turn to be preoccupied with the others in the room.
“And what of gas lamps and chandeliers?” she queried, gesturing to the ceiling. “Are they too hot that they would keep you from dancing?”
Edward turned to her again, a small smirk touching his thin lips.
“Am I to take that as a hint?”
“You can hardly take it as small talk.”
Edward let his smile grow more pronounced, honestly intrigued by Miss Hale, and offered his slender hand. Desdemona placed her own much smaller hand in it, and together, they joined in the waltz.
Mr. Andronicus Hale was pleased with the development he saw. It didn’t matter to him if Edward Pierce was a ladies’ man; he was supposedly very wealthy, with an estate and thousands of pounds entitled to him every year. He would bring a much needed injection of funds into the bank, and Mr. Hale’s pocket.
His hopes were shot quickly down not three days later, when Edward didn’t attend the next gathering, or the one after. Desdemona pretended not to care, but it didn’t stop her from always checking the room when she arrived, or leaving a space on her dance card. Her reasons were far different from her father’s, though; she cared nothing for wealth or property. She had found Edward to be quite pleasant, albeit quiet, not talking much. What he had said was only of books and church, both apparently rather important to him. He was so different from the other men in her life, the strutting peacocks who spoke with voices to draw attention to themselves, as if proud of their own ignorance. Edward’s eyes told her that for all his reserve and calm demeanor, there was a fortune of knowledge and a dangerous edge of power in him. That was what drew her, perhaps foolishly; a desire to figure out his mystery.
But as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, summer becoming late autumn, Desdemona gave up on seeing him ever again. His disappearance puzzled the entire town, but no one save her seemed to actually miss him.
Her father began a parade of suitors, inviting them for dinner, or arranging to dine out or to attend the theatre. After all, she was twenty-one, almost a spinster, the poor girl, and though gifted with looks, never once had a man offered marriage. Mr. Hale blamed her sharp tongue and quick temper; Desdemona blamed her father’s looming debts. They were like a Sword of Damocles, ready to drop with the next wrong move.
Not that she cared one way or the other whether she ever married at all. Sometimes (though she never admitted it), she would sit and dream of her own life, sitting with her children, their father beside her. But she would quickly shake her head, and return to her adventure novels.
It was late November when the world turned upside down for her.
The day had been grey and overcast, not letting a single glimpse of the sun through to lighten the bleakness. Mr. Hale had arranged another dinner with one of his clients, an exceedingly wealthy widower who owned a grand house twenty miles out of the city. Desdemona was resigned, her arguments rendered invalid by her father’s stubbornness, but she wouldn’t go out of her way to be nice to Mr. Etherington. He was older than her own father, with a granddaughter nearly the same age as she was herself. No matter how nice he might be, she knew he would not be who she wanted.
She was saved the trouble of feeling remorse by the fact that Mr. Etherington was the opposite of courteous and caring. He didn’t let anyone, even his own son-in-law, get a word in edgewise, his voice reminding Desdemona of a petulant child, his topics ranging from the problems with the nation to rheumatism and the incompetence of his servants. It was a relief when he complained of fatigue and made it clear he wished to retire for the evening; it informed them, however ungraciously, that they could leave.
By that time, darkness had fallen, and rain poured in sheets from the black sky, split by the occasional streak of lightning. Desdemona quickly scurried into the carriage, ignoring the string of profanities the driver was muttering to himself, while her father followed a few steps behind, shutting the door harshly. The driver, still muttering, gave the reins a snap, and with a lurch, their carriage started forward.
“You could have been more alluring,” her father drawled, narrowing his eyes at her.
“The man is an oaf,” she responded. “He didn’t give me the chance to be alluring, and even if he had, I’d hardly have used it.”
Andronicus sighed heavily, closing his eyes in a prayer for patience.
“He’s the wealthiest man this side of London,” he reminded her. “An oaf would be more suited to you, anyway, as it would mean you could run everything, including him.”
Desdemona crossed her arms, her gaze fixed on the rain pounding the carriage window.
“I want a man who can keep up,” she retorted, “not one I leave so far behind I may as well be matched against a snail.”
“You won’t be getting Edward Pierce, if that’s what you’re still after,” Andronicus scolded.
Desdemona scoffed. “Honestly, Father, he hasn’t been seen since June, I think I’ve figured that out by now. And it was one dance; you make it tantamount to an engagement.”
The countryside around them had changed, flatter on one side, with a forest on the other, the road narrowing into a two-track. A very muddy two-track, and with a sudden violent heave, the carriage tipped to one side, coming to an abrupt halt.
The driver’s curse was heard over the thunder and the door opened as he peered in at Mr. Hale.
“We’re stuck, sir,” he informed. “The mud through here won’t give, and it looks like the one wheel’s been broke.”
“Can’t you fix it?” Andronicus demanded irritably.
“Oh aye, if I had the parts and if we weren’t still sixteen miles from town and caught in this damned downpour,” the other snapped.
“Watch your mouth, there’s a lady present,” Andronicus reprimanded. What more he might have said died in his throat, his eyes fixed on a looming shape behind the coachman.
Without warning, the driver was yanked away, his scream cut short by an ugly snapping sound.
Andronicus pulled the door shut, huddling in his seat, Desdemona pressed against the opposite wall, pinned by his weight. Her wide eyes were fixed on the window, listening to the silence that had fallen outside. Only the beating raindrops and the thunder continued.
The door drifted open again as if on its own, and they couldn’t see anything, Andronicus scrambling to get farther into the corner, nearly suffocating Desdemona now.
That was when something reached in, cloaked in shadow, and grabbed Andronicus by the coat, dragging him out of the coach. Desdemona caught hold of him, trying to hold him back, but it made no difference. Whatever was out there was much stronger, pulling them both out, and throwing them up over the carriage into the lane on the other side. Desdemona rolled, hitting the stone wall that lined the two-track. Pain shot up her spine into her skull, and it was an extreme effort to keep conscious. Through blurred vision, she saw a great black silhouette lower over her father, who suddenly screamed. She struggled to her feet, no idea in mind what to do, but unable to let the thing—whatever it was—continue. She darted forward, throwing herself at the silhouette.
It hissed, striking out with its arm, easily sending her back into the wall.
Desdemona crumpled into the mud, her eyes still open as she tried to lift herself. An unexpected hand at her throat pushed her up against the wall, and looked up, seeing a face.
Or rather half a face; the upper half was shrouded by the hood of its cloak, but the lower half sent ice-cold fear into her veins. A pair of bloody lips were pulled back, baring its teeth, which included a set of fangs. She wanted to scream as it lowered toward her, but couldn’t find her voice. The hand on her throat tightened, keeping her in place, her fighting in vain. It was only inches now, a low growl emitting from it. She kicked but missed, watching it move almost as if it enjoyed the fear on her face.
A scream finally tore from her, and it moved to strike, but a loud bang pierced the night. The hand released her, the creature shrieking as it disappeared much faster than anything should be able to.
Desdemona sat, panting, too stunned and numb to move, staring at where the thing had been. All she saw now was a wrecked carriage, two motionless bodies in the mud; the driver and her father.
Unable to take in the meaning of that, she remembered the bang and looked behind her, wondering where the sound had come from. She spotted a figure about four feet away, gasping in recognition as he lowered his revolver.