Chapter One of "Fire at Midnight"
Saint Mary’s of Bethlehem Hospital (“Bedlam”), London, England, 1703
“I am sane.”
The sound of her own voice anchored her. It kept her from going mad. “I am eight and ten. I am called Rachael Penrose. I have been here nine days. My brother was called James—” She stifled a sob. “My brother is called James.” Even the tinctures they fed her did not dull the pain of not knowing the fate of her baby brother.
She froze when she heard the scratch of claws on stone. A rat, attracted by crumbs of moldy bread, began a stealthy approach. She shared her meager rations with the rats because they displayed less interest in her when their bellies were full.
There had been no hearing and no formal declaration of insanity.
An exchange of gold from one greedy hand to another had sealed her in this place. With no blanket, she shivered in the bitter cold. Beneath the thin shift she wore, faint and fresh bruises mottled her skin. Her stomach rumbled, the sound loud in the quiet of the small chamber.
She tensed as metal creaked. The door to her cell swung open. Freezing air rushed in, and she trembled as the strong scent of citrus cologne, a harbinger of her uncle, mingled with the foul, musty odor of the cell.
Victor Brightmore handed a gold coin to the guard accompanying him. “Her doctor and I require privacy.” Victor lifted the hem of his cloak to prevent it from sweeping the floor of the filthy cell as he entered.
The attendant checked the chain securing her right leg to the straw-filled pallet upon which she lay. He tested the iron ring riveted around her neck and the circular iron waist bar holding her arms pinioned to her sides. She suppressed a shudder when his hands lingered over her breasts and followed the double link to its point of origin at the wall. Powerless against the intimacy, she gritted her teeth and stared at the gray stone ceiling above her.
Apparently satisfied with the security of her restraints, the attendant withdrew, leaving Victor and the doctor alone with her. Rachael remained silent while Victor angled the shaft of the candle he held until the flickering yellow light illuminated her face then leaned toward her, his blue-gray eyes glittering with malice.
She looked into the face of pure evil. Tall, with burnished gold hair and even features, his pleasing exterior concealed his twisted nature. As he watched her, shadows played over the upward cast of his lips.
“You cling to life with such tenacity, Rachael.”
He moved the flame along the length of her jaw inch by agonizing inch, stopping near her eye. The light from the candle was painfully bright, and her breath quickened as she struggled to hide her terror.
Oh, God, is he going to blind me? Gasping, she shrank from him, but the linkage of chain held fast. She was at the mercy of a man who had none. How she despised him!
“Victor!” The candle wobbled on its perch as his companion jerked it away from her face. “How would I account for burns on her body?”
“Her eyes mock me, Elliot.” He peered down at her, scowling.
“She is feverish,” Elliot said. “She is in the grip of the drug. We can speak freely.”
“It appears I have need of your help once again, good doctor. Keeping my niece isolated is not the permanent solution I seek.”
It did not bode well that he spoke so openly in front of her. With both her parents dead, once Victor succeeded in his plan to dispose of her, there would be no one left to protect James. Victor was desperate to inherit, but he was also crafty and cautious. He would not risk the hangman.
Elliot peered down at her. “Perhaps her food might be—”
“The attendant told me she tests her food on the rats. Besides, we dare not risk poison now.”
“I can keep her indefinitely,” Elliot said. “Her whereabouts are unknown. No one here will believe anything she says.”
“Tarry Morgan knows the truth.” Victor searched within the folds of his cloak. His hand shook as he withdrew a letter. The edges of the parchment gaped where the wax seal had been broken.
Her heart sank at the sight, and she felt light-headed with despair.
“This letter details her discovery of my plan to poison James. She sent it to Morgan, one of the few allies she has left. She must have dashed it off before we brought her here.” Victor glowered in Rachael’s direction. “The fact that James must die before I will inherit is clear motive to anyone who would investigate.”
“So, is Morgan dead?”
Rachael stopped breathing while she waited for Victor’s response.
“No. His servants were rousing; I barely escaped with the letter. I was only able to wound him.”
“Can you buy his silence?”
“Morgan cannot be bought.” Victor crumpled the letter in his hand and began to pace the floor. “He is her loyal little lapdog. He remains silent because I have taken the proof and threatened Rachael’s life. He has delusions he will rescue her, but he won’t remain silent for long. We must dispose of them both.”
The weight of her terror squeezed the air from Rachael’s lungs. She would never forgive herself if she brought harm to her childhood friend.
“And what about her brother?”
“My nephew is sickly,” Victor said. “His nanny has often commented on his frailty. With your help, I’ll be rich. When I am rich, I will be generous.”
“Monster!” Rachael sobbed. She screamed in outrage and struggled against the restraints. The tortured souls in the adjacent cells heard her and added their voices to hers. Hearing them, she fell silent. Screams of torment are routine in this place. I’m just another Bess O’ Bedlam. No help will come.
Victor spun to face Elliot. “‘Senseless,’ you promised. ‘Incoherent.’ ‘Her mind will be incapable of coping with her surroundings.’”
“Having her wits about her in this place is an added torment, not an advantage,” Elliot said. “We will dose her with laudanum to keep her quiet, and she will be released into your custody.”
“Released? You seem a likely candidate for a strait-waistcoat yourself.”
“Victor,” Elliot said patiently, “we must remove Rachael from Bedlam. Morgan is searching for her, and he has the resources to find her. I will have her transferred to Bethnal Green.”
“She will be no less dangerous to me in a private asylum.”
“She will never reach Bethnal Green,” Elliot said. “You, of course, must appear distraught over your loss.”
Rachael locked gazes with Victor, who nodded vigorously. His smile told her time was running out.
“Doctor, I believe you have arrangements to make on my behalf.” He leaned down to Rachael and added, “While I joyously prepare to grieve.”
Rachael lay still. The doctor had left the cell, but she sensed Victor’s malevolent presence and steeled herself at the sound of his approach. Her nerve endings drew taut with anxiety.
Without warning, he seized her jaw in a brutal grip with one hand while, with the thumb and forefinger of the other, he pinched her nose, blocking the flow of air through her nostrils. When she opened her mouth to gasp for air, cold fluid slid over her tongue and down her throat. Choking on the bitter stuff, she swallowed convulsively.
“Good girl,” Victor intoned, patting her head. “I didn’t dilute the drug with water; you’ll soon be dead to the world.” His fingers gathered in the locks of her hair, smoothing them, and she jerked at his touch. Rachael opened her mouth and spit out what little of the fluid she had not managed to swallow, and the irons tinkled faintly.
“What a selfish chit you are, Rachael. I had no wish to harm Tarry, but your letter has left me with no choice. James’s death must appear a common cot death. I cannot leave anyone alive who will claim otherwise.”
Rachael looked up at him, willing him to see hatred on her face instead of fear. She would not give him the satisfaction of seeing she was afraid.
“Oh, still hoping for rescue?” he taunted. “Pining for the fresh air and blue skies of Cornwall, are we?” His eyes held no warmth, but his mouth formed a languid smile. “It will be easier if you accept your fate. A far worse one awaits you outside these walls. I’ve spread the rumor among your neighbors that you are the Customs informer who exposed their smuggling operations. You cannot go home.”
Rachael’s breathing slowed, and she blinked, fighting the effects of the drug. Her ears rang, and a foul taste coated her tongue. Had he deliberately given her enough of the drug to kill her? The thought brought suffocating terror as she struggled to focus on his words. If she died, she would fail James. Victor would win.
He inspected the ornate signet ring he wore. “The informer also caused the ship and goods of Sebastién Falconer, a French smuggler, to be seized by Customs. Meeting up with him in his present mood would result in a worse fate than even I could arrange for you.”
“—James?” Her own voice sounded far away. Her mouth felt as if it had been filled with wool.
“Have no fear; your brother will join you in heaven soon enough.”
She mumbled, and when he leaned down to hear her words, she spat on him, the stream of saliva hitting him squarely in the face. Victor stepped back with an oath, shaking with rage.
“I will allow you that,” Victor ground out as he mopped his face with a silk handkerchief. “I have the intense satisfaction of knowing you will soon be dead.”
He yelled and pounded on the cell door, and the face of an attendant immediately appeared. “Where is the usual turnkey?” Victor demanded.
“He’s well into his cups by now,” the young man replied in a bored tone. “I can turn a key same as any man.”
When the attendant stepped back, Victor brushed past him. The staccato rap of boots filled her ears, then faded. The attendant had not moved to follow Victor out of the cell. Why? Rachael tensed, her heart pounding.
Groaning, she felt the urge to retch as her stomach suddenly rebelled against the strong drug. The need to purge the contents was bad enough; now she had the added worry of why the attendant had remained.
He stepped forward with a rusty ring of keys in his hand. Placing a lantern on the stone floor, he hastily unlocked the fetters holding her.
“I’m a friend of Tarry’s,” he said as he eased her into a sitting position. “My name is John Wyatt. We’ve not long before the rightful owner of these keys comes looking for them. I have a carriage waiting at Bedlam Gate.”
The shackles fell away. Rachael winced, rubbing where the irons had chafed and bruised her flesh.
“Come, we must get you out of this place,” John urged.
A wave of dizziness swept over Rachael, and she swayed. She could not lift her head without feeling as if she were under water. Shadows in the room shifted like specters; the floor seemed to be moving as well.
“You’re strong, Miss Penrose, or you would not have survived this hellish place.” Rachael felt his arm around her waist, felt him lift her to her feet.
The door to her narrow cell seemed miles away and Bedlam Gate even farther. But for the first time in days hope had eclipsed endless terror.
Warn Tarry. Save James.