The Mothers of Mercy Hospital was located in what had once been a fashionable part of the town. Age had whittled it down, leaving the place looking as old and worn out as the dilapidated manor houses that surrounded it. Most of the well-to-do folk had fled the area during an outbreak of the plague, though a handful of the wealthy landowners -- too stubborn to move on -- remained on their estates, closer to what was left of the town.
Roan Cabrera paused on the weed-strewn dirt road that led to the entrance. The air was fetid with the stench of horse droppings, rot, and despair. He didn’t know which was worse, the stink outside, or the smell of disease and death that permeated the very walls of the hospital.
Materializing on the third floor, he ghosted past the nurse on duty, unseen, then continued down the hallway until he came to the room at the end of the corridor. A woman lay unmoving on the narrow bed. Maura Singleterry, age twenty-eight, was the victim of a carriage accident that had killed the driver and the other two passengers. She was a pretty woman -- or she had been. Now, her cheeks were sunken, her eyes shadowed, her hair limp and lackluster. Trapped in a coma for the last three weeks, her prognosis was bleak at best.
Entering the room, Roan closed the door, then glided silently to the side of the bed. He stood gazing down at her a moment; then, taking her limp hand in his, he sat on the edge of the narrow mattress, his mind delving through the darkness that kept her trapped in unconsciousness.
Opening a mental link between them, he murmured, Hello, Maura.
Who else?. Where would you like to go today?
My wedding day, but first…I want to know about you.
What would you like to know?
How is it we can talk when I cannot communicate with anyone else? Are you real? Or just a fever dream?
I’m real enough. ‘Tis a gift I have, being able to speak with those who are lost in the dark.
I cannot find my way out. She whimpered softly. I try and try, but I cannot get through the darkness.
Roan stroked her brow. I know. That’s why I’m here. Put your questions away for now, Maura, and I’ll take you back to the day you wed.
He closed his eyes, his mind searching hers, until he found the memory she wished to experience again. He gave it back to her, not as a dream, not as a faint memory, but as if she were reliving it again…she mingled with everyone who had been there, recalled each word spoken that day, each thought that crossed her mind, the love she felt for her new husband, the taste and smell and texture of the food she ate, her nervousness as she and her husband left her parents’ home, the carriage ride to the inn where they had spent their first night as husband and wife.
It was a rare gift he had, being able to grant those who were dying a chance to relive their most cherished memories. It cost him nothing, and he took but little in return for the pleasure he gave.
An hour later, Roan kissed Maura’s cheek in farewell and left the hospital. He felt a brief twinge of regret in knowing that she had only a few hours to live. It seemed unfair that such a sweet-natured woman should be taken before her time. Unfair, he thought again, that one who had everything to live for should be brought down in her prime while he, a man who had nothing to live for and no one to mourn him when he was gone, had existed for centuries.
Hands shoved deep into his pants pockets, he strolled along the dark streets. Newbury Township was miles away from the politics and corruption of London. The people were mostly peasants and shopkeepers who had no time for anything but providing for their families.
All the shops were closed at this time of the night, with the exception of the tavern at the end of Bayberry Street. The Hare and Hound was one of Cabrera’s favorite haunts, a place to while away the long, empty hours until dawn.
He went there now, taking his usual seat in the back, near the window. Maura Singleterry. Tomorrow her soul would shake off the pain of mortality and take flight. No doubt she would she find eternal rest in heaven, if heaven existed. He had been inside her mind and found no evil there. Would she find peace in the hereafter, knowing she had left a grieving husband and five young children behind?
Roan blew out a sigh. He, too, would grieve for Maura Singleterry. He had visited her each evening for a fortnight, helping her to relive happier moments in her life, always giving her hope that she would recover when he knew it for a lie.
He would miss her gentle spirit, but there would be others lingering in the shadow-world between life and death. There were always others. He eased their pain and although they didn’t know it, they eased his. It was, he thought, an amicable alliance.
He looked up as Molly Lindstrom sashayed toward him. He had seen her on several other occasions. She was a pretty wench, with a riot of red curls, and soulful brown eyes that had seen too much of the sordid side of life.
“Can I get you something, my lord handsome?” she asked with a saucy grin.
Roan shook his head. The chit had a crush on him. Had he been younger, had Molly been older, he might have taken what she so boldly offered. “Wine,” he said. “Red.”
She canted her head to the side. “Do you never drink anything else?”
His gaze drifted to the pulse throbbing steadily in the hollow of her throat. “Now and then.”
“I’ll be going home soon, if you’d care to walk with me.”
“Another time, perhaps.”
She pouted prettily. “You always say that, but you never do.”
“Pray that I never say yes.”
She looked at him oddly a moment, then turned and flounced away.
“Cabrera, there you are!” George Hampton exclaimed. “We’ve a game going downstairs. Care to join us?” In his mid-fifties, Hampton had a shock of iron-gray hair.
“That depends on who else is playing.”
Hampton braced his hands on the back of the chair across from Roan. “The usual late night crowd. Westerbrook and Lewiston and Cormac. Flaherty said he might be along later.”
“Lead the way,” Roan said, rising. After motioning for Molly to bring his drink downstairs, he followed Hampton down the narrow winding staircase that led to the gambling hell.
The rooms downstairs were dimly lit. A layer of thick gray smoke hovered near the ceiling. Hampton’s cronies were gathered around a table in the middle of the room. As usual, Walter Cormac was winning. No surprise there, since he frequently cheated, although no one but Roan seemed aware of it. Short and bandy-legged, he reminded Roan of a rooster.
“Looks like your winning streak’s about to end, Mac,” Henry Westerbrook said as Roan slid into an empty chair.
Cormac snorted softly. “Not tonight, old man. Lady Luck is sitting on my shoulder.”
The other men at the table laughed good-naturedly. Cormac always said Lady Luck was on his side, when luck had nothing to do with it.
“Well, Lady Luck may be on your side,” Frank Lewiston remarked, “but I’d wager my daughter’s dowry that Cabrera has the devil’s own luck on his.”
“Now, gents,” Hampton said, “this is a friendly game, remember?”
“Friendly, right,” Westerbrook remarked, and dealt the cards. Westerbrook had been an officer in the Army. He still carried the air of command.
Leaning back in his chair, Roan perused his hand. He had played cards with these men often enough to know how each man reacted when he had little chance of winning the pot. Lewiston folded early, Cormac would bluff, and Hampton, the wealthiest of the lot, would try to buy the hand.
Had he wanted to, Roan could easily have read each man’s mind to find out what cards they held, but there was no sport in that. Still, he had done it on occasion, when his funds were low. It wasn’t something he was proud of, but lacking regular employment, there were times when it was necessary. He was considered a bit of a scoundrel by those who knew him, an odd duck by casual acquaintances. He supposed both descriptions suited him.
“So, Cabrera,” Hampton said, folding his hand, “have you met Dudley’s niece?”
Roan blew out an exaggerated sigh. “We’ve met.”
“Is he still trying to marry her off?” Lewiston asked. “He’d have better luck if he trotted her out in a veil.”
Cormac grinned as he raked in the pot. “The doxies all look the same in the dark.”
“True enough,” Lewiston agreed, “but she does come with a pretty dowry.”
“Then why don’t you offer for her?” Roan asked dryly. Dudley’s niece, Clara Beth, was perhaps the plainest woman Roan had ever met. Had she been blessed with a sparkling personality, suitors might have overlooked her appearance, but she was as dull as she was homely, and almost as wide as she was tall. He doubted a king’s ransom would entice any red-blooded male to offer for her hand.
Roan passed a pleasant few hours gambling, then bid his companions a good evening and left the establishment.
For a moment, he considered hiring a hack to take him home, but after the smoky interior of the pub, the night’s breeze called to him.
He loved the night, the soft sighing of the wind, the salty scent that wafted off the ocean, the earthy smell of soil and damp grass.
Stepping outside, he gazed up at the sky, pitying the poor mortals who glimpsed only a fraction of the heavenly display. Humans. They saw so little of the world around them, missed so much. Each evening, the earth played a symphony they never heard.
There were times when he regretted the loss of his humanity, when he cursed the woman who had transformed him against his will, but tonight wasn’t one of them.
Kathryn Winterbourne crept out of the crowded room she shared with seven other young women. She had come to the city in hopes of finding a new and better life than the one she had known at home. She had not wanted to leave her mother at her step-father’s mercy. Though her mother denied it, Kathryn knew the man beat her mother when he was in his cups. Thankfully, he had not yet laid a hand on Kathryn.
Even though it had been her mother who had insisted Kathryn go, it had taken every ounce of courage she possessed to leave everything that was familiar. But staying home had been out of the question, so she had taken the few pounds her mother had stolen from Kathryn’s step-father and run away -- away from the poverty of the farm, away from the ever-growing lust in her step-father’s eyes.
To her disappointment, life in the city was little better than life on the farm. The only employment to be had was as a scrub woman in a bawdy house in the red light district. And now, she was running away again, running from Madam Quinlan’s latest paramour.
Running….where? She had no place to go, no money with which to secure a bed for the night, no way to pay for a room -- or for her next meal.
Why was she trying to run away from the fate that would surely be hers sooner or later? She had no education, no skills useful in the city, no hope for a favorable marriage. It was just a matter of time before she was forced to choose between starvation or earning her living on her back in one of the brothels near the docks, perhaps the very house she had fled.
Tears filled Kathryn’s eyes as she contemplated such a horrid future. She didn’t want to become a doxy, didn’t want some fat, uncaring madam to rule her days and nights, or sell her virginity to the highest bidder. She didn’t want to end up old and alone, riddled with the pox.
She dreamed of marrying a man who loved her, preferably a wealthy man who would cherish her, one who would take her to his home and keep her safe from the ugliness of the world. Someone to give her children, but most of all, someone who would love her. But what gentleman of the realm would deign to wed someone like her?
Even though she had never worked above stairs at the brothel, her reputation was ruined. The fact that she had recognized a few of the upper-crust gents who had frequented Madam Quinlan’s house only made things worse. None of the eligible men were likely to call on a woman who knew their worst habits. Not that it mattered. She didn’t want anything to do with a man -- married or single -- who would visit such a disreputable place.
She dashed the tears from her eyes, but they only came harder and faster as she looked into an increasingly bleak future.
Lost in misery, Kathryn didn’t hear the rapidly approaching carriage until it was too late. When she saw the coach-and-four bearing down on her, she hardly had time to scream.