Snakes on a Train
Elspeth folded her hands in her lap, trying to keep her brows from knitting. She hated trains.
They were dirty, with bits of smut and coal blown back from the massive brass and aluminum steam engine pulling them along, and engrimed by successions of previous passengers.
They were noisy, from the engineâ€™s howl to the screech of the never-sufficiently-greased axles as they rocketed along the steel rails with their steady pocketa-pocketa-pocketa chug seeping up through the swaying floor.
And they were oppressively full of people, all thinking things, all pressing down on her Sensitiveâ€™s mind, making her shrink down into the hard wooden seat as though the haze of thoughts hung like coal-smoke in the air and if she sank low enough, sheâ€™d avoid it.
She glanced over at her fellow Pinkerton agent, who returned her look with his own slightly quizzical if impersonal gaze. All of the curiosity of their fellow passengers was directed at him, perhaps the first mechanical being theyâ€™d ever seen, with silver and brass skin and curly hair, eyebrows, and moustache of gilded wire.
â€œThey shouldnâ€™t be keeping us back here,â€ she said for the third time in as many minutes. â€œIf weâ€™re his assigned bodyguards, they should let us up to inspect his compartment.â€
â€œThe porter said heâ€™d tell them we were here,â€ Artemus said in precisely the same tone heâ€™d used the first two times heâ€™d said these words.
Elspeth sighed. Even as she did so, the porter entered the car and signaled to them.
â€œYou go up two cars,â€ he said, and pointed.
They made their way through the creak and sway of a car identical to theirs, then the narrower corridors of a sleeper car. Artemus knocked on a doorway and they poked their heads into a compartment where their package stood with his daughter.
That package, one Joshua McCormick, was a short, brawny little man who held himself with a terrierâ€™s alertness. His hair had retreated from the majority of his freckled brown scalp, but still tufted over his ears, which supported the frames of two brass-rimmed spectacles, the left one wider rimmed and more elaborate than the right. His daughter Belinda was unpacking McCormickâ€™s trunk with an assistantâ€™s familiarity. As Elspeth watched, she unfolded a trunk and set it against the wall so the myriad of tiny drawers and bottles it held were accessible, held in with straps against the trainâ€™s constant jostle.
Artemus said, â€œSir, do you intend to undertake experiments here on the train?â€
Professor McCormick shook his head, brows knitting. He folded his arms and glared over at his daughter. â€œBelinda. Itâ€™s true. I wonâ€™t be doing much on the train. If you unpack all of that, itâ€™ll just be in our way.â€
The daughterâ€™s stiff shoulders told Elspeth of the daughterâ€™s resentment. But she relaxed as the lack of emotions battering against her mind confirmed what theyâ€™d been told was a the case: the girl was a psychic null, whose thoughts could not be sensed and who would be able to withstand most mental powers.
It was one of the things she valued about Artemus – the absence of thoughts twitching her one way or another. She was looking forward to spending time with Belinda McCormick, if not her fatherâ€™s roil of pride and greed and anger.
The Professor wheeled to address Artemus just as roughly. â€œIâ€™ve told your superiors that your presence is unnecessary.â€
Another thing Elspeth appreciated about Artemus as his ability to keep his voice modulated where Elspeth knew irritation would have wasp-whined her own tone. â€œIâ€™m sure thatâ€™s true, sir. But there are definite and established dangers and not every train headed from Baltimore to Seattle has made it to its destination. Your expertise is important to the War Effort, and so weâ€™ve been hired to make sure you get there as quickly and smoothly as you can. If you relax and let us proceed in our efforts, youâ€™ll find the journey goes quickly and with a minimum of fuss.â€
The Professorâ€™s attention swiveled ponderously between the two of them.
â€œWhat sort of dangers have presented themselves?â€ he demanded, brows beetling in suspicion. â€œNot the made-up panics from the papers, mind you. The real dangers.â€
â€œThere have been instances of werewolves, which were responsible for the recent derailment of a train. And lizard-wizards, more than one.â€
â€œThat is the name some call them by, yes.â€ Artemusâ€™s voice remained glassy smooth. â€œWe have twelve hours before we reach Kansas City. Iâ€™d suggest you get settled and then go to sleep as early as possible. Iâ€™m told many people find the rattle of the wheels soporific.â€
McCormick looked offended by the reminder of Artemusâ€™s mechanical state. â€œAnd what are you? Is someone operating you remotely?â€
â€œIâ€™m automatous. This is my partner, Elspeth Sorehs.â€
â€œA Hasidic.â€ The Professorâ€™s eyes assessed Elspeth frankly, and his thoughts pawed at her. She forced down her reaction. He couldnâ€™t know that what he was thinking was offensive. That was what almost all men did, thought in terms of what they would have been able to see if the fabric and stays were stripped away, how cupable her breasts, her thickly fleeced her thighs, this one no less than any other. She looked down at the floor.
â€œYou will be in the cubby across the way?â€ the Professor addressed her.
â€œI will,â€ she said. â€œMr. West…â€ She stressed the honorific and surname in a way that ratcheted the older manâ€™s brows further upward. â€œMr. West will be watching the corridor outside your cubby. He is unsleeping.â€ It would be a rare creature indeed that made its way past Artemus.
â€œThe train will serve a late dinner in forty-five minutes,â€ the Professor said. â€œYou will join us.â€ He turned and went back into the room where his daughter stood.
Elspeth rolled her eyes at Artemus. She stuck her head in their own compartment, eying the tiny bunks.
â€œWell, itâ€™s snug,â€ she said. She sniffed at herself, ruefully noticing the sour tang to the fabric. That was the worst part of traveling, the lack of bathing facilities.
â€œThereâ€™ll be a bathhouse in Kansas City, and a four hour wait there, plenty of time,â€ Artemus said. â€œNo need to act as though we were venturing into the heart of the wilderness.â€ His eyes glittered phlogiston-blue in what sheâ€™d learned to call his pranksome mood. â€œIâ€™ll bet you that he says three things to offend you before the soup arrives. What do you think, my dear Hasidic?â€
She sighed. â€œAll in a dayâ€™s work,â€ she retorted. She retreated into the compartment. At least there was time to change before dinner.
She wore sea-green to the meal, a silk-cotton blend that maintained its shape better than most garments when traveling. When she saw Belinda McCormickâ€™s pale brown silk taffeta, trimmed with Bruges, she wished she hadnâ€™t bothered, particularly when the professorâ€™s eyes flicked over her, assessing the color against the dark hue to her skin, pronounced after a month in Baltimoreâ€™s sun.
Swarthy little girl, but sometimes those burn the hottest, he thought with a mental picture that kindled fire in her cheeks.
The tableâ€™s center held a wire and ivory basket for a spray of fresh flowers and the condiments: cut glass containers of red and yellow and green sauce, tiny shakers of salt and pepper. She fixed her eyes on that. To her right, Belinda was a welcoming, quiet void. She found herself leaning and glanced over to find the girl looking at her with steady, inquisitive…invitation or naÃ¯vetÃ©? So hard to know, sometimes.
The other passengers spoke and chattered as they ate turtle consommÃ©, a special Coast-to-Coast salad, and chicken-fried steak. Glasses of sherry were served round, though no one at their table took any. The Professor spoke primarily to his daughter, checking to make sure she knew the details of his trip, and what days and when he would be where. Artemus maintained his usual polite detachment.
Elpseth did the same. When a fat man lurched up from his table, at first she didnâ€™t react, lulled by the trainâ€™s motion into a half-doze that barely noticed the warmth of his anger. Artemus, though, stood with immediate grace, interposing himself between the newcomer and McCormick.
â€œNecromancer!â€ the fat man spat at the Professor, who looked up but continued to chew his steak, placid-jowled and incurious as a cow. â€œOur President is not content to have sent the dead into the field against their own brethren, but now you assist Abraham the Unholy by raising the dead to bind them into machines.â€ He pushed at Artemus, who budged not an inch. â€œWhose soul is bound into you, demon-machine?â€
â€œNo oneâ€™s but my own, I assure you,â€ Artemus replied.
Someone at one of the watching tables laughed and the angry man blushed, taking a step back. The steward appeared, taking his elbow to guide him out. The situation stopped ticking with menace as Artemus returned to his seat. The windows rattled in their frames, coffee cups clinked in after-dinner saucers, and they sped on along the prairie.
Elspeth removed herself at one point, vanishing to the johnny-car and returning with cheeks flushed.
Artemus leaned over as she sipped coffee to murmur, â€œWhat happened?â€
She leaned back into her chair, trying to look official as she whispered into Artemusâ€™s aluminum-cast ear. â€œA woman wanted to know what you were like in bed, offered me money for you.â€
â€œAnd!? Should I pimp you out in order to make a little extra income along the way?â€
He shrugged. â€œItâ€™s all data.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t even know what to do, let alone have the equipment to do it!â€
He quirked an eyebrow. â€œI am given from certain â€˜blueâ€™ materials that digital and lingual stimulation is sufficient. Itâ€™s not as though the act would be about my own pleasure after all, other than the frisson of new experience. Still, I am told it is a valid way to persuade a witness or ally.â€
His tone remained impersonal but his eyes flickered an amused blue. She jerked away from him and turned her attention to Belinda.
â€œWhat do you hope to do in Seattle?â€ she asked.
The girl toyed with the food on her plate. Elspeth thought sheâ€™d eaten a few bites at most, perhaps even less. â€œI will continue to act as my fatherâ€™s assistant, of course,â€ she said hesitantly.
â€œOf course you will,â€ her father interrupted. His own plate shone; heâ€™d used a roll to scrub the last of the gravy from the cold white china. He stared at Elspeth.
She doesnâ€™t keep kosher, his undermind said. I wonder what else she is…unconventional in.
After dinner, Elspeth lingered, sniffing hungrily at the draughts of cigar smoke that wafted her way.
â€œThink itâ€™s safe enough?â€ she overheard at her elbow. She craned her ears to listen.
â€œThere was a werewolf attack last month, but since then theyâ€™ve put up silver,â€ the other man said. The deck of cards riffled before he dealt them out. They whispered across the white linen tablecloth.
â€œSnakes?â€ The other man spat out a laugh. Black stubble hazed his jaw. He caught Elspethâ€™s eye and gave her a vulpine grin, sizing her up. Raising his voice, he said, â€œSnakes are what they use to scare passengers into behaving. Donâ€™t go anywhere by yourself, because you might get et. Thatâ€™s just a way to keep pretty ladies from getting lured into shadows for kisses from nice men.â€
Elspeth refrained from joining the conversation. As a Pinkerton agent, sheâ€™d met plenty of supernatural creatures. She knew there were a few werewolves, or rather shapechangers, that lived in the wilderness in small families. She was less worried about Snakes, even though the semi-mythical creatures were blamed for nearly every disaster that claimed human lives.
In either case, this wasnâ€™t like England, overridden with all manner of creature, including werewolves, fairies and vampires.
The Professor sat puffing a cigar, working it with tight jaws. When it finally had burned to an inchâ€™s worth of stub, he caught Elspethâ€™s eye and nodded at her to follow him as he rose. His mind revealed nothing other than the last of the tobaccoâ€™s tang and a weary readiness for his bed.
She followed him through the several cars housing those unfortunate enough not to have the price of a sleeper, relegated to the hard wooden benches fastened to the walls. They smelled of sweat and cheese and garlic and stomach gas and she sensed herself perceived by minds sleep-clouded by motion and time spent staring forward waiting to arrive.
Outside the two compartments, the Professor paused.
He looked everywhere but at her. â€œI want you to speak to my daughter.â€
â€œAbout?â€ His embarrassment burned in her stomach, incandescent as lava.
â€œShe has always lived with me. Her mother died when she was three. Our domestic situation has made her isolated in a manner that has warped her.â€
â€œShe has become forward in unexpected ways,â€ he said. His pink skin deepened in tone and he wiped at his brow with a crumpled silk handkerchief.
â€œThe suffrage movement appeals to many young women who feels their own lives are circumscribed,â€ Elspeth supplied. Sheâ€™d seen this struggle before, including in her own family when sheâ€™d announced she planned to become a Pinkerton agent.
He shook his head. â€œThere are many movements affecting the young nowadays. I was thinking more of the…â€ He hesitated, picking the words as carefully as making change out of a purse. â€œThe movement that some people call Free Love.â€
Elspeth tried to school her face into a lack of expression, but a brow crept upward despite herself.
â€œShe wishes to practice Free Love?â€ she said, very carefully. Where was Artemus? But her partner had said he wished to check the rest of the train. She wondered if he was looking for the woman who had offered Elspeth money for a couple of hours with him.
The Professorâ€™s hand flapped in the air like a trapped bird searching for windows of escape. â€œTell her…tell her that things are not as simple as she would like to think when it comes to defying societal mores. For women there are consequences and they come when least expected or desired.â€ He sighed.
There was something in his mind around all this that made Elspeth uneasy, but she nodded. They exchanged slight bows and retired into their compartments.
Artemus was back within a half hour, ready to set up watch. Elspeth did not question him as where he had been. Her partnerâ€™s inability to sleep was a definite plus. It made simple sense to always have him be the one watching in the small hours of the night, when his human counterpart might fall prey to drowsiness.
So many pluses to partnering with him. Before him, sheâ€™d been assigned to a former Army colonel who had never quite gotten over the shock of working with a woman. For Artemus that had never been an issue, and chivalry was impersonal with him, a matter of his metallic brain and body outshining any humanâ€™s, gender notwithstanding.
Theyâ€™d spent a week last spring in the Pinkerton Academy and sheâ€™d had a chance to speak with other female agents, despite how few and far between they were. Chloe Louisiana was a mulatto and former slave who always partnered with another woman, a half-Shawnee whoâ€™d been raised in England and whose name was Persephone Godschild. They were all united in their hate of the only other female agent present, a southern sharpshooter, Belle Cheatham, whose disdain they had all dealt with in the past.
â€œYouâ€™re lucky to have Artemus as your partner,â€ Chloe had said. She glanced over at Persephone, whoâ€™d nodded. The three of them had been sitting in a classroom, comparing notes and waiting for an instructor in ballistics to arrive.
Elspeth hadnâ€™t understood. Back then sheâ€™d seen it as punishment, assigning the odd psychic to the only thing capable of dealing with her. She went back and forth on whether the assignment was punishment or praise. It felt like either with equal frequency.
She lay in bed. A thought occurred to her and she pulled herself out of the narrow bunk to press her face up to the cold glass of the tiny window. Outside the vast plains were silvered with moonlight and the trainâ€™s long shadow raced beside them. Faint clouds seined the starry sky and somewhere a wolf howled.
Artemus shifted in the hallway. Heâ€™d heard her, she suspected, and wanted her to know her he was there if needed, without saying it outright.
Another one of the little gestures that seemed so unmechanical.
She returned to bed and lay there. The train said chuggadiggity-chuggadiggity-chuggadiggity and she dropped into sleep counting the syllables of that complex beat.
Someone scratching on her door woke her. She gathered her wrapper around her nightgown and slid the door open.
Belinda, in her own wrapper, embroidered with pale blue flowers and uncoiling ferns. No Artemus in the corridor, but the light in the other room suggested he was there with the Professor.
â€œDo you smoke?â€ Belinda said in a low whisper. Her eyes sparked as Elspeth nodded, and she held up two cigarettes in a conspiratorial way. â€Theyâ€™re talking. Weâ€™ll go indulge.â€
Outside, they sparked cigarettes alight with phosphorus matches in the doorwayâ€™s shelter before moving to stand on the swaying platform as the dark world hurtled past.
Belinda exhaled. The smell of the tobacco flickered in Elspethâ€™s nostrils. â€œYou know what I want in Seattle?â€ she said.
Elspeth shook her head. It was so refreshing not to be able to pluck the answer out of the otherâ€™s head, mystifying and giddying all at once, trying to figure out answers from clues as fragile and fleeting as cigarette smoke.
â€œI want to have a friend. Maybe several,â€ Belinda said. She reached out with her free hand and scraped the back of her index finger along the soft flesh of Elspethâ€˜s inner arm.
Elspethâ€™s heart jumped in her throat. In her mind, the Professorâ€™s voice said, …the movement that some call Free Love. She didnâ€™t react to the touch and after a long moment, Belinda leaned back against the railing and took another puff from her cigarette.
Elspeth had opened her mouth to reply when something lunged out of the night, a snarl of claw and tooth and gray fur striking from the ground to land between them.
Belinda recoiled, colliding with the glass of the door even as Espethâ€™s foot snapped out to catch the beast in the throat. She thanked her Pinkerton training, all the work sheâ€™d had to do to prove herself.
With a gabbled whine, the creature fell away. Elspeth grabbed Belinda and pulled her inside the car.
In its confines, the younger woman swayed, hand at her throat, eyes wide and fixed on Elspeth as her knees buckled.
Elspeth stooped to the floor as well, feeling the rocketing rails underneath through her shinbones, grappling Belinda to her.
Belindaâ€™s lips tasted of tobacco. Her heart hammered against Elspeth as Elspeth drew her into the compartment and the narrow, moon-washed bed.
She woke tangled in Belindaâ€™s arms to the sound of knocking on the door. Artemusâ€™ characteristic shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits.
â€œWhat is it?â€ she called.
She gestured quiet at the wide-eyed Belinda as she pulled on her nightgown. â€œWhat about him?â€ she called through the doorway.
â€œHis doorway is locked but heâ€™s not answering.â€
Artemus looked to her before fingering the lock. He was not supposed to pick mechanisms unless there was a human present.
She hoped that Belinda would have the sense to wait until they had entered the other cabin before making her way out of Elspethâ€™s compartment.
The lock clicked open and Artemusâ€™s hand fell away. He flipped the handle open and swung it inward cautiously, as though afraid of waking the Professor.
Who was unwakeable, lying as he did in a pool of crimson and surprise, face agape.
As they stood there in the doorway, Belinda appeared behind them and gasped. â€œPapa!â€
â€œI must ask you to stand back, Miss McCormick,â€ Artemus said. â€œElspeth, would you take her to a quiet place close by?â€
â€œLike my cabin?â€ Elspeth said.
â€œThat would do, certainly.â€
Elspeth escorted the wide-eyed, shocked Belinda back into the cabin and petted and soothed her for a few moments before returning to Artemusâ€™ side in the other compartment.
He stood frowning in the middle of the compartment. â€œI donâ€™t see it.â€
â€œThe professor was carrying the formula for his work to the War Ministry.â€
She looked around the tiny space. â€œItâ€™s not here?â€
â€œHe has his case there, and another trunk full of presents. I believe for his hostâ€™s children.â€
â€œWhat makes you think that?â€
â€œI took the liberty of opening them. One is a puzzle, another a set of fables, and the third a board game, â€˜Snakes on a Train.â€™â€
â€œSo the killer must have taken the formula.â€
â€œBelinda is the most likely suspect.â€
Elspeth hoped Belinda would remember the brief story Elspeth had coached her in. â€œShe went for coffee to the dining car but found it closed. He was alive when she left.â€
Artemusâ€™s expression ground into disapproval. He didnâ€™t like activating that portion of his faceâ€™s mechanism, she knew, preferring to keep it a bland and unthreatening smile.
â€œI donâ€™t think it was her,â€ she said firmly, and left it at that, hurrying on to say, â€œI think itâ€™ll be someone who gets off at the next stop.â€
â€œWhen is that?â€
â€œFor a major stop, one that is more than fuel? A day or so.â€
Summoned, two wide-eyed porters helped drag the body back several cars, wrapped in a blanket and supported as though it were an under-the-weather passenger, back to the refrigerator car.
After that, the Pinkerton agents canvassed the train to find the individuals planning on getting out at Kansas City. A young married couple, the Emersons, planning on joining Mrs. Emersonâ€™s brotherâ€™s homestead nearby; a school-teacher headed into the Territory; two traveling sales-men, one in patent sun hats and soaps, and the other in tin-ware; two former soldiers headed to get jobs as cattle drovers; and a veterinarian who had just purchased a practice in Kansas City in the mail.
Neither Artemus nor Elspeth could extract any reason why any of these individuals would have reason to kill the Professor.
Artemusâ€™ expression was still disapproving. â€œThe daughter…â€
â€œItâ€™s not her,â€ Elspeth said. â€œI think itâ€™s a wolf. We saw one when we were out there. One could jump onto a platform and come along a corridor.â€
â€œAnd have hands to open the door?â€
â€œWere-wolves,â€ she pointed out. â€œShape-changers. Skilled ones can manage half-way forms.â€
â€œIf there were such a creature then it is long gone,â€ Artemus said.
â€œLetâ€™s question everyone,â€ Elspeth said. â€œThe man who called him a necromancer, for example.â€
That man turned out to be a Portland bound minister, Alexander Knolle. Roused from his own sleeping car and questioned as to how he knew what McCormick had been doing, he pointed out that it had not been much of a secret, since McCormick had spoken in several lyceums in the Baltimore and DC area in the week previous to boarding the train.
â€œHe bragged on it,â€ the fat man said sweating but adamant, gaze trembling between the two. â€œOn how his formula help suit machinery and morbid flesh to each other. Morbid flesh, thatâ€™s what he called it. Dead things. I fought in the war last year. I know what comes of that.â€ He shuddered and retched.
The next night, Artemus spent on the platform watching for wolves.
Around two in the morning, Elspeth went out with him. The stars stretched overhead, brilliant as diamonds, lights that seemed close enough to reach up and pluck one.
â€œIs Belinda settled?â€ Artemus said over the rush of the wind and the rattle of the train.
â€œFor now,â€ Elspeth said. She titled her face away from him, knowing heâ€™d be able to read any rush of heat to her cheeks. She said, over her shoulder, â€œWhen we were first assigned together, I didnâ€™t like it. Now I wouldnâ€™t have any other partner.â€
She wasnâ€™t sure whether or not he was aware of Belindaâ€™s scent clinging to her, of the phantom pressure of hands that clenched at her skin. Perhaps heâ€™d think her blushes the result of her verbal confession. Either way, she wanted him to be reassured. â€œThereâ€™s no one else Iâ€™d rather have.â€ Silence stretched between them and she said, struck by it, â€œCan you say the same?â€
â€œI am used to you,â€ he said, but she thought some other emotion glinted far below the living light of his eyes.
Someone knocked on the partition. Belinda, pressed up against the glass.
â€œSomeoneâ€™s in with papaâ€™s things,â€ she said. â€œI heard them knocking about.â€
They crowded in, Artemus first. The heavy musk of wolf musk hung in the air. Where they had searched through the Professorâ€™s things but kept them in order, someone else had executed no such caution, but rather flung drawers open, tumbled cases on the floor, and dumped belongings out onto the floor. The puzzle pieces lay underfoot mixed with a scattering of tea bags and the delicate bones of some birdâ€™s wing, mingled with some reptileâ€™s coiled spine.
â€œLooking for something.â€ Artemus picked up a copy of a book and laid it on the bedspread.
â€œBut what?â€ Elspeth said.
â€œThe formula still.â€
â€œSo itâ€™s whoever killed him but they still donâ€™t have the formula.â€ Elspeth looked around the compartment. â€œEither because itâ€™s here hidden among his belongings, or because heâ€™s hidden it elsewhere on the train.â€
â€œOr because he never had it,â€ Artemus pointed out.
Disappointment clenched at Elspethâ€™s gut. â€œWhat makes you think that?â€
â€œIt seems as possible as anything else,â€ Artemus said. He looked around at the mess. â€œSomeone believes itâ€™s here, at any rate.â€
â€œIf itâ€™s a werewolf, theyâ€™ll surely try one last time before we hit the next town,â€ Elspeth said. â€œHow is he or she managing to keep up with the train?â€
â€œThey are supernatural creatures, endowed with uncanny amounts of speed and endurance,â€ Artemus said. He didnâ€™t add that one of his appeals for the Pinkerton Agency was his ability to match those uncanny abilities.
They waited in the darkness. Artemus was braced in the cupboard space; Elspeth crouched near the door. Belinda was bundled in Elspethâ€™s bed again with orders to bar the door and not come out for love or money. After those instructions had been given, the two Pinkertons had taken up position. They didnâ€™t speak.
The hours jolted by, the train slowing and speeding up. If she were the wolves, sheâ€™d wait for one of the curves where the train would be forced to deaccelerate, she thought. Even as it occurred to her, the axles squealed as they leaned left.
She tilted her head, listening, but also extending her other sense outward, searching for thoughts. There. ? where ? was not the thought of any passenger but the frustration of someone looking for a specific thing, returning to search again. river/camphor/dust flared in her senses and said they were familiar, long familiar.
She heard a sound she couldnâ€™t decipher, lost between the outer and the inner perceptions.
â€œTheyâ€™re trying to get into your room,â€ Artemus said, moving to the door.
She followed after him in the darkness, wishing theyâ€™d told Belinda to wait elsewhere.
Sparks flared, a shot rang out.
She struck a light in the silence to see him holding a lean and ragged wolf by the paw/wrist. Green eyes glinted, considering her. The toothy jaws opened and croaked out, â€œHnake. Here. Kill Hnake.â€
She looked at Artemus, but his gaze confirmed her own senses. Sincerity.
They backed into the other tiny bedroom, debris and puzzle pieces crunching underfoot.
â€œYouâ€™re looking for a Snake,â€ Artemus said. â€œYou sensed it, presumably.â€
The heavy muscle dipped in a nod. This close, Elspeth found that every instinct of her body screamed to get away. The green eyes blinked in amusement, considering her.
â€œItâ€™s Belinda,â€ Artemus said.
â€œThis again?â€ Elspeth said. â€œI know you donâ€™t like her.â€
â€œThat has nothing to do with anything. Sheâ€™s the Snake. Sheâ€™s taken the actual daughter and disposed of her along the way. As a master illusionist, sheâ€™s able to cloud your mind and make you think sheâ€™s just a null.â€
Elspeth ran through matters in her head. The sheer weighty reluctance of doing so convinced her that Artemus was right. Something was very wrong with Belinda.
â€œSomething more,â€ Artemus said. He knelt and picked up a handful of puzzle pieces. â€œLook at the backs.â€
She turned over the carved wood with dawning realization. â€œPencil marks on the back. Itâ€™s his formula.â€
Artemusâ€™ blue eyes shuttered. â€œIf the knowledge goes to the War Ministry, they will make machines from fallen soldiers. So will anyone else who learns it.â€ He methodically plucked puzzle pieces from the floor. â€œThey are very flammable, these pieces.â€
This was why they assigned a human to the mechanical, to think out questions of judgment and justice. In theory. But it seemed he no longer needed her.
She took the pieces from his hands and shoved them in the waistband of her shirt. â€œIf we just throw them out, thereâ€™s still a chance someone could find and reassemble them.â€
He nodded. â€œThe engine is three cars up.â€
But when she reached the engine, Belinda was there.
â€œAhhhh,â€ the young woman breathed out regretfully as she saw Elspethâ€™s face. She spread her hands in a helpless gesture. â€œI take it the jig, as we say, is up?â€
Elspeth took a few steps forward, looking at the door to the boiler, small and square and securely shut.
Before she could move again, Belindaâ€™s form blurred and interposed itself. Elspeth felt the hard muscles against her own.
â€œWould you like?â€ the voice buzzed, half out loud, half in mind. Like to see what I really look like?
She breathed out assent and the golden curls shimmered, gave way to a hood of shimmering scales, purple and pine and scarlet, and eyes that stared at her tenderly. She was enfolded in coils, and Belindaâ€™s mouth hovered over the vein that pulsed in her neck.
I will not touch your blood, the voice said in her head, not for all the world, beloved, but oh, if I did, it would be right here — the teeth dipped and grazed the skin in a circle of freezing pleasure that ran from that point down to her very core, where it warmed and made her loins heavy with desire — right here — and the lips caressed the skin as though licking some flavor from them.
Even as that pleasure burned, Elspeth grappled the door open and threw the puzzle pieces in to flare up in a cascade of sparks. Even so, the arms held onto her waist, the warm breath caressed her shoulder. It is a bad thing for anyone to hold, and there will be other power, given time, the internal voice hissed, and suddenly nipped, not breaking the skin but making her gasp aloud with the intensity of the pleasure.
The orgasm shook her, drove her off her feet, and the arms released her to let her slide against the wall as the Snake backed away, green eyes amused and regretful.
We will meet again, you and I.
The door opened and the figure was gone, fallen out into the dark night.
â€œIt is,â€ Artemus said, â€œsomething that we can explain to the War Ministry. The professor died telling no one the formula. It died with him.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t want to say that the emissary of a group of magical shape shifters killed him for itâ€? Elspeth asked.
Artemus shuddered. â€œWe would face questioning for weeks.â€ The amusement faded. â€œWeâ€™ll have to find the group ourselves.â€
â€œIf they donâ€™t find us first,â€ she said. She heard the voice again, beloved, and shook her head to clear it.
She looked to Artemus.
We will meet again, you and I.
And what will happen then?