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«02 TRAVELING WITH THE DEAD», Barbara Hambly

James Asher - Book Two

BARBARA HAMBLY

A Del Rey Book Published by Ballantine Books

Copyright 1995 by Barbara Hambly

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.

Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House,

Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited,

Toronto.

For George

With a prayer in the shadow of the Aya Sofia

Prologue

The house was an old one, inconspicuous for its size. Curiously so, thought Lydia Asher, when she stood at last on the front steps, craning her neck to look up at five stories of shut-faced dark facade. More curious still, given the obvious age of the place, was the plain half timbering discernible under centuries of discoloration and soot, the bull's eye glass of the unshuttered windows, the depth to which the centers of the stone steps had been worn. Lydia shivered and pulled closer about her the coat she'd borrowed from her cook-even the plainest from her own collection would have been hopelessly fashionable for these narrow, nameless courts and alleys that clustered behind the waterfront between Blackfriars Bridge and Southwark. He can't hurt me, she thought, and brought up her hand to her throat. Under the high neck of her plain wool waist she could feel the thick links of half a dozen silver chains against her skin. Can he?

It had taken her nearly an hour to find the court, which by some trick of chance had been left off all four modern maps of this part of London. The whole yard was adrift in fog the color of ashes, and at this hour-Lydia heard three o'clock strike in the black steeple of the crumbling pre-Wren church that backed the old house-even the little remaining light was bleeding away. She had passed the house three times before truly seeing it, and sensed that had the air been clear, it would somehow still have been difficult to look at the place.

She had the absurd impression that by night, lanterns or no lanterns, streetlamps or no street lamps, it would not be visible at all. There was a smell about it, too, distinct and terrifying, but impossible to place.

She stood for a long time at the foot of its steps.

He can't hurt me, she told herself again, and wondered if that were true.

Her heart was beating hard, and she noted clinically the cold in her extremities, in spite of fur lined leather gloves and two pairs of silk stockings under her dainty, high heeled boots. Stouter shoes would have somewhat alleviated the situation, always supposing stout shoes existed that did not make their wearer look like a washerwoman-if they did, Lydia had never seen them-but the panicky scald of adrenaline in her bloodstream informed her that the cold she felt was probably shock.

It was one thing to speculate about the physiology of the house's owner in the safety of her own study at Oxford, or with James close by and armed. It was evidently quite another to go up and knock on Don Simon Ysidro's front door.

Muffled by the fog, she heard the tock of hooves, the jingle of harness from Upper Thames Street, and the groaning hoot of the motorbuses. Another hoot, deeper, came from some ship on the river. The click of her heels on the dirty steps was the strike of a hammer, and her petticoat's rustle the rasp of a saw. For all the house's age, the lock on the door was relatively new, a heavy American pin lock oddly masked behind what must have been the original lock plate of Elizabeth 's time. It yielded readily enough to the skeleton keys she'd found at the back of her husband's handkerchief drawer. Her hands shook a little as she then operated the picklocks in the fashion he'd taught her, partly from the sheer fear of what she was doing, and partly because, law abiding and essentially orderly, she expected a member of the Metropolitan Police to appear behind her crying, 'Ere, now, wotcher at?

Absurd on the face of it, she thought. It was patently obvious that no representative of the law had set foot in this square in years. She pushed her thick lensed spectacles more firmly up onto the bridge of her nose- Not only breakin' the law, roared the imaginary policeman, but ugly and four- eyed to boot!-slipped the picklocks and skeleton keys back into her handbag, and stepped through the door. It wouldn't be full dark until five. She was perfectly safe. The hall itself was much darker than she had expected, with the wide oak doors on either side closed. Trimmed with a carved balustrade, generous steps ascended carpetless to blindness above. The passage beside them to the rear of the house was an open grave.

There was, of course, no lamp.

Mildly berating herself for not having foreseen that contingency-of course there wouldn't be a lamp!- Lydia pushed open one of the side doors to admit a rinsed and cindery light. It showed her a key on the hall table, and turning, she closed the front door. For a time she stood undecided, debating whether to lock herself in and observing the deleterious effects of massive amounts of adrenaline on her ability to concentrate...

How would I go about charting degree of panic with inability to make a decision? The workhouse wouldn't really let me put my subjects into life threatening situations.

In the end she turned the key but left it in the lock, and stepped cautiously through the door she had opened, into what had probably been a dining room but was as large as the ballroom of her aunt's house in Mayfair. It was lined floor to ceiling with books: goods boxes had been stacked on top of the original ten-foot bookshelves, and planks stretched over windows and doors so that not one square foot of the original paneling showed and the tops of the highest ranks brushed the coffered ceiling. Yellow backed adventure novels by Conan Doyle and Clifford Ashdown shouldered worn calf saints' lives, antiquated chemistry texts, Carlyle, Gibbon, de Sade, Balzac, cheap modern reprints of Aeschylus and Plato, Galsworthy, Wilde, Shaw. In front of the bone clean fireplace, a massive oak chest, strapped with leather and the only furniture in the room, held a cheap American oil lamp of clear glass and steel, the trimmed wick in about half a reservoir of oil. Lydia produced a match from her pocket, lit the lamp, and by its uncertain light read the titles of the several new volumes, half unwrapped from their parcel paper, which lay beside it. A French mathematics text. A German physics book by a man named Einstein. The Wind in the Willows. How much time left?

With a certain amount of difficulty Lydia produced from beneath her coat a curious device-a simple brass bug sprayer of the pump variety, its nozzle carefully capped with a pinch of sticking plaster-and a shoulder sling manufactured from a couple of scarves in last year's colors. She removed the cap, reslung the sprayer on the outside of her coat and, picking up the lamp, moved off through the house.

The first-floor room contained more books. The rear chamber, book lined also, held furniture as well. A heavy table, strewn with mathematics texts, abaci, astrolabes, armillary spheres, a German Brunsviga tabulation machine, and what Lydia recognized dimly as an old set of ivory calculating bones. At the far end of the room loomed a machine the size of an upright piano, sinister with glass, metal, and ranks of what looked like clock faces, whose use Lydia could not begin to guess. Near it stood a blackwood cabinet desk, German and ruinously old, carved thick with gods and trees, among which peeped the tarnished brass locks to concealed recesses and drawers.


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