Richard had requested of his friends that if they wanted to visit him, they must give him notice in advance, so that they would not catch him unawares and unprepared to open the door. His skin would blister and burn if exposed to the sun for even ten minutes, and his eyes turned red and bloodshot when looking around in full daylight, so Richard was not the kind of person who could simply open the door and step outside for a chat. He had to trek upstairs to get the special glasses a friend had made for him, which would layer over his regular glasses, and pull on a coat, gloves, and a mask before he could open the door to speak to someone. The length of time it took was fantastic for dissuading door-to-door marketers, who apparently did not have the patience to wait for him to put on a suit to protect his skin from the sun. Friends would wait, though he preferred to not face the awkwardness of leaving Duke Leonard Mephisto, one of the most important men in London’s politics right now, standing on his doorstep.
It was for this reason that when he heard someone banging on the door he immediately cursed his luck, and ran to fetch his glasses to see who it was. He used his cane to lope upstairs, and it clacked on the floor as he went as fast as he could into the bedroom. The glasses Henry had designed hooked onto his regular ones, which created an effect of layered glass that Richard found slightly ridiculous. It didn’t matter how it looked, though, because they kept his eyes from burning to crisps.
He went back downstairs, making a mental note to ask Henry for a second pair of glasses that he could keep downstairs. Richard drew back the heavy curtain covering the window by the door, and instantly felt like a terrible person for wishing the visitor would go away. He opened the door, and said, “Deirdre.”
Deirdre was a skinny young woman, a year or two younger than Richard was, with stringy red hair and a very pale complexion. Presently she was dressed in a white dress stained light gray, her eyes were red and puffy from crying, and her bruised face was smeared with dirt. She had a strange look in her eye, and wrung her hands, which were bloody.
“Well?” She asked.
Richard held the door open wider. “Come in, I suppose.”
Deirdre rushed inside, out of the frightfully warm and bright summer sun. England didn’t have much of a summer, which made it ideal for Richard to live there. He was eternally glad for his own family history, and the fact that his father had emigrated from Persia to marry an English woman before he was born. It would have been an utter nightmare to live somewhere as sunny as the Middle East.
Deirdre had curled up on the sofa, thin body folded in a defensive position. Richard went into the kitchen to put the kettle on, then came to sit down in the front room again. He had set up his easel there, and was doing a charcoal drawing of a stormy seashore. He drew still lives, and people, but he liked to draw waves best. The way they swept and churned attracted him somehow, even though Richard had been to the seashore only a few times, and only gone outside at night.
“I thought you were a painter,” Deirdre said. Her voice was quiet, subdued, as if she might wake someone or something if she spoke too loudly, but her thick Irish accent that had not been diminished in the slightest by a year of living in London made it unmistakeable.
“I am,” Richard said. His hands were stained from the charcoal, and his kneaded eraser was almost black from the day’s work. He was quite pleased with this drawing, particularly the details of the water flowing up onto the beach. “But I must know how to draw, too. Besides, charcoals are much easier to take with me than oil paints.”
“Take with you?”
“I don’t stay here all day,” Richard said. “I do go places. To draw, and do studies of people. Mrs Elizabeth Baker lets me come down to her theater during the day to draw the actors, mostly at Leonard’s insistence.” He put another section of crosshatching on the cliffs, before sitting back to look at it. “Well? Should I call it done?”
Deirdre shrugged, and rubbed her red eyes with filthy hands. Richard made a displeased noise upon seeing them, and stood unsteadily with the help of his cane.
“You mustn’t sit around dirty like that, Deirdre. Come here, let me wash off your hands, at least. Can I get you something to eat?” He knew that she lived in the poorest part of London, working as a maid for various middle-class families. Sometimes, when she could get away, she helped the chimney sweeps that lived in her area, too. Either way, both jobs were incredibly dirty, and paid incredibly badly, so Deirdre didn’t bathe or eat often.
She shrugged, and pulled her legs closer to her chest. “I guess I’m a little hungry.”
Richard went into the kitchen and retrieved a plate of scones. Deirdre’s eyes lit up like gas lights when she saw it, then widened even more when he took an open jar of jam out of the cabinet. Richard placed the plate and the jar on the table in front of the sofa, gesturing that she should eat. Deirdre devoured a scone in under a minute without any water, then jumped up and ran to drink straight out of Richard’s tap.
He sighed. “There are cups in the cabinet next to the sink.”
Deirdre got one out and filled it, before coming back to the sofa and curling up again. She chewed her lip, and Richard could tell there was something she wanted to ask him.
“I won’t be hurt if you ask about my skin condition,” Richard said. He’d known Deirdre for a while, and she’d never asked about it. That was quite odd, because nearly everyone brought it up soon after meeting him. “In fact, I would be quite happy to speak with you about it, if you’re curious.”
Deirdre shook her head. “No, it’s not that. I was just wondering how you have such a nice house if all you ever do is paint, write, and draw.”
Richard froze. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you’ve got gas lights, running water, a gas stove, wallpaper on every wall, a good amount of furniture, two stories, a woman who comes to clean your house… Yet, all I ever see you do is draw and write and paint. Sometimes you exhibit your work, and I’ve heard it’s popular, but you don’t do it enough to be famous enough to live off that alone. People read your books, sure, but you haven’t written many of them, and you aren’t paid much for them.” She sipped her water, and Richard could feel a sort of fearful cold spreading through his body. “I would think you blow all your art money on medical care for your various conditions and necessities like food. How do you find the funds to keep such a nice home, too?”
Richard calmly put down his charcoal. Keep it together and she wouldn’t find out. “I’m sorry, Deirdre, it’s a bit of a secret.” Fool! Idiot! Why had he said that? Now he would only taint her heightened curiosity with suspicions.
She shrugged. “I live among prostitutes and thieves, Richard, it can’t be that bad.”
Prostitutes and thieves. “You probably don’t know anyone who does anything like this, Deirdre.” He winced. That was a blatant lie, he worked with her best friend. “And besides, it’s not illegal.” Oh no. Now he’d have to come up with something intricate and secretive enough to warrant his strange behaviour about his job.
Deirdre rolled her eyes. “What would be not illegal but so incredibly secret that you can’t tell me?”
“Uh… it’s a government job.”
“A government job?” Deirdre flinched, and curled into a tighter ball. She scowled. “You mean you work for a lord? Which lord? What’s his crest? His color? Tell me, Richard.”
He’d forgotten the bad experiences she’d had with the government, especially the nobility. “No, it’s- well, yes, I do. I… uh… I work for Lord Leonard. As a… a secretary sort of person. I do a lot of boring paperwork.”
Deirdre relaxed a bit, and shifted to get more comfortable. “That’s only slightly better. How many people does Lord Mephisto have in his service, anyway?” She looked more stable then when she’d originally come to his house; the color was returning to her cheeks, and her eyes were less puffy and red.
There was a knock at the door, which Deirdre ran to get. Richard went into the kitchen to get the kettle, and when he came back out Duke Leonard Mephisto was standing in front of his easel.
Leonard was a tall man in his late thirties, with brilliant, flaming red hair and a tall, athletic figure. His face was bearded, and his lips were twisted into a smile. Today he wore an expensive, tailored crimson suit and carried a cane that he didn’t need in one hand. Despite him being there for less than five minutes, the room already smelled heavily of smoke from a cigar. Deirdre coughed as Richard came in, then gave him a weak smile.
“Richard!” Leonard said. “Your friend, here, was just telling me about this latest drawing. Is that what you’ve been working on these past few days that I haven’t seen you?”
“You haven’t seen him?” Deirdre asked. “But he works for you.”
Leonard looked from Deirdre to Richard, no doubt seeing panic written all over his face, and smiled. “Yes, yes, despite- despite that, dear. I haven’t seen him in a few days. I let him have some time off to work on his art, you see.”
Richard sighed in relief. Where would he be without Leonard? He was the one who had introduced Richard to Elizabeth Baker, who let him spend his days in the windowless theater funded by Leonard’s own money and run by her. He had connected Richard with his wife, who had accepted him into her group of writer friends. He even helped Richard with his more dubious second job, something he was eternally grateful for. “Yes, thank you for not docking me pay.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, if I have enough money that I’m paying you a stipend to make art that I enjoy, I can certainly afford to give you a few days off to work on a side project.” Leonard turned to Deirdre. “Now, are you going to introduce me to your friend, here, or am I just supposed to get her name myself?”
“I thought you didn’t like girls.”
“She isn’t my lover. We’re friends.”
“Well, this is the closest I’ve seen you come to having any kind of romantic companion. You don’t like anyone, do you?”
An awkward silence lapsed, which Richard broke by saying, “shall we have tea? There’s more than enough for you, Leo, should you choose to stay.”
“Actually, I was hoping to come fetch you to visit a young man I’ve just met, who I think you could… hm… help, Richard? He’s a scientist, and a foreigner, too.” Leonard picked up his cup of tea and drained half of it in a single mouthful. “Would you be interested in coming, too, Deirdre?”
She shook her head shyly. “N- no, Lord Mephisto, I don’t like meeting strangers.”
“No? That’s very well, you can stay here while me and Dick go to see Dr Faust. Is that alright with you, Richard?”
Richard shrugged. “It’s alright with me as long as you lock the door and don’t go into the locked rooms.” ‘Locked rooms’ included his study, the room where he kept his art supplies, and most importantly the basement. Neither Deirdre nor Leonard nor anyone else could ever go in there, or he would be dead.
Deirdre nodded. “Is… is it alright if I use your bathtub?”
“Of course. Just don’t move any of the medicinal supplies up there.”
Leonard pounded his cane, and tapped his watch. “Come on, Richard, we’re going to miss him.”
Richard pulled on his overcoat, gloves, and wide-brimmed hat. He sat down on the sofa and began the long process of strapping on the books that cushioned his deformed feet and made it possible for him to walk. When he was finished, he stood and wrapped fabric about his neck, before putting on a full face mask that would protect him from the sun.
“You look half a mummy,” Leonard joked. Richard ignored him.
They walked out the door, Richard still limping but relying less on his cane now that he had his shoes on. Leonard had a carriage, and drew the curtains once they were inside. Richard took off his mask as the carriage began to rumble down the street.
“So, who is this Dr Faust?” He asked.
Leonard shrugged. “A young biologist from the continent, though he speaks english well enough. He has need of a great deal of dead bodies for dissection, something about how he’s furthering the human understanding of death. You know the type. Still, he’s respectable enough, and rich despite his unfortunate lodgings at the moment.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he lives very close to your young friend Deirdre, actually. I’ve seen her around, going into one of the flats next to his.”
Richard grimaced. Deirdre’s flat was in an old building that was practically falling apart, and inhabited by mostly criminals. “Why on Earth does he live there?”
“Probably because it’s easier to get bodies delivered to a poor building than a middle-class home.” Leonard grinned. “We can’t all have entrances to the sewers in our basement.”
Richard’s face burned. He’d told Leonard of his real occupation out of the need to tell someone, but Leonard had of course been entirely enthusiastic about the fact that Richard dealt in dead bodies, and had gleefully acted as someone who found clients when Richard himself could not. He did other things, too, such as acting as a fence for the riches Richard stole from the bodies, and had found him his long-time partner, a man named Barrorah. Still, he didn’t like Leonard loudly talking about how he’d broken into the sewers from his basement, which was technically very illegal.
“Do I have to go see him?” Richard asked.
“You’re in the carriage.”
“I know, but can’t I wait here while you talk to him?”
Leonard shrugged. “I suppose. You’ll have to meet him sometime later, but you don’t have to do it now if you don’t want to.”
Richard pushed himself deeper into the cushion of the seat. “I won’t. I- I have some things I need to think through.” He smiled slightly to himself when Leonard looked confused. He didn’t know everything about what Richard did.
They talked idly for the rest of the ride, until the carriage stopped and Leonard got out. Richard took the time to plan out the color scheme for a new painting in his head, consider the supplies he would need for it, and imagine where he would hang it. This was going to be another of those ones in the series about a masquerade ball, and he would need more of that excellent thick red paint the woman who lived behind the closest drug store made. Richard didn’t know what it was made of, or how she made it, but it was the best thing he had ever found for painting red clothing, or flowers, or apples, or blood.
He would need a lot of it for this painting, that much he was sure of. Most of the ladies’ dresses at the ball were to be red this time around.
Leonard came back soon enough, with a paper with an address and a name on it. “Here’s his address, and here’s what he wants you to call him.”
Richard was confused by the fact that Dr Faust would want to be called ‘John Godless,’ but he didn’t immediately question it. He’d worked for people with stranger pseudonyms than that.
“Possibly. I did see a great collection of books on his shelves.”
Richard stuffed the paper in his pocket. “What’s Dr Faust’s real name, then?”
“Oh, he’s a German?”
“Yes, and his accent was rather thick. I hope you won’t hold that against him?”
“Why would I dislike him for being German?”
Leonard puffed on his cigar. “People hate other people for all kinds of idiotic reasons.”
Richard had nothing to say to that, so he was silent as they rode back to his house. Leonard bid him goodbye from the carriage, and Deirdre bid him hello from the sofa when he came back in.
“I’ll need to be leaving soon,” she said. “I saw some of your new paintings in the hallway. They’re very pretty.”
Richard set to taking off his outer clothing and shoes, then limped into the kitchen and dug a loaf of bread out of a cabinet. “Here, take this for breakfast tomorrow.”
“It’ll be stolen from me in a heartbeat.”
Richard took a pistol out of his pocket. “Take this, too, then.”
“You’ve been carrying a gun around with you?”
“It doesn’t matter. Just take the food, and if you need it, take the gun, too.”
Deirdre took both, and, thanking him profusely, left.
Richard ate a dry sausage and a slightly stale scone, then stood and fetched the key to the basement. Barrorah would be waiting for him.
His base of operations beneath the house was simple enough. There was a closet just off the stairs, which contained his tools and attire, as well as a large display of guns. The main room had a great deal of canvas sacks piled in the corner and hanging from the walls, as well as a trolley that they used for transporting the bodies. There was a huge fireplace for burning bits of bodies and the clothing, and a rack of various spare tools next to it. Off that room was another, with a currently unlit furnace worthy of a glassblower’s shop, and a work area where Richard would pry apart loot taken from the corpses. People were often buried in jewelry, or clothing with flashy metal on it, which he could melt down and sell.
Richard’s occupation wasn’t a source of pride, but he was good at it, and there weren’t many other jobs that could be carried out exclusively at night. He wore dark clothing when he went out, a thick leather coat and gloves, and a hat and black mask to hide his identity. He looked sinister and faceless in that outfit, as though he was some monster out of a fairy tale. Keep inside, children! Golmon’s coming to get you!
Richard grinned at himself in the mirror at the back of the closet, then remembered that he was wearing a mask. He slammed the door, and spent the next ten minutes lacing up his shoes. When that was done, he threw open the door on the back wall, revealing a ramp into the sewers.
“Barrorah,” Richard hissed. “Barrorah, where are you?”
Richard didn’t even hear the man approach, but he was quickly aware of eyes burning into him. He turned, and saw no one there, nor was there anyone standing to either side of him. “Barrorah?”
There was a slight trapping of stone from above him, and he looked up to see Barrorah, who had somehow attached himself to the stone ceiling. There was no obvious way that he was gripping the stone, but Barrorah had proved to be a master at scaling walls and other surfaces.
He wore his mask, hat, coat, and gloves, which obscured his long face and thickly knotted curls, but his strange eyes glittered through all the same. They were yellow, those eyes, and they glowed like two fireflies stuck inside Barrorah’s sunken sockets. There was something about the man that had always frightened Richard, probably stemming from his firefly eyes and disturbing smile that was thankfully firmly hidden under the mask. His aptitude for jumping down on people from above and sinking his knives into their necks didn’t help, either, nor did his evasiveness in talking about his past. He was from Africa, but that was all that Richard knew about him.
Richard was one to talk, though, as a painter and writer whose stories and accompanying paintings made some consider him a madman. What was a creeping man with glowing eyes to a mad artist? What was a little mystery to a ghoul?
“Does the ghoul still work as a resurrectionist?” Barrorah asked. “Or has he taken leave of his wits, and decided to start shouting names around?”
“The ghoul still works,” Richard said. “Does the firefly?”
Barrorah laughed. “He does.” He swung down and landed silently on the ground. “Where does the ghoul take us tonight?”
“We go to a new client.”
Barrorah laughed again. “What?”
“I don’t understand it any more than you do. He just goes by the name. Probably he is some kind of radical atheist trying to reverse death and prove religion wrong. You know the type.”
Barrorah shook his head. “Arrogance.”
“Perhaps so, but who are we to criticize a paying client?” He walked back upstairs to fetch the cart. “Come, help me with this, Barrorah. I know a place we can go.”