Content warning: PTSD type flashbacks and implied abuse
Deirdre had watched the redheaded aristocrat, who she was certain she had met before, come and go, and had heard snatches of his argument with Johann. She walked to the other side of the hall and into a vacant flat, where there was a window facing onto the street. The aristocrat – Duke Leonard Mephisto, she now realized – hooked his arm around that of a woman with black hair and light brown skin. They had a quick conversation, before marching off laughing. That was mildly interesting, though Deirdre mostly cared for the revelation that Leonard was not, in fact, Johann’s lover. That put what she’d heard in better context.
Sylvia was away doing God knew what, Jean had gone out to tour the city and try to find work, so Deirdre was alone for the day. Alone, at least, until their second new roommate arrived, someone else who Sylvia knew. When they arrived it would be Deirdre, Sylvia, Jean, and them, four people in two rooms, which would be cramped but not too bad. The Murphys had nearly three times as many, and they got along alright.
Deirdre went back into their flat, and got out the bread Richard had given her. She made sure no one was in the hallway, then went up the stairs and knocked on Johann’s door.
He answered within the minute. His skin was light brown, his hair was several shades darker, and his eyes were two pools of inky abyss ringed in white. Deirdre blushed, embarrassed that she’d used those exact words to describe Johann’s eyes to Sylvia last night.
She had only run into him twice before: once at the train station, and once afterwards, when she was coming home from Richard’s house. He had tipped his hat to her then, and she’d seen his eyes, which were so strangely intriguing, knowing and utterly soulless.
“Yes?” Johann asked.
“I- I’m sorry- but you’re Johann Faust, right?”
“I saw you yesterday at the train station. Remember, right before the crash?”
Johann smiled, though it did not reach his eyes. “Yes, I remember. You lived with Do- the railroad
worker who died the night before last.”
“Yes!” Deirdre held up the bread. “I was wondering if you wanted to talk a little bit. I brought something for us to eat, if you do.”
Johann paused, then smiled, for real this time, and nodded. “I’d like that.” He opened the door, and she stepped inside his flat.
He lived in the attic of the building, in a small space that was perhaps as big as their flat but not divided into rooms or properly furnished. He had a bed with a dresser at its foot and a pair of living chairs beneath a window that overlooked the street. There was a desk and a bookcase that were pressed up under the other window, and a long table in the middle of the room. The table was covered in chemicals and strange tools and something big under a sheet which Deirdre did not inquire after, mostly because Johann walked straight past it. His luggage was piled in one corner, including one small canvas bag splattered with blood.
“Is that the one Dom saved?” Deirdre asked
“Dom? Oh, yes.” Johann picked it up and brought it over to her. “This one. It holds several vials of important chemicals I require to mix a substance dearly required for my work. Your father was very brave to sacrifice himself for it.”
“He wasn’t my father.” She knew that Dominic Sapping had been more of a father to her than her true father, but Deirdre did not say that. She pressed down the thoughts of her life before, and smiled at Johann to hide it.
“No? Oh, that’s right, he’s from the continent, and you’re Irish.”
“How do you know that?”
“I read it in the paper, how else?
For some reason, Deirdre laughed, which made him look at her strangely. Johann beckoned her forward, and the two of them went to sit in the armchairs under the front window.
“You have food?” Johann asked.
Deirdre unwrapped the loaf of bread, and broke it in half. Johann eagerly took his half, though he didn’t stuff it all down right there and then. Instead he broke it into bits, and leaned his head back so that he could toss them into his mouth.
“The paper said you live with your friend Sylvia,” Johann said.
Deirdre nodded. She thought for a moment that she could hear far-off tapping, the sound of someone leafing through pages, and drunken laughter, but when she smiled and blinked the sounds vanished. “Yes, I came to Sylvia and her father after…” She remembered a man tapping at the window. A book that cursed anyone who read it. Blood dripping down an open neck. “… After I left Ireland. They have been very kind to me.”
Johann nodded and tossed another piece of bread into his mouth. “Why’d you leave Ireland?”
“I…” Her mind went unbidden to memories of home. Pages flipping back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The man in red had eyes that were blots of yellow. He said it was a medical condition. Her new stepmother was deathly pale. She said she was from Russia. “… I don’t remember why I left.”
Johann nodded again, as if he understood. As if he knew exactly what she meant. “Psychological trauma, perhaps?”
Scattered memories came back to her without context. Her father said that she must never open the doors or windows when it was dark. The man in red took her brother away. He said he was sick. Her new stepmother never went to church. She said she preferred the darkness. “Maybe so.” Deirdre’s head swam. She felt sick to her stomach. “Do you have any water?”
Johann stood to fetch it, and the light coming from the window seemed to put emphasis on the flies buzzing about his room. Time stopped for a split second, and Deirdre could hear nothing but the buzzing and see nothing but the man in red’s yellow eyes reflected in Johann. All of the sudden, she could hear his voice, speaking inside her head.
Knowledge is the curse of man.
Deirdre took deep breaths.
It should not be given to the unworthy.
Johann was shaking her.
Nor should it be misused.
He wanted to know if she was alright.
Especially if it concerns another.
He wanted to know if it was his fault.
Deirdre looked up, and she thought for a moment that his eyes had gone the same blighting yellow as the man in red’s. It was a trick of the light, though, and in an instant all the sensations of her body and the room came rushing back to her. She smiled up at him and took the water from his hand.
After a long drink she settled back against the chair. He probably thought her either mad or exceedingly strange now, too strange to associate with. For some reason that made her laugh. To hell with trying to make him like her! What was the point of it, anyway? Why had she even come here
Johann, for his part, took it with remarkable calm. He smiled shyly at Deirdre, and put his hand out for her to hold while she finished the cup of water.
“Thank you for the bread,” Johann said once she’d finished.
Deirdre grinned at him. “It doesn’t matter.”
Johann nodded. “I’ve always felt that very little in life mattered, but can we say that making a new friend is one occasion that does?”
Deirdre shrugged and stuffed some of the bread into her mouth. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Who told you that?”
“Someone with eyes.” That was the main thing she remembered about him. Blighting yellow eyes.
“Well, I suppose that narrows it down a little. Was it someone in Ireland?”
“He was from the place I was never to go.” Deirdre’s hands trembled badly as she lifted bread to her mouth. “He sometimes came up the stairs to the basement.”
“Had he gone down them?”
“No, he would just come up.”
“Do you need medication?” Johann asked. “For your body, I mean. For your hands.”
“I might need it for my mind, as well. I never wanted to go to a doctor, even though my father told me that if I ever told anyone what happened at our house I would have to.”
“I can understand that. The doctors of today are less than helpful.”
“How would you know?”
They sat there not speaking for a few minutes, both of their minds a thousand miles away. Deirdre could not say where Johann was, but she was thinking of the man in red, and how he wanted her to return to him and his books. She wondered if Richard knew about the man in red, or the inhuman creatures that followed him. Did Richard know that his friend, Leonard, was inhuman as well? Was Richard inhuman himself?
“Have you ever met a man named Richard Golson?” Deirdre asked.
“Yes, he delivers bodies to me for my work.”
Deirdre sighed. ‘Government job.’ “He’s my friend.”
“Yes, one of my very best friends in the entire world.” Not that she had many. Deirdre could count the friends she had on one hand. “Do you know Duke Mephisto?” What a stupid question. Duke Mephisto had just been there.
“Yes, he’s Golson’s fence. And… and he’s my patron. I suppose.” He scowled.
Deirdre sighed. ‘I work for Duke Mephisto.’
Johann looked out the window. “There’s someone out there, Deirdre.”
“What does he look like?”
“He has a red cape and frock coat on. Oh, and black pants. That’s all I can see from here.”
The man in red. Deirdre stood, and said, “I have to go see him. He’s here to talk with me.”
“How do you-“
“He’s here to talk. Goodbye, Johann Faust, it was good seeing you.”
She turned on her heel and went to the door, opened it, and rushed down the stairs. The man in red was coming up the stairs, she could hear him walking, and she had to be ready for him when he came. She had to-
Jean came out the door of their flat and grabbed her shoulder. “Did you see the man who just arrived?”
“The man in red?”
“Hm? Oh, I suppose he is wearing red. No, this is the new man who is coming to live with us.”
Jean shrugged. “His name is Johnson and he’s an American.”
Deirdre pulled away from him. Should she be happy at not having to face the man in red, or unhappy that a new man would be moving in with them? She didn’t know him, didn’t know his family or his name, or where he came from. What if he was like her father? Like her family?
The man – Johnson – had come up the stairs, and stood on the landing. He looked up, and smiled at them. “Good morning, my friends.”
Oh God. Yellow eyes, sallow skin, teeth that pointed just a little too much. There was hunger behind those eyes. His hair was shale gray. Deirdre bit back rising panic.
“Good morning, Mr Johnson,” Jean said.
“I would assume that you have my room ready?”
“You’ll need to share with me.”
“Fantastic. Show me where I can put down my bags.” Johnson smiled at Deirdre as he walked up the stairs. “The mad girl you told me about, I presume?”
Not mad. Simply aware, more so than most people. “I would not consider myself a mad girl, Mr Johnson.” Deirdre smiled. “Unless you should give me cause to be angry.”
Johnson laughed. All his teeth were pointed, and he had far too many of them.
“Perhaps you will be so kind as to grace us with your first name?” Jean said.
“My given name is Tate.”
Deirdre smiled again and gave an awkward curtsy. “Deirdre.”
Jean stuck out his hand. “Jean Gévaudan.”
Tate’s smile was too wide. He unclasped his golden cloak, threw it over his arm, and held out his hand. “My name is Tate Johnson.” All of his fingers were the same length.
It was raining outside, though Tate was bone dry. Was it raining? She was certain that it had previously been sunny. Deirdre smiled. It was the only response
Tate’s frock coat and undershirt were gray, devoid of any color. “I come from Virginia. I am escaping the war.”
“There’s a war?” Deirdre asked.
“There will be. The decade has only now begun, but mark my words, there will be blood before it ends.” Tate smiled. “I was a slave trader.”
“And now you’re destitute in London,” Jean said. “And it is August of 1860, and there is no war in the United States of America yet.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.” His yellow eyes bored into Deirdre. Her breathing was tight.
She curtsied again and said, “I’ll be going now. I have to meet a friend.”
“Have fun,” Tate said.
She would have to find someone to meet. It was dangerous with someone like him around. Deirdre brushed past him, and heard tap-tap-tap coming from behind her as she walked down the stairs.
First of all, I’ve been having some computer problems lately, so if there’s any punctuation mistakes/typos I overlooked, please let me know so that I can fix them.
Secondly, this story will from now on update on Mondays and Thursdays for sure, and possibly Saturdays if I’ve written especially quickly that week, or if there’s something I want to share about the story in general.
Thank you for reading!