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C.S. Harris C.S. Harris C.S. Harris


What Angels Fear


Tuesday, 29 January 1811

She blamed the fog. She wasn't normally this nervous. This afraid.

It was such a foul, creeping thing, the yellow fog of London. Even without the fog it would have been dark at this hour. Dark, and January-cold. But the murky vapor made it worse, wrapping around her lantern in wraithlike drifts that had Rachel stumbling as she cut across the churchyard.

A loose stone rolled beneath the delicate sole of one kid half-boot, the clatter sounding unnaturally loud in the stillness of the night. Pausing, Rachel threw a quick glance over her shoulder, her gaze raking the faint, mist-shrouded outlines of the graveyard's scattered monuments and tombstones. From the distance came the clacking rattle and fog-muffled voice of the charley, calling out the time. Rachel drew a deep breath of frosty air tinged with the scent of wet earth and leaves and a stale, musty hint of old death, and hurried on.

The heavy stone bulk of St. Matthew of the Fields loomed before her. Rachel clutched the satin-lined velvet folds of her evening cloak more closely about her. She should have told him to meet her at half past eight, she decided. Nine at the latest. It was the usual time, half past eight.

Only, this wasn't a usual transaction.

She hadn't expected to so edgy. It was a sensation she didn't like. Being nervous made her feel like a victim, and Rachel York refused to play the role of victim. Never again. It was a promise she'd made to herself at the age of fifteen, and in the three years that had passed since that fateful night when she'd seized control of her own life, it was a promise she'd never broken. She wasn't about to break it now.

At the steps leading up to the north transept door, she paused again. Beneath the deep round arch of the side portal, the darkness was nearly complete. Lifting the lantern high, she let the narrowed beam of light play over the door's weathered old oak. Through the thin kid of her gloves the iron key felt cold and heavy in her hand. To her annoyance, her fingers shook when she thrust the toothed end into the lock.

With one twist, the mechanism clicked smoothly and the door swung silently inward before her on oiled hinges. The Reverend McDermott was careful about such things. But then, he needed to be.

Rachel pushed the door open wider, one artfully curled lock of golden hair fluttering against her cheek in the sudden outward gush of air. Familiar church smells engulfed her, the scent of beeswax and damp stone and ancient wood. She whisked herself inside, carefully closing the door behind her. She did not lock it.

She dropped the key into her reticule, felt its weight heavy and solid against her thigh as she crossed the transept. The cold silence of the church closed around her, the light from her lantern wavering over candle-blackened stone walls and the scattered, recumbent figures of entombed ladies and long-dead knights lying still and cold in the empty hush.

They said it was close on to eight hundred years old, St. Matthew of the Fields, with molded sandstone arches that sprang from thick, cylindrical piers, and small high windows that now showed only blackness beyond. Rachel's father had been interested in such things. Once, he had taken her to see the cathedral in Worchester and talked to her for hours about arcades and triforiums and rood screens. But her father was long dead; Rachel shut her mind against the memory, unsure what had brought such at thought to her now.

The Lady Chapel lay at the far end of the apse, a tiny fourteenth-century jewel of white marble and slender columns and delicately carved screenwork. Rachel set her lantern on the steps before the altar. She was early; he would not be here for another twenty minutes or more. The emptiness of the ancient church seemed to press in upon her, cold and dark. She found her gaze returning, again and again, to the blessed candles clustered together on the snowy linen of the altar cloth. For a moment longer, she hesitated. Then, kindling a taper, she began to light the candles, one after the other, their golden flames leaping up warm and bright until they seemed to merge into one comforting glow.

Rachel gazed up at the massive canvas that hung above the altar, a darkly swirled depiction of the Virgin Mother ascending gloriously into the heavens against a background of triumphant angels. Once, Rachel might have murmured a soft prayer.

Not now.

She didn't hear the transept door open and close, only the faint echo of stealthy footsteps along the choir. He was early. She hadn't expected it of him.

Turning, she shoved back the hood of her cloak and forced her lips into a practiced smile, ready to play her role.

She could see him now, a faint shadow, the outline of his greatcoat and top hat just visible through the Lady Chapel's intricately carved stone screen.

Then he moved into the candlelight.

She took a quick step back. "You," she whispered, and knew she'd made a terrible mistake.

© C.S. Harris

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