illustrated by Iron Eater
George irritably tapped his foot on the threadbare carpet. It had taken him no time to find the back of Quigley’s head six rows ahead of them. He’d wanted to leap out into the aisle and make the arrest, but with his commanding officer, Major Hoskins, beside him, he didn’t dare. Being admonished by Hoskins the last time he’d done what the older man perceived as rushing into something still stung. Could Hoskins not see that this might be their only chance to apprehend Quigley? What did it matter if they caused a scene as long as they got their man?
George knew saying this aloud would merely get him lectured about offending civilian sensibilities and causing a panic. He supposed this was all down to what had happened in Devon, which was hardly George’s fault. That had been the fault of the man with the sheep.
Besides, what offended George’s sensibilities was that someone like Quigley could just walk into the office of an officer of Her Majesty’s Army and steal a proprietary set of military codes.
And of all the places for them to have to wait to apprehend Quigley, they’d found themselves in a ruddy music hall. George didn’t think the audience surrounding them was entirely respectable, much less the performers. It only made sense that a rogue like Quigley would choose this sort of establishment to hide in. George rather expected he would hand the documents he had pilfered from Hoskins’s office over to a German agent right here. He kept his attention focused on the black hat and pair of ears he was certain were Quigley’s. He had already endured off-key singing and foolishness with a trained dog. Now he was going to be subjected to sleight of hand and amateurish illusions.
He glanced over out of the corner of his eye. Hoskins was actually watching the show, his full attention on the stage. Quigley could have got up and walked out and he wouldn’t have noticed. George shifted impatiently. “Sir, I’ll just move down a few rows. There are empty seats. I could get right behind him.”
“Relax, Forrester,” Hoskins said distractedly. “There’s no way Quigley can get out without running into us.”
There was something unsatisfying about this answer, but George opted not to argue with his CO. This time.
He allowed his gaze to flick to the dark-haired, dark-eyed magician on stage. The fellow called himself the Amazing Alfonso, but George had his doubts that was really his name. He was dressed in a costume resembling evening dress. The trousers clung to his slim hips, and his long, white-gloved fingers were deft at sleight of hand, George would give him that.
“The aperture is wide open tonight,” he said, with what George’s Eton and Sandhurst-trained ear judged to be shaky vowels. “My powers should be flowing freely, but at any point members of the audience may be called upon to provide their psychic assistance.”
It was all just a lot of guff: a rabbit pulled out of a hat, handkerchiefs pulled out of his sleeves, his assistant made to look like a winged fairy through what was surely mirrors. The crowd appeared enthralled. George wondered if he was the only rational person in the room. The only thing that frustrated him more than Hoskins’s interest was that George couldn’t figure out how any of it was done.
“And now!” The magician threw his arms up dramatically. “My next trick requires an especially brave volunteer from the audience. Should any gentleman or lady have sufficient courage…” The crowd collectively held their breaths. “…I will make one of you disappear!”
“I say!” said Hoskins under his breath.
“Tosh,” George muttered.
There was a tumult in the first few rows as what seemed like every member of the audience raised their hands and called out, hoping to catch the magician’s attention. The magician paced in front of the footlights, his silk-lined cape snapping at his heels. He appeared to be in deep consideration, regarding the crowd lazily, as they all clamored for his favor. It was foolishness, truly, but George found himself beginning to appreciate the power he must have over them. Other people’s behavior frequently mystified George, and some part of him liked the idea of being able to hold the audience’s attention so effortlessly.
His rank allowed him to make himself heard, of course, but not in the magnetic way the magician commanded his audience. How in God’s name did anyone think he could actually make someone vanish into thin air?
“You, sir!” The magician’s white-gloved finger came to rest pointing at one man in the crowd. “You look like the bravest fellow in the room.” George unconsciously bridled at that, though he had never for a second considered volunteering.
The man who was to be disappeared rose and made his way toward the stage. George half rose out of his seat.
“That’s…” he began.
“I see, Lieutenant,” Hoskins said calmly. “It isn’t as though he won’t come back.”
George lowered himself back into his seat though his knuckles were white on the armrests as Quigley made his way up to the stage. The Amazing Alfonso made a great show of getting Quigley to step into the ornate cabinet that was in the center of the stage. It was about man-sized, though if George were to get into it himself, it would be quite the squeeze.
“I must absorb all the vibrations coming through the aperture.” The Amazing Alfonso stalked around the box, fluttering his hands, his hips moving sinuously. “And with a mere snap of my fingers…” The magician snapped his long, elegant fingers. “We send our friend, for the briefest moment, through the aperture.” George watched all of it raptly, doing his best to spot the trick.
There was a moment of dead silence as Alfonso stared into the crowd. After a pregnant pause, he flung the cabinet’s door open again. It was empty. Gasps of shock rippled through the crowd and George had to fight against the moment of panic that shot through him. They did it with mirrors, that had to be it.
“But now we must bring the gentleman back.” The magician snapped his fingers and his assistant again began to turn the cabinet. George studied it, looking for a give-away of some sort, but from this distance, he could see nothing.
“And now we welcome back—” The Amazing Alfonso flung the cabinet open.
There was no one there.
A flicker of frustration passed over the magician’s handsome face. “There must be some unnatural force interfering in my work.” He spread his hands. “I will need the psychic concentration of every member of the audience. I ask you all to close your eyes and follow along with me.” He tilted his head back and lowered his eyelids. “I appeal to the void. Return our friend.”
George detected a rigidity in the assistant’s back as she again turned the cabinet while the Amazing Alfonso muttered over it, brows knit. Hoskins was leaning forward in suspense, eyes closed, lips moving. George hoped it was even a little because he knew they needed to apprehend Quigley tonight and not because he was trying to lend psychic concentration. George shifted in his seat, fighting the urge to leap on stage and tear the cabinet apart. He did not close his eyes or chant.
“Now!” He raised his arms. “Let us see if the void has heard our entreaty.”
He opened the door with a flourish of his cape.
It was empty.
“I fear tonight’s performance has been brought to an unexpected early finish. I must retrieve our friend from beyond the aperture myself. I am afraid it is a ritual too arcane for public view, and thus I will leave you.” The magician’s gaze never wavered; his expression was as grave as though he were announcing he had to leave for an audience with the Queen. There was a flash of motion as his assistant scampered offstage. “Ladies and gentlemen, please look to the staff for direction. Thank you for attending tonight’s show. I am, as always, the Amazing Alfonso.” He gave a flourishing bow. The curtain dropped, as the murmur of the crowd grew from a low hum to a frantic buzz.
George rose from his seat and, gratifyingly, at last, Major Hoskins followed.
Alfie held his pose until he heard the swish of velvet against the boards that meant the curtain was fully lowered. The orchestra struck up enthusiastically, and Alfie hoped the audience took that as its signal to make for the exit. Then he whirled on Ellen. “What—the—bloody—fuck?” He slid back into his natural accent like pulling off a pair of uncomfortable boots.
“How should I know?” she fired back, in an agitated whisper so the audience wouldn’t hear. “It was you who did the trick.”
“And you know just as well as me how it bleedin’ works—”
At that moment, Henry Grace, the manager of the Venetian Palace, came clattering in from backstage. “Sykes, what the hell you on about, losing the chap like this? Not to mention he wasn’t Mortlake in the first place—”
“Ain’t blind, am I? No, it wasn’t fucking Mortlake, but that’s the least of my worries at the mo’.” It shouldn’t have happened. It was, in a word, impossible, and Alfie didn’t believe in the impossible. As an illusionist, he would know.
He shoved the cabinet aside and felt on the stage floor for the catch that opened the trap door from this side. The spring gave under his finger just as he registered the sound of boots hitting the boards.
Alfie froze in the midst of swinging himself through the trap door. Bloody hell, it was a soldier in uniform. Alfie’s gaze took in the angry face and angrier mustache and found he was disinclined to listen unless given good reason to. He wasn’t overly fond of uniforms.
“If you’re after a refund, go have it out with Mr. Grace,” he said tartly, not bothering to paste the posh accent back in place.
“No refunds!” shouted Mr. Grace.
“Where have you hidden Quigley?” barked the uniform.
“What do you think I’m trying to do here?” The army chap was gawking at him as though he’d momentarily forgot to be angry. Then Alfie dropped through the trap door under the stage.
Alfie did not bother waiting around to see the new levels of anger this bloke was capable of. He slipped into the darkness under the floorboards and landed on the mattress that was always placed there. He could see nothing amiss.
Until he heard the woozy groan.
In the dim light, Alfie could see Bill clutching his head as he crouched beside him. “What happened?”
“That chappie what fell down from up on stage. ‘Tweren’t Mortlake. I thought to myself, I did, old Alfie’s upped his game, but I’ll get this new feller back in the box, but before I could, he went and coshed me on the head.”
“Didn’t mean to send that bloke down,” Alfie explained. “I ain’t got the foggiest—”
There was a soft thud as the uniform landed next to them. He was looking around with the same bewildered expression he’d had backstage. They probably didn’t let the poor bastard out of the barracks much. Alfie could only imagine how suddenly being under the stage would look to the uniform. It was dark and cramped with much of the space being taken up by props, ropes, sandbags, not to mention the scaffolding that held up the stage.
“Where’s Quigley?” he asked, upon spotting Alfie.
“Who, pray tell, is Quigley?” When talking to a member of the audience, Alfie decided it might be wise to make a bit of an effort with the accent. He’d come from the seats, so he must’ve been a paying customer and was owed a bit of show, no matter his profession.
“The man you just made disappear.”
Alfie pinched the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t make him disappear. Bill opened the trap door in the stage and let him down.”
The army chap blinked. His eyes were gray, dark and stormy, putting Alfie in mind of the sea the first time he’d seen it. He’d been all of ten years old, his first time out of the stews with Matty and Ellen. He’d accompanied them to Brighton, his first job as Matty’s assistant, and the wild gray vastness of the sea had been almost overpowering for a lad who’d never been out of East London. Even now, he was glad he had a steady slot for his act at a London music hall. Travel was too much for him.
“You,” said the soldier suddenly.
Alfie blinked, realizing that he’d been staring. “Me,” he stated flatly.
“You’re in cahoots with him. Quigley. That’s why you made him vanish.”
“For the last time, he didn’t vanish. Nobody can actually vanish.” Alfie began picking his way over the ropes and other detritus that lay under the stage. “Really, if you’re the best Her Majesty has to offer—”
“Well, he’s gone,” the soldier snarled. His looks were wasted on him, Alfie decided. No blockhead officer had the right to be that handsome. “You tell me where he went.”
“Haven’t the faintest.” Alfie pushed past the soldier and headed toward the back of the stage. The soldier followed him after the barest moment’s hesitation. “You really ought not to be here. Mr. Grace doesn’t like for guests to be backstage.” Of course, Mr. Grace usually seemed to be worried about the girls’ admirers, which the uniform didn’t seem to be. “You said it yourself—he vanished.”
“And where’s he gone now?”
“That’s precisely what I’m trying to figure out.” Alfie grabbed a passing stagehand. “Did a bloke go by just now? Black hat, red muffler like Mortlake’s.”
“Sure, Mr. Sykes. He went out that way.” He pointed toward the exit.
Alfie turned to his unwanted tagalong. “Well, there you have it. He went out that way. Are you going to chase him down, then, if it’s so important he be apprehended? If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make sure the rest of my—”
Before Alfie could finish and for no reason he could see, the army bloke reached for Alfie and they stumbled together into a post. Alfie’s breath caught in his throat. The ocean-gray eyes were very close. Alfie tore his gaze from them to the high forehead, the close-cropped brown hair under the ridiculous little cap. He could feel the threat of strength in the press of the soldier’s body against his, and it was making his heart pound like a rabbit’s.
“Lieutenant Forrester.” The voice cut like a whip through the low hum which could be heard from the audience. “Surely it’s not quite come to that yet.”
“Let him go, Lieutenant.” This officer was older, and if Alfie had to guess, outranked Forrester. The sir had been a clue. Either way, Alfie kept his mouth shut. It had been a long time since he’d dealt with the law and he was beginning to get his back up.
“Yes, sir, but he—” Clearly unwilling to say again that Alfie had made Quigley disappear, Forrester stalled.
“I know,” the older bloke said. “I saw what you saw. We’ll question him in due time. We’ll question all of them.”
Forrester stepped back, but he still regarded Alfie with a look of intense dislike. Alfie lifted his chin and glowered back.
The theater manager became suddenly cooperative when Her Majesty’s Army was mentioned. A telephone call to the War Office in Pall Mall summoned more men in less than an hour, and Mr. Grace obligingly surrendered his office as an interrogation room, though Hoskins diplomatically called it an inquiry.
The magician, George discovered, was not called Alfonso (he wasn’t even Italian), giving him the satisfied feeling of having his suspicions confirmed. He was a Londoner by the name of Alfred Sykes, and George assessed his entire character instantly. Sykes talked a big show but he’d quail under the faintest scrutiny. As to be expected for someone who lied for a living.
“Where is Quigley?” George asked. They were sitting across a small desk from each other, in Mr. Grace’s cluttered office, which was beginning to make George feel trapped.
“Who is Quigley?” Sykes had a mutinous air about him, as though he was mocking George.
“I’ve told you who Quigley is,” he said, impatience threatening to break into his voice.
Sykes shifted casually in his seat, quirking one dark brow at George. “And you’ve asked me where he is half a hundred times by now. If you’re going to repeat your questions incessantly, I have a right to do the same.”
George scowled. This only seemed to amuse Sykes.
“Mr. Sykes, it is crucial that we find out where the fellow is,” Hoskins said, leaning forward. “Crucial to the security of this country. Now, if there was any prearrangement, any money changing hands or something to that effect—well, we can hardly fault you for agreeing to do it if all you thought was that the man wanted to be a part of the show.”
Something twitched in Sykes’s jaw. A guilty conscience, George thought triumphantly.
“Nothing like that happened,” he said. “You see…” He paused. George waited for him to admit his complicity in the entire deal. He wasn’t Italian, but could he be of some sort of German ancestry? George couldn’t place him by look, but it might explain why he’d abetted Quigley if he was in support of the German cause. “No one is supposed to be part of the show. No audience member.”
“But you ask for volunteers,” George said.
There was a slump in his shoulders, and George could see a dimming of the defiant fire in his eyes. Not like he’d been under the stage. George almost missed it. “We use a plant for this trick. I know where he’s going to sit so I can call on him.” He looked down. “Don’t spread this around, mind. Mr. Grace’ll have me head.” The accent was slipping into Cockney.
“We won’t tell a soul more than necessary,” Hoskins said kindly.
“This fellow, your friend Quigley, was sitting in our plant Mortlake’s seat,” Sykes went on, with shaky vowels. “Can’t see faces from the stage, what with the lights in my face and all. That’s why Mortlake was meant to sit in that seat. So I always know where the man is who’s supposed to come up and be disappeared. It’s never supposed to be a real audience member. Because a stagehand is supposed to be in that seat and not let anyone else bloody sit there!”
“And why wasn’t your man there?” George asked, leaning forward. “If you claim your confederate was supposed to be sitting there, where was he?”
“I don’t know.” Sykes rubbed his temples. “But he wasn’t there, and that’s all I know.”
“And yet you still summoned the man from the audience, even once you could see he wasn’t an employee of the theater.”
“Yes,” Sykes said, jaw clenching. “I couldn’t see who he was until he was up on the stage and if I sent him back—” Sykes stopped.
“What?” George prodded.
“Well, I couldn’t very well let everyone know the fellow who gets called up is an audience plant,” Sykes muttered.
“Well, I suppose that’s not a crime,” Hoskins said mildly.
“Yet,” George muttered.
The moment Alfie shut his dressing room door, he was nearly bowled over by blonde hair and fringed silk.
“Blimey, Alfie, what happened?” Ellen asked breathlessly.
Alfie pressed his back up against the door to avoid the full force of her concern. “Nothing,” he said. “Still here, ain’t I?”
Ellen narrowed her eyes. “D’you think they might’ve tossed you in the clink?”
Alfie drew in the first full breath he’d had since his interrogation in Mr. Grace’s office. His chest felt tight, like he couldn’t expand it enough, pull in enough air. “I thought they might.” His head throbbed, despite the firm knowledge that he’d done nothing wrong and had never heard of the Quigley that Forrester and Hoskins were so obsessed with. “I don’t like…”
Ellen gave his arm a squeeze. “I know, love.”
Alfie’s breath hitched; heat burned in the corners of his eyes. A summer night in Manchester, the stinking holding cell, the surety that he would be sentenced to hard labor….
“There was nothing to tell.” His voice shook.
“I know.” Ellen pulled him into a hug. She’d comforted him that night, too, when he’d staggered back to the boarding house. And he had been supposed to take care of her. That was what he’d promised Matty when he’d died, that he’d look after his daughter. “But who was that bloke? Bill told me Mortlake’s upped stakes. Nobody knows where he is.”
Alfie rubbed his face. “I don’t give a rat’s arse for Mortlake right now. Probably still down the pub, the useless tosser. Or sleeping it off somewhere.”
Ellen’s lips pressed together. “So what’s it mean for us?”
Alfie pulled away from her, overpowered by the need to pace in the small space, hindered by the preponderance of props and magical devices he’d accumulated over the years, most of which he had no use for. “I don’t know, all right? They dropped it once I explained we use a plant.”
“Well, that’s good, innit then?” she said tentatively.
“It’ll do for now.” Alfie had the sinking suspicion Forrester would be back. He could still feel the ghost of those thick fingers gripping his arm.
“My word, Forrester, are you still here?”
George looked up. It was three days since they’d lost Quigley, and George was under the impression that all was not lost if they put in a bit of effort. If he put in a bit of effort. Thus, he’d shut himself up in his office at the army barracks, which adjoined Major Hoskins’s, and set to studying train timetables, maps—anything that might yield some clue as to where Quigley could have gone. He’d already dispatched men along some of the routes, by train and on horseback. He had not heard back from any of them yet, but there were still more directions their quarry could have fled from the capital. It was still possible the Germans didn’t have the codes yet.
“I’m still trying to do some work.” George reached for the ABC Railway Guide on the corner of his normally-neat desk. If Quigley had got to Leman Street Station from the music hall, where could he be by now? The timetable swam on the page and George shut his eyes to marshal his strength.
Major Hoskins came to stand in front of George’s desk, his portly frame blocking George’s view of the room. “Have a rest, Forrester.”
George held his tongue against an argument. “Sir, he was right under our noses. He was here, in your office—”
Hoskins sighed, looking suddenly weary. “You don’t have to tell me that, Forrester. I do have superiors, you know, many of whom would be happy to nail my hide to the door over this.”
“Then, as your aide, I ought to—”
“As my aide, you are useless to me like this.” Major Hoskins seldom spoke so sharply to George so his sudden shift in tone made George’s spine go rigid. “Get some air, get some food, and then come back here and get back to work.”
George opened his mouth to argue, but that had sounded very much like a direct order. He shut his ABC.
George allowed his feet to carry him through Trafalgar Square and toward the river. Despite the fact that it wasn’t yet late, there were already men out, soliciting companionship for the evening. He averted his gaze, cheeks burning with shame. He knew what they were there for.
They were a common sight between the barracks and the river, and George always tried to ignore them. It was a struggle, though, to walk past with his head down. Just because he didn’t let himself look didn’t mean he could stop himself thinking about it. He could feel the weight of their gazes on him, as though they knew somehow about the thoughts he tried to force from his head. It baffled him why anyone would take the risk, though at times it crossed his mind that they must be freer than he had ever felt.
He walked briskly until he reached the Embankment, his mind drifting unbidden to what it might be like to have another man’s hand on his prick or to do what he had glimpsed down dim alleys. He knew what it was like to have another man’s body under him. Pinning Sykes against the wall was a memory that had yet to fade. He could still feel the long, lean line of him, the warmth. That was perhaps the closest he would come to something illicit. He shook his head firmly. This man was possibly a traitor to Queen and country.
He didn’t realize how far east he’d walked until the greenways and government buildings began to give way to docklands. He was nearing the Tower of London when it crossed his mind that the Venetian Palace was close, and that he had not considered the possibility of Quigley’s escaping via the river.
He picked his way, unnoticed, along the wharf, wondering if Quigley could have had a confederate among the watermen. There were a few suspicious looking characters, but none who especially piqued his interest into investigating further. Perhaps while he was down here, he would have another look at the music hall…
It was only a short walk from the river, and it wasn’t long before George found himself standing in front of the shabby façade of the so-called Venetian Palace. George supposed it bore a passing resemblance to deserving its name. There was an attempt at an Italianate frieze over the door and the brickwork was covered by white stucco that appeared to have been meticulously painted several years ago. Sykes was prominently featured on the poster affixed to the front of the building, which advertised innovations every Saturday night.
There was a steady stream of people going in and after a moment’s hesitation, George joined them. Perhaps it was foolishness—it was certainly foolish to pay to see the show when he was only here to investigate—but he reasoned that it might be helpful to see the magician’s performance without the addition of Quigley. Perhaps there would be some clue, some betrayal of Quigley’s whereabouts or of Sykes’s own guilt in the movement of his body on the stage. George vowed to watch every gesture closely, lest those long-fingered hands betray a clue.
He handed over the few pence for a seat in the stalls, nearest to the stage. He wanted a close look—and, if possible, he wanted Sykes to know he was there. The performances ran continuously and admittance was allowed throughout, so George only had to sit through the trained dog again.
And then the lights went out. George tensed. The crowd murmured. This hadn’t happened the last time he was here.
A single spotlight broke the darkness, illuminating a puff of smoke. The orchestra began to play.
Trickery, thought George, though he couldn’t see where the smoke was coming from. The music built to a climax and then suddenly stopped. The lights flashed suddenly, and a white gloved hand emerged from the smoke as Sykes stepped forward. The smoke parted around him like a curtain and for a moment, he was silhouetted against it, a dark figure against the white smoke.
Has he come up through the trap door? George wondered. Or come in from the wings? He flicked his eyes to the side of the stage, but there was no way to tell, with the smoke and the darkness used to misdirect and conceal.
“Good evening,” Sykes said, in a melodic voice that sent shivers down George’s spine. His prick stirred. How could the resonance of Sykes’s voice have such an effect on his body? “Each of you is privileged to be among the first to witness my new show.” He smiled darkly. “We are in for a bit of fun tonight.” There was an almost sinister note of promise there, and George remembered with a slight thrill that it was Saturday night and the bill outside had promised innovations….
“Ah!” Sykes looked up. “My muse arrives!”
It was wires, surely, George thought, crossing his arms over his chest as Elliana descended from somewhere above the stage into Sykes’s arms. He knew her for what she was, too—Miss Ellen Matthias. She’d been questioned separately, but knew nothing of Quigley. None of the theater staff had. Perhaps coming here was a waste of time, but George could not put his finger on quite what was bothering him about Sykes. It couldn’t be a bad use of his time to investigate further.
He watched the rest of the show, studying Sykes closely. The basic illusions were essentially the same, but the window dressing was different, darker and more threatening. Miss Matthias was tied up and sawn in half, drawing greater and greater gasps of sympathy from the audience. Despite the lurid spectacle of all, George was transfixed, trying to figure out how each trick could have been done.
And then Sykes asked for a volunteer from the audience, and George felt his lips stiffen. Was this the fellow called Mortlake? George would have to question him now that he had resurfaced.
George dispassionately watched the man disappear and reappear, looking beyond shocked at something that had surely happened to him countless times. The trick had lost any mystery it might have had now that George knew precisely how it was done. He wanted to know how the other ones worked.
He did not stay for the next act. He needed to question the man he suspected was Mortlake.
Not to mention Sykes himself.
“How’d they fancy that one?” Alfie dropped his hat and gloves onto his dressing table.
“Wild for it,” Mr. Grace said. “More of that, if you please. The sinister looming figure, orchestrating the action. The fair Elliana in grave peril. Quite the actor, you are. And dare I say it, but you’re actually good at coming up with a new dodge.”
Alfie frowned. He wasn’t about to let his partner be overlooked. “This one was all Ellen.” He nodded at her and she curtsied demurely.
“Well, keep it up. It was a hit.”
Alfie was almost glad for the knock on the door, which gave him the excuse to push past Mr. Grace to answer it. His relief dissipated immediately upon seeing who it was. Standing on the other side was Lieutenant Forrester. Alfie could not hide his shock. Why now? What had he done to deserve this?
“May I help you?” he said through gritted teeth, fingers still gripping the doorknob, ready to slam it shut at the slightest provocation.
Forrester looked almost as surprised as Alfie was. His gray eyes darted nervously from Alfie to Mr. Grace and Ellen standing behind him. “I’ve come to ask you a few questions.” He paused. “Alone.”
Alfie groaned, but Ellen and Mr. Grace only looked happy enough to take their leave. Alfie reluctantly ushered Forrester in, conscious of having to move around his uniformed bulk. A flicker of the memory of Forrester’s body pressed against his returned, and he banished it just as quickly.
“What did you want to know?” he asked as soon as the door was shut. He tried not to think about being alone with Forrester, with his imposing form. “I still can’t tell you anything about that Quigley bloke. I have nothing to do with that.”
Forrester blinked as though not expecting him to be so blunt. “I’m looking for Mortlake.”
Alfie sighed. “Get in line.”
“You mean you’ve not seen him?” Forrester looked nearly heartbroken. “Then who was that just now? I want to speak to your plant from today.” He said plant as if it weren’t fit for polite conversation.
“My plant for today was Bill. You met him backstage that first time. The one your Quigley coshed on the head. Mortlake still hasn’t turned up.” Alfie turned away from Forrester, then, and busied himself at his dressing table, moving things about meaninglessly, hoping to send the signal that the matter would close and he could go on his way. “And no, I don’t know where he’s got to. Not the first time he’s done a bunk for a few days, but we’ve checked all his own haunts and nobody’s seen him.”
Forrester was silent for a moment, like an automaton that had run down. “You changed your act.”
“I know.” Alfie turned around and rested an exasperated hand on his hip. “It was advertised.”
“It was different,” Forrester said. “You…” He gulped. “You were quite sinister.”
Alfie blinked. “What’s that to do with the price of eggs?” Had Forrester lost all of what little sense he’d had? “Look, Forrester, why don’t you get to the point and tell me what the fuck you want with me?”
Forrester gaped like a trout. “It’s—” he began. Alfie waited for him to say more. He certainly wasn’t going to fish him out. Forrester was reddening and his gaze was fixed on Alfie. He was fidgeting. It couldn’t mean what Alfie thought it might mean… Could it? “I need to follow up on every possible lead.”
“Of course you must.” Alfie’s gaze swept over Forresteter, long and lingering. “The picture of persistence.”
Forrester’s gray eyes darted away, but always came back to Alfie’s mouth, like one hypnotized.
Alfie felt a sudden rush of heat and his lips twisted into a smirk. “Or perhaps…” He took a step forward. “Perhaps you just came to see me. Couldn’t stay away from me, could you, Lieutenant? Tell me what you really want.”
If Forrester had been blushing before, he was scarlet now.
“Could you not stop thinking about me?” He took another step forward.
“I came to find out about Mortlake.” Forrester’s voice sounded faint, but he didn’t do anything to move back out of Alfie’s space. He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing.
“I don’t think it was Mortlake you were interested in, was it?” Alfie pitched his voice low and watched Forrester’s face. He still appeared mesmerized.
Alfie brushed one finger over Forrester’s jaw. The man shivered, and Alfie felt a surge of pleasure at a hunch confirmed. “Were you interested in this?” he asked, leaning in and brushing his lips to Forrester’s.
There was a heartbeat of uncertainty, and then he felt the light, tentative pressure of Forrester kissing back. Alfie cupped Forrester’s jaw more firmly, slipping his tongue forward.
Forrester jerked back. His gray eyes were wide with terror as he shoved Alfie away. Caught off guard, Alfie stumbled.
Forrester’s mouth opened but no words came out. His face was a mask of panic. Before Alfie could recover himself enough to say anything he had thrown the door open and run for the stairs.
Alfie breathed raggedly. “Fuck. Shite.” He grabbed his head with his hands. How quickly had he managed to ruin things? Not five minutes after Mr. Grace had been telling him what a good thing he had going—and here he was about to be taken up for indecent assault. His head was a jumble of wild incoherent thoughts. Should he run? No, that would be ridiculous and an imposition on Mr. Grace, not to mention Ellen. Perhaps Forrester wouldn’t turn him in. Perhaps doing so would implicate himself too much… He’d have to hope for that, though he’d be in hell waiting for the sword of Damocles to fall.
“Don’t ever trust bloody soldiers, Sykes,” he said out loud to himself. “It’s never fucking worth it.”
George did not quite run from the music hall. That would have been the height of foolishness. But he was walking away very, very fast. It was a wonder he made it to the omnibus in one piece. His lips burned the entire ride. When he came to the park, he walked even more briskly past the men he’d passed before, heart pounding. It wasn’t until he was alone in his room that he let out the shuddering breath trapped inside him since Sykes had kissed him.
Sykes had kissed him.
George put his fingertips to his lips, but they didn’t feel any different. There was no palpable heat, nothing to explain why they tingled so. Sykes had kissed him. His thoughts spiraled around this fact, around the smoky taste of him, the way he’d approached George almost as if he were prey. George had never known that to happen. Beneath the hot shame still roiling within him was a spark of curiosity he hadn’t felt perhaps since his school days.
No, he told himself firmly. That way lay madness. He couldn’t go around letting suspects kiss him. He would simply have to go again and prove he could observe Sykes properly without letting this sort of thing happen.
“What’s eating you?”
Ellen’s question made Alfie jump about ten feet in the air. “Nothing,” he said, running a nervous hand over his hair. It was as perfect as it had been the last time he’d checked. His costume was flawless, too, but he still adjusted his tie.
“Liar. Something’s bothering you.” Ellen came over to fix the tie he’d apparently just ruined.
“Nothing.” Merely the idea that the police could storm into the place at any moment. Just that.
“Well, don’t bollocks it all up with your nerves. Not this show at any rate.” Ellen adjusted her costume and its voluminous amount of tulle.
Alfie looked at himself in the mirror. Perhaps he did look a little wan. He had to get into character. If Forrester hadn’t alerted the police immediately, perhaps he wasn’t going to. It didn’t make much sense for Forrester to have waited several days, but Alfie didn’t feel terribly comfortable.
But the show must go on.
Watching Sykes’s performance again was not going to give George any more clues as to Quigley’s whereabouts and it seemed there was just as likely a chance of Mortlake turning up as Quigley. This thought did not drift into his mind until he was disembarking from the omnibus at Tower Hill.
He supposed he was free to do what he liked with his evening off. He was not returning for Sykes. He wanted another look at the performance so he could see how the trick was done.
And he didn’t seem to be alone in thinking that. The theater was crowded, though it was Monday, and George had difficulty finding a seat close to the stage. He hardly registered the other acts, his anticipation growing with each passing moment. His heart was pounding by the time Sykes made his appearance.
His show was every bit as thrilling as it had been Saturday night. The audience gasped with every illusion and George fought to see how they could possibly have been done. It was lights and mirrors, somehow, that made him cast the shadow of a bat, that made Miss Matthias appear to have wings. Now that he could anticipate what was coming, he looked for the wires, the fakery, but still could see none of it.
And then the lights dimmed.
George sat up straight. This was the trick with the audience plant. He scanned the seats in front of him to see if he could pick out the man….
“You there, sir!” Sykes’s voice seemed to come booming down from the heavens. “We have a member of Her Majesty’s Army here. Lieutenant, come up on stage with me.”
Fear lanced through him. What did Sykes mean to do? He couldn’t refuse to go up there, not with the eyes of the entire theater on him. He caught Sykes’s gaze; the bastard was smirking. Woodenly, George proceeded down the aisle and climbed the stairs to the stage. There was a wave of applause from behind him, and George tried to maintain his posture and ignore the hundreds of eyes on him. It was no different from being up in front of his men, which, granted, was something he detested.
He came to stand before Sykes, falling unconsciously into parade rest. Sykes settled his hand on George’s shoulders. “Lieutenant Forrester, ladies and gentlemen!”
There was a round of applause; George tried not to grimace. The last thing he needed was for this to make it back to Hoskins that he’d come back to the music hall, not once but twice. And had got up on the bloody stage at that.
He locked eyes with Sykes. “What are you playing at?” he muttered under his breath. Over Sykes’s shoulder, Miss Matthias was standing with admirable poise, however fixed her theatrical smile was.
Sykes ignored his question. “Lieutenant Forrester has considerately joined me on stage to take part in a little game.” He extended his hand, upon which rested a deck of cards. “Behold, sir, this ordinary deck of cards. You may examine them yourself if you like.”
Wordlessly, George took the cards and shuffled through them. They appeared normal. He scratched at one with his fingernail before handing the pack back. Sykes was watching him intently, the ghost of a smile on his lips. George felt his insides curdle. He hoped his blush wasn’t visible in the stage lights. They were making him uncomfortably warm, and he was very aware of Sykes’s presence. Despite the presence of the audience, it felt nearly like they were completely alone. All he could see were Sykes’s dark eyes, and all he could remember was the kiss.
“Are you satisfied of their legitimacy?” There was the mocking smile again.
“I’m satisfied,” George murmured.
“There! Ladies and gentlemen, Lieutenant Forrester is satisfied! There has been no alteration to the cards.” He held up a single card between long fingers. “Please tell the audience which card I’m holding up.”
“The queen of hearts,” George said.
“And now I shall mark it.” Sykes took a pencil from his pocket and made a flourishing mark on the card. “As you can see, the mark is invisible when confronted with the backs of the cards.” Sykes began to shuffle them, and George couldn’t help but be drawn to the deft way he cut the cards. Some part of his mind was telling him this was misdirection, that somehow the trick was here. He ought to watch for it, see what the deception was, but Sykes’s hands were too bloody distracting.
“Now.” Sykes splayed the cards before him. “Find the queen of hearts.”
George’s finger hesitated over the splay of the cards. Ought he try for the queen of hearts or not? How could he even know? Pull the first card he saw. That was how to play it. Bar all indecision. He took a deep breath and pulled a card.
Sykes’s sly smile spread across his face. “The queen of hearts.”
Scrawled across the edge was the mark Sykes had made: My dressing room. The words seemed to go directly to his groin. Going was surely the wrong choice, but already he knew it was the one he would make.
George went back to his seat, but it was impossible to pretend nothing had happened. His heart was racing too fast, his cheeks were burning with some unholy mix of shame and desire. He waited for the next intermission before bolting.
Part of him considered leaving the music hall. He could go back out into the night, find some source of relief from the awareness thrumming through him, even if it was a man from the barracks. But the idea of an arrangement with a man from the barracks was crushingly unfulfilling when compared with the idea of Sykes’s long fingers, his dark eyes, the enchanting promise of him even though his magic was nothing but mirrors and illusions.
Was it presumptuous to assume too much of what Sykes wanted to see him for? That kiss had dominated his thoughts for days, probably far out of proportion to what it had really been worth. Truly, what was wrong with him that an awkward bumping of mouths had so altered his world? And why had he run? Somehow, the shame of running now overpowered the shame of the kiss. And Sykes still wanted to see him after that?
Perhaps going to see Sykes would clear this out of his system.
He was waved through by the fellow guarding the door to the backstage area, a dimension he didn’t want to consider. Surely Sykes hadn’t explained that he was expecting a visitor with which to engage in gross indecency later.
His nerves had risen to a fever pitch by the time he knocked on the door of Sykes’s dressing room.
He’d half been expecting the Amazing Alfonso to be the one to admit him, but it was undoubtedly Sykes the man who opened the door: his hair was in disarray and he’d cleaned the greasepaint from his face. It made him look different, younger. George realized he had never seen Sykes’s face without makeup.
“Ah.” His smile curved smugly, which sent all George’s blood rushing downward. “You came.”
George lifted his foot to flee but stopped himself in time. He wouldn’t do that to Sykes, not after being summoned. George was, fundamentally, a soldier, and could always be counted upon to respond to a direct order. “You invited me.”
The smirk became a grin. “Indeed.” He stepped back to allow George in. “Forgive me if I find myself wondering why.”
George frowned. “You didn’t expect me to?”
Sykes went for a bottle and glasses. George was expecting whisky, but it turned out to be gin. “Forgive me for being skeptical after your performance the other day.”
“My… oh.” George decided not to tell him he’d nearly run away just now, too. “I was… surprised.”
“Obviously.” Sykes’s smile wasn’t mocking now. “Sit. Move something if you have to.”
George carefully set a bundle of cloth and unidentifiable props on a nearby table and sat. Sykes took the chair opposite. “You did get out of here rather quickly the other day. I confess I was rather afraid to get a visit from the peelers.”
George blinked in shock. “I would never do that.”
Sykes took a sip of gin. “And I can’t have known that, Lieutenant.” His voice was just shy of chiding; it raised hairs on the back of George’s neck as his mind raced ahead of him.
George took a sip of gin for fortification. “You caught me by surprise.”
For all his casual manner, Sykes looked suddenly uncomfortable. “I misread the situation. Clearly.”
George’s mouth went dry. “No, you didn’t.”
“Ah.” Sykes unfolded his long legs and put his feet up on the fender. “So you didn’t come here to interrogate me?”
“I suppose I’m satisfied you don’t know anything.”
Sykes threw his head back and laughed. George tried not to stare at his exposed throat. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a stubborn arse?”
“You called me persistent,” George corrected, sipping his gin. Others had called him a stubborn arse.
Sykes grinned. “I’ll give you that, then. Persistent.” He stretched, giving George the impression of some lithe predatory cat. “Have you made any progress?”
“No.” George didn’t admit that it was because he’d been spending all his time here, or thinking about Sykes.
“A pity.” Sykes didn’t look too sorry. “So why did you come back, if it wasn’t to interrogate me again?”
George closed his eyes. This was the moment where he had to decide if he was going to run or not. “I came to see about the other thing.”
“The other thing…” Sykes’s voice was husky. “What might ‘the other thing’ be?”
George swallowed around the lump in his throat. “I think there’s only one thing left we’ve not discussed.”
“Yes, but I’d like to hear you say it. I don’t want any further misunderstandings.”
George sighed. Turnabout was fair play, he supposed. “I came because you kissed me. And I didn’t mind it.”
The corners of Sykes’s lips twitched. He had a very mobile mouth, George noticed. “Didn’t mind isn’t exactly the high praise I crave.”
George’s stomach churned. “I’d like to do it again,” he said. His mouth felt clumsy, as though the words were not his own, as though someone else was speaking for him the words he never could have imagined. “I’d like to see what it was like if done properly. I know I made a mess of it.”
There was the sly smirk again. Sykes set his glass aside and rose. Even out of character, he retained every ounce of his stage presence and poise. George couldn’t suppress a shudder as Sykes came closer. His mind was a blur of panic; all he could think about was being touched by Sykes. He almost cried out when the back of Sykes’s fingers brushed his cheek. His touch was light, just barely skimming George’s skin. “If you’d like it done properly,” he said. “I can more than oblige. Perhaps you won’t mind that either.”
Sykes’s legs straddled George’s thighs and he leaned in close. For a moment, their eyes locked, and then Sykes’s open mouth was on his. George felt as though his chest might burst. He’d parted his lips so as not to be caught off guard, and Sykes’s tongue was moving against his. He groaned. Sykes drew back. “Did you mind that?”
“No,” George managed. He could feel his face flush; Syke’s smile was satisfied at that. “More than didn’t mind.”
Sykes’s fingers moved up to remove George’s cap. “I’m afraid I think this looks rather silly.”
“All right,” George said, though by the time he’d forced the words out, his cap was on the floor behind his chair, and Sykes was kissing him again. Being bareheaded meant that Sykes’s fingers went into his hair, his fingernails gently grazing George’s scalp.
George had still done nothing with his hands; they were gripping the arms of his chair as though they were the only things keeping him tethered to the ground. Sykes was still straddling his legs, which meant their groins were in very close proximity. George was beginning to become very conscious of his own prick making its presence known.
“Being ravished seems to suit you well,” Sykes said. His mouth was trailing lazy kisses along George’s jaw, which was an inspired place for kissing. It threatened to set George’s skin on fire, smoldering embers that reached all the way to his cock. It was miles more intense than the fumbling schoolboy kisses that had been his only experience.
He shifted and Sykes slid forward in his lap, making George acutely aware of the other man’s erection. His head swam at the idea that Sykes had got hard over George. Sykes was sucking gently at the skin of his neck, and it occurred to George that he wanted to do something. He couldn’t bear for Sykes to think this was a repeat of the other night. Not to mention his overpowering urge to explore the lean body pressed up against his, his first opportunity since he’d first felt Sykes pressed up against him backstage and the magician had come to dominate his thoughts.
He moved his hands up to Sykes’s tousled dark hair, sliding his fingers through the silky strands, much longer than George’s own. His mouth brushed awkwardly against Sykes’s cheek, nose rasping against stubble. His heart was threatening to leap out of his chest. How embarrassing it would be to come just from this, from Sykes’s long fingers moving down his sides. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been touched, certainly never so intimately….
And then Sykes was pressing his palm against the front of George’s trousers. His hips gave an involuntary jolt.
“Good God,” he gasped.
Sykes grinned slyly and pressed more firmly, seeming to enjoy George gasping and squirming. “You act as though you’ve not been touched before.”
“I haven’t,” George managed to gasp out. He wasn’t sure if it was quite the thing to mention it, but he supposed it was best to be honest. He’d never been capable of lying.
Sykes blinked, but if George’s inexperience was offputting, it didn’t show on his face. “Well, then…” he purred, putting so much promise in those two meaningless words that George nearly whimpered.
Perhaps he had whimpered. He’d made a sort of sound that might have been classified as a whimper.
“Nothing?” Sykes asked suddenly.
George winced. He wasn’t precisely interested in going into detail now, but he supposed he owed it to Sykes to tell the full story. Or at least as much of it was relevant now. “Never like this. Haven’t any interest in women. At school, I barely even—” He gasped, as Sykes had not stopped the gentle pressure on his prick. George had forgot completely about giving Sykes any attention at all. “And then, well. Men.” He paused. He was overwhelmingly aware right now of his interest in men. “Tried not to think about it.”
“I see.” Sykes’s deft fingers were now at George’s collar. “Shall I show you something?”
George didn’t say that Sykes had already shown him more than he could ever fathom simply by touching him. “Yes.” The word left him as an exhalation. He’d been almost afraid Sykes hadn’t heard him when Sykes slid from his lap onto the floor. For a moment, George wondered why—he’d so enjoyed having Sykes in his lap that he didn’t want him to go—but then those fingertips were brushing the fly of his trousers.
George closed his eyes. His breathing was coming in gasps, as if he were an injured man on the verge of losing consciousness. Sykes undid his buttons one at a time, moving with agonizing slowness, sliding each metal disc through its buttonhole with stagecraft precision.
He was going to expire from the lurid images crowding his head, the natural consequences of the pressure of Sykes’s hands and the hungry leer on his face. How did anyone survive doing this regularly?
If he’d thought he wasn’t ready for Sykes undoing his trousers, he was wildly unprepared for Sykes touching his cock. He forced his eyes open so he could take in the sight of Sykes’s head bent over him, an expression on his face that looked almost hungry.
“May I?” Sykes asked.
George gulped. “By all means,” he said, as though they were making small talk over tea.
Without further ado, Sykes’s lips slid over the head of George’s cock, slick heat enveloping the head. “Good heavens!” George shouted.
Sykes paused. “Good heavens?”
“Fuck,” said George, feeling satisfaction at the shape of the word leaving his mouth. “Bloody fuck.” No wonder the men swore liberally. It felt bloody good.
Sykes grinned. “That’s more like it.” He once more applied his mouth to George’s prick. He seemed to know it would not take much to bring George off, so he moved quickly up and down the shaft, his mouth hot and wet and heavenly. George barely knew what to do with his hands, and he settled for sliding them into Sykes’s dark hair, as he admired the intoxicating sight of someone sucking his prick.
Who could have imagined this would be so much better than his own hand? He would never again be satisfied by furtively tossing himself off in the dark of a barracks room. How could he ever be satisfied again by something that wasn’t Sykes’s tongue making little flicks, his mouth sucking as though he wanted to draw George’s very essence out of him?
George’s orgasm hit him as though he’d been struck by a train. His vision went dark and for a moment, he was lost completely in the waves of pleasure. It was only once he’d recovered himself that he realized Sykes had swallowed George’s spend. That was like another train hitting him: Sykes had done this willingly. He’d wanted this from George. That only contributed to the dazed feeling.
“Sorry about that, old chap,” he croaked.
“Don’t be.” Sykes sat back on his heels. He was still looking at George with the same voracious look. “Did you enjoy that?”
He’d say so. Staying upright was nearly too much effort; his limbs still felt liquid, but the compulsion to do something to return the favor was galvanizing. “I—you—let me take care of you,” he gasped. He was hardly conscious of sliding out of his chair and landing nearly on top of Sykes, who gave an undignified yelp entirely not in line with his stage persona. “Isn’t that how it’s normally done?” He had no conception on what was quite the thing, but he had been raised a gentleman, and it seemed polite.
Sykes pushed himself up. “I’ve never had a bloke fall on me after I’ve sucked him off, no.”
“No, I mean.” George’s gaze went to Sykes’s crotch. “That.” He reached a tentative hand forward, and Sykes shifted his hips to give him access. “Something like it, at any rate.” His breath was still coming in gasps; the world still felt as though it had tilted on its axis. He fumbled with the fly of Sykes’s trousers until his hand found what he’d been looking for.
Hesitantly, he reached out and took Sykes’s cock, thick and hard in his hand. He supposed he could bring him off this way; he’d done it to himself often enough. But this time, he could see the twitch of every muscle in Sykes’s face. This gave him the confidence to vary his speed, and he brushed his thumb over the head.
It was fascinating to see which flick of his thumb caused Sykes to twitch where, what tug made his hips buck off the floor. The angle was different to doing this on his own; this prick was not attached to him which meant he had to figure out what to do. Touching another man this way, feeling an unfamiliar hardness in his hand, made George’s mouth run dry. Sykes’s face was growing increasingly flushed and he was making terribly interesting noises: little choking gasps that George found he wanted to hear more of. He was at the point of seeing what would happen if he pulled Sykes’s prick out of his trousers, maybe touched his lips to it, when Sykes gave a strangled cry and came in George’s hand.
There was a long quiet moment, punctuated only by the sound of Sykes’s labored breathing.
“Are you all right?” George asked.
Sykes brought a hand up to cover his face. “Quite. Was that all you had hoped it would be?”
George had not precisely hoped for being slumped on the floor in a magician’s dressing room with his cock hanging out of his trousers. But he didn’t find that he was bothered by it. “I liked it very much.”
“Good.” Sykes was looking at the ceiling. “I suppose you’ll be skipping off back to your barracks now. Do take care.” His voice had a tremulous, fragile quality to it.
George frowned. He’d had a thought to give the other man a hand up, but the hand over his face warded George off. His heart lurched in his chest at the rejection. Had he done something wrong? He cleared his throat. “Thank you.”
“I’m glad I could be of assistance, Lieutenant. You may see yourself out.”
It was only once he was down the stairs that George realized he’d forgot his cap. It seemed too awkward now to go back for it. He’d only just remembered to fix his trousers. He would have to come back another time.
Alfie lay on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, still tasting Forrester’s spunk in his mouth. He could not imagine ever standing up again. How on earth was it possible that Forrester’s untutored touch fumbling with Alfie’s cock had seemed so transcendent?
Compared to other things Alfie had done, it was hardly outlandish or exotic. But there had been something about the way Forrester had looked at him. No one had ever looked at him like that. He’d made Alfie feel more wanted than any backstage dalliance ever had. Alfie had never minded being made to feel tawdry before, but now he didn’t know how he could go back to that.
Alfie’s breath hitched. Perhaps it had just been too long. For God’s sake, he was still lying on the floor, his trousers full of jism.
The door opened and Alfie jerked his trousers closed. “Alfie, these wings aren’t going to work. I—” Ellen stopped. “Alfie, what are you doing on the floor? Whose hat is this?” She thrust her wings aside and bent to pick up Forrester’s cap. “It’s that lieutenant’s, isn’t it?” She dropped it. “Alfie, tell me you didn’t.” Alfie groaned. Ellen sighed. “Oh, Alfie.” She set the wings on the chair. “We’ll have to fix these when you get off the floor.”
“Just leave them.” It would be a while until he felt ready to get up. Perhaps, after his experience at Forrester’s hands, he would never get up again.
It was difficult going back to normal. Alfie found his thoughts straying to Forrester in idle moments, to the intent look on his face, his confident firm touch belying his lack of experience. It was almost disappointing running shows where nothing of note happened. He told himself the disruptions had been utterly terrifying when they were happening. He ought to be glad to be rid of them.
What hadn’t been unwelcome had been Forrester’s touch. Alfie was more than used to attracting attention on the stage, and he had never minded when that attention was lascivious in nature. In fact, he’d welcomed it; the hedonistic aspect of theater life had always appealed to him. That wasn’t how Forrester had looked at him. Forrester had been focused on discovery, on Alfie’s pleasure, and Alfie found he wanted to do more of that for him.
But he had no way of making Forrester return.
Three days passed like this, with Alfie increasingly wondering what he ought to do to get Forrester out of his system.
It was still light with the approach of midsummer when he left the Venetian Palace. He had not wanted to linger and talk to Ellen, however eager she was to plan their next theme. He wanted to forget Forrester and the disruption of the previous week. Maybe next week he would feel back to normal.
He ducked into an alley behind the Venetian Palace, trying to calculate the quickest way home. The sooner he could shut himself up in his rooms the better. His landlady could not have been less interested in his comings and goings; she seemed to have already written him off as a “theatrical type,” which was fine in Alfie’s books.
“That soldier’s been poking ’round the music hall,” said a voice.
Alfie peered around the corner. He knew that voice. Bloody Mortlake. Alfie was nearly at the point of striding forward and giving him a piece of his mind when he noticed the presence of the second person.
“I’ll take care of him.”
“He was asking questions about me. About you, too.”
Alfie squinted into the darkness. Mortlake’s silhouette was easily identifiable, and as his eyes adjusted to the light, he remembered the man who’d presented himself from the audience when had expected Mortlake He’d only seen him for a short time while he’d briefed him on how to land on the mattress under the stage, but that was surely him.
“Never you mind about that!” Quigley’s voice was sharp.
“Might be I need a bit more blunt,” Mortlake said. “Something to ease my worries if this army bloke’s asking people about me.”
Quigley made a scornful sound. “There’ll be blunt enough when we sell those papers, but I can’t get out with all this attention.”
“And let you get halfway to Germany without seeing a penny?”
There was a scuffle, then a cry. By instinct, Alfie started forward, and he’d got too far out of the shadows before he remembered his past as a scrappy orphan trying to survive in Whitechapel, and that drawing attention to yourself was exactly the wrong thing to do. He had not survived long enough to meet Ellen’s father without being deft enough to pick pockets and small and fast enough to get away.
Quigley dropped Mortlake’s body and turned to look at Alfie.
Alfie did the only thing he knew to do. He ran.
And did not get far before he’d smacked into something warm and solid. Alfie jerked back, stomach churning with panic. He leaped back when the figure reached out for him.
“Don’t touch me!” Alfie yelped.
“What’s got into you, man?” asked Forrester. Relief broke over Alfie. Forrester’s previous nosiness was all forgiven. It was useful to have a soldier around the place.
“It’s you.” Alfie’s hands open and closed unbidden until they latched onto Forrester’s jacket.
“Who were you expecting?”
Alfie glanced back over his shoulder but could see nothing through the fog. “Quigley,” he managed. “Just now. He killed Mortlake. I saw him.”
“Quigley’s here?” For a moment, Alfie thought Forrester might shove him aside and go after Quigley. For a moment longer, Alfie wanted Forrester not to take a step away from his side.
“Did he see you?”
Forrester thought for a moment, his features set very intensely. “You can’t go back in there,” he said finally, having seemed to work something over in his mind.”You can’t go to your home. He knows who you are and surely where you live. I’m not letting you go anywhere alone.”
Alfie’s heart was loud enough to hear in his own ears now. His body seemed caught between a danger response and one of arousal that Forrester would be sticking so close to him. “So where’m I meant to go?” he asked. He no longer cared about keeping up the accent. That had been pure Whitechapel and he didn’t care.
Forrester hesitated for a moment, his face set with determination. “My aunt’s house. It’s not near here, but we’ll manage with a cab should we be able to find one. No one will be able to track you there. She’s not even in London. The house is shut up.”
Alfie stared, as Forrester’s meaning began to sink in. “You think I’m in that much danger?”
“Yes, man. You’re in that much danger.” Forrester’s voice had a sharp and unfriendly edge of exasperation. “Quigley knows who you are and where you work, and he thinks you know something, even if you don’t.” Forrester was gripping Alfie’s shoulder tightly. If Alfie didn’t know better, he might have thought Forrester was actually concerned for him.
“I—” His protest that he could take care of himself sounded hollow even to his own ears. “I do see your point.”
And then he allowed Forrester to lead him up Dock Street to somewhere where they might be able to find a hansom.
All his life, George had been ill disposed toward unconventionality or any sort of rule breaking. Rules made sense to him. They were the code of behavior that determined what one ought to do. They eliminated uncertainty. George disliked uncertainty immensely.
And now he had been thrust thoroughly into uncertainty as what would probably turn out to be a very expensive hansom rushed him across London, with a frightened magician pressed into his side. George had completely forgot the pain of being punched, hard, in the stomach, an experience that was wholly new to him. Any discomfort was entirely mitigated by having Sykes in his arms.
Well, not truly in his arms. Sykes was pressed up against him, just on the side of propriety. It was enough to feel his warmth, and the occasional tremor. He fought not to draw Sykes closer and bring them over the edge into obviousness, no matter how much he wished he could do it. What on earth had happened to him in just a few days? He was struck by the annoying realization that he owed Quigley for introducing him to Sykes.
Kensington could not be too much farther.
He paid the driver while Sykes stood on the pavement, looking lost. His eyes were roving at the other houses on the quiet street. Phillimore Gardens was entirely respectable; he needn’t worry about danger here.
“Come on,” George said, pulling the key out of his pocket and mounting the steps. “My aunt’s brought the staff with her to Bath, but we ought to be able to manage on our own.” The door creaked open and he stepped into the darkened hall, waiting for Sykes to follow him. Sykes entered cautiously as though he didn’t think he belonged.
“It’s not much,” George went on. “But it’s home, I suppose. It’s where I was raised.” He hung up his hat. “Are you hungry?” He ought to have thought of that before.
“No,” Sykes said. There had to be some other reason he was holding himself so stiffly.
“Look,” George said, trying to gentle his voice as though Sykes were a skittish horse. “I know you probably aren’t excited to see me again, but it was the best I could come up with on short notice.”
Sykes brought a hand up to his face. There was a beat where he seemed to be having to steady his breathing. “No. It’s not that. I thought, perhaps…” He stopped.
“I thought you didn’t want to see me again.”
George could not help but gape. He had barely spared a thought for anything but Sykes these past few days; the idea that he might not wish to see him was patently absurd. “I came back there to see you,” George admitted, ears burning. Sykes’s eyebrows rose. “Go make yourself comfortable in the parlor. I’ll step out for some food.”
Sykes offered no protest and slunk through the door George indicated.
Alfie sat on the edge of the brocade sofa, trying not to actually allow his body to come in contact with it. He imagined this as the sort of place he might have broken into, had he continued down this path, had he not got caught trying to pick a magician’s pocket. This was no place for the likes of him. He might have been here for his own protection, but right now he thought he might favor taking his chances with Quigley over sitting in Forrester’s aunt’s posh house without ruining something by breathing on it.
And if that weren’t bad enough, Forrester had left him alone to get them something to eat. Alfie’s stomach rumbled. He couldn’t object to that, especially given his earlier lie that he wasn’t hungry, but he was still trying to properly process the situation. Forrester had intervened, physically, to save him. Forrester had wanted to see him again. Which was fortunate, as Alfie still wanted him, however much he’d tried to make himself forget and attach his mind to some other distraction. Forrester saving his life—perhaps he was being overdramatic—had sent the desire he had fought against roaring back.
“Hope fish and chips is all right?”
Forrester stood incongruously in the doorway, holding a large, greasy packet. Alfie suspected nothing so common had ever been within inches of the Aubusson rug under his feet. He finally found his voice. “It should suit.”
“Let’s go downstairs.” Forrester sounded uncertain as though downstairs were somewhere he had never before considered going. “I suspect that’s where they keep the dishes.”
Alfie followed wordlessly, for lack of anything else to do.
No matter the setting, fried food was a balm to his nerves. It brought him back to when he’d been younger, sitting side-by-side on a bench with Ellen, mouths watering as they waited for her father to bring their dinner.
They ate silently, though it didn’t escape Alfie’s notice that George seemed unused to eating fish and chips. Alfie didn’t bother to explain to him that the china was entirely extraneous; they could just as well eat it directly out of the newspaper.
“Your aunt keeps a nice home,” Alfie offered.
“She does.” Forrester paused. He’d removed his uniform tunic and hung it on the back of the chair; the sight of him in shirtsleeves was making Alfie nearly forget that he was here because his life was in danger. He allowed a moment to savor the breadth of his now more visible shoulders and the braces that begged to be pushed off them.
“You grew up here?” Alfie prompted.
“Yes. My aunt raised me after my parents died when I was very young..” Forrester busied himself with dribbling vinegar onto his chips. Asking for vinegar had been the first thing Alfie had done when they’d settled in the kitchen, which had necessitated a cautious exploration of the pantry.
“Forrester,” Alfie said, making him look up from uncertainly dripping vinegar on his chips, following Alfie’s lead exactly. “What is your Christian name? Can’t bear to call you Forrester if we’re to be holed up together for however long it’s going to be.”
Forrester blinked in surprise, as though he had never considered that Alfie might wish to use his Christian name if they found themselves in an intimate situation. “George,” he said. “It’s George.”
“Alfie,” said Alfie.
“Alfie.” Forrester spoke slowly as though attempting the word for the first time.
“Good,” Alfie said approvingly. “I believe in being on a first name basis if I plan to suck a bloke’s cock twice.”
Forrester went a delightful shade of scarlet. Yes, concentrating on seducing George would help with forgetting to fear for his life quite nicely. “Is that what you were planning to do?” George asked faintly.
“Something in that vein at any rate.” Alfie rose from the table. He had come to the conclusion that what he wanted most out of this was to give George what he wanted. Seeing his every reaction was a treat he didn’t think he could get enough of. He fixed George with his best come-hither look and slunk from the kitchen. The washing-up could wait. He couldn’t imagine George knew what that entailed, anyway.
George followed Alfie upstairs as though in a trance, his gaze fixed on the shape of Alfie’s arse in his tight trousers. He would have followed that into a firefight, danger be damned.
They took the servants’ stairs because they’d been in the kitchen anyway. When they reached the second floor, George stopped Alfie. “This floor,” he said. Somehow, his hand found its way to Alfie’s hip. He pressed lightly, drawing Alfie closer; at the prompt, Alfie’s body molded to his. He was just enough shorter than George that they fit together perfectly: he only had to tilt his face down and Alfie’s up just the slightest bit. He performed the task with the focus and thoroughness that had always made him good at his job. He didn’t think Alfie would appreciate being compared to paperwork, but he liked the idea that kissing could be something he was also good at.
“Blimey,” Alfie said, when they broke apart. “How is it you weren’t taken already?”
George’s face grew hot, and he knew he’d gone scarlet. “I told you. It never seemed right. School’s one thing, but—”
“Oh, I see.” Alfie’s fingertips brushed over George’s temple and into his hair. “I’ve heard about those public schools.”
All the blood rushed downward. George had not distinguished himself in that way at school, but the notion that Alfie thought differently was somehow arousing. Before he could open his mouth to say something to this effect, Alfie’s lips were on his.
Alfie’s kisses were slow and lingering. George hardly cared that they were still in the servants’ corridor, that his back was up against green baize. The voice in the back of his head that had hounded him his entire life, reminding him that these desires were shameful and dirty, had blessedly fallen silent. A blissful chasm of relief opened before him.
“My bedroom,” he managed when Alfie had paused again, trying to keep the giddiness from overpowering his sense. “It’s down this corridor.”
“Right then.” George was glad to see Alfie was as flushed as George himself felt. They made their way to the room and fell onto George’s bed as a tangle of limbs. George couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually slept in his bedroom; the barracks were much more convenient for his work, but now he thought it might be worthwhile to maintain some semblance of residence here at his aunt’s house, in case this were ever to happen again. He did not mean to get his hopes up, but he would do everything in his power to keep Alfie from drifting away.
“Come on,” Alfie said. “Let’s get this off.” He was pushing George’s braces off his shoulders. It had not crossed George’s mind that Alfie meant for them to be nude, but the thought sent a thrill of anticipation coursing through him as he squirmed out of his shirt while Alfie undid the buttons of his trousers.
Alfie’s hands moving over his bare skin was nearly too much to take. The magician’s fingers moved deftly to divest George of the rest of his clothes. George struggled to keep up. Each touch to his chest, his hips was a new impossible sensation that made his skin jump. Alfie’s touch was as intoxicating as gin.
“Christ!” he cried when Alfie’s teeth brushed one of his nipples. Alfie made a satisfied sound and nipped harder.
“You are amazing,” Alfie murmured, his breath warm on George’s chest. This was unlike their first tryst; the bed brought Sykes closer, and George could not ignore the closeness of him. He could not be amazing as Sykes said he was; no one had told him this before. He had no words to respond; George could do nearly nothing but grasp at Alfie’s back, kiss him when his mouth was close enough, position his hips so that every thrust Alfie made against him brushed their cocks together. “How does this feel?”
George gasped wordlessly into Alfie’s touch. He had not considered this as an option before, though some of the more baffling texts from school were becoming clearer in their meaning.
“Tell me what else you want.” Alfie’s hips were moving faster now; George felt overwhelmed by sensation. This, this, exactly this, was what he wanted to say, but his mouth could not form words. There was only Alfie, holding him close, the friction of their bodies. All he could do now was wrap his legs around Alfie’s waist and cry his name as he came. It was far more pleasant than calling him Sykes.
He could not bear the thought that this might be the last time they would do this, though he could barely fathom what might lie beyond this. This was the pinnacle of everything he’d thought possible. He was still engulfed by pleasure when Alfie’s own climax hit him, and George held him close against him, savoring the way his body spasmed against his. He had the fleeting thought that he had contributed very little this time, followed by the fervent vow that next time, Alfie would come entirely based on George’s efforts.
Alfie gave a shaky breath and dropped down beside George. “Cor,” he said. He pressed his face into the side of George’s neck. George tried to master his own heartbeat. Alfie was so close, and displayed no intentions of moving. A firm sense of duty came over him. Alfie felt safe with him, and George would not allow his trust to be misplaced. They ought to sleep; there was no telling when their peace might be interrupted, but he couldn’t help but savor this moment for as long as he could, lest he never get this chance again.
Alfie woke far too early for a man who was accustomed to being all but nocturnal. He was tucked in the crook of George’s arm, a very pleasant place from which he was disinclined to move. He could get used to this.
Too used to it.
He shuddered inwardly. Why did reality always have to go and rear its ugly head? He could not stay here indefinitely in cozy bliss with George, initiating him into the ways of pleasure, however much he would have liked to. He pressed his face into George’s shoulder, hoping to block out the rest of the world, the impending doom bearing down on them. He would allow himself until George woke. Then he would explain that he needed to go back to the music hall, explain himself to Ellen, and prepare for tonight’s performance.
“Alfie?” asked George blearily.
Bugger. He’d been hoping for more time.
“Are you all right?” George asked. Damn. Why did he have to choose this moment to suddenly be so bloody perceptive? There was a long pause. “If you don’t want to do this—”
“Lord, no.” Alfie sat up and grasped George’s hand. He wanted to be sure to communicate this, at least. “I want this very much. But I can’t stay here, George. I have my work. Ellen has no bloody idea where I am.” Ellen wasn’t the type to go to pieces worrying, and she would doubtless assume he’d found a warm bed for the night, but they couldn’t go days without contact. He needed a plan. A plan that didn’t involve spending the rest of his life in George’s aunt’s house while danger lurked vaguely outside.
George looked suddenly stern, mustache firm. “You’re not going out there by yourself. We don’t know where Quigley will have gone.”
“I could look after myself just fine before you spirited me away to hide in Kensington. All of those years weren’t for nothing, you know. I was on my own before I met Ellen and her father.”
George looked at him blankly. Alfie pushed his hair out of his eyes. He’d managed to forget George didn’t know anything of his past. “I was orphaned, same as you, but there wasn’t anyone to look after me.”
George frowned. “And I can look after you now. Or at least,” he amended quickly, seeing Alfie’s scowl, “I can keep Quigley from killing you.”
George was correct, but Alfie was reluctant to concede the point. “And what’s your plan to stop that?”
That appeared to truly consternate George. “I don’t want to leave you alone.”
“I’m not a child.” All the fear Alfie had felt last night now seemed to be congealing into rage. “I never exactly liked Murtlake, but I’ve just seen a colleague murdered.” Alfie had not intended to disappear him and he certainly didn’t know anything about Quigley’s schemes. “Mr. Grace won’t be best pleased if we cancel my act for God knows how long.”
“Then you’ll have an escort,” George said determinedly. His arms tightened around Alfie.
“I’ll be bait,” said Alfie firmly.
“What?” said George suddenly, sitting up and letting go of Alfie.
“I’ll be bait. It’s the only logical way.” Alfie brushed his fingers through George’s hair. He was getting used to its shortness, soft under his touch. “Just work out a way to catch him when he comes for me. You’re sure he will, aren’t you?”
George’s expression was all the answer he needed.
“And you’ll protect me. I know you will.”
George kissed him firmly.
Hoskins was amenable to the plan, and George forced himself to be, against the part of him that wanted to sling Alfie over his shoulder and carry him back to Kensington. George had been under the stage during Alfie’s performance; however much he’d wanted to see Alfie in his element, what he wanted more than that was to not leave Alfie unprotected. Instead, he stood and watched for Alfie’s reemergence through the trap door, as the stagehands parted around him like a boulder in a stream.
He was able to relax somewhat when he saw Alfie’s black trouser legs emerge from above. He drew Alfie down until he was settled in his arms.
Alfie beamed at him. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Everything was frozen for a moment; George was staring into the depths of Alfie’s dark eyes before he remembered he could not stand there holding him in his arms. He set Alfie down.
The simple offer sent a shudder right through him. The riskiest part of the plan was approaching, but he would get to see the inside of Alfie’s rooms. He had to confess to a certain amount of curiosity.
“It’s not much,” Alfie warned as they climbed the stairs of his lodging house. “But I will have you know, my landlady doesn’t take notice of either comings or goings.”
A thrill of anticipation shot through George. After all this was resolved, perhaps that meant they could have a safe haven after George’s aunt returned to Town.
“I say, if Quigley doesn’t show,” George began.
“Won’t that give him a start.” Alfie ushered George into his room. “Quigley breaks in and we’re at it like rabbits.”
George was glad for the darkness so Alfie didn’t see him flush. Instead, he pressed a clumsy kiss to the corner of Alfie’s mouth. “I’ll be ready for him.”
Minutes before midnight, the door creaked open, revealing a cloaked figure in the doorway, outlined in the dim gaslight from the corridor. Alfie stayed still and kept his breathing soft and steady, even as the figure approached the bed.
George gave a cry of pain and Alfie flung himself out from under the bed. He seized Quigley’s legs, just as above him on the bed, George struggled with Quigley for control of the knife. Quigley pitched backward, cracking his head on the wall, just as the door opened and soldiers swarmed in.
Alfie let go once he was certain Quigley would not be going anywhere anytime soon and turned back to the bed. “Blimey.”
George had a hand pressed to the wound on his shoulder. It came away bloody, a dark spot on his palm in the moonlight. Alfie’s heart nearly stopped.
“I suppose he got me,” George said.
Alfie spun on the crowd in the doorway. “Clear a bloody path. The man’s wounded.” Somewhere out in the fray, he knew there was supposed to be a doctor. If they didn’t get the man up here soon, he was going to wade in and fetch him himself.
The man got there, not nearly quickly enough for Alfie’s liking, and George had to be carried downstairs to be put in a wagon to be transported back to the barracks.
Alfie was determined not to feel awkward about the fact that he was still in full costume as he sat beside George’s hospital bed. There could stand to be more magicians in army barracks, he decided. It would break up the monotony of the uniform.
He also wasn’t going to be made to feel as though he ought to leave when George’s superior came to tell him what had happened to Quigley.
Indeed, Hoskins didn’t seem to want to leave.
“You deserve to hear this, too,” he said. If he thought Alfie’s presence out of the ordinary, he didn’t say so. “We found what Quigley was looking for stashed under the stage. That must have been Mortlake’s doing. It was a codebook. Very nearly every secret we had written down here. It’s dashed embarrassing, I will say. I’m certain it would be appreciated if you would keep it under your, er, hat.” He glanced awkwardly at Alfie’s top hat on the nightstand.
“You shan’t hear a word of it from me,” Alfie promised. “And if anyone else at the Venetian Palace happened to overhear anything—I’ll intervene.”
“Your country thanks you, Mr. Sykes.”
Alfie was silent as Hoskins left. George’s bed was in an open ward, but there were at least screens around his bed. He waited a moment to make sure no one was watching, then went to close the curtain. Satisfied that they were totally hidden from view, he dropped onto George’s bed, moving straight into a kiss, trying to avoid bothering George’s wound.
“You were very brave,” he said after they had broken apart. He reached up to stroke the back of George’s neck. “My hero.”
“Not that rot,” George said.
“I mean it.” Alfie kissed him again, this time more slowly. “You came to bodily harm for me. I appreciate that.” And another kiss. He knew he would have to stop soon, but he didn’t want to. He teetered on a precipice. If he stayed here any longer, he was in danger of getting stuck.
Stuck in an attachment to a uniform, no less.
He stroked George’s cheek fondly one last time before returning to his chair.
“What happens now?” George asked. He was still holding Alfie’s hand. Alfie deemed that adequately safe for now.
“I imagine they’ll want you to go to sleep,” Alfie said soothingly. “And I want you out of hospital before we do anything else.”
“So we will.” George’s fingers were moving over Alfie’s palm. Alfie squeezed gently. “Do other things.”
A few ideas had already occurred to Alfie. He thought there would be even more in time. “I imagine some ideas could occur to me of things we could do together.”
George closed his eyes and settled back on the pillows Alfie had fluffed for him. “I’d like to know how you do it.”
“Do what?” He was certainly not going to give cocksucking tips now.
George’s eyelids fluttered shut. “How you do the card trick? How did you know I’d pick the Queen of Hearts?”
Alfie laughed and stroked George’s hair. “A magician never reveals his secrets.”