The Viper, Chapter 03

Chapter 03

As I sat down in the prickly wicker chair on our porch, a knot of dread in my stomach tightened, and I realised I had unintentionally gathered quite a crowd of individuals with hostile intentions towards me and my family.

The greatest threat was Colonel Moran, my late husband's right-hand man. When I was pregnant with Klara, he had hacked off my index finger, shot me in the shoulder, and swore to take my daughter away from me on her third birthday. That day had come and gone without a peep from the man. But the delay did not guarantee my daughter's safety. It only meant he had problems with punctuality.

Ever since the day Moran and my so-called husband had broken into my cottage, abducted me and held me prisoner, I've never felt entirely safe. Even though I'd fled to the other side of the world, I was always on edge, anticipating an ambush.

The second option was the counterfeit gang. They might be planning on taking Arthur or silencing him. Why they hadn't tried already, I wasn't sure. Resources were perhaps an issue — though adept at creating fake money, kidnapping a child was another matter entirely. If the Boston police got wrapped up in a kidnapping or killing, it would bring an additional law enforcement agency to the chase and that would be unprofitable for the counterfeiters in the long run, to say the least. Perhaps they were biding their time to see if Arthur would incriminate them. Should that seem likely, the police officer on their payroll would inform them and the counterfeiters could still send someone to silence Arthur before he could give a witness statement.

The third contender was Mrs Haywood, wife of the notorious Railway Strangler, Colin Haywood. After Quinn and I had killed Haywood in self-defence that nightmarish evening, she'd tried to have me arrested for manslaughter. While rather unlikely, I couldn't rule out the possibility that she may have sent someone to follow me or even harm my family. People could act irrationally when they were hurting.

Ah, and there was option four: Quinn himself. Not to harm, of course, but to protect. He told me in a very cryptic, roundabout way that his acquaintances were making sure Moran would never make it to Boston. I knew in my bones that Quinn would ask his men to also watch over Arthur and me. But would that be enough to keep the counterfeit gang from putting their hands on us?

I realised that I couldn't decide on my next step without first sorting out who was following me, and who wasn't.

Sipping my tea, I studied the scene before me. Klara and Arthur lay stretched out on a checkered wool blanket, facing each other, her small fingers carefully tracing the letters of a book as she read aloud. His hazel eyes peeked from beneath his brown bangs as he watched, stopping her when she went too fast, or tapping the page to prompt her to continue.

Klara had taught herself to read before she was three and was now helping Arthur to learn his letters. She made sure to enunciate the words clearly while moving her finger over the letters on the page. When lipreading became too difficult or if he needed help with a specific word, they used hand signs.

It had taken only days for Arthur and Klara to grow close. Although three years old, Klara had been virtually mute until mere hours after Arthur showed up. Since then, there was no stopping her from filling the world with words for them both. Protecting my daughter from strangers became Arthur's mission, deeming all adults a threat until proven otherwise. Life had not treated Arthur kindly. He had no grasp of the concept of family, and what it meant to have parents who loved and cared for him. He must have spent all or at least a significant part of his short life in an orphanage. A place — as we later learned — that made it a habit to imprison and abuse their charges until they became too weak or too ill, at which point they dumped them in the orphanage’s privies or the nearby river and forest. Arthur had led us to the remains of the children that he’d considered brothers and sisters. He was an old soul in a child's body, and I couldn't help but wonder if he somehow felt responsible for the suffering the other children had endured.

He'd survived what so many hadn't.

The way he hovered around Klara to make sure nothing and no one hurt her made it clear he’d tried to protect the other children at the orphanage until he was sold to the counterfeiters.

My heart broke every time I thought about Arthur’s previous life, every time I saw him placing his small body between Klara and a passerby. I desperately wanted the boy to know safety, happiness, and love.

Even if Arthur weren't so wildly protective of my daughter, this was his home now and we were his family.

I would protect him with teeth and claws.

Which left me with only one option.

Sighing, I set aside the tea and stood.

I approached our telephone the children had adorned with red ribbons after drawing a quite horrendous face on it. We subsequently baptised it “Rosie.”

The operator put me through to the Boston PD, and Boyle's voice sounded from the other end. I asked if I could leave a message for Inspector McCurley, but a mere two seconds later Quinn said, 'Elizabeth?'

My mouth dried up.

'Sergeant Boyle, a little privacy, please?'

Although Quinn had spoken softly, I heard him loud and clear. The connection was impeccable that day. I could even hear Boyle close the door to Quinn's office.

'Elizabeth? Are you all right?'

I cleared my throat. 'Yes. Apologies for bothering you. I just... I have a quick question for you. Are any of your…old acquaintances following me?'

'Excuse me?' Every small rasp of his tense voice was audible.

'Are any of your—'

'No,' he said, low and gruff.

'Oh, good then—'

'Describe the men to me.' There was a new urgency in his tone.

'It's all right, Quinn. I'm sure it's nothing. I spotted the man only once...well, twice. No need to worry about—'

'You sound like a cornered rabbit.'

I scrambled for an excuse to hang up. 'Klara is calling for me. I need to—’

He cut me off, 'I'll be at the boat house at eight o'clock tonight.'

My breath hitched. 'No! It's not—’

A loud click and Quinn was gone.

'—not necessary.' I stared at the receiver. 'Damn.'

'What was that about?' Margery asked, bustling past me into the kitchen.

Exhaling a groan, I picked up the receiver to once again ask a certain friend for a favour. The voice on the other end sounded like Owens the butler drowning in a sea of metal shavings.

'Hello, is that you, Owens? May I speak to Warren, please?’ I said. There was a lot of crackling and hissing on the other side. I repeated myself, this time raising my voice nearly to a shout.

After what seemed an eternity of scratchy mumbling and distortion, a faint voice said, ‘Mr Amaury, sir, Dr Arlington is on the telephone.’ A clunk and more crackling.

I hated telephoning.

I'd almost given up on the connection when Warren said, 'Liz? Is that you?'

'Yes, it's me. Can we meet? I have a question. And maybe...a favour to ask.'

Warren paused for a moment. 'Sounds urgent.'

‘Um. Perhaps. Does tomorrow at two o'clock suit you?'

'Let me check. Owens? Am I free tomorrow early afternoon?'

A moment later, Warren said, 'Looks good. Where do you want to meet?'

'Your new apartment?'

'Erm... Are you sure?' he asked.

‘Why, are you worried?'

A nervous laugh. 'Well, you've never seen me like this, so yes, I am worried.'

I tried for a calm tone while using enough volume to be heard on the other end. 'Warren, I’m treating patients in the slums almost daily. Do you think anything can shock me?'

A long pause, and then, 'You d-d-d-did not j-j-just say th-that, Elizabeth Arlington! Do you really think I’ve s-s-sunk that low?'

For a moment, I felt bad about rattling Warren so hard that he fell back into his childhood stutter. But then I remembered that he enjoyed roughhousing, both mentally and physically. ‘Warren, you live in an apartment fit for the upper middle class. Ninety-nine per cent of the American population would trade their hovel with yours in a heartbeat. I absolutely do not think you have sunk low.’

He grunted, and asked, ‘Should I invite the Freaks?’

‘I’d like to speak with you alone.’

‘Oh! Are we catching another murderer?’

‘May I remind you that you did not catch the Railway Strangler, rather you led him straight to my door.’

A prolonged silence followed. ‘I’ll never forget that, Liz. I still feel horrible about it.’

‘Telephoning is giving me a headache. We talk more tomorrow, Warren.’

After we said our farewells, I asked Margery to tell Zach to invite Georgie for dinner the next day. He and his friend Freddie were newsboys who occasionally worked as informants for me. Payment was accepted in coin and Margery's blueberry muffins. Georgie was as sharp as a whip, but I had my doubts about Freddie.

‘Don’t think I don’t know you’ve got secrets with this counterfeit case,’ Margery said. ‘We’re going to have a long conversation, Elizabeth. You’re not getting away that easy.’ She unpointed her finger from my nose and bustled away to find her husband.

No, it wasn't over. It was just beginning.

After dinner, I unlocked the hidden door in my bedroom and made my way through the tunnel toward the boat house. When the recession had rolled in, Margery and Zach prepared for the worst and transformed the tunnel into a well-stocked larder with enough provisions to feed an entire battalion — defending against an economic apocalypse that never happened.

Neither did they know there was no shortage of funds. An inheritance of three million dollars in gold was enough to last us many lifetimes. Zach and Margery knew I had some money, but they'd probably die from an aneurysm if I ever told them how much.

When I reached the end of the tunnel, I pressed my ear to the door of the boat house and listened. Faint scrunching noises from rodents chewing on their supper. Ticking of furniture beetle larvae. Distant lapping of water against the muddy shore.

I lowered the flame of my lantern, undid the three bolts I installed soon after I discovered the tunnel, and stepped through the door. 

I'd left the inside of the old boat house unchanged, frozen in time. Cobwebs hung thick from the ceiling and dirt carpeted the floor — all seemed undisturbed since my last visit.

Tiptoeing across the small space, I pricked my ears for any noise, but there was only silence and the soft crunch of my footfall. I peeked through the grime-covered window to survey the area before calling out softly, 'Are you there?'

'I am, but don't open the door,’ Quinn murmured.

'Is someone watching?' I asked, my nerves growing as the moments ticked by. 'Quinn?'

'What happened, Liz?'

Was he asking why I'd left with hardly an explanation and a weak apology?

He'd ever only called me Elizabeth. His softly spoken question melted a barrier inside of me. My forehead pressed against the cracked doorframe. A hundred words filled my mouth, but I settled on, 'You are a police inspector, Quinn. You are so far up the hierarchy, you’ve even got your own office and telephone.'

'You know I wouldn't rat you out. So why—'

'Because I know you wouldn't rat me out,' I interrupted.

A soft laugh, almost bitter. 'Are you trying to protect my virtue?'

I groaned. 'Quinn, I'm withholding evidence. Not only that, I—'

'Listen to me, Elizabeth. I will say this only once, so listen carefully. I was a criminal. Not just a petty thief or pickpocket but someone who killed people for money. The man Quinn McCurley is nothing more than an invention, a construct that’s allowed me to leave my old life behind. You can't protect me, and it's not your job anyway. I killed for money. I did it with my bare hands. Never forget this.'

Dumbstruck, my gaze shifted to the window. He was nowhere in sight, but I knew he must be leaning against the doorframe, hidden from view. Only once had he shared with me a glimpse of his past as a pit fighter who’d grown up in the slums. I’d known there was more to the story, but never did I expect anything like this.

He continued, his voice a rumble, 'Describe the man you saw in detail.'

I opened the door a small crack, knowing he'd warn me if anyone was nearby.

His silhouette filled the entrance as he stepped in and shut the door gently behind him. A few droplets of rain sparkled off his coat as he pushed the hat away from his face. The small light from the lantern glittered in his eyes.

'I know you don't want to see me,' he began. 'But this is more important than personal preferences. We both made promises to Arthur, and we both know the boy might be in danger.'

He waited for my nod before continuing, 'Now tell me exactly what happened.'

I relayed the whole story, and he listened without interrupting. Then he said, 'So you are already knee-deep in investigating the counterfeit gang. Why am I even surprised?' Shaking his head, he washed a hand over his face.

Something was wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I knew he was mad at me for dropping him like a hot poker. But that wasn't all. I felt it under my skin. Something about this version of Quinn McCurley made the hair on my neck rise.

'I take it you have a plan laid out on how to catch them and send them off to prison,' he said.

The crawling under my skin grew worse. Putting a smile on my face, I answered, 'I will distract and discombobulate while pulling the rug right out from beneath their feet.'

Quinn shut his eyes and steadily sucked in a breath, his nostrils flaring. 'Right. Doctor Elizabeth Arlington, the woman who would single-handedly wipe out the entirety of organised crime in Massachusetts. If you are open to suggestions at all at this point, why don't I tackle the rug-pulling while you do the discombobulating?' His expression shifted to one of cold determination as he met my gaze again. This was a man whose icy resolve intensified the more cornered he felt.

Why would he feel that way around me? 'Quinn, I'm sorry, I—'

He cut me off. 'There is no need to explain. We are two adults who had a brief romantic moment. Now we have a job to do.'

Well, I certainly deserved that. His small outburst was justified and it put me back on two feet, my suspicions about him dissolving like fog. He was mad at me. And I would feel the same way if a man I trusted with my darkest secrets could turn his back on me as easily as I’d done to him.

When I remained silent, he shook his head and reached for the door handle.

'You stop right there and listen!'

Slowly he turned back and faced me, hands in his coat pockets, shoulder leaning against the door frame.

'I know I hurt you, and I am deeply sorry. When you said you declined the offer of the Secret Service for me, and that you were willing to make evidence disappear and lie to your Chief for me, I decided it had to end. I can't make you risk your career for me.'

He snorted.

'Well,' I muttered, ‘in my head, it sounded much more reasonable than saying it out loud.'

'Let's agree on one thing. I do not make decisions for you, and you do not make decisions for me.' After a moment of consideration, he added, 'And number two: We are sharing custody for Arthur. The boy is in danger, and for reasons unfathomable to me, you chose to never ask me for help. This has to end now. We are parents. We should act like responsible adults.' Again, he grabbed for the door handle and turned to leave.

I slammed my foot down to block the door from opening. 'Did you consider that my version of responsibility might differ from yours?'

Slowly, he turned back to face me. He took off his hat and waited for me to continue.

'You guard your heart and I guard mine. I do what I believe is best for my family and myself. I have always acted alone. I never relied on anyone to fix my problems for me. So no, my first thought was not to ask you for help. My first thought was to keep you out of the trouble that I seem to drag with me wherever I go.'

'You have no right to make that choice for me, Liz,' he said softly.

Puzzled, I cocked my head. 'I don't understand.'

'No, you don't because you never had to rely on a friend to pull you out of the pit when you were down.'

I opened my mouth to reply when he slunk out into the night.

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