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McKinnie and Wolfe: Monster Hunters

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“What are we going to do about these murders?” Serena McKinnie asks her friends.

“What do you suggest we do?” asks Sian Kors. “You two are medical students and I'm a Law student. You surely don't imagine we should become vigilantes, do you?”

“I'm thinking we should try something a little more subtle,” says the third member of their trio.

“What?” asks Sian immediately. She has never felt particularly close to Serena's fellow medical student, perhaps because Berenice Wolfe comes from a more affluent family than Sian or Serena, or perhaps because Wolfe is less feminine than either of her friends.

“I was thinking that we could try a stakeout,” Wolfe says.

“Surely for a stakeout to work one requires bait?” Sian asks a little icily. “I trust you realise that neither of us are willing to play bait?”

Wolfe shrugs. “So we pay a pretty girl to play bait,” she says casually.

“What pretty girl?” asks Sian, sounding nervous. “And are you absolutely certain we three are enough to apprehend the perpetrator? What if there's more than one person doing this? Carrying out the attacks?”

“I told you,” Wolfe says, sounding impatient, “there were only two sets of footprints in that alleyway and one pair matched the shoes of the victim. Which means the other set belonged to the murderer, and I reckon I can capture him. Based on the size of his shoes and the length of his stride, he isn't as tall as me, nor as heavy, so I'll have the advantage if it should come to fisticuffs.”

She looks from Sian's sceptical face to Serena's doubtful one, then sighs. “Fine, if it will make you feel any better bring along that bobby who fancies Serena. I doubt Medcalf is in as good shape as I am, but he can play backup if it'll make you feel better. Just make sure he knows to keep quiet.”

Serena looks momentarily annoyed, then sighs. “I'll ask him.”

“Good.” Wolfe looks at her pocket watch, then gets to her feet. “I have to get going. I'll send you a note with the details for the stakeout later, Serena.” She deposits a number of coins in the saucer of her teacup, then shrugs the strap of her battered leather satchel over her shoulder and crosses the tearoom in a few strides before disappearing through the door.

“I've no idea why you put up with her,” Sian says, not for the first time in their acquaintance with Berenice Wolfe.

“Because she's incredibly talented and very capable as a doctor, because she’s got a streak of compassion a mile wide under that brusque manner, and because she’s very generous to those she considers her friends. I note you don’t refuse when she pays for our food and drink on more than half the occasions when we dine out.”

“Oh. Well, as you know, being a Law student isn’t cheap.”

“Any more than being a medical student is,” Serena agrees.

“Don’t you think she’s odd, though? I don’t just mean the way she dresses like a man. All that stuff about the size of the footprints and the length of the murderer’s stride.”

“She’s got a very keen mind and brilliant observational skills,” Serena says with a shrug. “Something I’d have thought you’d appreciate given your intended career.”

Sian sighs. She suspects this is one subject on which she and Serena will never see eye to eye. It’s almost as if her friend is in thrall to Wolfe. “Do you think this stakeout idea is a good one?”

“I don’t see how else we’re going to stop this murderer,” Serena says. “The bobbies are getting nowhere, according to Robbie Medcalf, and there’s three students dead – three young women who will have fought as hard, or harder, than us to get here. You know how much men hate women studying for degrees because it makes us ‘less womanly’ or some such bilge.” She finishes her cup of tea, then picks up her own satchel. “Do you want to risk one of us being the next victim?”

Sian shakes her head, downs the last of her tea, then grabs her briefcase. “Let’s hope Wolfe knows what she’s doing,” she says as they cross the tearoom.

Serena sighs. “I hope so, too. I really don’t want Medcalf to start thinking I’m interested in him.”

They make their way into the street, parting company at the top of Aldgate High Street. As Serena heads to her next lecture she can’t help thinking of Berenice Wolfe: the young woman is certainly unusual. Of course, all three of them are unusual insofar as they are young women studying to follow a profession instead of focusing on finding husbands, marrying, and bringing children into the world. She suspects that Sian does want to find a husband, although not to start having babies, but only because she wants a man to keep her in the style to which she wants to become accustomed as she works her way up the career ladder. Serena is considering finding a husband because she does want to have children and, she has to admit, her mother will give her hell if she doesn’t produce any grandchildren, for all that Marjorie, her half sister, has already given Adrienne McKinnie a grandson.

She cannot pretend, however, that she doesn’t find Berenice attractive: the young woman looks good in the suits she wears and Serena has, more than once, found her mind wandering into dangerous territory, wondering what it’d be like to kiss her. It’s not something she has any intention of expressing to Berenice, however, for all that she suspects the blonde of having kissed a young woman or two. She has no proof, and even if she did, she still wouldn’t say anything, no matter how tempted she might feel to slide her own lips over Berenice’s thin, soft-looking lips.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That evening the three of them, along with Robbie the bobby as Sian has dubbed him, gather in an alley near the East India Dock. Berenice has found and persuaded a young woman, whom Serena suspects is a prostitute, to act as the bait. The murderer has killed two young women in nearby streets, making Berenice theorise that this is his particular territory. Serena can only hope that she’s right because none of them wants to hang around too long in the bitter cold of an early December night, least of all the young woman Berenice has found, who is hardly dressed for the cold.

Finally, a little before midnight, a young man in a very old-fashioned cloak, who certainly doesn’t top Berenice’s shoulder and who has a short, Serena might almost call it mincing, stride, approaches Colette and propositions her. Berenice has primed Colette, asking her to agree to come further down the alley if the man invites her to do so, and promising that she will protect her.

Colette and the man move further into the alley, towards the spot where Berenice and the others are waiting, and Serena wonders if she’s imagining the tension in her friend’s body. The man leans in, but instead of kissing Colette, he grazes his teeth over the side of her neck, making her shudder. Then he opens his mouth wider and sinks his teeth into her neck, causing her to cry out. Berenice begins to run silently down the length of the alley, but even as she’s sprinting forward, Robbie Medcalf pulls out his whistle and blows on it. The man startles, then swirls his cloak around his body, and Serena would swear that he flies up into the air, although such a thing is impossible.

Berenice skids to a halt, then turns on Medcalf, who’s lumbering after her, and grabs him by the lapels, lifting and slamming him against the tall, rather decrepit wooden fence that runs down the nearest side of the alley.

“What in hell’s name did you do that for, you lumbering oaf?” she demands angrily, spots of pink appearing high on her cheekbones. “The agreement was that you’d be here as silent backup until I’d apprehended the man.”

“It’s my duty, as an officer of the law –”

“I don’t give a damn about your duty,” Berenice snarls. “I care about saving young women from a predator who murders them.” She drops him to the ground, and he staggers. “Now get out of my sight before I forget there’s such a thing as the Hippocratic Oath.”

Medcalf looks at Serena, his mouth opening, but she shakes her head. “Go,” she says firmly.

He slinks off, his expression disgruntled, but he gets no sympathy from any of the four women in the alley. Berenice is pulling things from her pockets, calling, “A little help, please, Serena?” as she guides Colette to sit down. “And bring that lantern, please, Sian.”

The two women hurry over and while Sian lights the lantern, Serena helps Berenice to clean and patch the heavily bleeding wound on Colette’s neck.

“’m s-s-sorry,” stutters the young woman. “He b-bit m-me. What k-kind of man b-bites a g-girl rather than k-kissing her?”

“A very strange kind,” Berenice says, her tone full of sympathy, for all her hands and eyes are focused on her task.

After a while she seems satisfied with her work. “There you go, I think that will do.” She takes Colette’s shaking hands in both of her own and squeezes them. “Promise me you’ll come to the New London Hospital tomorrow afternoon so I can get a proper look at it?”

“I p-promise.”

“Good girl.” Berenice helps Colette up, then leads her up the alley, and Serena sees her helping the young woman into a hansom cab shortly afterwards, before handing some coins to the cabbie. Then she returns and gathers up her medical supplies.

“I had no idea you carried medical supplies around with you,” Serena says.

“I don’t always, not as a matter of routine. Just thought they might be needed tonight.”

“Well, I’m glad that you had the forethought to bring some.”

“Can we get out of here?” Sian asks in a peevish tone. “It stinks.”

“You two go on ahead,” Berenice says. “I just want to check something out.”

Sian sighs loudly, then sets the lantern down near where Colette was attacked. “Coming?” she asks Serena, who shakes her head.

“Not yet.”

“Fine,” Sian says snappishly and stalks off, the skirts of her gown held high above the filth of the alley. Serena suspects that Sian will be giving her a piece of her mind on the morrow, but at the moment she doesn’t care. She wants to talk to Berenice about what she saw, or thinks she saw, when the young man was disturbed by Medcalf’s whistle.

“You don’t have to stay,” Berenice says, giving Serena a brief glance from under her messy fringe.

“I won’t, if you don’t want me to,” Serena says, suddenly aware of the way her heart is thumping.

“I always want you around, Serena McKinnie.” Berenice holds out a hand to her, then nods at the ground. “Take a look at this.”

Serena clasps Berenice’s hand and feels a shiver of something she cannot name slide down her spine at the touch of the other woman’s warm, calloused skin against her own. Berenice draws her to crouch beside her, then pulls a pencil from her pocket and turns over something in the dirt.

“What does that look like to you?”

Serena squints at the object, frowning, then says tentatively, “A cufflink?”

“Mmhmm.”

She watches as Berenice pulls on a pair of leather riding gloves, then carefully scoops the tarnished metal object out of the dirt, holding out her hand with the item in her palm. “Is that a monogram?” Serena asks.

Berenice smiles at her and it seems to light up the blonde’s whole face. “It is,” she agrees. “Well spotted.”

“Thank you.” Serena frowns at the metal. “How on Earth did you spot that?” she asks curiously.

“Good eyesight,” Berenice says with a chuckle. “Shall we get a hansom cab back to my accommodation and I’ll see if I can clean this up, see what it can tell us?”

She scoops up the lantern and douses the flame, then gives Serena an expectant look. “You can sleep at mine since we’ve neither of us got a lecture before lunch.”

“Thank you.” Serena says, then chuckles when Berenice offers the crook of her elbow. She slides her hand through and hooks their arms together, then lets Berenice lead her out of the alley in search of a hansom cab. She does her best to ignore the flutter of excitement in her belly at the prospect of sleeping with Berenice, albeit in a separate bed. She also ignores the urge to lean in and kiss her friend, an urge that seems to be getting stronger and stronger lately. She cannot get entangled with her friend in that fashion, however much she longs to.

SC-BW-SC-BW-SC

Serena wakes the following morning to the scent of coffee and bacon, and she quickly tosses aside her blankets to grab the spare robe Berenice had given her the night before and pull it on before making her way downstairs to the kitchen from whence the enticing scents are emanating.

Berenice turns as soon as she crosses the threshold and gives her that beaming smile Serena had seen the night before. “Good morning, Serena. I trust you slept well? Breakfast?”

“I did, thank you. Your – well, my – bed, was wonderfully comfortable. And breakfast sounds like an excellent plan.”

“Good. I’m having porridge, following by bacon rolls. Which do you prefer, or would you like both?”

“Both, please.”

“Excellent. Take a seat and it will be ready in a moment. How do you take your coffee?”

“Strong and hot is all I care about this morning after our late night.”

Berenice smiles again, and within a few minutes there are two bowls of porridge set on the kitchen table, together with two plates holding two rolls filled with thick rashers of bacon, and two large cups of coffee.

“Help yourself to cream, honey, salt, or sugar for your porridge,” she says, with a nod at the centre of the table where the items she mentioned are set out.

“Thank you,” Serena says, grabbing the pot of honey and spooning a generous measure onto her porridge before tucking in.

They eat in a companionable silence for some time, the only sound the scrape of their spoons in their bowls of porridge. Then Serena asks, “Do you eat like this every morning?” She had noted that Berenice had been equally generous with the amount of honey she’d added to her porridge.

Berenice tilts her head a little to one side. “You’re trying to work out how I manage to stay skinny as a rake, aren’t you?” she asks, a teasing lilt to her voice that Serena’s never heard before, but very much likes.

“I am,” she agrees.

Berenice gives her a little half smile. “I run,” she says.

Serena blinks. “You run?”

Berenice nods. “Circuits of the park. I normally go out for an hour before I have breakfast.”

This time Serena frowns. “Did you go this morning?”

Berenice nods. “I go every morning, rain or shine.”

“I don’t know whether I’m impressed at your discipline or appalled at your habits.”

Berenice snorts, then lets loose the most astonishing laughter that Serena has ever heard – a positive goose honk of a sound that soon sets her off, too.

“You can be both,” Berenice says, once they’ve caught their breath again.

“I suppose I can,” Serena agrees, starting on one of her bacon rolls. “Good Lord! This is the best bacon I’ve ever tasted.”

Berenice gives her that half smile again, looking at her from beneath her fringe. “I’m glad you like it,” she says softly.

“It’s absolutely delicious,” Serena says, then can’t quite hold back a moan as the fine pork flavour hits her again.

Berenice’s eyes go wide and pink steals into her cheeks, and Serena immediately finds herself wanting to kiss the other woman more desperately than she ever has before. She buries her face in her cup of coffee for a few moments, worried that her friend might see the want in her eyes.

After breakfast, Berenice leads Serena into her lab and shows her the cufflink that she had found the night before. It looks like new and she can’t help asking how Berenice managed to clean it up so quickly.

“You did sleep last night, didn’t you?” She can’t help recalling that Berenice mentioned going for an hour long run before breakfast and it was past midnight when they got home.

Berenice chuckles. “I did, thank you. I cleaned this by mixing half a cup of white vinegar and two tablespoons of baking soda into a bowl of lukewarm water. I left it to soak for about two and a half hours, then rinsed it with cold water and left it to dry in the air. It’s the method my father’s valet uses for cleaning my father’s cufflinks.”

“I’m impressed,” Serena says, then she can’t help asking, “Do you have a lot of servants at home? Only I noticed you don’t have any here.”

“We have a butler, a housekeeper, a cook, a couple of maids, a couple of footmen, and the men in the stable. Plus, a groundskeeper. I don’t have servants myself because I don’t need them. My father had the servants teach me how to manage a household in the expectation that I will marry.” She chuckles weakly. “He didn’t anticipate that I would want to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor, too.”

“What about your mother?” Serena asks delicately.

“She died when my twin and I were nine years old.”

“You have a twin?” Serena asks.

“Constantine Ricardo Wolfe.”

“Your parents have an interesting taste in names.”

Berenice chuckles. “You haven’t heard my full name.” At Serena’s raised eyebrow, she elaborates, “Berenice Griselda Wolfe.”

Serena stares at her friend in astonishment. “Good Lord.”

“I know.”

She shakes her head, then nods at the cufflink. “Do you have any idea how to discover the owner of this?”

“I do. There’s a jeweller in Bond Street who knows my father. I’ll take it to him tomorrow.”

“There was something I wanted to talk about, something that happened last night,” Serena says.

“When the man who attacked Colette vanished, you mean?”

“I wasn’t imagining that, then?”

Berenice shakes her head. “I suspect he’s a vampire.”

Serena blinks, then stares. “A vampire?” Berenice nods. “But surely that was just some tale dreamt up by Bram Stoker?”

Berenice shakes her head. “Let’s go and sit down,” she says, and takes Serena’s hand to lead her into the parlour where they settle on the chesterfield.

“There’s something I haven’t told you yet because I was waiting for the right time, although I’m not really sure there is a right time to tell someone this – after all, it’s going to sound frankly bizarre, if not utterly outrageous–”

“Berenice.” Without thinking about it, Serena reaches over and places her index finger against her friend’s lips. “You’re babbling.”

Berenice’s cheeks flush pink and when Serena realises just where her finger is, she blushes a deeper pink than Berenice as she snatches her finger back.

“I’m sorry,” Berenice says. “I didn’t mean to babble. It’s just that I’ve never told anyone this before.”

“What is it?” Serena asks, a little worriedly.

“There’s no easy way to lead up to this, so I’ll just come out and say it. I’m a Monster Hunter. I come from a long line of Monster Hunters, going back to at least my great-great-great-Grandfather.”

“A Monster Hunter?” Serena repeats, bewildered now. She can hear, from the way Berenice says it, that this is a title of some kind.

Her friend nods. “I hunt down vampires, werewolves, and other such monsters. It’s why I’m so disciplined about running – I never know when I might need to run away from or to give chase to something monstrous. So I have to keep in training.”

Serena stares at her. “Are you really telling me that vampires and werewolves exist?”

Berenice nods again. “Is it too much?” she asks, sounding anxious, peering at Serena through her fringe. “Are you going to leave, never to return? Will you try to have me committed to Bedlam?”

Serena reaches out and clasps her friend’s hands, which she’s wringing in her lap. “No, it’s not too much,” she says firmly. “No, I’m not going to leave and never return. And no, I’m not going to try to have you committed. I’ll admit, it seems a bit unlikely, but you’re quite the most down-to-Earth person I know, so if you tell me that vampires and werewolves really exist, then I’m forced to believe you.”

“Thank you.” Berenice looks away, her expression of relief so intense that Serena realises she really had been at least half expecting her to report to the authorities.

She gives her friend’s hands a gentle squeeze and says, “How old were you when you first embarked on Monster Hunting?”

“Nine.”

“Nine? That’s incredibly young!” Serena says. “Wait! You said your mother died when you were nine.”

Berenice nods sadly. “My father was out of town with my grandfather as they’d heard a rumour about a nest of vampires preying on a village a dozen miles or so away from our home. They had no idea that it was a ruse to get them out of town.” She tightens her lips, looking away from Serena, who shifts closer to her, sliding an arm around her shoulders.

“You don’t have to tell me,” she tells her friend.

“Might as well, now I’ve started,” Berenice says huskily, then clears her throat. “My father didn’t know that my mother had lately befriended a woman who had come knocking on our door during a storm, begging for shelter. My father had been out of town then, too. Of course, my mother had invited the woman inside, which meant the vampire could cross the threshold whenever she chose. The night she died, the vampire showed up and drank deep of my mother, turning her into a vampire. She left my mother to fend for herself, knowing that Mother would be itching to feed once she awoke. She intended my mother to slaughter my brother and I, and probably the household servants too, before my father returned.”

“What happened?” asks Serena, breathless with worry.

“I ensured my mother couldn’t carry out the vampire’s plan.”

“You – you mean you –” Serena can’t finish the sentence. She bites down hard on her bottom lip, tears springing to her eyes.

“I stopped her, yes,” Berenice says, her voice thick with emotion, and Serena feels guilty for feeling relieved that her friend doesn’t elaborate.

“Oh Berenice.” She squeezes her friend’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”

The blonde clears her throat. “Thank you. Anyway, after that, my father and grandfather began teaching my brother and I everything that we needed to know to try to survive the monsters.” She chuckles weakly. “I’m the first member of the fairer sex to join the family trade. It had never been considered necessary before. Of course, if my mother had been taught what she needed to know, there’s a good chance she’d be here today.”

She straightens up. “Anyway, now that I know that our suspect is a vampire, I’ll do things differently when I try to capture him a second time.”

“You’ll let me help, won’t you?” Serena asks anxiously.

“Are you sure?” Berenice asks. “Because this isn’t something to go into lightly.”

“I’m sure,” Serena says firmly.

Berenice nods. “Very well. Why don’t you go and get dressed and I’ll make us something for luncheon and we’ll discuss it while we eat. We do have lectures in a little over an hour, after all.”

Serena flushes at Berenice’s reminder that she’s still wearing the nightgown and robe that she’d loaned to her. “Oh, yes, of course.”

“Would you like me to draw you a bath?” Berenice asks.

“Do I have time to bathe as well as eat luncheon before we have to be at our lecture?”

Berenice pulls her pocket watch from her waistcoat pocket. “If you don’t linger in the bath too long. Or you could wait and have one after our lecture?”

“I’ll wait until later,” Serena says. “It occurs to me that I should go home before we go to our lecture so that I can change my clothing.”

“We can do that,” Berenice says. “You should be sure to wear layers for warmth tonight as it’s set to be much colder than last night.”

Serena nods, then makes her way upstairs to get dressed. She cannot help thinking about everything that Berenice has told her this morning and while she will admit to feeling nervous at the prospect of taking on a vampire, she will also admit that the prospect of doing so alongside Berenice Wolfe, Monster Hunter, seems rather less daunting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

After their lecture and a couple of detours to gather items for that evening’s stakeout, Serena finds herself lying in a deliciously hot bath that she hasn’t had to heat and haul the water for since Berenice has an actual hot water pump installed in her bathroom to provide hot water in an instant. She can’t help feeling relieved that Sian wasn’t at home when they stopped off at the lodgings she and Serena share in order to collect some clothing as she has a strong feeling that Sian would disapprove of them setting up a second stakeout.

Berenice is downstairs preparing supper and Serena feels a tiny bit guilty about being waited on by Berenice, but her friend doesn’t seem bothered by it. She had, in fact, told Serena that she was glad to have her around as her house sometimes felt too big and empty.

“Why don’t you share it, then, like Sian and I share lodgings?” Serena had asked.

“Because until now, there’s been no one whom I felt I could trust with the secret of being a Monster Hunter,” Berenice had replied. “After all, how could I explain coming and going at all hours of the night? How would I explain any injuries I might sustain?”

“I see your point,” Serena had answered, because she could see that it would be very awkward for Berenice in such a situation. She can’t help thinking, though, that now that she knows, she and Berenice might share the house together and at least her friend would have someone who’s medically trained to come home to if she gets injured. Serena feels a definite twinge of guilt at the thought of moving out of the lodging she’s currently sharing with Sian, although she’s sure that her gregarious friend would have no trouble in finding someone else to share with.

She isn’t quite ready to put forth that idea to Berenice just yet, however. Better to get tonight’s business out of the way, at the very least.

She’s still wallowing in the bath, half asleep in the warm water, when there’s a brisk rap on the door.

“Supper will be ready in ten minutes, Serena,” her friend calls through the door.

“Berenice?”

“Yes?”

“How do I rid the bath of the water? Must I bail it out?”

Berenice’s honking laugh echoes through the door. “No, Serena, there’s a plug.”

Serena frowns. “A what?”

“Are you still in the tub?”

“Um, yes.”

“Well, if you hop out and wrap up, I’ll come in and show you.”

“Just a minute.” Serena climbs out of the water and begins briskly rubbing herself dry.

“You have eight minutes,” Berenice says, her voice full of laughter, and Serena can’t help rolling her eyes.

“You think you’re so funny,” she says in the most longsuffering tone she can manage as she pulls her robe around herself. Berenice chuckles from the other side of the door. “You can come in now.”

The door opens and Berenice peeks around the edge, smiling when she sees Serena is wrapped in her robe and seated on the chair near the bathtub, rubbing her feet dry.

She comes into the bathroom and strides across to the tub, and Serena notices that she’s taken off the jacket she was wearing earlier, and has folded her shirt sleeves back to her elbows, showing off powerful looking forearms. She watches as her friend plunges her right arm into the bathwater, then lifts her arm back up after a moment, a small object in her hand.

“Voilà!” she says with a smirk. “One plug.” She holds the object out and Serena sees that it’s a rubber stopper.

“Very impressive,” Serena says with a smirk of her own.

“I’ll leave you to dress,” she says. “Supper will be in six and a half minutes.”

“I’ll be there,” Serena assures her.

“Good.” Berenice sets the plug down on the rim of the bath, between the taps, then goes out, and Serena makes her way to the guest room where she slept last night and will be sleeping again tonight, and focuses on dressing. She’s grateful that Berenice has already lit a fire in her room since the day is growing chillier as night draws near.

Once dressed she makes her way downstairs and finds Berenice is just portioning out suet pudding, potatoes and cabbage onto two plates, before she pours them both a glass of wine.

“To help keep out the cold,” she tells Serena, who nods her understanding as she takes a seat at the table where she ate porridge and bacon rolls this morning.

The food is good, as is the wine, and they have slices of fruit pie afterwards, served with thick cream. “I’d better not eat with you too often,” Serena observes, “or I’ll be the size of a house in a very short space of time.”

Berenice chuckles. “Curves suit you, though. I, alas, am likely to always been straight up and down like a stick. It runs in the family.”

“Slim suits you, though,” Serena observes. “And you do have some curves, they’re just not as obvious as mine.”

After their meal Serena helps Berenice to do the washing up, then they head upstairs to snatch a few hours sleep before they head out to the East India Dock for their second stakeout. Serena’s not sure if she’ll manage to fall asleep as her nervousness about the night’s activities has grown stronger, but she must do so much quicker than anticipated because it seems like barely five minutes have passed before Berenice is knocking on her door to rouse her.

By eleven thirty they’re in position. Tonight, Serena is the bait for the vampire, and while she is feeling a little nervous, she’ll admit to herself, if no one else, that Berenice’s silent presence has a calming effect on her. She thinks the tot of brandy that Berenice gave her, from a monogrammed silver hip flask no less, has also helped calm her nerves.

About a quarter of an hour before midnight Serena hears footsteps approaching and when she glances up, the man – the vampire – is mincing towards her, a leering, lecherous look on his face.

“Hello, my pretty,” he says, lisping slightly – from his fangs, Serena supposes. “Care to spend a little time with me? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Five bob,” Serena says firmly, her accent far less refined than usual. “As it’s a cold night.”

“I’ll do better than that, my pretty,” the vampire says, following Serena as she moves further into the alley, towards where Berenice is waiting, armed and ready.

“Very well,” Serena agrees. She leans as casually as she can against the wall, keeping her right arm out of sight.

The vampire leans in and, as the night before, lightly scrapes his teeth down her throat, at which point Serena and Berenice both let fly with their gasogenes, which they had filled with Holy Water, blessed by the priest at the church nearest to Berenice’s lodgings. The vampire cries out, a high, thin shriek of terror, then dissolves into a cloud of dust between them. Serena gasps, startled by the vampire’s immediate dissolution, then to her chagrin, bursts into tears.

Berenice steps forward, wrapping Serena in both a heavy wool driving cloak and her arms, rubbing her hand up and down Serena’s back in a brisk, yet somehow comforting, manner.

“It’s alright, love, I’ve got you,” she murmurs, then presses a kiss to Serena’s hair, continuing to whisper words of comfort until Serena’s sobs have passed. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

Serena nods assent, shivering despite the wool cloak wrapped around her. Berenice whistles a short, sharp note, and in a few moments a hansom cab appears. Berenice hands her up into, then scrambles up after her, calling out her address to the cabbie before closing the door behind them.

When they reach Berenice’s home, she hands Serena out of the cab, paying the cabbie, then guides Serena indoors and settles her in the parlour. She fetches Serena a glass of the red wine they’d drunk at supper, then sets about lighting the fire.

“Are you alright?” she asks once the fire’s lit and half of the glass of wine’s been drunk.

“I am feeling rather better now, thank you.”

“Good. Do you want something to eat or a hot drink? I know. I have just the thing. It’s something my mother used to make for me when I had nightmares as a child. Hot cocoa. Have you had it?”

“Only once or twice,” Serena says.

“And did you enjoy it?”

“I did.”

“Then would you like some now?”

Serena nods and Berenice gives her a beaming smile before hurrying out. She soon returns carrying a tray with two mugs of cocoa and a plate holding a thick slice of fruit cake on it.

“Here,” she says, sitting beside Serena. “Cake and cocoa will go a long way to easing your shock.”

“Thank you, Berenice. You are the best friend I’ve ever had.” She smiles at the blonde, noting the way her cheeks have coloured pink.

“Thank you, Serena. That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“You are welcome, Berenice.”

They share the cake between them, their forks knocking together as they pretend to fight for the same bit of it, and between the silliness of a their mock fight for the cake, the warmth and sweetness of the cocoa, and the steady presence of her friend beside her, Serena feels the shock seeping out of her bones, to be replaced by a wave of exhaustion.

“Come on, love, let’s get to bed,” Berenice says. “You can sleep in tomorrow since it’s Saturday and I’m sure you’ll feel better in the morning.”

They make their way upstairs and Berenice waits while Serena cleans her teeth, washes her face, then changes into her nightgown and robe, before entering the guest room and perching on the side of the bed after Serena’s slipped under the blankets and comforter.

“Would you like me to stay with you for a little while?” Berenice asks, sounding tentative and quite unlike her usual confident self.

“Yes, please,” Serena says immediately.

Her friend nods, then removes her shoes, suit jacket and waistcoat, before stretching out beside Serena, on top of the blankets. She encourages Serena to snuggle up and the brunette accepts the invitation, settling her head on her friend’s shoulder.

As she falls asleep, Serena resolves that tomorrow she should talk to Berenice about the fact she’d called Serena ‘love’ on more than one occasion this evening. Berenice isn’t in the habit of using endearments, so it seems significant, somehow, that she has done so this evening. She can’t help hoping that it means that her growing feelings for the blonde are reciprocated because she’s realised that she might just be falling in love with Berenice Wolfe.