Authors: Ellen Ashe
Tags: #Romance, #Erotica, #Paranormal, #Fiction
Then, one inquiry opened a door.
“I know who you’re looking for, but you’re about eighty years too late.”
“Excuse me,” Scarlet said. She laughed. “Eighty years?”
“You a reporter or something?” he asked. “Doing an anniversary piece, perhaps?”
“Yes,” she answered weakly. The fact she had neither notebook nor pen went unnoticed.
The young proprietor of a corner Tobacconist Shop seemed more than willing to share the story he had heard. “Well, about a century ago a brothel opened near here. Reckon it was well placed, next to the factories with the dock yards being only a mile off. The building used was once a warehouse, and this European fellow spent a fortune renovating it. And the gals he brought in were all, shall we say, talented in speciality areas.” The young man grinned. “By all accounts, it were a real popular place.”
“This European man … was his name Von Alder by any chance?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Nicolai Von Alder.”
Ageless. Her eyes ached. “What else do you know?”
“Oh,” he laughed. “I don’t know any of it for sure. No one really does. Any facts have long since been swallowed up by myth on account the story was told and retold so many times. I’d be surprised to hear any real fact, but like they say, where there’s smoke there’s fire. And in this case that’s an apt saying.”
She sensed there were lies intermingled with his truths, but she could not distinguish which was which. “Why?”
“The place burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Apparently, the fire took the lives of over a dozen prostitutes and their pimp.” He leaned forward over the counter, lowering his voice. “The old people ‘round here say Von Alder was a devil worshipper and that the women were imps, spawned in Hell. Now me, I suspect that was the gossip ‘cause family men were being lured in and the righteous were looking for excuses. Good men being lured by the devil’s work and all that crock.” He shrugged. “The time period had different attitudes.”
“Yes,” she said faintly. “I suppose so.”
“Still, one thing was kind of spooky. That is, if it’s true, and I think it likely was.”
“Place burned to the ground, right, and the locals were thinking it took Von Alder and the whores back to the fiery pits of hell where they done come from. A massive thunder storm rolled over just as the blaze reached its pinnacle. Even so, the bordello was obviously reduced to ruin. Except, the only thing that didn’t burn up were the dolls. See, this guy collected dolls, or made them, or something. Word was that every girl who ever worked for him had a doll made in her image. Perfect little replicas right down to hair colour and scanty undies. Well, apparently, and this is really weird, but as the walls were crumbling in and the fire was at its peak, the onlookers claim they saw these little dolls running about in the flames. The devil’s handmaidens escaped by scuttling right through the flames without being burned. And their Master was seen collecting them in his black winged cloak.” The young man tipped his head to laugh. “Makes a good story, don’t it?”
“Don’t you dare laugh at the devil’s work, Daymon,” came a croaky voice from the corner. An elderly man had appeared from a back room, hunched over his cane, his face a withered mass of wrinkled. His watery blue eyes danced with fury. “Them ain’t just stories, and you done knowed it.”
“Oh, gramps,” the young man sighed and rolled his eyes. Behind his hand he said, “Gramps likely remembers being to the original bordello.”
“Original? You mean there were others?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Thriving business like that couldn’t be kept down. Seemed every ten years a new house of ill repute were built and rumour had it that each one was run by the same foreigner. But that’s just downright stupid. Make him older than gramps here and I doubt Methuselah is older than gramps.”
The old man shuffled closer.
“Each time the place burned to the ground, and each time it got built right back up again. Arson, I reckon. And fair enough, too.” A cloud seemed to fall over Daymon’s expression.
“Mother of God!” The old man stumbled, peering at Scarlet, a mixture of horror and shock. “Saints protect us!” His crooked fingers reached for his collar. From beneath his shirt he exposed a silver cross. He continued to glare at Scarlet. “The Scarlet whore has returned,” he yelled. “They’re rising again.”
“Gramps!” the young man scolded. “Stop that. What a terrible thing to say.”
“It’s true! The harlot returns. God in Heaven protect us all!”
“I am so sorry,” the young man said, turning pleading eyes to Scarlet.
But Scarlet slowly inched away.
Her head filled with the sounds of screams, a rushing blaze, pain-filled groans of a horrific slow death. She smelled the smoke, heard the thunder, felt the rain, and with a sudden crack the scene behind her eyes changed. Serenity. Blue light, a starless sky, and a circle of dolls dancing together around one man. Nicolai Von Adler.
“I live. Between passion and death. Come, Scarlet. Come and dance with us. Dance with me.”
She couldn’t remember walking back to her apartment. Blood pounded in her ears. Her mind refused to accept the absurdity of what the old man had said. He was senile, perhaps. Delusional. Foolish ramblings and silly myths were no barrier to the intensity of her feelings for Nicolai. Her loyalties were for him.
Yet the story haunted her. What if it was true, that beneath the smoke was fire?
She unlocked her door and slumped inside. Drawing heavy breaths, she meditated, concentrating on emptying her thoughts and calming her rattled nerves. Yet whenever she closed her eyes, she saw the flames devour the walls of the building, the sparks scatter high above into the night sky, and she heard the rumble of a nearing storm in the distance.
“Even in decay there is life.”
Scarlet snapped her eyes open, certain Nicolai was in the room. His voice had been so real in her ear. Instead, she discovered a small, tanned doe-skin purse on her table. In it were several oversized coins. She examined the mysterious gift, dumping the coins onto the table.
The harlot returns
He had paid her for their tryst. The coins, antique yet polished, were in return for the sexual service she provided.
The folded note confirmed her conclusion.
Sweet Scarlet—my lovely Doll—Taste only me and my wealth shall expand your purse.
Instinctively, her hand rose to feather a delicate touch to her throat. She remembered his loose-fitting satin shirt, the dark trousers, his black hair bunched behind his head. Those penetrating eyes and the delicate texture of his lips. She gasped because she also remembered that, despite the sudden luxury of his love making, there had been a glimpse of immortality—the teeth.
Was he solely of the night because his lust for blood condemned him there? This would explain why she could not detect his inner energy. He was black emptiness inside. And, of course, it explained how he’d escaped the flames on that notorious night eighty years ago and every decade hence. If the story was true.
To return to him would be dangerous. Yet, despite the rumour of what was unholy, it was plain to her she could not suffer the daylight without the promise of his nightly caress.
“The Scarlet woman who found her fantasy could come true in the quiet hours between passion and death.”
“The Scarlet whore has returned.”
Weary of her thoughts, she stretched out on her bed, closed her eyes and slept the daylight away.
Nicolai carried her through the twisting streets with his voice.
His essence gored through her very being. The inky night wholly swathed her. She moved forward, almost blindly, following whatever fate offered that starless night.
Once, she stopped to rest, feeling the strain of the enveloping humidity. A chorus of shrieks reverberated through her skull. The vision she was given was that of the dolls. The bordello dolls, each and every one, cranked their heads towards her and screamed—their painted mouths pursed to perfect small ovals, ringlets of hair swirling over low cut blouses, miniature pieces of jewellery dangling freely from porcelain necks. Flames licked their bodies. Without injury. A black cloak shrouded them.
She staggered onwards. The vision dissolved.
“Dance, sweet Scarlet. Dance with me.”
There was no other choice but to find him. Her alternative was the dreary isolation of tending to clients who sought mystic answers from beyond—seeking Scarlet Boujois because she heard those voices and could pass on messages of hope. It was a grinding future devoid of joy or passion, and she would not waste an opportunity for freedom. Even if that freedom meant seclusion with a man who could smother her with guiltless lusts. Even if it meant sharing his unholy fervour with the dolls. Even if it meant she was trapped somewhere between passion and death.
Fulfilling the fantasy of him had become a desperation. She had to again feel him in her body, sense his energy coursing through her groin. He was the drug she craved. The rush of ecstasy could only be felt when his all-powerful body was inside hers.
“You pleasured me. I have pleasured you. Your choice has been made.”
She was aware of the changes growing inside her—a purpose driving her with burning ambition.
“Nicolai,” she called out, leaning breathlessly against the warm brick wall. It was real to the touch, unlike what awaited her. Yet she was too far enraptured with phantasmal possibilities. She dashed forward. “Nicolai!”
A dark shadow flitted across her path. She screamed. And spun around. It had vanished.
“Hey, honey. Ya wanna party?” The man loomed out from nowhere. He staggered, his breath saturated with alcohol. He waved money in her face and fumbled with his belt buckle. “Come on, give us a suck.”
She recoiled in disgust. “Leave me alone,” she cried out.
But he violently pushed her back into the wall. The attack took her breath away. “Hey, come on, doll-face.” Spittle hit her face. “Bet yer hurtin’ for a big juicy cock like mine.”
Scarlet turned her cheek, closed her eyes and summoned her strength to fight the obnoxious assault. Suddenly, the drunk was ripped away from her. She heard a sickening thud and the crunch of twisting sinew.
She dared to look, seeing a crumpled mass lying in a heap beside a crate.
Arms slipped around her waist from behind. She drew breath to scream.
“Calm yourself.” It was Nicolai. He pushed his bulk against her. “I have come to take you home.”
She was far too upset over the assault to make an attempt to be calm and turned to face him. “Who are you? Why do I hear such terrible rumours about you and your dolls?”
He uttered nothing. He needed no excuse to be what or who he was. He told her so without speaking. She saw his thoughts. Her heart was knocking against her breast. His gaze dropped to her neck.
“I can taste you,” he said aloud.
“Nothing is right about you, Nicolai, and yet I…”
His eyes jerked back to her face. “Yet you love me?” His mouth curled to a iniquitous smirk.
“No. I don’t! I can’t.” Near panic struck her. “Nicolai, if I submit to you then I submit to all that I struggle to control.” She pulled away and refused the guidance of his hand. “I must be in control.”
His brow rose. There was a singular catch to his voice. “You cannot refuse me.”
“I can,” she cried faintly, losing strength. “I will.”
“I would not treat you as this cur has done, Scarlet. Besides, it is too late for you. My mark is here.” He tapped her throat with his forefinger. “My blood courses through your veins. Yours in mine.” He smiled. “You need me. Let us taste one another.”
His voice was tranquil, deep, soft. There was such a strange beauty about him. For a moment, she glimpsed emotion—something delicate and small—hidden behind the coal black eyes that led to the place where his soul should have been.
She permitted his hand on her waist. He bowed, fluttering a brush of teeth across her lips. She tasted his mouth. The kiss was savage, and she weakened instantly to his unearthly ability to inflict a wave of bliss throughout her body. Submission was swift. But he was correct. She did need him. Addicts need their rapture.
“Now, let us go home,” he whispered.
Quickly, they rushed through the night as an impending storm rumbled in the distance.
Strands of music and muffled voices floated into the dimly lit shop. Nicolai locked the door behind them and ushered her between the cluttered shelves to the back.
She expected a room, a hovel at best, where a single lonely shopkeeper might reside. Nothing of the sort met her astonished gaze. A dancehall, ablaze with light, was filled with people. Cigarettes were lit. Alcohol was poured. Laughter echoed, and couples enjoyed public displays of foreplay. Others were already climbing the stairs, hand in hand, to the illicit bedrooms above.
“What is this place? Who are all these people?”
She needn’t have asked. She understood this was a bordello—the girls were scantily dressed, their clients pawing buxom curves. The girls. Each painted face looked eerily familiar. She gasped. These looked exactly like the bordello dolls, as though each had sprung to life.
She felt a little thrilled. She couldn’t read anyone in the room. Her physic talents were mute. No soul, she felt, would ask her to solve their problems because there was no guilt. All she sensed was her own overwhelming unity with their sexual recklessness. A harlot. Her most secret of fantasies involved her being gently wooed so she could service the client with illicit sexual acts for money.
“Yes,” Nicolai whispered, his lips against her throat, his breath dampening her skin. “This is where you can be whatever you want. Without consequence.”
Scarlet winced, remembering the horrid incident in the alley. Nicolai read her thought and spoke to her there.
“You are with me and I am beyond the constrictions of that world.”
“How can it be true?”