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Authors: Becky Lee Weyrich

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #FICTION/Romance/Historical

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BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
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“Cyrus saved her life. She was supposed to have been with her parents that weekend. But he’d begged her to stay in Bombay. She pitched such a tantrum that her parents finally allowed her to remain with the servants at home. She was supposed to spend that weekend packing for the trip back to England. But she never went back. It was only weeks after her parents’ funeral that she became Mrs. Blackwell. Everyone said what a godsend the missionary was during her time of mourning. Hannah had no one.”

“How horrible! Were the murderers ever apprehended?” Persia asked.

Grace shook her head. “The bodies of Lord and Lady Spencer’s chair-bearers were never found. That led the authorities to believe that they were the murderers—
Thugees,
the professional stranglers of India. For many years they have committed their heinous crimes in the name of religion.”

Persia was feeling more uncomfortable by the minute, but her curiosity demanded quenching. “I’ve never heard of these Thugees, as you call them, Grace.”

The gray-haired woman leaned closer and whispered, “Then you are fortunate, my dear. But you should be warned. These terrible men worship the goddess Kali at a Hindu temple known as Kalighat close by the great river at Calcutta. I’ve never been there myself, but I’ve heard of Kali’s hideous image—human skulls about her neck and what appear to be clots of blood oozing from her wide mouth. They say the courtyard of her temple is slippery with gore from the daily sacrifices of kids and goats.”

Persia shuddered, suddenly remembering the bloodstained altars she had discovered about the island.

But Mrs. Cunningham was caught up in her tale now and rushing on. “These Thugees, as I said, worship Kali. In the old days, they roamed about the countryside in huge bands. Their ranks are smaller now, but just as deadly. They pose as pilgrims or merchants and associate themselves on the friendliest of terms with their intended victims. Then, when the opportunity presents itself, they strangle their unfortunate and unsuspecting ‘friends,’ rob their bodies, then bury them in graves dug hastily with pickaxes.”

“How perfectly horrible!” Persia shuddered again. “But can the authorities be certain that Hannah’s parents were murdered by these Thugees?”

Grace nodded fiercely. “Oh, yes! There’s not the slightest doubt. You see, these murderers consider each crime a
holy mission.
One-third of their booty is always taken to the temple of Kali and left there for the goddess. Lady Elizabeth had worn her famous parure of black diamonds to the maharajah’s ball the night before. After the murders, the tiara, the earrings, and the bracelet were found in the temple of Kali, left there by the culprits. Her murderer had used the necklace to strangle her. The marks of the diamonds were imprinted on her throat when her body was found. But the necklace has never been recovered.”

Persia was suddenly gripped by terror. She tried to tell herself her fears were unreasonable. But reasonable or not, the panic refused to go away. Cyrus had told her so many things that were untrue. How could she ever trust him again? She was confused. She felt helpless. She longed for escape… for Zack!

She forced a smile and a bright tone. “Grace, I wonder if you would do me a favor?”

“Why, certainly, Persia. Anything you ask.”

“I’ve been wanting to post some letters, to be taken back to America on the
Madagascar.
Could you, personally, see that they’re sent overland to Calcutta for me?”

“Of course. Do you have them ready?”

Persia felt a wave of relief. “If you’ll excuse me a moment, I’ll go to my room and get them.”

Luckily, she had written to her father and her sister the day before. She jotted a hurried note to Zack and sealed it. The gist of her message was simple and to the point: “Help!”

When she returned with the three sealed envelopes, she felt an explanation was in order about her letter to the
Madagascar’s
captain. With only a slight blush she said, “I’m afraid I forgot a few of my things on board ship. I’m hoping Captain Hazzard will see to having them sent to me.”

Grace Cunningham’s smile held only a hint of suspicion as she curled her fingers around the envelopes and replied, “I’m sure he’ll be happy to oblige, my dear.”

The rest of the day went quickly and well. Cyrus seemed in high spirits after his vist with Cunningham. All during supper, he chatted amiably about crops and prices and the new infirmary he planned to build with the profits. He inquired politely about Persia’s afternoon with Grace, but he did not press her for details of their discussion. She was relieved at that.

Persia longed to question him about Hannah and her death. He seemed in such a reasonable mood. What could it hurt? But something stayed her tongue. She was only too happy to excuse herself from the table as soon as they finished their evening meal. She needed to be alone so she could think everything through. She would have to be very careful with Cyrus until Zack arrived to rescue her. One slip of the tongue might give her plans away and ruin everything. She wasn’t sure how she knew she was in danger, but she was. There was no doubting it!

A tremendous sense of relief overtook her the minute she closed the bedroom door behind her. But her feeling of well-being lasted only seconds. Although, at first glance, everything in the bedroom seemed exactly as she had left it, one thing was different. Propped against her vanity mirror was a familiar sheet of vellum.

She moved toward it with dread. She picked it up, read it, and her eyes widened with terror.

Elephanta Island
May 10, 1847

Dearest Zack,

You must help me! Something is terribly wrong here. There’s no time to explain, just please, come for me!

My love to you always,
Persia

She stood staring down at her own handwriting until the paper shook in her hand and the words blurred and ran together as tears fell on the page.

“Cyrus knows!” she said in an icy whisper.

“Yes! I know!”

Persia whipped around to face him. She hadn’t heard the door open, and his voice nearly frightened her into a faint. He was smiling at her, but his face was contorted into an odd mask of warring emotions. He moved toward her slowly.

“What I don’t know, Sister Persia, is why you would ever want to leave me. I’ve given you this fine house. And you certainly can’t be lacking for love. Why, even Hannah never received my attentions so regularly. In fact, she sometimes complained that I spent too much time with Indira and not enough with her. But then I’d always thought that a well-bred wife appreciated a husband who satisfied his needs elsewhere. I was wrong, though. You’re my proof. Not once have you turned from me. Not until now. Your letter hurt me deeply.”

He was directly before her now. Persia was trapped. When his hands came up to rest on her shoulders, she winced at his touch and bit her lip to keep from crying out.

“You aren’t like Hannah, are you? She complained about Indira, but not because she wanted my love. Even when I offered her gifts, she refused me. She said terrible things to me. She accused me of lusting after far more than salvation.”

His slender fingers encircled Persia’s throat and he squeezed gently, then harder, cutting off her breath. He drew her to him and kissed her—a savage, wet, probing kiss. When he drew away, she was shaking, gasping.

“Why did you do it?” he asked. His voice was hard and cold.

Persia stared at him, trying to find words even as her mind cast about wildly for escape.

“Persia, answer me! Why did you write this lettter to
him?”

“I’m afraid!” she cried out suddenly.

Cyrus clutched her to him, crooning softly, “Persia, Persia, how silly of you! You mustn’t be afraid of me. I’m your husband! I love you! Why would you think I’d ever hurt you? Look, I even brought you a gift.”

Before her tear-blurred eyes could see them, she felt the coldness of the stones about her throat. She swallowed hard, trying to control her terror.

Cyrus turned her toward the mirror. “Look how beautiful,” he said.

She knew what she would see even before she opened her eyes: a web of black diamonds, with a hard, dark gleam as cold and terrifying as the eyes of death.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Persia knew she must get a grip on herself. Her present terror could lead her nowhere but headlong into destruction. She touched the black diamonds with her fingertips and turned this way and that as if she were admiring them in the mirror. Cyrus stood only inches in back of her.

“They’re exquisite, Brother Cyrus!” She flashed him a reflected smile. “Wherever did you find such a necklace?”

“It belonged to Hannah. She never wore it, though.” He seemed terribly nervous suddenly. “She said it was evil. I’m glad you like it. Beautiful women should have beautiful things.”

“Was it a family heirloom, Brother Cyrus?”

He stammered, cleared his throat, then answered, “An heirloom? No. I told you about Sister Hannah. She had no family. I saved her. Where would she have gotten such a priceless piece of jewelry? I gave it to her. I told you, it was a gift.”

“Then where did
you
get it?” She turned slowly and watched him, waiting for his answer.

“I got it…” He was wringing his hands, licking his lips, looking everywhere but at her. “I bought it! Yes… I bought it from some men from Calcutta.”

Inside, Persia was cringing, but she offered him a smile and stroked his cheek with her fingertips. And all the while, (he murder weapon about her throat felt cold and heavy and menacing. She struggled to remain outwardly calm.

“You don’t know where the men from Calcutta got it?”

“Why?” he snapped, moving away from her touch. “What difference does it make?”

“I thought perhaps it was part of a set. A tiara, earrings, and a bracelet would go with it nicely.”

He kept backing away, looking more agitated by the moment. “No! There are no other pieces! I swear to you, it’s not part of the set, Hannah! If you don’t like the necklace, I’ll take it back. Here, give it to me!”

He snatched the diamond choker away but dropped it as if it had burned his fingers. Immediately, he crouched to the floor to retrieve it. Persia heard him mutter something that sounded like “I’m sorry, Hannah, so sorry.”

She stared at him, wondering. Did he really believe at times that she was Hannah? What kind of hold must the woman have had over him? And if he had given the diamond necklace to his wife, what had her reaction been? Surely she would have recognized it as her mother’s. Even if Hannah had loved Cyrus better than life itself, she couldn’t have condoned his taking a part in her parents’ murders. An idea began to form in her brain.

“Brother Cyrus, have you seen my silver brush?” Persia asked suddenly.

He stood up so quickly that he stumbled backward. He looked terrified of her.

“I thought you might brush my hair for me tonight.”

“Hannah? Is that you, Hannah?” His voice trembled between hope and fear.

Persia laughed. “Who else would it be? Certainly you didn’t mistake me for Indira. If so, you may leave this instant!”

“Hannah, no! Please don’t make me go!” He was begging, sobbing. “I haven’t been with Indira. I promised you I never would again. I only want
you.
I’m sorry if you don’t like the necklace. But haven’t you punished me enough already? No, Birdie, please don’t lock me in the root cellar. It’s so cold down there… so dark. Let me stay with you, here where it’s light. You’re so warm. Please!”

Persia felt sick and guilty. Whatever key she had turned had unlocked years of torture in this man’s brain. But she couldn’t stop now. She had to know his secrets, dark as they seemed.

“You may stay, Brother Cyrus, but only if you tell me the truth about the necklace.”

He had been crouching against the far wall. But her words brought him upright. Suddenly he was on the offensive.

“If you don’t like the necklace, you can go to hell! I thought you’d want it because it was hers. If you think I killed her, you’re crazy! The Thugees did it. Everyone knows that. I’ll admit I loved you enough then to kill for you. That pleases you, doesn’t it? Ha! I thought you were so special—an angel, a saint! You were nothing but a scheming witch, Hannah!”

He came toward Persia with a threatening look on his face. When he spoke, he was imitating a woman’s voice.
“‘Do this, Brother Cyrus! Fetch me that! Brush my hair! No, I don’t feel like it tonight. Don’t touch me! Don’t kiss me! Don’t come near me!’”
Then his voice changed to a deep growl. “What kind of man do you take me for, Hannah? You have your duties to me as well as your duties to God! Damned if I’ll be pushed away any longer!”

He lunged at Persia and caught her about the waist. They both went crashing to the floor. He struggled with her skirts, trying to get at her. She heard the fabric of her bodice rip. She tried frantically to fight him, but it seemed there was nothing she could do. Then suddenly another idea came.

“Go to the root cellar, Cyrus! You’ve been a naughty boy again!”

He let go and eased away from her, looking terrified. “No, please, Birdie. I won’t do it anymore!”

Persia slid away from him and rose to her feet, pointing across the room. “Then go sit in that chair. And don’t you move or you know what will happen!”

He hurried to the chair and sat, seeming to draw up into himself.

“Now, Cyrus, I want you to tell me
everything!
I want to know about the necklace, about Hannah’s death, about the ships, all of it.”

His whole face crumbled. Tears ran down his hollow cheeks. He was shaking all over. When he could control himself enough to speak, he said faintly, “Please, Birdie, if I do what you want, will you play the game with me? But you aren’t going to tell on me, are you? Mother gets so angry. And last time, Papa used his razor strop on me. They think it’s
my
fault. They don’t know that you thought up the game.”

Persia frowned. What on earth could he be talking about? She decided to go along with him. “Yes, we’ll play. And I won’t tell them. But you have to explain everything that I want to know.”

“I’ll tell! I’ll tell!” he whimpered.

“The necklace?”

“I didn’t know they were going to kill them. Honestly I didn’t! I paid them to
delay
Lord and Lady Spencer, just long enough so I could convince Hannah to marry me. I swear before God, I did not know what they were planning! Then when I heard about it and they came to me with the necklace, I took it. I had to get rid of it before Hannah saw it. She would never forgive me. Never, ever!” His voice trailed off into weeping.

“But you told me you gave it to her. Don’t lie to me, Cyrus!”

He curled into a fetal position, hiding his face in his hands. “No, I didn’t give it to her, She found it. I should have thrown it into the sea. But it was so beautiful… worth so much money. I hid it and she found it. She was going to tell the police! I had to do it. I
had
to!”

“Do what, Cyrus? What are you talking about?”

He looked up at her suddenly with a stern expression on his face. “
You
know, Birdie!
You
helped me! The poison was your idea. But it wasn’t working fast enough. What if that Cunningham woman showed up, snooping around? She already knew Hannah was sick. If she’d come again, she might have insisted on returning Hannah to Bombay to a doctor. So the fire was the only way. Afterward, I told everyone I burned the shack to keep her disease from spreading.”

Persia felt sick, and the full force of her terror was returning. She knew almost everything now. Too much! When Cyrus snapped out of it, her life would be worth no more than Hannah’s. Never mind about the ships. She had to get away
now!

She began edging toward the door. “Stay in the chair, Cyrus! I’ll be back in a moment. But don’t you move. Otherwise…”

“No, Birdie, no!” he screamed, lunging toward her. “You can’t go! It’s dark and I’m scared. Hold me! You said if I’d tell you, we could play the game. Please, Birdie! You promised!”

“What game?” Persia asked as much to distract him as out of curiosity.

“You know,” he whined. “The one we play in your bed when Papa takes Mother to visit the neighbors and it’s just you and me.”

A new kind of horror snaked through Persia. Surely he couldn’t be suggesting what it sounded like.
He and his older sister Birdie?

“Come on, Birdie!” He was tugging her toward the brass bed. “You promised! You promised! There’s nobody home—just you and me. They won’t find out.”

For the first time with her, Cyrus Blackwell was gentle, loving, adoring. Although she struggled against him, he refused to let her escape. And she found out that night that Cyrus Blackwell’s usual brusque and unfeeling sexual performance did not come from ignorance. He was actually very skilled in the ways to please a woman. Apparently, his older sister had been a competent instructor in the art of love.

But Persia experienced no pleasure in his knowing touch, his practiced kisses, or his skillful thrusts. She was too frightened, too disgusted, and sickened by hearing his voice close to her ear, whispering all the while, “Birdie, my sweet sister… my darling… my own!”

When
the game
was finished, Cyrus, for the first time, fell asleep beside her. Dawn was streaking the sky outside. It was the perfect time. Her thoughts were all of Zack now. She would slip out, find a boat, and get away to Bombay. There, she would lose herself in the teeming city until she could contact Zack. He would come for her. She was sure of it!

It was no wonder Persia’s thoughts were on Zack. For weeks, as the ship sailed the long route to Calcutta, he had been unable to purge her from his mind and heart. Their parting made no sense to him. They
loved
each other! Hadn’t they both decided long ago that their love was written in the stars?

Leaving Second Mate Stoner in charge of the ship, Zack headed overland from Calcutta to Bombay the moment the ice was sold. He would find her. He would get her back. Nothing else mattered in this life except his love for Persia and hers for him!

He arrived in Bombay on the same morning Persia had slipped out of the bungalow. His first stop was at Cunningham’s office to find out if Persia was still with Blackwell. From the agent’s wife, he heard stories about the missionary on Elephanta Island and how well his new wife had adjusted. Gossip had it that they were the happiest married couple on earth. He was like a young man again, and she was blossoming with good health and happiness.

“I shouldn’t spread tales before the word has been officially handed down, Captain Hazzard,” Grace Cunningham whispered over tea at her husband’s office, “but I know the look of a woman with child. I tell you, Persia was absolutely blooming when I saw her yesterday. And I’m sure her husband must be as happy about it as she is.”

“That’s wonderful to hear,” Zack answered through gritted teeth and a forced smile.

He couldn’t bring himself to be pleased for the newlyweds. And the thought of Persia carrying another man’s child was almost too much to bear. Maybe he was doing the wrong thing. Perhaps Persia was as happy as Grace Cunningham claimed. If so, it would be selfish of him to turn up, unannounced, and disrupt her new life. Persia deserved better from him.

Yes, maybe he ought to just head back to Calcutta at once. He was about to offer polite apologies and be on his way when Mrs. Cunningham’s words once more grabbed his full attention.

“I suppose you’ve brought her things?” she asked, interrupting his somber thoughts.

Zack frowned. “Pardon me?”

“Well, only yesterday she gave me a note to post to you. She said she was writing to ask you to ship her some things she’d left on board. I assumed you’d anticipated her desires and made the long journey back to Bombay to deliver her things personally. I’m sure her letter passed you enroute. Mr. Cunningham, you did send Persia’s note on, didn’t you?”

“Certainly, my dear,” the agent grumbled, not looking up from his desk.

Zack frowned. All thoughts of returning to Calcutta suddenly flew out the window. Persia had left
nothing
on board the ship. He had searched and searched, hoping to find something of the woman he loved. A glove, a handkerchief, anything tangible that would help preserve her memory and make him feel close to her again. But it was as if she had never been on board the
Madagascar.
So why would she write to him? And why would she give the letter to a near stranger—lying about its contents—instead of asking her husband to post it on one of his frequent trips to Bombay?

Zack excused himself. Suddenly, time seemed of the essence. And he had wasted enough of it already. He would hire a boat at the harbor and set out immediately for Elephanta. Persia needed him. He knew it with a painful certainty.

Persia needed someone—
anyone
! Escaping the bungalow and her sleeping husband, she had run all the way down the hill to the quay. No one was about. She had spied four small boats at anchor. But, hurrying down to the waterline, she discovered that each one was chained and locked to a metal rung in the pier.

Frantic, she sped to the nearest hut, seeking the aid of one of the natives. The people were all smiles and nods, but no help at all. She was greeted by the same treatment at every house.

The sun was high now. If Cyrus was not awake yet, he would be soon. She had to escape. But how? The cave! She could go there and hide out until she figured a way to get off the island. Although she had never been to the cave, she knew the way. Cyrus had pointed out the trail on one of their walks about the island.

She fought her way through the tall elephant grass. Briars ripped her skirt and stockings and tore at her legs until they bled. But nothing could stop her. She pushed her strength to its limits.

Finally, ahead of her, she spotted the cool gloom of the cave entrance. Only a few more yards. Once she was inside, she could rest and make her plans. She began to feel a deep sense of relief. She was almost sobbing with it.

“Safe,” she gasped. “I’m safe.”

“Persia!
Sister Persia!”

The voice echoed down on her from everywhere and nowhere. She whirled on the path, trying to spot Cyrus. He was upon her before she ever saw him—grasping her arms, dragging her away from the cave’s shadowy mouth.

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