Someone was patting her hand. She could breath, amazingly enough. She saw colors, although everything had a fuzzy tint to it. Justine tried to remember what had just happened when she again closed her eyes and saw two beady little eyes staring at her through the confines of her mind. Sharp fangs stretched out towards her like long corpse-like claws. Her body reacted and jerked back but something held her down.
“It is alright, Miss Holloway. You are safe.”
Justine knew that voice. “What happened? Where…where am I?” she muttered, trying to sit up, but Amun steered her back into the comfortable cushions. His expression was calm and hands gentle.
“Stay right where you are, Miss Holloway. Here, drink this.” He handed her a glass tumbler filled with a dark liquid. “It will not bite you,” he smiled. “It is whiskey. Just take a sip. It will calm your nerves.”
“Thank you, Mr. Farouk.” She did as she was told. Her hands trembled making the liquid ripple inside the glass. Focusing on getting it to her lips calmed her.
“Well, it looks like you have had quite the adventure this eve.”
“Bats…I was attacked,” Justine stammered. She looked to the door, almost by instinct, ready to curl up into a ball but he placed his hands upon her skin.
“There is no need to be afraid. Bats you say? Well, that would explain these markings.” He lifted her arm up and examined the bite marks running from her hand up to her inner elbow. “May I have your permission to clean the wounds? Bats are not the cleanliest of creatures.”
Justine nodded. Amun removed the handkerchief from his jacket pocket and soaked it in whiskey. When he pressed it to her arm, her skin burned. She clenched her teeth. While he worked, Justine scanned the room. It was adorned in dark, highly polished wood that glimmered in the gas lamps secured to the walls. She sat in an armchair while another sat adjacent to a couch that surrounded the fire, which flickered without need or urgency. Boxes of cigars sat on every side table and, near the back of the room, there was a full bar. She was in a room she had absolutely no business being near.
“Strange for bats to be so far from land.” Amun’s voice drew back her attention.
“That was my thought as well.” It was reassuring that his concerns echoed her own. It gave her conclusions a sense of validation. She wasn’t just an empty headed chit as her school mistress often said. Justine remained quiet while he moved up her arm and once she got used to the pain, she wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey or his touch making her arm tingle so. It helped to watch him, which she tried not to do openly.
His movements were so smooth and refined that Justine couldn’t help but be mesmerized. She wished she were dressed in a lovely evening gown instead of her old nightdress. For a moment, she envisioned him as Mr. Tinley, the romantic leading man in Northanger Abbey, stepping forward to ask her to dance. Somehow, Amun cleaning her arm seemed just as romantic. Her insides warmed with a steady heat, like icicles melting in the sun. Bats were strange animals, perhaps she got too close to a nest, like birds. Do bats make their homes on ships?
“There, I am done. Again, I apologize for my imprudence.” He rocked back on his heels and took the chair opposite hers.
“Not at all. I thank you for your great care of me.”
“You’ve had quite the scare and yet you are so well composed. Most young ladies would not be so in your position. They would no doubt be in hysterics by now.” He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a thin golden case engraved with strange symbols Justine had never seen before. He opened the lid and took out a cigarette, offering her one as well. She politely refused. Once the end of his cigarette glowed burnt umber, he visibly relaxed.
At first, Justine fidgeted. She fussed with her nightgown and arranged it so only the tops of her slippers peeked out from below. This was quite the effort and she continued until she was completely satisfied. “Bravery is probably in the eye of the beholder. Right now, I feel almost foolish, running from a bunch of bats. But…” she dropped off, trying to describe it.
“But…” Amun interjected.
“It sounds silly, but I felt as though I was being purposefully attacked.”
“Like you were their only objective?”
“Perhaps. I don’t know. I might have been mistaken. It could have been birds. Once, in the Lake District, I stumbled too near a nest and the horrible things pecked at my hair and arms. I got back to the house covered in small cuts. My mother thought I had been overcome by gypsies.” She grinned, remembering the look on her mother’s face.
This caused him to laugh. “Attacked by birds; you are brave. In regards to your last comment, do not doubt your instincts. Sometimes, they are the last avenue of redemption.”
“How ominous you sound.”
“I suppose it did sound that way; like a sage or oracle.”
“Advertise yourself well enough and you could almost make a living.”
Amun laughed and Justine realized she probably shouldn’t be so bold with a stranger. “Forgive me. The school mistress used to lecture me on my inappropriate behavior. I should restrict the topics to pleasant things like the weather or the state of the roads.”
“Yes, how the English love their roads. I shall not tell if you do not.” Amun’s gentle smile also made Justine forget about her behavior and the absolutely impropriety of her being in the company of a man without a chaperone. Part of her wanted to stay, but it was something she dared not give into. Being unmarried, her reputation could forever be tainted by being in the presence of a man who isn’t her father, brother or husband.
“Your parents…you must miss them,” he asked abruptly.
“What country did they come from?”
“No,” he smiled, “I meant before that.”
Justine shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. Both my parents are English.” She stood. “Well, Mr. Farouk, thank you for your assistance this night. I am not sure what I would have done.”
Amun followed suit and Justine had to look up just to see his face. “Of course, Miss Holloway. May I walk you back to your room?”
“I don’t think so. I am not sure a story of murder most foul can prevent the gossip mongers from wagging their tongues, but thank you for the offer.”
“Until we meet again.” He reached out for her hand and held it. “In London?”
“I would like that.” Justine inclined her head and left, keeping an eye out for black flying bats.
On the docks, a sea of flowered hats flooded to the shore’s edge as the steam ship dropped anchor. Hands waved as a great burst of steam billowed from the smoke stack and the whistle rang out in anxious anticipation. Down in the bustling town of Portsmouth, chimney smoke rose leisurely into the air; men in sailors’ livery slid the gangplank from the top deck to the port dock, hauling thick, coiled rope over the side. They threw it around the metal posts in fluid, easy movements.
Justine tried to soak in the excitement of being back in England even though her heart ached. The passage had been longer than expected due to the weather, extending the normal twenty-four hour journey. Behind her, Mrs. Hart directed the porters where to put her luggage. In the afternoon sunlight, her black dress stood out amongst those mulling around. Porters with trolleys full of luggage waited beside doorways while families readied themselves to disembark. She kept searching for Amun’s raven hair and dark skin. He was nowhere to be seen.
A kindling of exaltation had risen in Justine when she sat for breakfast before the ship docked. For quite a long time, using random reasons to stall and steal a few precious moments, she watched the door. In the end, Amun never came. Had she embarrassed herself beyond repair the previous night? Sweet smelling coffee and fried tomatoes made her stomach crave fulfillment but it left a lot of empty questions swirling around her mind. Again, she ran the conversation through her mind as people jostled past her, porters laden with trucks and cases.
How deep and romantic his voice sounded. Closing her eyes, Justine remembered the warmth of his skin. She ran her hand over sleeved arm, unable to feel the bite marks. That doubting part of her wanted to believe the animals that attacked her were birds, but after she returned to her bed, Justine knew she had seen bats. Why bats specifically would attack her was beyond anything she could reason. It really made no sense. Justine sighed, pushing it to the back of her mind.
If the man had wanted to see her again, surely he would have been at her door or sent some sort of card or note. Those thoughts filled her mind as she stood in the fresh morning air. It was a reassuring sight to see Portsmouth and Justine took one last look before rejoining Mrs. Hart. A small hope still lingered that she might see the mysterious Egyptian as they disembarked. Justine hoped God would grant her prayer and have him accost her once more.
As she lingered, Justine felt trepidation about the future looming before her. Somewhere, amid the crowd, her godfather and his sister stood waiting to escort her into her new life. Since stepping aboard the ship, Justine had experienced every sort of emotion possible from despair and depression to excitement. In her fantasies, everything turned out alright – her parents were alive and would be waiting for her. Now, she could delude herself no longer. It was time to put away her childish notions and grow up.
“Make sure you put the larger trunks on the bottom or the Captain will be paying for a brand new set and out of your pocket. Justine, darling, give the room another glance, will you? You do not want to leave anything in the cabin.”
Justine looked around the large room she had spent most of her time in during the trip to England. Although she had unpacked very little from her steamer trunk, her room was stark and cramped. Mrs. Hart had the connecting room and hers was the opposite, chaotic and brimming with dropped clothes and random items. From her mink wrap left on the chaise lounge beside the table with a new, sealed box of chocolates to the vanity cluttered with powders and perfumes. According to Mrs. Hart, she would pack up her belongings once she saw Justine safely with her godfather. Would anywhere feel like home ever again?
“Justine?” Mrs. Hart walked in, the sun brilliant behind her.
For a moment, they both looked at each other. “Looks like our adventure comes to an end, my dear. I am very glad I got to meet you, child.” She gave a half smile and took both of her young friend’s hands. “Perhaps we shall see each other once more.”
Justine nodded. If she was being honest, she would have told her temporary guardian that she was extremely glad to be rid of her horrible company. No longer would she be plagued by indecent gossip and impertinent remarks. Yet that wasn’t entirely the truth. For all Mrs. Hart’s incessant talk and gossiping, she had stood in the breach of utter loneliness, if only for a few short days. All the times the older woman droned on about absolutely nothing, Justine had never had the chance to hear her own desperate thoughts.
Mrs. Hart looked annoyed. “Blasted little thing tittled on my silk dress. One of the servants is holding her.”
That image brought her a perverted sense of joy. “Thank you, Mrs. Hart. I shall always remember your kindness.”
“Oh, my dear, I hope not. No, do not look at me in that wretched way.” Mrs. Hart led her young friend to the bed and patted her hand, indicating Justine should sit beside her. “I want you to never look back on this dark time and if you chose to do so, do not dwell on it. You are young and beautiful – take hold of life in whatever shape and form it comes to you.”
The words surrounded Justine’s heart like a faded, beloved blanket and she laughed and threw her arms around the woman’s neck in a grateful hug. For the first time during their arduous journey home, Justine appreciated the older woman’s presence and her endless stream of consciousness. All the mean things she said disappeared behind the kind words.
“Now, are you ready to make your entrance?”
Justine wiped the dampness from her face. She felt lighter and ready to find her godparents. “Now is as good a time, is it not?”
“Good. Check your face and let’s go.”
Justine stood and peered into the marbled vanity mirror. Her eyes were watered and puffy. Red blotches covered her face. Mrs. Hart appeared in the reflection beside her. “If you do meet Mr. Farouk again, you’re going to need a bit of color. That black is making you look as pale as death, child. Don’t scowl at me. All girls are just waiting to be fallen in love with and you won’t do it looking like a ghost.”
“I thought you told me he wasn’t in my class.”
“He isn’t darling, but I’ve seen the way you look at him. Besides, a bit of flirting wouldn’t go amiss as long as that is the extent of it. It will be good practice for later.” With that, Mrs. Hart left the cabin.
Justine pinched her cheeks. It was something she learned from Jane back at the finishing school. She thought about Mrs. Hart’s words and promised herself to never forget her parents or her life with them. They would meet again in Heaven and when that time came, she planned to have a whole life to acquaint them with. In regards to her comments about Mr. Farouk – well, that was not something she was ready to analyze either. Was she ready to fall in love? She was barely eighteen years old. If he indeed visited her in London, then she might consider the notion of love.
Placing her hat upon her head, Justine pushed the pin in to keep it in place and straightened. Mrs. Hart was right, the dress did nothing for her complexion but that didn’t matter. Providence was thrusting her into the activity of the living and she wasn’t sure she was ready. Yet turning around wasn’t an option. Nothing remained of her old life except the empty shell of a home and family. Even if she could go home, no one would be waiting when she arrived. Only path open to her was straight ahead. Justine gazed upon her reflection.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” Her reflection was silent but her spirit felt lighter. The time had come to enter into the world and grab a hold of her fate. It helped she couldn’t hide in the cabin to await the next dock. She pinched her cheeks once more and left. Once outside, Justine shivered and drew her lavender shawl tight around her arms. The sun that had once made the English Channel sparkle like precious stones was gone. Waves beat mercilessly against the high walls of the harbor. Overhead clouds threatened to strangle any hint of daylight from blanketing the sky.
“Look out,” a high-pitched voice cried out.
Justine turned towards the sound and was pushed roughly against the side of the ship. A deckhand threw his weight into her, propelling her out of his way. The shock and intensity threw her back against the wall, her back of her head hitting the wooden exterior. He swaggered, clutching his stomach. Strange faces and bodies clamored towards Justine, offering arms and hands to right herself. Determinedly, she kept focused on the figure running away all the while trying to assure those around her that she was perfectly all right. Polite interest in her welfare ceased and everyone’s attention then turned to the deckhand who was stumbling against the side of the railing. The further he slid, Justine could see a bright red stain smeared upon the pristine metal.
“Oh my darling, are you alright?” Mrs. Hart’s anxious face came upon Justine.
“Yes, I am well, thank you.” She stood, brushing herself off.
“What happened?” she asked, pushing back the stray hairs the wind had wiggled free from below her hat. She, like those around her, took great interest in the man who had crashed into her.
“You better go get the Captain, Mrs. Hart. I think he’s been hurt badly,” Justine said and her companion readily agreed and went in search of him.
Women screamed and men ran forward as the young man collapsed. Puddles of blood dotted the deck below him. Someone yelled for help and soon Justine could no longer see as men in jackets and top hats obscured her view. The macabre scene drew everyone’s interest and they tried to maneuver their way back towards the bloody scene.
Justine straightened her black gown. What just happened? She watched the crowd amassing around the bleeding man. A man with a top hat moved aside and Justine felt as if someone plunged something icy down the back of her dress. That face…she knew that face. Empty, soulless eyes rolled back into the deckhand’s head, his clothes matted with blood. If not for the side of the ship supporting her weight, she would have collapsed. Since that night Justine had run into him outside the captain’s cabin, his features had not been out of her thoughts. Everywhere she went, she suspected he followed her. Now…he was dying. Relief and horror twisted her insides. But what had happened to the man? Alone and unobserved, Justine glanced down the corridor that lead towards the engine room and away from the disorder. Why would a deckhand dressed as a servant be running from the engine room door? For that face, why was he wearing servant’s livery? All eyes were on the writhing body as Captain Nobles bent over him. Whoever did this could escape without the police ever finding out.
Furtively, she put her hands behind her back, removed a glove, and tossed it around the corner. Justine had often done this at her school in order to slip from the classroom. Sometimes it worked, although most of the time it didn’t. This time, she was lucky. In her best performance, she noticed the dropped glove and excused herself to Mrs. Hart, who nodded her consent. With the attention of the crowd elsewhere, she slipped around the adjacent corridor. At first Justine tip-toed, expecting someone to come after her. When no one sought her out, her courage rose and she moved freely. An icy breeze caught the hair on the back of her neck and she shivered. With every step, the dress’ fabric racked across the offended skin but the hallway turned up ahead. It was her last chance to catch any unsuspecting attacker.
Her back was against the wall and she peered around. Near the rear of the secluded section, Justine saw a man crouched over, a bloodied hand pressed against his neck. Instinct drove her to act. She ran forward and collapsed in front of him.
“Are you alright?” Justine had her handkerchief in her hands, ready to place it on the wound before the man could answer. When their eyes met, Justine covered a gasp. Black hair covered his face like a curtain and shimmered with blood. Strands still stuck to his face and neck and his features were far too pale to be healthy.
“Miss Holloway?” He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes. “No…get away from me,” he gasped.
Justine put her hand on his cheek and pushed his hair back. She couldn’t concentrate on the blood or she’d disgrace herself by being sick all over the floor. Instead, she focused on his face.
“Who did this to you?”
Amun didn’t answer her. He tried to move away from her touch. He hissed and nearly fell over.
“Don’t try and move. Let me get help,” Justine got to her feet but Amun pulled her down.
“No,” he interjected.
“No you are not you idiot, you are bleeding. Here, let me.” She pulled his hand off the wound on his neck and pressed her cloth against his skin to stem the flow. She cradled his head with her other hand. At first, Amun fidgeted, but under her touch, he relaxed. Neither spoke. Justine felt her insides go all funny as a fierce protectiveness bubbled up inside her – whoever did this would not get away with it, that she knew. His breathing calmed and a natural, warm color returned to his complexion.
“What happened to you?”
“I wish I could tell you.” His voice was barely above a whisper.
“Of course you can tell me. Let me help you.” She reached for his other hand and felt something very rough and jagged clutched inside. Amun tried to hide it behind his back but she had already seen the handle of a silver blade.
“What’s this?” The stains around his hand drew her attention. “Oh Mr. Farouk,” she said breathless.
“Miss Holloway…it isn’t mine.”
Amun held up the knife, opening his hand to show her every detail. “At least this blood isn’t mine.” He laughed sarcastically and when he spoke, Justine felt as though he were leagues from her. “I underestimated him.”
“What are you talking about?” When he didn’t answer, her earlier feelings of worry changed to confusion, sprinkled with a hint of suspicion.
Noise from the other side of the ship boomed and echoed down towards them. “They’re coming; probably looking for you.” He took her hand in his and kissed the finger tips so gently she could have blinked and not felt it. Yet she’d seen it with her own eyes and it made her heart flutter. Amun stood but before he could flee, Justine grabbed his hand.
“Mr. Farouk, your neck,” she exclaimed.
His fingers brushed the skin above his collar.
Justine could not look away. The bloody gash on his neck didn’t look as deep. As she watched, the skin knit together, closing the wound. “But…how?”
The Egyptian brushed the skin and his expression changed. The man looked frightened. Amun fled through one of the adjacent doors. Justine was still crouched, feeling the warmth from his lips ebb into cool numbness and unable to believe her own eyes. In her other hand was the blood soaked handkerchief. She stuffed it up her sleeve as Mrs. Hart came around the corner, calling out her name.
“My Darling,” Mrs. Hart screeched, running towards her in anxiety. “What on earth are you doing back here? My God, is that blood? What possessed you to go wandering off all alone? Don’t you know it isn’t safe? You could have found the killer and you being all alone.” She lifted Justine from the floor, cradling her like a mindless child.
“Yes, the killer,” Justine said under her breath.