Home > The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(10)

The Asylum (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #5)(10)
Author: L.J. Smith

“I haven’t changed. Unless you’re finally seeing the man I really am,” I said. I’d spent the past two decades trying to return to the human I’d been before Katherine had entered my life. But Damon was the one who seemed different. Still impulsive, still possessive of Katherine’s memory, and still brooding, but also a little bit more … human.

“Whatever you say,” Damon said, smiling. “Maybe it’s just that middle age suits you. It was always how you acted,” he teased as we headed toward the glittering Thames. It was funny how familiar I had gotten with every city in which I had lived. Was it simply because cities, like humans, no longer surprised me? Of course there were different customs and residents and accents, but every city had its dark history, its hidden secrets.

“I wonder whether Samuel has killed anyone today,” Damon said, nodding at an elderly man carrying a sack of newspapers on his back.

“Hasn’t he already killed enough?” I asked dully as Damon compelled the man into giving him a paper. “I’m not sure I want to know.”

“I do,” Damon said, folding the newspaper under one arm. “Samuel thinks he’s so clever, but we know all of his moves now. And that’s encouraging. My guess is that we’ll kill him and his brat of a brother before the week’s out. And then, brother, the city is ours. Or”—Damon scratched his head, as though he were deep in thought—“the city will be mine. And maybe, if you don’t annoy me, I’ll let you live here, too.”

We’d reached Fleet Street, just a few miles down from our tunnel, and the streets were bustling with late- afternoon foot traffic. Now was not the time to talk about Samuel.

“It’s not that easy, Damon,” I said, but I knew my words would fall on deaf ears. All I wanted was whiskey and a chance to forget what I’d seen that morning, even if only for a few hours.

“Haven’t you learned by now?” Damon asked, glancing sharply at me. “Nothing’s easy.” He quickly turned a corner into an alley, then ducked through a low entranceway. The bar inside was narrow and dark and smelled of sawdust and spilled ale. I relaxed. No one would find us here.

“Nothing like having a drink and discussing old times,” Damon said as he made his way to the back of the bar. There sat two sunken club chairs, secluded from the other patrons. “It’s like we’re back at the Mystic Falls Tavern— all that’s missing is a sultry vampire and some Confederate soldiers.”

“I don’t think anything could be like old times, brother,” I said, reflexively looking behind me to see if we’d been followed. But no one seemed concerned with anything but their drinks. Most of the patrons were sitting alone at tables, some writing in ledger pads, others staring off into the distance. The pub was clearly one where people liked to go when they wanted to be alone.

“Whatever you say,” Damon said, sinking into a cracked leather chair and propping his feet up on a low-slung table. He pulled out the paper and flipped immediately to the society pages. “So if nothing’s like old times, then maybe it’s your turn to get me a drink.”

Of course Damon always found a way to twist my words to his benefit.

The barman was elderly and had a close-cut white beard. He was wearing a filthy apron splattered with drink stains. I wished we could switch lives. I’d gladly spend the rest of eternity serving drinks to men whose biggest sin was downing too many pints of beer, not pints of blood.

“Two whiskeys. Charge to Sir Stefan Pine,” I said, waiting for the sensation when my mind melded with his.

But this time, something was wrong. It felt like the compulsion was hanging in the air between us, suspended and unclaimed. And that’s when I realized the barman was paying no attention to me. Instead, he was looking over my shoulder, at Damon, still reclining in the leather club chair. His ankle was crossed over his knee, his hair was flopping over his eyes, and his tie was undone.

“Two whiskeys?” I prodded nervously. Damon was flipping through a newspaper, oblivious to my presence. But the barman didn’t turn, and I realized with horror that he wasn’t the only one focused on Damon. Two men had left off playing cards in the corner and directed their stares at my brother. They were glancing at a spot above the barman’s head, then back to Damon. I followed their gaze and saw what had arrested their attention. A broadsheet from the newspaper was affixed to the wall, just beside a shelf of dusty liquor bottles.

JACK THE RIPPER! NO ONE IS SAFE!

What was underneath the words caused my chest to seize in fear: a drawing of Damon. This time, the likeness between the image and Damon was undeniable.

“Damon!” I hissed under my breath. “Run. They’ve recognized you.” I wouldn’t risk looking at him, lest suspicion fall on me, too. I focused on the pitted surface of the bar, as though I was patiently waiting for my whiskeys.

I heard a commotion behind me and whirled around. Damon had shot up and was racing out of the bar at vampire speed, his tie falling to the floor as he ran. I watched him dash past me. I knew it was a risk to be associated with Damon, but I had to follow, to do what I could to protect him in the maze of London streets. I bolted after him.

“Jack the Ripper!”

“Call the police!”

I heard the cacophony of voices behind us, each desperate yell spurring me to run harder and faster, blindly following Damon through the rain-soaked streets. The wide cobblestone thoroughfare of Fleet Street was crammed with carriages going in both directions. Following Damon’s lead, we took our chances dodging through the chaotic London traffic. Our footsteps thwacked against wet ground and blood rushed in my ears. I forgot about my hunger—all I cared about was Damon and me making it back to the tunnel.

“Go, go, go!” I urged, although I couldn’t tell whether I was speaking to Damon or myself.

“Stop them!”

“Police!” There was now a crowd on our tail, and coachmen were jumping down from their carriages to join the fray. Behind us, I heard a lone shot, followed by glass shattering. And then, a figure leapt in front of me.

I found myself face-to-face with a wild-eyed drunk. He was dressed in rags, and his breath smelled stale and rancid.

“Got him!” he yelled, clamping his hand around my arm. I reflexively jerked my arm back, slamming the man’s body against the glass window of a storefront. The impact broke the glass behind him, and when the scent of blood filled the air, I knew he’d been cut.

“That’s not the Ripper!” another man yelled, running up to me. I stayed still, hoping Damon was far enough away. More and more men were approaching, brandishing knives and broken bottles.

“He was with him in the tavern!” I heard a voice shout from the back of the crowd, but it was far too late. In the commotion, I broke free, using my vampire speed to catch up to Damon, and the mob of fifty that was hot on Damon’s trail. In the far distance, I heard the ringing of police bells.

I didn’t dare look behind me. It was as if my brother and I were back in the pasture at Veritas, racing against each other to get to the stables. Only now, we weren’t running for personal bragging rights. We were running for our lives.

We pushed ourselves, giving an extra burst of speed until the noise of the mob faded behind us. Finally, we reached the tunnel and jumped down. The air smelled dank, and drops of water oozed from the walls like blood from a wound. Still, I was relieved to be there.

Damon and I stared at each other, panting hard.

“Well, at least I worked up an appetite,” Damon said dully. He rose to his feet, and I could tell he was trying to hide the fact that he was still winded, sweat running down his face. “I’m going to find some food. Don’t wait for me.”

“Fine,” I said, still catching my breath.

A few minutes later, I heard a moan as Damon undoubtedly sunk his teeth into a nameless tunnel dweller. I felt my own stomach growl in protest as I turned my face to the wall and listened for the scrabble of a rat to at least quell my hunger. But there was nothing.

9

The next morning, I awoke early. Or perhaps I hadn’t fallen asleep. All I could think of was Cora, alone in the cold, unfriendly Asylum. But whenever I closed my eyes to conjure her face in my mind—her proud eyes and the spray of freckles on her nose—all I could imagine was Katherine.

In my vision, Katherine was smiling at me, her hair plaited in a long braid tossed over one bare shoulder.

“Can’t you smile, Stefan?” she asked, shaking her head at my morose condition.

I tossed and turned. I wanted to forget about Katherine. But it was impossible when I was with Damon. Faint light was coming through the opening to the tunnel. Without waking Damon, I scrambled up the ladder and into the early morning. It was wet and cold and the fog made the Thames difficult to see even from a few paces away.

I hurried to the Magdalene Asylum, hands jammed in my pockets, shuffling my feet and singing an ill-mannered drinking song that often broke out at pubs. I wanted anyone who saw me to assume I was just a drunk and leave me alone. Rain was falling softly from the dove-gray sky, and the cobblestones were slick.

Midway to the Asylum, I spotted a bakery with a red awning. It was the shop where Cora and I had gone before the park, what seemed like a lifetime ago.

On a whim, I entered.

“Six buns, please,” I said, holding the baker’s gaze until she nodded and brought me a white sack.

“Thank you,” I said, noticing the poster behind the counter. My stomach sank. Damon’s face was everywhere.

The woman followed my gaze. “He’s back in London,” she explained. “Nobody’s safe.” She squinted harder at me, and I took that as my cue to hurry away. The family resemblance between Damon and me was faint, but it was there, as indelible as ink. I couldn’t risk someone associating me with my brother, especially since we’d been spotted together at the tavern last night.

Treats in hand, I settled on an ivy-covered bench across the street from the Asylum. I pulled out my watch. Twenty minutes after six.

As expected, a side door opened a few minutes later, and two lines of girls filed out, as though they were soldiers on the march. There were about fifty in all, identically clad in gray smocks, their hair pulled back and covered by bonnets. Some of the girls looked no older than thirteen, while others seemed to be in their late twenties. I had to squint to tell them apart. It would be difficult to find Cora.

“Order!” Sister Benedict barked at the front of the line. “Now, think of the prayers you’ll offer to God!” She marched them through the gates and onto the street.

“Cora!” I hissed, disguising it as a cough. “Cora!”

I saw movement from the far line, and then Cora turned toward me and gave a quick smile. As the group turned a corner, she stole away.

“You made it,” Cora whispered, her back pressed against the sandstone building as she inched farther down the street and toward a tiny cobblestone-paved alley.

“Of course. I was worried about you. Are you all right?” I asked, following her lead and trying to shield her with my body. In the distance, the church bells pealed.

“Thankfully, yes,” Cora said urgently. “But other girls weren’t so lucky. I saw something last night,” she continued, sinking to sit on a concrete step. Here, in the alley, we were partially covered from the rain by the stone overhang of an abandoned building.

“What?” I asked, my imagination running wild, the bakery bag in my lap all but forgotten.

“Samuel and Henry came to the Asylum in the middle of the night.”

“What? Why?” I asked.

“They’re drinking from the girls. I saw it with my own eyes. It was terrible. You have to stop it.” Silence hung in the air between us. I was afraid to stir. In the distance, a crow cawed and a police bell rang, all reminders that we were not alone.

“It took me ages to fall asleep last night, but I eventually nodded off,” Cora said, glancing up at the sky. “The next thing I knew, I was startled awake by a noise. I saw Samuel and Henry walk into the room. As soon as I saw them, I pulled my sheet over my head and lay on my side, pretending to be asleep, but the sheets are so thin that I still saw everything,” Cora said breathlessly. “They stopped by a few beds, silently waking the girls. One of them was Winnie, who was sleeping to the right of me. I stayed as rigid as I could and was just clutching my charm. Oh, Stefan, at one point, they were so close I felt Henry’s hand brush against my forehead. I heard Samuel say, ‘Fresh blood,’ and I almost stopped breathing, I was so frightened. But then they moved on to another girl. He didn’t recognize me, I’m sure of it,” she added with conviction.

“How many girls did they take?” I asked. I imagined Samuel, debonair and fresh from a night out. He’d be wearing cologne and a tux, with his hair slicked back and his necklace tucked underneath his starched white shirt. I imagined him and Henry stealing into the girls’ dormitory and choosing the ones they were to feast on as if they were pastries at a buffet. I imagined the girls—sleepy and terrified, heavy-footed under the veil of compulsion, following them down the rickety stairs to the laundry and offering their necks, feeling pain radiate through their bodies as Henry and Samuel drank their fill. I shuddered.

“Five. Maybe six. It was hard to tell.” Cora masked her face with her hands, as if even remembering the scene was far too much for her to bear. “They took Winnie and Evelyn, and Louise, and I think they took a little girl named Clare as well. She was Irish, so of course I was hoping to look out for her…” Cora trailed off. When she spoke next, it was in a tiny voice: “I followed them.”

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