Angel Falling Softly

Chapter 41

A sin confessed is half forgiven

Rachel watched the Lincoln turn the corner, cruise down the street and out of sight. She wondered how long she should wait. She’d gotten into the habit of bursting in on Milada and was reluctant to do so today, even when she had a good excuse.

“Aren’t you going to take her attaché back?” her husband asked.

“Maybe after dinner.”

After a light meal eaten in uncomfortable stillness, Rachel picked up the attaché case and walked down the street to Milada’s house. Milada didn’t come to the door when she rang the doorbell. Maybe she was napping. Milada didn’t strike her as someone who napped. She tried the doorknob.

The door was open. She called out, “Milada? It’s Rachel Forsythe.”

She tiptoed into the kitchen and glanced down through the banisters into the family room. Milada lay on the floor on a bath towel, her head resting on a small throw pillow. The louvers across the sliding glass doors cast lines of light across her waist and legs. Her robe was pulled down from her shoulders. Next to her on the carpet were a water bottle, several prescription pill bottles, a cell phone.

Milada’s eyes followed her as she came down the short flight of stairs. “Hello, Rachel,” Milada said. Her voice was stiff and muted. She did not lift her head.

“You left your attaché case at the hospital.”

“Thank you,” Milada mumbled.

Rachel set the attaché case next to the staircase and stood there, trying not to stare at the pill bottles, trying not to wonder what the drugs were, because it was none of her business. But then she looked closer and gasped. “Milada! What happened to you?”

“A sunburn. Don’t you know your lore, Rachel? We do not fare well when exposed to the light of day.” She tried to smile. “You needn’t worry. A temporary setback. What do you want? You always get that look on your face when you want something.”

Abashed, Rachel retreated a step. “There’s something I have to ask you.”

“Then ask me,” Milada said, the resignation clear in her voice.

“What happened in London?”

Milada turned her eyes toward Rachel, a pair of diamonds shining out of a pool of soot. “You know what happened there.”

Rachel did. She felt the touch of evil and forced herself not to imagine what she knew from that simple statement.

Milada spoke without prompting. “I understand now what Rakosi wanted. He wanted a family, companions to share the long night of eternity with. But he was in no way prepared to be a parent. When we alone survived, he had not the slightest idea what to do with us. Yet he did it over and over. Perhaps it became the only way he knew how to connect to women with any semblance of passion, as perverse a passion as it was.”

“But how did your stepfather—” Rachel pressed in a taut whisper.

“Garrick found us. He was a sheriff’s bailiff, his way of staying one step ahead of the Puritans. He recovered the body of a girl near London Bridge. He recognized the marks as being what only one of our kind could make. Such careless violence imperiled all of us. He ferreted out Rakosi, arrested him, and turned him over to the Royal Court. The three of us he sent to Michael’s estate at Cheapside. We took his name and became his daughters. Years we spent isolated inside those walls. We were quite mad at the time and each of us unique in our madness.”

“And Rakosi?”

“He confessed to the murders. Better that than be condemned a warlock, with the Witchfinder General prosecuting the cases. He spared himself the torture. But he never reached the gallows. He died at Newgate Prison—he stopped taking blood. He could have survived. He could have pled benefit of clergy. He could have escaped. He had the power, and I know what that hunger is like. A death by hanging would have been kinder punishment.”

“You think he deserved kinder punishment!” Rachel exclaimed.

“No. And yet—I believe that all his life he rationalized his predilections by telling himself he was an evil man in the thrall of an evil passion. But in the end he was not evil. He was a pathetic man who led a pathetically lonely life that made him desperate to ruin everything he touched. I felt sorry for him. The Stockholm syndrome, isn’t that what they call it—when the captive falls in love with the captor? But as I said, I was by then quite mad.”

Rachel bit her bottom lip. “How many?” she asked faintly. “How many girls?”

Milada didn’t answer. Rachel could not leave the stone unturned, could not leave without knowing the mundane, ordinary horror of what had happened. What did you do? she’d asked Milada at the beginning. And now she needed the answer, a death she could understand. If not her own daughter’s, then someone else’s. She said, “You killed them. Not that—that Rakosi.” When Milada didn’t answer, she repeated the question: “How many?”

“The last one, the one Garrick found, was the only one I killed to further my own ends. The rest for—” She paused. “For mercy. They would have died anyway, after what he did to them. The fever burns. The blood boils in your veins. You think you will kill yourself before it kills you. I got better. But you never are better. Those girls never would have gotten better. They would have suffered for nothing.”

“Not all of them. You don’t know that.”

“Mathew Hopkins and his witch prickers had the run of London. Cromwell and the Roundheads ran everything else. You prick us, and we do not bleed. It is written in the Bible: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. I wanted us to live. That was the only way I knew how.”

“And Garrick?”

“I learned the routines of his watch. I left the body where I knew he would find it, the key to Rakosi’s strongbox in her hand, and in her pocket a locket identifying another of the missing girls. As if she had stolen, fled, and died.”

“Because Rakosi raped you and your sisters?”

He never touched them in that way.” A quiet fierceness crept into her voice. “I was responsible for my sisters. I was responsible for the fate that befell us. If he would not have me, then I would procure the necessary surrogates. Yet I knew he would betray us eventually. Through incompetence or willful self-destruction. I was sure I could care for my sisters on my own. We had lived almost five decades with him. Alas, five decades had not made me wise. Only cruel. Wisdom does not come with time, Rachel. Wisdom comes with age. Wisdom must be worn into the soul. And we Daranyi age very slowly.”

The sun settled in the west, the bands of light slipped across her face, illuminating her chin and cheeks and the bridge of her nose. The skin was charred, almost blackened.

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“It is less severe than it looks. It only feels that way.” She tried to smile. “I met today with a gentleman farmer. He also owns a company I wish to buy. We spent the morning stacking hay. Such are the lengths I will go to. This is an allergic reaction. I am allergic to sunlight. Ironic, don’t you think? The one thing I cannot cure is myself. Or your daughter—”

Her voice caught in her throat. She closed her eyes and fought to retain her composure. Rachel knelt on the floor next to her. Despite all that the woman had confessed, Rachel wanted only to somehow comfort this terrible, fallen angel. But she could see the stripes on her shoulders and didn’t know how tender the rest of her body might be.

“You don’t know that. I asked impossible things of you. I put you in an impossible position. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair.”

“You worry about being fair to me? And yet how your God harries me.” This time she did manage a smile.

“I don’t know who you were, Milada. I don’t even know who you are. I’m in no position to judge you or judge your past. But I know what you were willing to do for me. You didn’t have to, but you did. And that is enough.” Rachel got to her feet. “Is there anything I can do for you? Anything I can get you?”

“No. I will be fine. By Tuesday I should be as good as new.”

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