Seventeen (1)

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Holden called from the train station in the village at the end of the afternoon, and Vita sent Mr. Lawrence in a car to pick him up.

He arrived as everyone was having drinks in the drawing room before dinner. In the presence of guests, the household treated dinner as a formal occasion. All the ladies wore evening gowns and gloves.

To Vita's surprise, Holden had dressed up according to the circumstance, wearing a dinner jacket over a white vest and a black bow tie like Archie. He greeted everyone with the expected courtesies, and Vita introduced him to her mother as 'a friend from Romania in London for the Season'. The handshake between him and Archie was stiff, Archie eyeing him with mild suspicion.

They went through to the dining room when called upon by Graham, and Izzy spent half the meal explaining her plans for the party to Archie. Unable to find something casual to say to Holden, Vita watched her mother as they ate. After their afternoon outside, dinner seemed to be a chore to Vita's mother, who ate very little, spoke even less, and played with her fork absent-mindedly. As soon as the dessert plates were cleared, she whispered an apology and retired to her bedroom.

"Would the gentlemen like to stay here for a drink, my lady?" Graham asked.

In her mother's absence, she was in charge of their guests.

"No, Graham," she said. "I think we'll all go through to the drawing room."

"Shall Arthur bring coffee, then?"

"Yes, please."

Once the coffee was served in cups, whiskey poured in glasses, cigarettes lit and the room free of the presence of servants, Izzy, Archie, Holden and Vita sat in silence and sipped their drinks. Vita, her long cigarette holder in hand, blew smoke toward the ceiling.

"So tell us what you know about this Finley," Archie said, dropping all pretence of civility.

Holden took a drag of his cigarette before answering.

"His name is Dr Alistair Finley. He teaches at King's College. His field of research is immortality, shall we say. During the war, he worked with the British army to see how they could prolong the lives of the soldiers whose bodies had been damaged beyond saving."

Izzy gasped.

Archie's face darkened. "He experimented on veterans?"

"Yes," Holden said. "But his research didn't lead anywhere, so after the war, he returned to London and pretended to resume his teaching. He wrote a book, but to the naked eye, his days of trying to find a cure to mortality were behind him."

"But he carried on with them, underground?" Archie guessed aloud.

Holden nodded. "He became obsessed with the supernatural. He studied mythology and folklore, working on the assumption that there was a truth in them. He travelled to the Americas, to Asia, to Eastern Europe."

He glanced at Vita, who leaned back in her seat without moving, smoking a cigarette while he spoke. Had Finley captured him during one of those trips? That was the most likely possibility.

"That sounds like a costly enterprise," Izzy noted.

"I'm almost certain he has a benefactor," Holden said. "But I never saw him."

The vague memory of an ivory lighter shot through Vita's mind, but it was gone before she had time to reflect on it.

"So Finley found out about phoenixes," Archie said, bringing them back to the unfinished tale.

"He did," Holden replied. "And he became obsessed with the idea of harnessing a phoenix's immortality and passing it on to a human being, using electrical current."

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