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Authors: Kate Parker

The vanishing thief

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Thwarting her attackers . . .

They tried to pull me into the alley, but a hard stomp on a foot and a bite on a hand let me escape to dash toward the street, holding up the fabric of my ripped skirt. A carriage pulled up, the horses reined in before I collided with them. The Duke of Blackford jumped out. My savior, or reinforcements for my attackers?

I started to dash down the sidewalk, but strong arms grabbed me around the middle, wrapping my cloak tightly around me. I kicked out and hit my pursuer by driving the back of my head into his nose. He let go and I ran. Behind me, I heard grunts and thuds, wood against metal, wood against bone.

I glanced back to see the duke thrash one figure with his cane. As my other attacker rose from the ground, he was pummeled down again. I'd have to pass the fight to return to the safety of Lady Westover's. Too dangerous. I rushed away from the fracas.

Horses whinnied and coach wheels creaked, but no footsteps pursued me. I slowed my pace to a brisk walk, staying as far from the street as I could as I approached the corner. Looking over my shoulder, I saw two figures prone on the ground behind me and a large carriage with four horses nearly at my side.

“Miss Fenchurch.”

I picked up speed. So did the horses, pulling past me.

The duke's familiar baritone came from the coach. “Wait, Miss Fenchurch. I'm trying to rescue you.”

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

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Copyright © 2013 by Kate Parker.

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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-61735-9

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Parker, Kate, 1949–

The vanishing thief / Kate Parker.—Berkley Prime Crime trade paperback edition.

pages cm

ISBN 978-0-425-26660-1 (pbk.)

1. Booksellers and bookselling—Fiction. 2. Women private investigators—Fiction. 3. Kidnapping—Investigation—Fiction. 4. Parents—Death—Fiction. 5. Cold cases (Criminal investigation)—Fiction. 6. London (England)—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3616.A74525V36 2013

813'.6—dc23

2013027648

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime trade paperback edition / December 2013

Cover illustration by Teresa Fasolino.

Cover design by George Long.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

Contents

Preface

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

This book is dedicated to my mother because she said I had to.

Mothers are frequently right.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

No one creates a story that reaches publication without a great deal of help, and I've been blessed with wonderfully talented, supportive people on this journey. Lara Otis, a librarian at the University of Maryland Libraries, provided me with excellent Victorian-era sources on antiquarian books and their preservation. My daughter, Jennifer, who's always up for a research trip, introduced me to the Linley Sambourne house and other wonders of Victorian London.

Critique partners Hannah Meredith, Nancy Bacon, Gail Hart, and Peggy Parsons have spent years helping me hone the craft of writing. My agent, Jill Marsal of Marsal-Lyons Literary Agency, found the spark in this novel and helped me create a work worthy to be published. My editor, Faith Black, and the unknown artists and copyeditors at Berkley Prime Crime have taken my work a step further to create a book I am so proud to share with the world.

I thank them all. But most of all, I have to thank my husband. Even as he kept telling me to try something different in my writing and to add more bodies, he always believed the day would come when I'd be published and readers would discover my stories.

While the rest of the story is based on solid late-Victorian sources, I willfully threw out everything learned in seven semesters of college chemistry to create amylnitrohydrated sulfate and the fictitious Royal Society. These were created to honor the spirit of Victorian scientific research and the single-minded quests of so many now-famous Victorians. Any other errors, technical or otherwise, are my own.

Chapter One

EARLYspring rain drenched London in a cold damp that either kept customers away or drove them into the bookshop. Today the rain was in our favor. We had three browsers searching the shelves when a woman barreled in, flinging droplets in the musty air and onto the wooden floor. “The Duke of Blackford kidnapped Nicholas Drake and you must save him.”

My assistant, Emma, looked up from the recent arrivals she was discussing with a female customer and said, “Is that a new novel?”

The woman planted thin fists on her hips, shoving back her cloak and displaying a green dress faded to the shade of mushy peas. “No. I'm demanding the Archivist Society do something to free Nicholas Drake from the Duke of Blackford.”

All three customers stared at her, mouths agape. The Archivist Society unfortunately appeared in the penny press occasionally, earning us a notoriety we didn't desire.

I didn't want my customers to learn Emma and I worked for the Archivist Society. Respectable women didn't court notoriety. Even the old queen kept her activities private. And our work required secrecy.

I had to silence this woman. Now.

Stepping forward from the gardening section, I said, “I'm Georgia Fenchurch, owner of Fenchurch's Books. You've come to the right place. We should be able to find answers to your questions about the Archivist Society and the Duke of Blackford as we do for all our customers. Everyone comes here for the most up-to-date sources of information in print.” I swung my arms out to encompass our stock. “Perhaps you'd like to join me in my office. But first, let's do something about your outerwear.”

She put her umbrella in the rack by the door and carried her soggy cloak into the back hall, where I hung it up. We entered my office and she looked around with a little sniff.

The room was a trifle crowded. Truthfully, the tiny space was stuffed, with two chairs, a desk, record storage cabinets, piles of books, and very little room to walk. But it was my office and I was happy with it. I moved the books off both chairs and, at my gesture, she sat in one chair and I on the other.

I was determined not to waste time. We might have more customers come into the shop, even in this rainstorm, and I make it a practice never to miss a sale. I can't afford to. “Who are you? And why have you come to me?”

“I'm Edith Carter. My next-door neighbor, Nicholas Drake, was abducted from his home by the Duke of Blackford in the duke's carriage last Thursday at eleven in the evening.” The words spilled out in one quick gush as if she were afraid I'd stop her. If she'd gone into a long explanation, I would have.

“Have you been to the police?” I really hoped she hadn't so I could throw her out. I had paying customers to wait on.

“Yes. They spoke to his housekeeper, who said he'd gone to Brighton to visit a friend. They believed her.”

“Perhaps he did.”

“I saw him dragged out to the duke's high, antique carriage and tossed inside. Besides, would you go to Brighton in this weather?”

As if in answer, rain mixed with ice beat on the windowpanes looking out over the back alley, and the wind howled through every crevice. “Perhaps it's nicer in Brighton.”

“Not until summer.” She was snapping her answers at me.

I wasn't going to be dragged into a discussion about weather. I wanted her gone. “I repeat, why come to me?”

She smoothed her skirt, ignoring the mud splatter on the hem as she dug into her bag. “I saved this article from a recent newspaper. It contains the symbol of the Archivist Society, the same as you have in your front window. It also contains a picture of an unnamed young woman member of the Archivist Society. That member is you.”

I don't know how the reporter learned I was a member. I don't advertise my membership. And the black-and-white portrait didn't show my better features, a pair of violet eyes and a long, graceful neck. However, if Edith Carter could recognize me that easily, perhaps my better features weren't that impressive.

“You don't need anyone's help to ask the Duke of Blackford if he knows where Mr. Drake is. You said the duke's carriage was involved. You should talk to him.”

“I did ask him. He threw me out. He was frightfully rude. He—he threatened me.”

Interesting. “Threatened you how, Miss Carter?”

“He said if I didn't leave his house immediately and stop asking questions about Mr. Drake, he would have me arrested and thrown into prison.” The woman whispered the last word with terror in her eyes.

“Those were his exact words? Stop asking questions about Mr. Drake?”

“Yes. I've tried to be as accurate as possible.”

“What do you hope the Archivist Society can accomplish?”

“Talk to the Duke of Blackford. Ask him to release Mr. Drake. I can't afford a ransom, but I doubt a man as rich as the duke would need one.” The woman reached across the space between us and clutched my hand with a surprisingly firm grip. “You must help me. I've nowhere else to go. The police won't listen to me. And Nicholas is such a fine person.”

Nicholas? I recognized the glow in the woman's eyes and the blush on her cheeks. Nothing could compel me to help her more than to see his importance in her heart. “You're in love with him.”

Miss Carter jerked back as if I'd slapped her. Casting her eyes down, she said, “No. No, of course not.”

I counted slowly in my head until the woman revealed all.

I'd reached nine when Edith Carter turned her head to the side. “He's unobtainable. I don't wish to discuss this.”

“He's married?”

Miss Carter gasped. “No. Not at all. Why would you say such a thing?”

“It's the most logical explanation as to why he's unobtainable.”

The woman looked everywhere but at me. “It's a private matter. That's all I'll say on the subject.”

Miss Carter was lying to me. I was willing to bet Nicholas Drake was married. Edith Carter wasn't prepared to reveal the truth, and that made her a terrible client. In spite of my doubts, I began the usual list of questions. “How long have you been Mr. Drake's next-door neighbor?”

“Since I moved in a year ago.”

“Who moved in with you?”

“I—my parents.”

“And you hope that if you organize Mr. Drake's rescue, he will feel what? Indebted to you?”

Edith Carter looked me straight in the eye. “I prefer his high regard, his love, to a debt of friendship.”

“Do your parents approve of him?”

“They are not your concern. Mr. Drake is.”

Miss Carter showed every sign of already being in a relationship with Mr. Drake. Since she appeared to be near thirty, perhaps her parents were not as worried about chaperoning her as they ought to be. Maybe she would get the happy ending I never could. A home and family with the man she loved.

I kept searching for a hole in her story. “You said you looked out last Thursday night at eleven and saw the Duke of Blackford's coach.”

“Yes. I told you.”

“You're completely certain the coach belonged to the Duke of Blackford. You couldn't have made a mistake about that?”

“I'm absolutely certain. The fog hadn't yet come in. The coach was stopped near a street lamp. It was the ancient, tall carriage with the matching black horses he always uses. I could see the crest clearly from my bedroom window. It was the Blackford crest. Two men, thugs in his employ no doubt, although they didn't wear livery, carried a third man out of the house. Mr. Drake.”

“You saw his face?”

“Who else could it have been?”

Georgia suggested, “The duke visited and was taken ill.”

Miss Carter dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. “The duke would never make a call in my neighborhood. I have no doubt it was Mr. Drake who was carried out.”

“What is Mr. Drake's occupation?”

“He's a broker, arranging sales of artworks and jewelry between buyers and sellers.”

“Perhaps the duke was there as either a buyer or seller and was taken ill during the negotiations. Perhaps this or another business arrangement required Mr. Drake to travel to Brighton.” I spread my hands in a gesture of defeat.

“He would have told me if he needed to travel to Brighton or had a duke calling. You have to help us. Please. No one else can or will help. I haven't much money to pay for your services, but . . .”

This was a woman deeply in love. Despite my misgivings about her honesty, I knew I couldn't turn her down. She could lie about the facts, but her emotions were genuine. I knew. I'd had the same desperation in my voice when I'd cornered Sir Broderick a dozen years before, begging for his help in rescuing my parents. The mixture of grief and fear choking off the ability to speak can't be faked. My heart still ached over my failure to save my parents, and every time I heard that anguish in someone's voice, I was driven to ease my pain by helping a fellow sufferer.

Even as I called myself a fool, I said, “I'll speak to the duke. Then we'll see if we have enough to begin a search.”

Miss Carter stood and nodded. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice. Life without Nicholas is unbearable. And when I saw the blood on the floor—”

“What?” I sprang from my chair.

“When Mrs. Cummings, his housekeeper, arrived that morning, she found a pool of blood in the front hall. She cleaned it up, but it stained the wood.”

“Did either of you tell the police this?”

“I did, but she denied it. It was just a stain when they arrived and could have been anything.”

People didn't bleed profusely from business discussions. Not real blood. But people did kill for money, and I still knew nothing about Nicholas Drake or his finances. “Do you know anything of the items he was brokering currently?”

“No. But the Duke of Blackford is a terrible man. Mr. Drake was afraid of him.” She reached out and grabbed my hands. Her grip hurt.

“Did he say why?”

“He said the duke's sister killed a friend of his. He's afraid his life's in danger, since he knows what really happened.”

“What happened? When was this?”

Her voice dropped to a whisper. “Before I moved next door, so it was over a year ago. I won't say exactly what happened, but it had to do with the death of the duke's intended bride.”

“You need to tell me what happened.”

“I was sworn to secrecy. But I will say the duke and his fiancée had a terrible row over his sister. The next day, the sister and the fiancée met, and the fiancée was dead within the hour. Mr. Drake's life was threatened if he ever spoke of those events to anyone.”

“Do you know where we can find a photograph of Mr. Drake? It would be very helpful if we could recognize him.”

She let go of my hands and reached into a pocket. Gently she smoothed the back of the thick paper then handed the photo to me. It was postcard size, taken in a photography studio in Durham, showing a fair-haired young man with a pleasant face trying very hard to look serious and failing.

“May I keep this, please, for copying? I'll return it to you unharmed.”

After a moment, she nodded.

I wrote down a few details and ushered Miss Carter into her cloak. As we walked to the front door of the shop, I saw all three customers had wandered into travel, the section closest to the office. All three were closely examining books, their faces averted. Emma stood with them, her business smile in place.

Miss Carter bid me good day and left, holding her umbrella at an angle to block the wind and rain. Then I turned and faced our customers. “Does anyone need help?”

With the excitement over, all three paid for their purchases and left, leaving Emma and me in an empty shop.

“Do we have a case, Georgia?”

“Possibly. I don't trust her, but the story is so amazing it may be true. Can you handle the shop by yourself?”

Emma glanced around the vacant shop and gave me a dry stare. I've seen strong men grovel at her feet after such a look, probably because of her blond beauty. After working with her for years, I hardly noticed anymore that men looked around me to stare at her.

That didn't mean that her youth, good looks, and self-assurance didn't annoy me on occasion. Not bothering to hide my sarcasm, I said, “Since you have no objections, I'll be absent for a few hours. More if I float down the Thames. Don't leave until I return.”

She picked up a novel and sat on the stool behind the counter. The new electric chandelier above her gave perfect light for reading, even on a day when gray, waterlogged light came in the large front windows of the shop. “I have everything I need.”

I checked the omnibus schedule and found the one I needed to take me into the new suburbs northwest of town. The vehicle was jammed but dry, and I managed to get a seat where I could look through the window at the activity outside. Pedestrians hurried along the sidewalk bundled in drab wool, pale faces peering out from under umbrellas and hats.

We were riding along Hyde Park Place just past Marble Arch, and I was staring at the crowded sidewalk. Moving smartly in the opposite direction, a book tucked under one arm, was my parents' killer.

As we approached, I could see most of his face above his ornately tied cravat, and then as we passed, I studied his profile under his top hat until a carriage blocked my view. I pressed my face to the glass, wishing the carriage away. It moved, and I was able to glimpse the murderer again from behind.

For a moment I stared openmouthed. He was dressed similarly to the other businessmen on the street, but I was certain.

It was him.

And I wasn't going to lose him a second time. Every muscle tensed as I leaped up. My heart pounded as I ran to the back of the bus, ready to jump off if the driver didn't stop the horses immediately.

“Wait, miss,” the conductor said, blocking my path as he signaled the driver to stop.

After a dozen years, I'd finally seen the monster again. I pushed the conductor aside and was off before the horses came to a halt. Heavy traffic flowed around me, blocking my way to the sidewalk. Knowing the man I sought must have a minute's head start on me, I was braver than usual, dodging behind a brewer's cart and a hansom cab. After close misses with a carriage and horse waste in the road, I was on the sidewalk, pushing past people in my hurry.

There were top hats in front of me as far as I could see. Which one was his?

As I strode down the sidewalk, looking each man in the face as I passed, being shoved aside by taller, heavier bodies, I was once more a powerless seventeen-year-old. My parents were newly dead. I suddenly had no one in this world to care about me. Tears again welled up with the grief and the terror. That horrible day was never far from my mind.

I had been helping my mother dust the shelves, since we'd just opened for the morning, and this immaculately well-tailored man was our first customer.

My father came forward to greet the man when he entered our bookshop. The man took off his top hat as he entered but left his newspaper under his arm. His hair was a white blond or silver and his stance proclaimed him a man of power and status. The man talked in a low voice to my father, who took a step back and said, “We don't have anything like that.”

The man grabbed him by the collar with his free hand and said, “I know better. Don't lie to me.”

Then he threw my father to the side and forced his way behind the counter. My father's mouth opened and shut twice without any sound emerging, as he grabbed at the man's sleeve. The man began to search through the antiquarian volumes but didn't find what he wanted. In his fury, he knocked books and papers off the counter, which my father kept trying to catch.

Then the man removed a gun from inside the newspaper and pointed the barrel at my father. My father raised his hands as an antiquarian volume he'd caught slid from his grip and fell to the floor in a cascade of pages.

My mother gasped. The man said, “If you want to see your husband alive at the end of the day, do as I say, Mrs. Fenchurch. You, too, Miss Fenchurch.”

His gaze on me made my skin feel like I'd fallen in a coal furnace, stabbing hot and falling away from my bones. How could I forget the wide brow, the long nose, the thin lips, the cruel eyes?

Unable to find what he was looking for, he forced us all outside into his well-kept black carriage. We left civilized London for the emptiness of the small farms just north of town. And all the time we huddled together, he kept his pistol aimed at us.

My father tried to talk to him, to bargain with him. “We don't have a Gutenberg Bible. We don't have anything that expensive. Why don't you let my wife and daughter go? You can have anything you want—”

“I want your Gutenberg Bible.”

“I don't have one,” my father wailed.

The look the man gave us—cold, ruthless, unyielding, indifferent—stopped all further talk.

I couldn't find a chance to unlock the door and jump from the carriage, so I spent my time memorizing his details. His boots were polished. His linen was sparkling white and not frayed. He wore a cravat tied in a high, elegant flourish.

When the vehicle paused and we climbed down, he sent the unmarked carriage off with just a gesture and marched us into an isolated cottage. Work was being done to the building and some of the interior walls were gone. Construction debris was everywhere. But there was no one around, inside or out, whom we could call to for help.

Several steps in, my father turned on the man, although he was taller and heavier than my father. My mother shoved me toward the door as I saw the fiend hit my father in the face with the butt of the pistol.

I ran.

Dear Lord, how I ran, sides aching, legs wobbling by the time I reached the suburbs and an omnibus line. I was lost, and it took three buses before I found an area I recognized. All that time, I knew that monster had my parents. What would he do to them?

It was midafternoon by the time I arrived, weary and tearstained, at the home of my father's partner in the business, Sir Broderick duVene. He was in his thirties then, an Oxford graduate, fencing enthusiast, and antiquarian collector. Since I thought I could lead him to the farmhouse, he secreted two knives on his person and hired a carriage to follow my directions. They were jumbled directions, and twice I got lost.

On the way there, I told him every detail I could think of. The man's expensive tailoring. The unusually pale shade of his hair and side whiskers. His fearsome glare.

We arrived at sunset. The cottage appeared deserted. Sir Broderick sent the driver to the nearest village to request the help of the local bobby and then return to us.

Just as we entered, the building exploded into fire. Sir Broderick pushed his way through the flames and debris. I followed and saw my parents tied up at the far side of the cottage. The evil man was gone.

Smoke made me gasp and stung my eyes. I screamed my parents' names over the fire's roar. We'd made our way about halfway across the inferno, pieces of plaster and roof raining around us, when a roof beam crashed down, striking Sir Broderick.

My parents were on the far side of the beam and Sir Broderick was directly in front of me, pinned under the beam. I could hear my parents screaming to me. I could see them struggling against their bonds through the smoke. Sir Broderick was groaning, trapped, right in front of me. If I could get him out, then I could get past the beam somehow and save my parents.

Coughing and sniffling, I rushed to save them. I managed to wedge wooden boards from the construction debris under the beam enough to free Sir Broderick. He couldn't move his legs. As I dragged him out of the house, the carriage driver returned and jumped down to help when I stumbled out the door.

As we pulled Sir Broderick to safety, I saw my parents' abductor standing nearby. He waved and then walked away.

I didn't have time to chase him. I grabbed one of Sir Broderick's knives and turned to run back in to free my parents, when the roof crashed down. I screamed, running toward the door. Strong arms stopped me as I struggled against the carriage driver, who held me back from running into the wall of flame. I shouted my parents' names, I cried, I wished I could stop the flames, but I knew I had failed.

There was nothing but an empty lake of flame where a cottage, and my parents, had been.

Blinking away the tears those memories always brought, I kept hurrying down the sidewalk, looking into the face of every top-hatted man I passed. For the first time since that day, I'd seen him. I had a chance to find the murderer and learn his name. To get justice for my parents.

Walking for blocks, I peered at the faces of a hundred men, but none of them resembled my parents' killer in the least. I passed upscale homes that overlooked Hyde Park. Had he turned into one of these elegant brick buildings or walked off onto a side street? Did he live in one of these houses, even now looking down on me as I rushed by in search of him?

No. I would have felt his presence. His evil.

I was frustrated I hadn't caught him today, but at least now I knew he was in London. There was a chance I might finally find my parents' killer, but today's opportunity was gone. I released my fists and took a deep breath. It was time to go in search of Nicholas Drake.

In the dozen years since my parents' death, I'd eased the pain of not seeing justice done for my parents by helping to rescue others. When there was no hope of rescue, I helped their loved ones find closure. And many of the people we assisted went on to aid the Archivist Society.

I glanced along the sidewalk once more, knowing I'd return here soon. This was the place to begin to solve my own investigation.

Chapter Two

RETURNINGto the omnibus stop, I caught the next, equally crowded vehicle to take me into the suburbs to learn what I could to help Nicholas Drake.

Drake's house was one in a redbrick row a few chilly minutes' walk from the omnibus stop, above working class in attitude but not in cash. There was no rubbish lying around, but mildew had already appeared on some of the wood trim and the sidewalks were starting to crumble.

I checked the address again. Not what anyone would expect for a man who traveled in society's upper strata. As I walked to the door, I passed by a tiny front garden holding only a single, scraggly bush. When I rapped on the door, a wrinkled woman with a mop of white hair stuffed under her cap opened the door a few inches.

“I'm looking for Mr. Drake. Are you his housekeeper?”

“Aye. Mrs. Cummings.” She crossed her bare forearms over her ample chest and blocked the doorway.

“I'm Miss Fenchurch. Miss Carter has me looking into the whereabouts of Mr. Drake. Could you spare me a moment of your time?”

“I told that woman—” She looked me over and glanced at the rain. “Well, never mind, come in and I'll tell you, too.” She stepped aside and I walked into the front hall.

In the dim illumination coming from the fanlight, I saw a closed door on one side of the hall before a flight of stairs that rose steeply upward. Next to the stairs, the hall leading to the back of the house was barely wide enough for one person to walk. The walls were painted, not papered, and the coat tree held one short garment. Mrs. Cummings's, I guessed.

“I believe you told Miss Carter that Mr. Drake has gone to visit friends in Brighton.”

“That's right.” The housekeeper smelled of cabbage and bread dough, but the hallway smelled of polish.

“Could you give me their name and direction, so I can verify his safe arrival?”

“Why would I do that?”

Wonderful. She was as obstinate as Miss Carter. “So I may put Miss Carter's fears to rest.”

“Her? An impossible task.”

“You find Miss Carter to be excitable?”

“Aye, and a busybody, too. Mr. Drake didn't mind living next door to her, but I can tell you, she's a difficult sort of neighbor.”

I'd had quite enough of hearing about Miss Carter. “Did you do Mr. Drake's packing for him?”

“No, he took care of that the very evening he received a message from his friend. After he returned from dinner with some lord.”

“Did you see the message from this friend?”

“No. He must have taken it with him.”

“Why would he do that?” I gave her such a look of concern she must have forgotten I'd never met Nicholas Drake.

“I don't know. And there was such a mess.” She glanced up the stairs. “There were plenty of things out of place, but I'm certain that was just from Mr. Drake packing in a hurry for his trip. He's like most gentlemen. He expects you to pick up after him.” She made a move to open the front door to show me out.

“And the pool of blood in the front hall? Is that part of the normal packing process for most gentlemen?”

She stopped, her shoulders slumped. “Miss Carter told you about that?”

I pointed at a dark stain on the floorboards. “What if the disorder was caused by his abductors?”

She shook her head. “It couldn't have been. Mr. Drake must be all right.”

I tried another line of inquiry. “When did Mr. Drake tell you he was traveling to Brighton?”

“The same morning Miss Carter came over in a state, saying Mr. Drake had been abducted. She had a nightmare, silly woman.”

If she saw him that morning, the blood in the hall wasn't Drake's, and Edith Carter had lied. I was furious at the dishonesty of my client, and my fury came out in my tone. “You saw him that morning?”

Mrs. Cummings shuffled back in surprise. “No. He left me a note. He often did when he'd be gone before I arrived.”

“Only Mr. Drake was in the house that night?”

“Any night.”

“Are you the only one who looks after Mr. Drake?”

“Any help I need, he's given me permission to hire from the neighborhood.” She put her hands on her hips and gave a sharp nod.

“If Mr. Drake were in any danger, is there any family or friends that he would go to?”

“He's alone in the world as far as family goes. He has two friends, Mr. Harry and Mr. Tom, he's worked with on occasion.”

“What are their last names?”

“Mr. Drake only used their Christian names. I've never heard last names.”

“What line of work are they in?”

“I don't rightly know. From what I overheard, they did some of this and that.”

They didn't sound like a law-abiding trio. “There was no sign of a disturbance at any of the outside doors?”

“Not that I saw.”

I put sympathy in my voice. “He must have fallen on hard times if he lives here and dines with lords.”

“It's only right he eat with lords, since he's descended from French royalty.” The housekeeper nodded to herself at the rightness of it. “Then, when he returned home, he had a message from a sick friend and off he went to Brighton.”

“Please tell me this friend's name and address.”

“He told me the name of his friend and he told me Brighton. More than that I didn't need to know. And I don't see where it's any business of yours.”

“There's blood in the front hall, the house was left a mess, and no one's heard from Mr. Drake in days. Someone needs to make sure Mr. Drake is in good health.”

The puzzled look on her face told me she now doubted Drake had left under his own steam. I pressed my advantage. “What is his friend's name?”

“All right. Just don't tell her next door. He went to visit Mr. Dombey.”

“Paul Dombey?”

“Yes. You know him?” The housekeeper looked relieved.

“Oh, yes.” Dickens was popular with my customers. InDombey and Son, Paul Dombey, the son, goes to Brighton. Was Drake forced to lie to his housekeeper? Or had he written that note before his intruders arrived?

* * *

“THE DUKE HASno wish to discuss Nicholas Drake again.” The gray-haired man, presumably the butler, spoke in a hush that didn't echo in the marble-tiled front hall.

I restrained my desire to stare at the ornately carved balustrade, the delicately painted ceiling with its pastoral settings, and the exquisite oil paintings. The duke wasn't short of a pound if the entrance hall was anything to go by.

“I only need two minutes of his time and then I won't bother him again.” I tried to fill my words with quiet authority, since my appearance wouldn't garner respect. Wind had forced rain under my umbrella while I'd walked from the omnibus stop. Then, as the rain continued to pour down, I'd spent time arguing that my business was with the duke and I would not use the tradesmen's entrance. Thank goodness there was no mirror in the hall. I must have looked like a drowned pup.

“He doesn't wish to be bothered at this time.”

I'd seen the door the butler had left and returned by. One quick dodge around the older man and I'd be through that doorway. “That is most unfortunate.”

I turned as if leaving, and when the butler moved around me to help me on with the cloak I'd previously shed, I dashed down the hall.

Skidding on the polished floor in my wet shoes, I grabbed for the door handle. I threw open the door and entered a warm, paneled study filled with enough books and maps to make me feel at home. My shoes squished as I hurried across the thick Oriental carpet.

“Your Grace,” the butler said from behind me.

The Duke of Blackford remained seated at his massive desk studying the papers in his hand. “I'll handle it, Stevens.” His voice was a weary growl. I could imagine this man, wide shouldered, craggy faced, immaculately tailored, throwing the unimposing Edith Carter out of his house. He hadn't risen or even looked up when I entered the room. Philistine.

And then he set his papers on the pristine desktop and stared at me with eyes that challenged my right to breathe the air in his study.

I could play my role better than he could. I curtsied. The door clicked softly behind me as the butler left, followed by an icy raindrop skittering down my cheek. I didn't like being left alone with this man. For once I wasn't worried about my reputation; I was worried for my life. His dark eyes bore into me, proclaiming he ate more important people for breakfast. And there was the small matter of the blood on Drake's floor.

“Well?” he demanded in a deep voice. “Why are you here?”

“Your carriage was seen at the site of an abduction.” My voice didn't tremble, but my knees did.

“Whose abduction?”

“Mr. Nicholas Drake.”

A cruel smile slashed across his sharp-angled face. “Another of his lovers? The middle class grows more interesting.”

Heat rose on my cheeks. “I've never met the man.”

“Then why do you care?”

“Friendship.”

“For that drab little mouse Miss . . . ?” He made a graceful, sweeping motion with the long, tapered fingers of one hand. Then his gaze returned to the papers on his desk.

If he thought he could convince me to leave by ignoring me, he was most certainly wrong. I stalked toward the smooth mahogany desk and glared at the seated man. “Her name is Miss Carter. Are you familiar with friendship, Your Grace?”

He rose and looked down on me. I'm of insignificant stature, and he had the advantage of height as well as the bearing of a duke. His black hair was ruthlessly slicked back and his dark-eyed gaze burned inside me. “You're dripping on my desk, Miss”—he glanced at the card I'd sent in with the butler—“Fenchurch.”

I hopped back a step and gazed down. Two drops shimmered on the polished wood. I wished I'd sent in one of my cards with a false name. This man knew how to intimidate his inferiors without even mentioning his title. I decided not to ask about the death of his fiancée. I'd already made the mistake of letting him know my true identity.

He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped off the rain, then looked from the cloth to me as if he didn't know how to proceed with propriety. He held out the large white square. “You might want to pat yourself off. You appear to have spent too long outdoors.”

For an instant, I saw concern in his eyes, but was it for me or his desk? Then all expression vanished. I took the handkerchief and wiped my face and hat brim. “You haven't answered my question.”

His voice was dry with annoyance when he said, “I am familiar with friendship.”

“Then you understand why I've taken on this commission for her.” I handed back the handkerchief.

“No.” He tossed the cloth on the floor as he came out from behind his desk. “And if you're going to continue this ridiculous debate, you need to stand close to the fire. Otherwise, you'll soak my carpet.”

The infuriating man was making this as difficult as possible. Debate, indeed. All he had to do was answer my questions. But the grip on my elbow was gentle as he led me close to the comforting blaze.

For a moment, I shut my eyes in bliss. The welcome warmth made my fingers and toes tingle with renewed sensation. When I opened my eyes, my gaze fell on a seventeenth-century terrestrial globe in pristine condition. “Oh, how beautiful,” slipped out before I thought.

Blackford strolled over to the sphere and ran one forefinger along the Atlantic. “It is magnificent, isn't it? The third duke brought it back from Italy.”

I stared at the globe in wonder for a moment before I gave him a grateful smile and said, “Perhaps you'll save both of us time by telling me where your coach was on the night of March fourteenth?”

“Which coach?”

He was a duke. He probably had more carriages than I had dresses. “A tall, ancient one, all black, pulled by black horses.”

“The Wellington coach. Why? Was that the night Drake disappeared?”

I shook out my damp skirts before the fire, reveling in the heat. Perhaps that was what made me less cautious. “Yes. If your coach was otherwise engaged, then it couldn't have been involved, and I needn't bother you any longer.”

The duke returned to his desk and opened a slender volume. As he flipped through the pages, a curly lock of black hair slid over his stiff white collar. I was certain he'd have the errant strand chopped off for unruliness. “Last Thursday, I attended the theater and then had a late supper at the home of the Duke of Merville, where my carriage waited for me. My coachman was unaware of when I would next require him. We returned here at two o'clock on the fifteenth.”

“The theater let out about eleven?”

“Yes. The duke and duchess rode to the theater and back in my carriage.”

Eleven was the time Edith Carter saw Drake tossed into the duke's carriage. “I will, of course, verify this with the Duke of Merville.”

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