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BARKING-AT-THE-MOON - cover small

That’s right, my award winning paranormal romance about werewolves in the Georgia woods will be re-issued by Bella. I don’t have a date yet, or any other details, but I’ll keep you informed.

The sequel, Once in a Blue Moon, will also be published by Bella. The writing’s done, now it’s time for editing and all that other good stuff. And I’m working on the third book in the trilogy, Hanging the Moon.

For now, here’s the new cover for Barking at the Moon. Ain’t it beautiful?

 

themidnightsun-hi-res-trim - smallA real roller coaster of a romantic thriller,  my newest novel, The Midnight Sun goes live today at Bella Books.

You can purchase directly from the publisher.

Since the sad demise of PD Publishing, you will eventually see work from me through Bella Books. In the future, I have planned a paranormal mystery series, the re-release of reader favorite and award winning Southern werewolf story, Barking at the Moon (and the long awaited sequel) and more.

Those who have asked me about the Gaslight Series: at this time, I have no plans to republish the Victorian mysteries. Someday, perhaps. In the meantime, you can find short stories continuing the adventures of Lina and Rhiannon on this blog.

Have fun!

 

Here’s the cover of my thrill-a-minute action/adventure romance, The Midnight Sun. Much of the action is set in the beautiful though deadly Canadian wilderness during the Yukon River Quest. Read an excerpt here. Coming from Bella in April 2013. Mark your calendars ’cause you don’t want to miss this scorching page turner!

consequence of murder coverBella Books will be publishing my paranormal mystery, The Consequence of Murder.

This is book one in a proposed series. In The Consequence of Murder, Mackenzie Cross has to figure out who murdered a pretty teenage girl, Annabel Coffin… but the victim’s been dead since the Fifties, her spirit’s on the warpath, and there are people still alive who want to keep the truth buried. Here’s a taste of the book for you to enjoy!

———-

CHAPTER FOUR

Mackenzie crossed the street quickly, feeling chilled despite the heat. What the hell had happened back there in the coffee shop? An image of the gray woman, especially her flat black gaze, sprang to mind. Cold. Unfriendly. Almost menacing.

She told herself to stop being silly.

Fact: people did not vanish into thin air.

Fact: coffee cups did not spontaneously break of their own accord.

Fact: eyewitness testimony was unreliable. Human memory was fallible, the senses imperfect, the brain given to filling in blanks with fantasy.  Just because a person claimed to have seen something did not mean they actually saw it. They just believed what they saw, a subtle but important distinction.

The inevitable and reasonable conclusion: she had spilled coffee on herself, gotten flustered, and caught a glimpse of someone—maybe a woman seated elsewhere—which her agitated brain had imagined as a ghostly figure that subsequently disappeared. Afterward, she’d jerked in surprise or bumped the table, breaking her coffee cup.

Satisfied by the logical explanation, she entered the dry cleaner’s shop, dropped off her blouse, and left. By the time she reached her office, the event had become a memory of clumsiness and her own embarrassing suggestibility. Tomorrow, she’d have to apologize to Jo-Jo for making such a fuss over nothing.

Maynard was still at her office, supervising the removal of the mummified remains into a black station wagon illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant. He’d been joined by Dr. Hightower, a gastroenterologist and Antioch’s part-time medical examiner.

“Don’t make faces at me, Jimmy. You know I live above the bakery,” Mackenzie said when she approached, hoping to forestall a lecture from Maynard. “I’m not snooping. I want to go home. There’s a shower with my name on it.”

“What did you hope to accomplish by sticking your nose in my crime scene, Kenzie?” he asked, giving her a decidedly evil eye. “You could’ve compromised evidence.”

She returned his glare, though her heart wasn’t really in it. “I call shenanigans, Jimmy. There’s no evidence and you know it. We already had this argument. As I recall, I won.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Besides, it’s my damned office. I have files in there, things I need to have so I can find things for my clients and make money. I make money, I pay my taxes. Your salary is paid by my taxes. See the way it works? The circle of life. Now do we still have a problem?”

Looking irritated, he waved her through without another word.

Mackenzie sidled past Dr. Hightower, who had a habit of inquiring about people’s bowel movements at inconvenient times and places like the grocery store checkout line. She wasn’t his patient, but her Uncle Anderson was, and she didn’t need the doctor loudly whispering to her about Uncle Anse’s chronic constipation problem in front of Maynard.

Using her key, she opened a green painted metal door set into a narrow wall between the building that housed her office and the bakery next door.

A fluorescent light flickered on when the door closed behind her, revealing a flight of cement stairs sandwiched between the outer brick walls of the two buildings. The space was claustrophobically small, airless, and hotter than outside. The air was redolent of baking, scented with cinnamon and spices, sugar, yeast, and chocolate.

Mackenzie trudged up the steps, trying not to brush her borrowed T-shirt’s sleeve on the stained  bricks. Another metal door at the top of the stairs—this one painted peacock blue—yielded to another key, and she went inside her apartment, blessedly cool since she’d had the foresight to leave the air conditioning set on seventy-five degrees that morning.

She dropped her keys on a small table, added her wallet and cell phone, and kicked off her shoes before going to her bedroom.

In the act of pulling the oversized T-shirt over her head, Mackenzie paused when she caught her reflection in the mirror above the dresser, half expecting to see a silver-gray woman. She relaxed when the mirror only showed familiar amber eyes gazing back at her, set in a face that resembled her maternal great-grandfather more than her mother or father. Long dead before her birth, she’d seen pictures of the stiff-backed old man in the family albums. He’d been a quarter Cherokee and a quarter Creek, and two thirds son-of-a-bitch according to her grandmother. His ancestry lent her complexion its reddish-brown tint.

She changed into a worn cotton shirt and shorts, and ran a brush through her thick, coarse,  black hair. Moisture in the air had made her naturally kinky hair more unruly than usual, puffing it up into a frizzy mare’s nest. Gathering the mass together, she secured the ponytail high on her head with an elastic band to keep it off the back of her neck.

In the living room, she flopped down on the L-shaped sofa and reached for the remote control, which should have been on the side table. When her groping hand closed around nothing, she glanced over and found the remote missing. She grimaced, trying to remember where she’d left it. She looked around. Not on the coffee table. Not on the floor. Not on the sofa. Not on the chair. Not on the bookshelves lining the walls. Where had the remote gone?

She stuck her hand between the sofa cushions, coming up with $2.49 in change, a silver bracelet she thought she’d lost last week, a handful of popcorn kernels, a ballpoint pen, and a lint fuzzed peppermint.. At last, her fingers closed around a solid plastic shape. The remote! Smiling, she drew out… her cell phone.

What the hell? She frowned, certain she’d left her cell phone on the table in the hall.

Mackenzie rose and padded barefoot to the hall. On the little ebony side table with the malachite top, a bijoux French antique and a thrift store find, were her wallet and keys, apparently undisturbed. Yet she clearly remembered leaving her cell phone here, too.

Am I going crazy? she wondered.

The skin on the back of her neck prickled. Goosebumps swept over her arms. Mackenzie inhaled. For a second, she could have sworn she detected the faintest hint of a dry, dusty scent that reminded her of the smell in her office. She exhaled and returned to the living room, deciding she had better turn down the thermostat before she froze into a popsicle.

When she returned to the living room, her gaze zeroed in on the remote sitting on the side table next to the sofa, exactly where she recalled putting it last night.

“I must be losing my marbles,” she muttered, thinking about a few weeks ago when she’d misplaced her car keys in the refrigerator of all places. She carefully put the phone on the coffee table in plain view, sat on the sofa, and used the remote to turn on the television.

The screen flared to life, but she was only able to press the button for the next channel before the television clicked off. She turned it back on. As soon as the picture appeared on the screen, she tried to change the channel. Again, the television cut off.

Mashing the ON button did nothing. The remote was dead.

“What the hell?” Must be something wrong with the batteries, she thought.

Growing annoyed, Mackenzie heaved herself off the sofa and stomped to the kitchen for fresh batteries. When she returned, the television remained stubbornly off when she pressed the remote’s ON button several more times. She turned on a lamp, confirming the electricity in the apartment was working. The problem must be with the television itself.

She knelt on the floor to check behind a bookcase for the electrical outlet, making the baffling discovery that the television wasn’t plugged in. But it had turned on twice, hadn’t it? Stretching her arm as far as possible, she grabbed the cord, plugged in the television, and sat back on her heels to use the remote.

Nothing happened. She scowled.

Her phone rang.

She stood to retrieve her phone and answered the call. “Cross speaking.”

“You ever hear of Annabel Coffin?” Maynard asked without preamble.

“Who?” she replied.

“She was buried behind your office wall.”

Mackenzie crossed to the sofa and sat down. “Don’t know her.”

“Doc Hightower found a charm bracelet on the body when it was being moved,” Maynard said, the line crackling slightly with static. “One of the charms was inscribed with that name. I’m trying to find out if anyone knew her.”

“And you called because you miss hearing me talk? I told you before, Jimmy, I moved into the office three years ago. The body must’ve already been there. Why would you think I’d know anything about this dead woman?”

“I called because I want you to ask your mother about her.”

Meredith’s stomach lurched in alarm. “What does Mama have to do with any of this?”

“According to another inscription on the charm, your mother attended the same high school in the same year as our victim. It’s possible she’ll recognize the name.”

Put that way, how could she refuse? “Fine, I’ll go over there tonight,” she said. “Although I don’t know why you can’t just talk to Mama yourself.”

“Let me know what you find out.” He terminated the call.

She stared at the phone in her hand and snorted. Putting down the cell phone on the coffee table, she went to grab the remote, only to find it gone.

After a brief, internal debate, she walked to the hall. Sure enough, the remote sat on the ebony and malachite table.

Unbidden, memories of campfire stories and family legends sprang to mind. Her great-uncle Stapleton swore he’d seen a ghost in an abandoned funeral parlor when his friends had dared him to peer inside the window. And great-grandmother Beryl Rose had maintained to her dying day that the spirit of a child haunted a well on her property.

Like many small Southern towns, the city of Antioch had its share of strange happenings. As a child, she’d heard about the ghostly motorcycle rider on Conklin “Haint” Hill, the crying stone angel in the old Oak Grove Cemetery, the ghost of a headless woman who groped along the railroad tracks near the Weatherholtz Bridge on full moon nights, and other restless spirits. She hadn’t believed a grain of truth existed in the stories until now, when she was forced to reconsider her skepticism.

The more she tried to find an explanation for the television becoming unplugged, and the remote and her cell phone shifting places without human intervention, the more she came to the reluctant conclusion that the cause might—just maybe—be supernatural.

Cold dread settled heavy in her guts. Feeling foolish as well as apprehensive, she returned to the living room and cleared her throat.

“Uh… is anybody there?” she asked aloud, praying she wouldn’t receive a reply.

After several minutes of waiting, no answer seemed forthcoming.

Sighing in disappointment mingled with relief, she turned away, only to violently start when the television came on with a blast of sound that left her deaf to her own scream.

The Midnight Sun

Here’s a preview of my new novel, The Midnight Sun, which will be published by Bella Books in the fall of 2013. Check this space for more information as it comes in, and enjoy the preview!

“A thrilling contemporary adventure moving from the heart of the Canadian wilderness to a small American town under the threat of nuclear attack, The Midnight Sun is a fast-paced story of trust, survival, and love growing under the most dangerous circumstances.

When FBI agent Tabitha Knowles’ work partner receives a cancer diagnosis, the plan to race in the Yukon River Quest in their tandem canoe is finished until Tabitha meets Diana Crenshaw, an experienced paddler whose presence at first seems like a miracle. Soon into the race, sniper’s bullets drive Tabitha and Diana off the river and into the woods where they are forced to work together as they struggle against wild animals, the environment itself, and their growing attraction to each other.”

Sneak Peek * Sneak Peek * Sneak Peek * Sneak Peek * Sneak Peek * Sneak Peek * Sneak Peek * Sneak Peek

THE MIDNIGHT SUN
by Nene Adams ©2012

 

CHAPTER SIX

Cursing the lack of cover—sitting in a canoe in the middle of an empty river was the very definition of a sitting duck—Tabitha scanned the nearby shoreline for the source of the shot. She ducked instinctively when another bullet struck the water near the hull.

“Diana, where are you hit?” she asked. The bullets were not stray shots from a hunter, she realized, but must have come from a sniper shooting at them deliberately.

“I’m okay,” Diana gasped. “Just scared shitless.”

Tabitha bitterly regretted leaving her firearm at home. “We need to get the hell off this river. I think the shots are coming from that rise on the right. Let’s go left, get up on that spur of gravel, and take cover under those trees, okay? Can you paddle?”

“Sugar, I’ll walk on water if I have to,” Diana replied, gripping her paddle.

A third shot came, also missing the canoe by a hair. Paddling as fast as she could, her heart hammering in her chest, Tabitha bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming blasphemies. She felt as if a bulls-eye hung on her back. The skin between her shoulder blades itched with each second that crawled past. Worse, the river had apparently widened to an impossible distance. No matter how hard she stroked, it seemed the canoe drew no closer to shore until at last Double Jeopardy’s keel crunched on gravel.

Without hesitation, Tabitha leaped out and into the shallows, shoving the canoe higher on the pebbled shore. She expected another bullet any moment. Adrenaline burned in her veins like fire. Grabbing Diana’s wrist, she hustled away from the water, finding shelter in a stand of stunted spruces that had looked much denser from the river.

Another shot struck a tree trunk, scattering splinters. Tabitha went a little further inland, towing Diana along with her.

Panting, Tabitha finally squatted down, her back against a fir tree. “Damn it,” she muttered, unfastening and shrugging off the bright orange PFD that restricted her movements and made her even more of a target. Putting a hand on Diana’s shoulder, she was not surprised when the woman flinched violently, jerking away from the touch.

“Sorry,” Diana whispered through stiffened lips, her face gone paper pale. Tears trembled on her lashes.

Shock, Tabitha thought. “You’re okay, understand? Nothing to be sorry for. But I’ve got to go back to the canoe. No, listen to me… whoever’s up there with a rifle, he’s either a terrorist, a thrill killer, or he has another agenda. Every racer, every volunteer on the river is in danger. I have to get the satellite phone and alert the RCMP in Whitehorse.”

“No!” Diana looked wild around the eyes. “You’ll be hurt. Maybe killed.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. He shot at us four times, but he missed, remember?” Tabitha tried to sound more confident than she felt. True, the shooter had missed, but perhaps those had been ranging shots. If he hit his stride, the moment he had a clear shot, she’d be dead. However, she had a duty to report the situation to the authorities.

“Don’t go. Please, don’t leave me here.”

“You’ll be okay, Di, I promise. Just stay put. I’ll come back as fast as I can.”

Despite Diana’s tearful protests, Tabitha started walking back to the canoe. As she came nearer, she bent low, trying to present a smaller target. Some of her tension eased when no shot answered her appearance out of the tree line, but she took nothing for granted. Feeling horribly exposed, her skin crawling, she moved toward Double Jeopardy.

The shot she half expected did not come.

She shifted cautiously to keep the side of the canoe between her body and the river. Fingers made clumsy by haste and nerves, she worked to unfasten the center spray deck covering the cargo space, an area amidships between the front and rear seats.

A noise from the river made her glance up, her heart freezing mid-beat when she saw a Zodiac boat bearing toward the gravel bar. None of the men inside looked very friendly. All of them carried rifles. They were definitely not race marshals or safety personnel.

“Shit!” she exclaimed. The shooter had brought friends to the party.

The spray deck strap loosened. Reaching inside the canoe, she grabbed the first pack that came to hand, then a second, but not the third. No time, no time, no time… beat through her head. A pack in each hand, she bolted for the trees, hearing the men shouting behind her. A shot slapped into the ground next to her feet as she ran, her pulse pounding.

The moment she reached Diana, she threw her a pack. “Come on, we need to go right now!” she said, adding when Diana snatched at her abandoned PFD, “Leave it!”

Diana scrambled to her feet, pulling the pack straps over her shoulders as she took off at a run, Tabitha right behind her.

Tree branches seemed to be reaching out to snag her pack, the kerchief covering her hair, her clothes, the exposed skin of her face and neck. Tabitha tore free, heedless of the damage or the signs they must be leaving. The men might be skilled trackers, but the most important thing right now was to put distance between herself and Diana, and the threat.

When Diana stumbled, she took hold of her arm, dragged her upright with an effort that made the world spin, and pushed her forward. “Keep moving,” she gasped, trying to ignore the pain burning like hot coals lodged under her ribs.

At last, after crashing through a thick growth of bushes, Tabitha paused to take stock of the situation. She whispered to Diana, “I think we’ve got a few minutes’ grace to catch our breath. How are you doing?”

Diana shook her head, scattering sweat droplets. “What the hell’s that all about?”

“Looks like our sniper has buddies and they’re definitely unfriendly. Four Caucasian males armed with rifles just landed a Zodiac by our canoe, and one of them took a shot at me, which puts a different spin on things.” Tabitha rubbed her forehead, feeling an unpleasant stickiness on her skin. Glancing down at the livid, bleeding scratch on her wrist, she frowned.

“Oh, my God.” Diana clutched at Tabitha’s arm.

“Keep it together, Di,” Tabitha said, reaching over to touch Diana’s knee. “Look at me. Come on, let me see those baby blues.”

When Diana turned wide, terrified eyes on her, she went on in her best authoritative voice, “We’ll get through this. We just have to circle around, get back to the canoe, and paddle like hell to the Lake Laberge checkpoint, and we’ll be home free. Stick with me, do as I say, and we’ll both walk out of here, I swear.”

“He’s going to kill me,” Diana muttered, her gaze sliding away from Tabitha to focus on some private nightmare. “Jesus Christ, Blair’s going to kill me.”

Realization struck Tabitha like a blow, stealing her wind and her wits so that she gaped like an idiot for several seconds. Stunned surprise gave way to the rage bubbling in her gut. “You know the shooter? Who is Blair?” she demanded.

Diana did not answer.

Tabitha took hold of Diana’s chin, wrenching the woman’s head around with just enough force to make her fury known.

“Who is Blair?” she asked. “Why does he want to kill you? All those shots that missed us… we were herded here. This is a killing ground, goddamn it, so answer me, Di, and no lies, or I swear to God, I will leave your ass right here to die.”

Diana stared at nothing for several long seconds, her fluttering pulse visible in the tanned column of her neck. She released Tabitha’s arm. Her tongue crept out to wet her lips, and finally she spoke. “Blair’s the man who killed my brother, and now he’s after me.”

The Brooke Street Affair
A Gaslight short story by Nene Adams ©2012

Lady Evangeline St. Claire took the envelope from the tray and dismissed her butler absently, already absorbed in what she might glean from the unexpected communication.

“What is it?” asked Rhiannon Moore, her partner in all things.

“A message addressed to me. I do not recognize the handwriting,” Lina reported. She took a letter opener from her desk and used the blade to slit open the envelope flap. Inside, she found three sheets of heavy, expensive paper folded in thirds.

“A female hand,” she said, surveying the writing without reading the message. That would come later. “Neatly done, no splatters of ink, or marks of hesitation or haste. Writ large, as you can see. An indication of extravagance.” She held the paper up to the light. “Ah, a French watermark. Fine quality paper, my dear. Heavy stock. No less than a shilling a sheet if I am any judge, therefore we must conclude our correspondent is a wealthy woman who does not economize, especially in her personal correspondence.”

She read the letter aloud:

“Lady St. Claire—

Forgive me that I dare write to you without an introduction. It was recommended that I do so by the Vicomte Cincebeaux, for whom you once provided a solution to a trifling little problem. An event most appalling has taken place. The scandal will destroy more than one reputation if the matter is not resolved quickly and discreetly. I beg you, help me, please. I will wait upon you at Claridge’s Hotel in Brooke Street as soon as possible.”

Ending the recitation, Lina snorted in irritation. The Vicomte’s “trifling little problem” had involved a Spanish spy, an inconvenient death, and a blackmail scheme reaching into the highest levels of the French government.

Rhiannon’s eyes widened. “A scandal? Who wrote the letter?”

“It is unsigned. Perhaps the authoress feared discovery should the message be apprehended.” Lina tapped the letter against her lower lip, considering her next move. Her work in the Vicomte’s case was known to very few people. “I am inclined to pay a call at Claridge’s and meet our mysterious lady,” she said after a moment. “Will you accompany me, my dear?”

“Of course!” Rhiannon sounded thrilled. “I’ll change my dress, if you don’t mind.”

Lina smiled, feeling fondly indulgent. She reached out and touched Rhiannon’s fiery hair, tugging on a soft curl that had escaped her pins. “The Parisian blue wool with the fawn, I think,” she said, leaning forward to brush her lips against Rhiannon’s. “The color suits you, my dear.”

Forty-five minutes later, Lina led Rhiannon into Claridge’s, the Mayfair establishment well known as the hotel par excellence for foreign nobility, ambassadors, and other Continental visitors with high social standing and deep pockets.

Upon entering, Lina swept her gaze around the foyer and lit on a very familiar and very unexpected gentleman: Mr. Millborough Pike, the immensely fat and immensely tall brother of that rogue, Sherrinford Pike, who believed himself an inquiry agent. Bah!

Millborough hurried to intercept her. “Lady St. Claire,” he said, giving her a faint bow. “And your amanuensis, of course. I trust the day finds you well, Miss Moore?”

“Very well, sir, if somewhat intrigued.” Rhiannon twinkled at him, making Lina scowl.

She had nothing against Millborough Pike per se. An important and powerful, if shadowy , figure in Her Majesty’s government, Millborough tended to remain within the confines of the Bagatelle Club. Seeing him in Claridge’s roused her suspicions.

“Let us dispense with the pleasantries, Mr. Pike,” she said. “Why are you here?”

Rhiannon frowned at her rudeness. Lina ignored the disapproval, though she did take Rhiannon’s elbow, intending to steer her toward a corner of the foyer where she had spotted a nervous looking and very well dressed woman lurking.

“I have come to give you a warning, Lady St. Claire,” Millborough said, raising a beefy hand to forestall her immediate indignation. “The police have been put on the case by an assistant manager who failed to understand the magnitude of the situation. Fortunately, the general manager of the hotel has arrived. We will suffer no further setbacks, I hope.”

Lina swallowed her ire. “Very well. Tell me what has occurred.”

“The lady who wrote you at my suggestion is Madame Vigne, wife of a gentleman who holds a critical position in the French government.”

“It was you who told her to reference the Vicomte Cincebeaux.”

“I thought it would get your attention.” Millborough’s eyes almost disappeared when he smiled, but the expression did not last. “The gist of the problem is thus: Monsieur Vigne woke this morning to find his mistress dead in the bed beside him. Her throat had been cut.”

“Good Lord!” Rhiannon cried. Blushing, she raised a gloved hand to her mouth. “I apologize for interrupting you, Mr. Pike. Pray go on.”

Millborough waved away her apology and continued speaking to Lina. “The chambermaid alerted an assistant manager to the crime, and he, in turn, summoned the police. Madame Vigne sent an urgent message to a certain someone in our government which subsequently came to me. I have managed to delay the police this long, and am reasonably confident in my ability to delay them a further half-hour. After that, it is almost certain that Monsieur Vigne will be arrested, which will put a severe strain on our relations with France.”

“Why not ask your brother to tidy up the mess?”

“Because I do not entirely trust his discretion. My brother is a singular individual who does not take kindly to what he pleases to call my ‘infernal interference.’ While I cannot control the situation, it is my sincere desire to mitigate the damage if it can be done. Sherrinford has many good qualities, but I fear utter discretion is not one of them.”

Lina agreed. “But if Vigne is guilty of murder—” she began.

“Then he will be privately punished for his crime in his native France. Of that, I can assure you,” Millborough broke in smoothly.  “And I have arranged a private room where you may be free to ask questions of anyone, including the hotel staff.

Despite his calm exterior, Lina noted the sweat on his broad forehead, the slightly askew tie, the way his hand clenched and unclenched at his side, and the spot of silvery bristle on his cheek where the barber had been in too great a hurry to ensure the cleanest shave.

“I promise nothing except to ascertain the truth if I can,” she said to make sure he understood her position. No matter how great Vigne’s importance to the British government, she would not falsify evidence of innocence if none existed.

“Thank you,” he said simply.

“If possible, I would like to speak to Monsieur Vigne.”

“He is still in his suite.” At her incredulous look, he shrugged. “Not an act of cruelty, milady. It is the safest place. The, er, dead woman remains in the bedroom. I believe the monsieur has taken temporary residence in the drawing room. He is not alone. I have left my assistant to keep watch over him in the corridor outside, and if necessary, repel the advances of over eager policemen. When you are ready to question Vigne, he canl be produced.”

Lina accepted Millborough’s terms. She escorted Rhiannon to the corner where the accused man’s wife had now secreted herself behind a potted palm.

Madame Vigne was a a mousy yet dignified female, thin to the point of emaciation, her nose too prominent for the fairy-like delicacy of her face. Lina thought her immaculate blonde coiffure was almost certainly a wig; the color seemed too young and brassy for a woman whose face was scored with frown lines. Despite her physical shortcomings, the madame dressed exquisitely. Her ivory silk brocade dress with its ruffled bottom had been paired with a beaded, bottle green velvet jacket in the latest style. Both garments bore the unmistakable stamp of the celebrated French couturier, Pingat.

No lack of money in the family, Lina thought, eyeing Madame Vigne’s ostentatious emerald earrings and the long string of matched pearls around her neck.

Having introduced herself and Rhiannon, Lina persuaded the madame to join them in the private room arranged by Millborough. Once they had chosen their seats—Lina found the copies of French furniture rather vulgar—she started the first stage of her inquiry.

“The woman is your husband’s mistress, I understand. Did she travel from France with you?” Lina asked, not flinching when Rhiannon’s elbow made contact with her ribs. She was aware that her blunt manner did not spare the madame’s feelings, but she felt any woman who wrote such a letter, speaking not of saving her husband from the noose, but of scandal and the necessity of preserving her reputation, had no need to be treated delicately.

Non,” Madame Vigne replied, dry-eyed and composed. “Not with our party. Mlle. Alvares – she is Brazilian – traveled alone. Two days ago, she met my husband here in England.”

“At the hotel?”

Madame Vigne nodded.

“Were you in the room when Miss Alvares’ death occurred?”

The impudence and impropriety of the question had Madame Vigne hissing like an affronted goose. “How dare you suggest such a disgusting thing?” she spat.

Lina remained unruffled. “Do you wish to know the truth or not? If not, I will be on my way.”

Madame Vigne took a moment to think over the threat. Finally, she inclined her head. “Very well, I will answer. My husband and I have always separate suites. I knew nothing of Mlle. Alvares until my maid told me that Mr. Gordon had distressing news.”

“When was this?”

“In the morning after my petit dejeuner.”

“Did you and Miss Alvares get along?”

“Well enough.” Madame Vigne made a Gallic shrug more expressive than her stony face. “In truth, Mlle. Alvares is but one of many young women who have fallen in love with my husband. I do not mind. I do not expect Emile to be faithful, you see. He is a man, not a capon. But in his own way, he loves me. He will never abandon me for a silly girl.”

Lina digested that piece of information while assessing Madame Vigne for any sign of a lie. The woman appeared sincere, leaving her without a motive unless the madame had a different grudge against Miss Alvares. That avenue could be explored later, she decided.

Taking her leave, she went upstairs, Rhiannon at her heels, to Monsieur Vigne’s suite, where after moving past Millborough’s assistant—a well muscled fellow she suspected of being a former prison warden—she found the gentleman in the drawing room nursing a snifter of brandy. Emile Vigne greeted her arrival with a morose salute, lifting the glass in her direction.

He was not as impeccably groomed as his wife. He wore no waistcoat. His shirt was unbuttoned, and his exquisite brown wool suit crumpled and soiled. His mop of wild, black curls gave him an almost piratical aspect. When he turned his black gaze on her, Lina understood why the ladies suffered a deadly fascination for him. The monsieur had the face of an angel and a soul stained with sin.

“Forgive me,” he said, “or rather, forgive my valet for my dishabille. You are Lady St. Claire, yes? Monsieur Pike told me you would come. I listen to him when he tells me you will help. Tout de même, I did not expect you to be so beautiful.”

Beside her, Rhiannon stiffened. Lina gave her wrist a reassuring squeeze. Surely Rhiannon did not believe her susceptible to the monsieur’s charms! The idea was ridiculous.

“Monsieur Vigne, you will tell me, please, what happened yesterday evening?” she asked.

“Will you not be seated, milady? And your lovely companion as well.” He paused. “It is supposed you are a woman of the world? You will not blush to hear of my wickedness?”

“Go on, monsieur, you will not offend my sensibilities. Nor those of Miss Moore.”

“Well, in that case, Alatea—Mlle. Alvares—and I retired to my suite at six o’clock, we dined here at eight…” He paused, glancing at Rhiannon. “and we enjoyed each other’s company. Bien sûr, I go to sleep. When I wake, Alatea is dead.”

His grimace did not convey grief. Rather, the expression seemed more like a moue of distaste to Lina. She had not expected him to be in mourning, but his attitude struck her as callous.

Apparently noticing her disapproval, he went on, “Ah, do not judge me too harshly, milady. Ours was an arrangement most convenient. Alatea craved clothes, jewels, travel beyond Paris, nights at the gaming table. I gave her these things. In return, she gave me an illusion of love. A very pretty illusion, but I can mourn her only as one mourns the dying butterfly for its loss of beauty. Not with the whole heart as I would my wife. You understand, I think.”

Lina spoke coolly. “You heard nothing, monsieur? The murder did not wake you?”

“If only the monster had wakened me!” he gritted, baring his teeth in a snarl. “I would have taken that vile salopard apart with these hands! Sale enculé!” He gestured with the brandy glass, almost spilling its contents. He calmed quickly, settling back on the settee. “Mais non, milady, I know that I woke and Alatea was dead, that is all.”

“If you permit, I will examine the bedroom,” Lina said, having nothing further to ask him at this time. After she saw the body, she might return with more questions.

Giving his permission, Vigne returned to his contemplation of the brandy glass.

Rhiannon tugged Lina’s sleeve when they reached the closed bedroom door. “Do you think he killed Miss Alvares?”

“I am not certain, my dear, and have not enough data to form a theory.” She realized Rhiannon seemed a little pale. She did not need to guess the cause. “Would you care to stay out here, my dear? Or the corridor is perhaps better. The scene is bound to be… messy.”

“Do you mind terribly?”

“Not at all. You have seen more than your share of horrors.”

Lina entered the bedroom alone. Someone had left the gas on, giving her plenty of illumination though the curtains were still drawn. Before taking another step, she surveyed the Aubusson rugs on the floor, finding three distinct sets of footprints: a man and two women, one wearing the kind of stout footgear typically worn by servants.

Intrigued, Lina followed the chambermaid’s progress to the bed, where she halted.

In life, Alatea Alvares had been a dark haired beauty, doubtless envied by other women and desired by men. Death had not stolen her looks, merely sharpened the fineness of her features and lent her complexion a becoming paleness. She wore neither nightgown nor peignoir, lying naked in a pale huddle of sheets as if still asleep and waiting for her lover’s return.

The illusion of sleep was belied by the throat wound—a deep slash cutting into the white neck, severing the carotid artery. Lina bent closer, trying to see past the blood crusting the lips of the laceration, which had begun to dry and curl a little, giving the appearance of an open mouth. Tacky blood stained the pillowcase under the victim’s head.

She frowned, straightened, and looked at the nightstand on Alatea’s side of the bed. Grape stems, a rind of cheese, an empty Veuve Clicquot champagne bottle, a plate with a smear of caviar and toast crumbs—evidence of a late night snack—she also saw a water glass, a spoon, and a chemist’s bottle. She found undissolved crystals clinging to the sides of the glass.

The handwritten label on the chemist’s bottle read: trional. She opened the bottle, noting it was about half full of white crystals.

A suspicion formed in her mind. She held the burgeoning theory at bay, however. It was a capital mistake to theorize before one had all the facts.

Getting on her knees, she ran her hand on the carpet just in front of the nightstand. Dampness under her palm deepened her frown. The solution had spilled at some point, though not enough moisture to account for a full glass. Checking under the bed, she found nothing and rose to her feet. A glance at the nightstand on Vigne’s side showed an identical glass.

She returned to the drawing room. Monsieur Vigne had exchanged his brandy glass for a coffee cup. He glanced at her.

“Who woke you?” Lina asked without preamble.

“The assistant manager, I think,” he replied. “Most unpleasant.”

“Did you not hear the chambermaid this morning?”

Pardon?” Vigne seemed genuinely confused.

La femme du chambre.”

Frustrated, Vigne let out a spate of profane French and informed Lina of several things. He had not seen or heard any damned chambermaid, he had been insulted and called a ‘damned blackguard’ by the assistant manager, and he had not, for God’s sake, killed his mistress. If she did not believe him, he concluded with a fearsome scowl, she could go to the devil.

Lina waited for the flow to cease. “Trional is a hypnotic.”

“Yes, yes, both Alatea and I have trouble sleeping.”

“When and where did you obtain the bottle of trional in your bedroom?”

“Yesterday. I asked the manager to obtain a new bottle. Mon Dieu!” he burst out. “Why do you question me on such trivial matters when every moment we waste, Alatea’s killer goes free? And every moment I come closer to your English hangman!”

“Monsieur Vigne, I know you did not kill Miss Alvares, and I can prove your innocence.” Lina backed up a step when Vigne sprang to his feet.

“Who is he?” the man demanded. “What monster killed my beautiful Alatea?”

“Be calm, monsieur. Remain here. It will not be long before I conclude the case, and then you will know the killer’s name, I promise you.”

She left the suite in a hurry, not desiring his interference. His anger was understandable. Had someone dared harm Rhiannon… but that way lay madness. She deliberately put aside the unwelcome notion to concentrate on the matter at hand, only to stop, shaken to the core, on seeing that Rhiannon was not in the hall, as she had assumed. For a moment, her heart seized in her chest. Had something happened while she interrogated the Frenchman?

Downstairs, she sought out Millborough, learning he was in the restaurant. He had commanded a table with an excellent view of the foyer, and Rhiannon sat with him. The pristine white tablecloth held several dishes—she recognized the remains of canard à tete rouge, a Strasbourg terrine, and woodcock salmi. It seemed the waiter had just served the dessert course for the ices and jellies had not yet begun melting on their plates.

“If you are quite finished with your luncheon,” Lina said, a combination of irritation and relief sharpening her tone, “I have some news to report.”

She was pleased when Rhiannon had the grace to blush. “I know I should have told you I was going downstairs,” she said, “but when the detective inspector came—”

What detective inspector?” Lina asked, turning her wrathful gaze on Millborough, who wiped his mouth with a napkin and gave her an impassive stare.

“The fellow’s name is unimportant,” he informed her, “but as soon as I caught wind of his intentions via my assistant, I hastened upstairs to stop his incursion. I will tell you with all honesty, milady, that I do not possess the necessary figure to ascend three flights of stairs with ease, much less at speed. Fortunately, it was only the man himself who disobeyed my edict. His minions remained below. I sent him packing for the nonce. As to Miss Moore… she was good enough to accept my invitation and keep an old man company. I told her there was no need to disturb you, as I presumed you would seek me out downstairs when you did not find her waiting in the corridor, and so it proved.”

Lina could not fault his logic, though she would have liked to stamp down hard on his occasionally gouty toe for giving her such a scare. “Monsieur Vigne did not kill Miss Alvares,” she said. “Now I must speak to the hotel manager.”

Millborough’s eyebrows rose, but he replied, “Mr. Gordon. I will send him to the room reserved for you.”

Rhiannon stood despite Lina’s protest that she should stay and finish her meal. “Any more and my corset will split,” she said with a good humored grin. “Shall we go?”

In the private room, Lina confronted Mr. Gordon the moment he entered. “Who is the chambermaid assigned to the suite occupied by Monsieur Vigne?”

The startled man stared, slack jawed. Finally, he took a breath and regarded her with something like calm, albeit a calm frayed around the edges. “You refer to Miss Darrow. She is an excellent and reliable worker, milady, employed at the hotel for six months.”

“Thank you. I will speak to the young lady at once.” When he hesitated, she added, “Without delay, sir. Do not dawdle.”

Gordon frowned, opened his mouth as if to berate her, and seemed to think better of it. Apart from a terse, “As you wish, milady,” he left the room in pointed silence.

From her seat on a chair upholstered in a lurid absinthe green, Rhiannon asked, “Are you being deliberately rude today?”

Lina swung around to face her. “No, my dear,” she said, letting her exasperation show. “I am eager to see the end of this case.”

The door opened, admitting a young girl, possibly sixteen or seventeen years old, wearing the practical black dress, white apron, and white cap of a chambermaid. She was pert and blonde, but Lina saw a hardness like mid-winter ice in Miss Darrow’s blue eyes. Nevertheless, one could not judge another solely by the subtle betrayals of their body. The chambermaid might be understandably reticent over a confrontation with a woman unknown to her.

“Ah, do come in,” Lina practically purred, putting on a mask of geniality. Servants were so often treated as non-entities or given outright abuse, they responded well to friendliness. She remained on her feet, keeping them on equal footing.

Miss Darrow’s gaze darted around the room and rested briefly on Rhiannon, finally coming to rest on Lina once again. Her shoulders straightened as she became more confident. “Yes, ma’am. Mr. Gordon said you wished to see me.”

“Are you not employed as a chambermaid in this hotel?” Lina asked, watching the girl from beneath her lashes while she took a cigarette from her jade and silver case and lit it with a lucifer. She found tobacco an excellent stimulant for her mental faculties.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Miss Darrow’s nervousness had returned, Lina observed. Possibly she feared an accusation of theft – every servant’s anxiety. “It’s quite all right. I merely have a few questions to ask you,” she said. “I am seeking an upstairs maid for my household, and I hear from Mr. Gordon that you are a good worker. Indeed, he had nothing but praise for you.”

The girl’s cheeks tinged faintly pink with pleasure. “Thank you, ma’am, I’m sure.”

Lina puffed her cigarette a few times. Yes, that tidbit about seeking an upstairs maid had captured Miss Darrow’s attention. It would be a position higher than the one she currently enjoyed, and in a private household with “perks” such as the right to collect and sell all the candle ends, and keep the money for herself.

She related a few more domestic matters to ease the girl further, and then said, “And you’ve had a dreadful shock this morning, I hear. In Monsieur Vigne’s suite, so I am told.”

Miss Darrow tensed. “Yes, ma’am,” she answered shortly, lowering her gaze.

An unusual reaction, Lina thought. In her experience, servants gossiped worse than village grandmothers, and the more gruesome the details, the better to relish the effect on their audience. Her statement should have been the perfect prompt for a harrowing, if somewhat exaggerated, tale about the bloody murder done upstairs.

Instead, Miss Darrow had gone white around the lips, but not with shock. Lina detected a strong current of mingled anger, fear, and no little frustration in the girl.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked, crushing out her cigarette in an empty bonbon dish.

“Not much to say, ma’am. I seen … I mean, I saw the dead lady,” Miss Darrow said, correcting her grammar with an effort, “and I told Mr. Gordon.”

“You did not speak to the gentleman next to the dead lady? Or try to wake him?”

“No, ma’am. I reckoned he was the killer, so I went to Mr. Gordon straight away.”

“I see.” Lina let the silence stretch, hoping to prompt the girl into speaking. If Miss Darrow thought she might withdraw her offer of employment …

“You see, ma’am,” the chambermaid said swiftly after a moment, “I saw the lady, all bloody and dead like she was, and I was afraid the gentleman might come for me too ‘cause he must be mad.”

“He had blood on him, I suppose, positively weltering in gore,” Lina’s  interest did not have to be feigned.

Miss Darrow shook her head. “No, ma’am, not a drop.”

“How strange.” Lina rose, went to Rhiannon, and whispered instructions in her ear.

Rhiannon obeyed, going to the desk to remove pen, ink, and paper from the drawer. Sitting down, she wrote a quick note before going to the door and exiting the room.

Lina noticed Miss Darrow following Rhiannon’s every move. She pretended ignorance and put on a surprised expression when the chambermaid said, “I must be going, ma’am.”

“My dear young woman,” she said, “Mr. Gordon has promised that I could interview you for as long as I desire. Your pay will not suffer for it, I promise you.”

“Still, I’d best be about my duties, ma’am.” Miss Darrow inched in the door’s direction.

Moving quickly, Lina put herself in front of the door. “Do you intend to refuse my offer?”

“Oh, no, ma’am, but—”

It was Lina’s turn to interrupt. “Ungrateful chit, how dare you insult me!” she exclaimed. The next  several minutes were spent in a lengthy diatribe she had once heard delivered by her mother toward a servant who had given notice.

Miss Darrow’s eyes glazed over, but she rallied to say when Lina was forced to pause for breath, “I’m sorry, ma’am, truly sorry, but I must go now.”

“I think not,” Lina said flatly, dropping the pretense. Her next words were calculated to cause maximum distress. “You murdered Alatea Alvares.”

Miss Darrow scuttled backward, her skirts clenched in both hands.

“You made several mistakes after your cut the lady’s throat,” Lina went on. “First, your footprints on the rug clearly show you went to both sides of the bed, yet you deny disturbing the gentleman—”

“I stole his tiepin!” Miss Darrow put in hurriedly.

“Produce it,” Lina countered. She waited for another lie, but the girl remained silent. She recognized the desperate gaze of a hunted creature. “As I was saying, Monsieur Vigne could not have killed Miss Alvares. No murder weapon found in the room, you see. Damned difficult to sever the carotid artery without a blade with a good, sharp edge. Whoever cut the lady’s throat had to have taken the weapon in the room with them.”

Miss Darrow retreated as far as the unlit fireplace, standing with her back pressed against the mantelpiece. She curled her hand around the poker handle. Lina was not concerned. She knew at least six different ways to disarm the girl, only two of which would result in broken bones.

She said nothing else, content to wait until Rhiannon’s return. Some five minutes passed with Miss Darrow clearly attempting to steel her nerves, and Lina smoking another of the Egyptian cigarettes she preferred. At last, the door opened. Not Rhiannon, but Millborough Pike came into the room, his vast presence seeming to fill the available space.

“The information you requested,” he said to Lina, passing her a folded sheet of paper.

“Where are the police?”

“Panting on the threshold. I told them I had the solution at hand.”

She read the message at a glance  and returned her attention to Miss Darrow. “You are a butcher’s daughter,” she said. “You used to help your father slaughter cattle before finding more genteel employment at your mother’s request. This is now known to us through Miss Fairchild, your coworker.”

“And what’s that to you?” Miss Darrow replied, tossing her head in a brave show.

“It is also well known that you carry a sharp knife for protection, as you do not live in the best neighborhood. You are well used to inflicting death and well used to the sight of blood. Speaking of which … you said the gentleman had not a drop of blood on him. Another mistake, Miss Darrow. You will, I hope, note the difference between ‘mistake’ and ‘lie.’”

Miss Darrow said nothing.

“In the case of a severed artery, blood exits the body at a terrific rate under high pressure,” Lina continued. “Like the murder weapon, the scene had a missing element: telltale jets and sprays of blood on the headboard, walls, floor, and of course, Monsieur Vigne.”

Lina took a step closer to Miss Darrow, who flinched but did not lift the poker.“Your victim did not bleed as she ought. You severed Miss Alvares’ throat, but you did not actually kill her. She was already dead.”

Millborough’s muffled exclamation made her hide a triumphant smile.

“On the table next to the bed, I found a bottle of trional crystals, a hypnotic drug that is safe in the proper dose. The bottle was new, acquired yesterday, yet only half full,” Lina said.

“What is the usual dose, milady?” Millborough asked.

“A teaspoon dissolved in a glass of water,” she informed him. “I theorize that last evening, Miss Alvares took her usual dose of trional, as did Monsieur Vigne. But unlike his mistress, the monsieur slept soundly through the night. Miss Alvares, on the other hand, woke at least once. In her addled state—assisted, no doubt, by the combination of trional and champagne—the lady took a heroic dose, which proved fatal.”

“But why mutilate the body in such a dramatic fashion?”

Lina nodded at the white-faced Miss Darrow. “I suspect she desired to blackmail Monsieur Vigne, but failing to rouse him from his stupor, was forced to retreat and raise the alarm. No murder has taken place, Mr. Pike, merely an unfortunate accident made to look like murder through the unskilled machinations of a girl who should have known better.”

The poker clattered to the floor. Miss Darrow began to cry. I didn’t mean no harm by it,” she murmured.

Appearing relieved, Millborough bowed his head. “My thanks,” he said to Lina, “are sincere, my gratitude infinite. A crisis has been averted. I can now deal with the police from a position of strength. Tell me, how can I repay you, milady?”

This time, Lina did smile. “Send your cursed brother to the Continent on some diverting chore or another. I weary of that interfering scoundrel haunting the London lanes and snooping into my affairs. That would satisfy your debt very nicely, I think.”

Millborough said thoughtfully, “I have, in fact, just received a report of some rather queer goings-on in a place called Grimpen Mire …”

“And the girl?”

“Miss Darrow will lose her position here. That is certain. However, I may possibly arrange for her to leave with an unstained character, provided she does not repeat her error.” Millborough stared at the chambermaid with a thunderous expression until she nodded, chastened.

Filled with satisfaction, Lina turned as Rhiannon returned to the room, took her partner’s arm, and led her out of Claridge’s and into the afternoon sunlight

THE INVISIBLE KILLER
A Gaslight short story by Nene Adams ©2012

Journeying from London to Brighton for a well deserved holiday, Rhiannon Moore stared out the open window with interest as the train chugged up an embankment to give her a splendid view of the Downs, and then sloped past green landscape and into a deep cutting, through a long, dark tunnel before speeding into brightest daylight again.

The rhythmic swaying made her sleepy. Her eyes fluttered shut. Her head drooped against the back of the cushioned seat. For a time, she slept until a sudden commotion woke her. She blinked, still groggy but rousing fast.

“What is it?” she asked. “And why does it smell like something’s burning?”

Her partner, Lady Evangeline St. Claire, folded the newspaper she had been reading. “I do not know, but I shall certainly find out.”

As she rose from her seat, the train made an unexpected jolt that nearly threw her to the floor. Rhiannon’s startled cry was drowned out by the grating, metallic squeal of brakes and the chuffing of the engine. A great cloud of steam and black smoke roiled past, a hail of black cinders flew into the carriage through the open window, and the train came to a halt that only made her stomach lurch a little.

Lina pulled herself upright. “I am quite certain that someone has engaged the communication cord,” she said, straightening her hat and spending a moment shaking out her rumpled blue wool skirts . She leaned through the window. Apparently spotting someone after a few minutes, she called, “You, there! Why have we stopped?”

A uniformed guard came alongside the carriage to speak to her. “There’s a lady been killed, madame, but you’re not to worry,” he said, taking on an air of importance. “There’s a doctor seeing to the matter. We’ll be on our way shortly.”

“Did the poor creature hurl herself onto the tracks?” Lina asked.

Behind her, Rhiannon crowded as closely as she dared, the better to hear the guard speak. Suicides were not common, but not unknown, either, though according to the newspapers, unfortunate women were more likely to plunge off bridges than onto train tracks. Or the London Monument, she thought grimly, recalling a piece of doggerel verse on the infamous suicide of Margaret Moyes some fifty years ago:

“From strangers oh! What awful shrieks.
When she let go her hold,
Like lightning she descended.
T’was dreadful to behold;
With a heavy crash upon the rails,
The shock was most severe,
Which cut off her arm and it was found,
Near the centre of the square.”

She wondered what had driven the victim to self-destruction.

“No, no, the poor lady was killed,” the guard said. “Murdered. All over gore, she is, positively weltering in it, her head shattered like an egg. But there’s no need to fret, ma’am, as I’m sure the man who done it will be caught, and you’re in no danger whatsoever—”

“Where did this alleged murder take place?” Lina interrupted.

“In the Number Two first class carriage.”

“You will take me there at once.”

He gaped as Lina pushed the door open, almost toppling him over. Gathering her skirts in one hand, she went down the steps and began picking her way along the ground. Rhiannon followed, taking the guard’s automatically extended arm to ease her way down.

“Wait!” he called, hurrying after Lina once Rhiannon had reached the ground. “You can’t … I mean to say, you mustn’t … I cannot allow you to …”

Lina drew herself up to her not inconsiderable height. The top of the man’s head came just under her chin. Staring at him down the length of her nose, she gave him a distinctly chilly look and said, “It is a matter of supreme indifference to me what you will and will not permit, sir. Where is the Number Two first-class carriage?”

Without another word, the guard jabbed a thumb forward. Rhiannon did not blame him for crumbling in the face of Lina’s adamantine will.

“Thank you.” Lina turned away from him. “Let us hurry, my dear,” she said to Rhiannon, “before the railroad employees destroy the scene of our crime.”

Rhiannon stuck to Lina’s heels, careful not to trip over the steel rails, and using her folded parasol like a cane to steady her progress. Like her partner, she ignored the curious stares of other passengers and train personnel who had gathered outside to gawk. The weight of stares did not bother her anymore. As irresistibly as iron filings to a magnet, the beautiful, intelligent, confident Lina attracted attention wherever she went.

Arriving at the Number Two first-class carriage, Lina addressed the out-of-breath station master who seemed to be in charge.

“I understand a murder has been committed,” she said.

“Madame, I must ask you to return to your seat immediately,” he said after giving her the barest impatient glance.

Lina lowered her voice, forcing him to lean closer. “I have many contacts at Scotland Yard, my good sir. I see your station boasts a telegraph.” She indicated the bucolic  building that serviced the nearby village. Wickworth, Rhiannon read on the sign. “I can easily send a message to Inspector Valentine or one of his fellow detectives.”

“Scotland Yard will not be necessary,” he replied, puffing out his chest. “The criminal will be apprehended by our local constabulary.”

“Indeed.” Lina arched her brow. “I hope you will succeed.”

“Yes, yes, and now will you … I say, madame, I insist you not go in there!”

Too late, Rhiannon thought. Lina had already pushed past him, darted up the steps, and entered the first-class carriage. She did not join her, though she hovered by the door as the station master huffed and puffed as vehemently as the train’s engine.

As the guard had told them, the carriage was awash in red: splashes of fresh blood on the wall, an appalling amount pooled on the floor, and streaks on the inside of the outer door below the open window as well as on the window frame. The victim, a woman, wore a grey, watered silk dress with a lace yoke, the front of the fabric surprisingly free of blood save a few spots and a larger stain on the left side of her collar. Impossible to tell her age or the color of her hair since a large brimmed hat covered her face.

Rhiannon tried to breathe shallowly. Beside her, the station master seemed torn between attempting to snatch Lina bodily out of the carriage and risking a scene, or simply ignoring her in the hope that she would satisfy her ghoulish curiosity and go away.

Heedless of the way her skirts trailed in the blood, Lina bent over to examine the victim’s head, lifting up the floppy hat to reveal a young, attractive brunette woman, her brown eyes fixed open in death.

“A large, penetrating wound to the side of her head,” Lina reported. “See, my dear, here is brain matter, and here are skull fragments. The killer struck and withdrew his instrument very quickly, and the victim collapsed. What could have caused such a wound?” she muttered.

“I thought perhaps a pickaxe,” said a man who had come to stand next to Rhiannon. “Dr. Flavell, madame. I was summoned to help the victim, but alas, life had already fled.”

Lina’s glance held a little more respect. “Why do you theorize a pickaxe?”

“Because of the tapering nature of the wound, which I discovered when I probed her skull. Whatever caused the injury has a sharp point that becomes wider along its length.”

“And we are searching the third-class carriages now,” the station master exclaimed, “for a workman carrying such a tool.”

A shout at the other end of the line made him assume a triumphant expression. A constable appeared, his hat askew on his head, pushing a prisoner ahead of him. The man in handcuffs was dressed roughly, unshaven, and somewhat villainous in appearance. He also peppered the air with curses. Rhiannon decided to memorize some of the more colorful ones.

“He’s a stonemason, sir,” the constable said to the station master. “He has a bag of tools in his possession.”

“Of course I have tools, you bloody idjit! It’s my trade, ain’t it?” the man said loudly, struggling in the constable’s iron grip.

“Why did you kill this woman?” the station master demanded.

The man glanced inside the blood soaked carriage. He trembled. His mouth worked but no sound came out, and then his eyes rolled back to show the whites and he collapsed in a faint. The station master hurried to help the constable hold him up.

Snorting at the farce, Lina stood and began to leave the carriage when she suddenly stopped, bent, and picked up something from the floor, concealing it in the palm of her hand. Dr. Flavell looked interested when she climbed down the steps and showed it to him.

Rhiannon could not see what the object was, nor could she overhear Lina and Flavell’s muted conversation. She waited impatiently until Flavell hurried away and Lina joined her.

“What did you find?” she asked.

“A possible explanation,” Lina told her, and refused to say anything else despite Rhiannon’s wheedling. She also refused to leave the carriage and return to their own, seemingly content to remain watching the station master’s bungling interrogation of the revived prisoner, who struggled, cursed, and kicked the constable at intervals.

Rhiannon became aware of the distinct, acrid smell of smoke hanging in the air. It seemed stronger than before.

“A hayrick on fire,” Lina said in answer to her unspoken question, “in a field located at a curve in the railroad tracks a few miles from Wickworth. You were asleep, my dear,” she added with a soft glance, “and looked so peaceful, so content, I did not wish to wake you despite knowing how much you crave melodramatic spectacle.”

Rhiannon shrugged. “I doubt a hayrick in flames is very impressive.”

“No doubt some feel that way. To others, the sight may be both attraction and distraction. Ah! Here is the good doctor,” Lina said, hailing Flavell when he came into view. “Have you succeeded, sir? Have you located it?”

“Yes,” Flavell replied with evident satisfaction. “Precisely where you … oh, but you know that already,” he said, cutting a glance at Rhiannon after Lina’s warning cough.

“Thank you, sir. Now, shall we solve the mysterious death of this lady?”

“I am entirely in agreement. Only do not judge our station master Brown too harshly, milady. He does his duty to the best of his abilities.”

Lina agreed. “Naturally, doctor, I will be guided by you in this matter. Now let us beard Brown before he does his reputation – and that of the village – irreparable damage.” She turned to address Brown, the constable, and the highly aggrieved prisoner. “Brown! Yes, you, sir. That man did not commit murder. He is innocent. Were I you, I would release him at once with a handsome apology.”

“I’ll do no such thing!” Brown protested, fairly swollen with indignation. “He’s got one of those pickaxes in his bag. I’m sure he killed that poor lady, and so help me God,” he went on, giving the unfortunate prisoner a tooth-rattling shake, “I’ll have a confession!”

“I’m a stonemason, not a bloody quarryman,” the man howled, twisting in the constable’s grip, “and that’s not a pickaxe, ‘tis a stone hammer, you fool!”

“Mr. Brown, we can take you to the real killer,” Lina said.

“Eh? What’s this, madame?” Brown eyed her suspiciously.

“To confirm the veracity of my claim, I turn to Dr. Flavell, who is known to you.”

“It’s true, Jacob. I’ve seen the evidence with my own eyes,” Flavell said, putting a hand on Brown’s shoulder. “It’s incontrovertible. Your man here is innocent of the crime.” The station master stared at him in equal parts hope and dread, and finally, he deflated.

“I trust you as I trust none other, doctor,” Brown said, motioning for the constable to release the prisoner. “Take me to the vicious animal who struck the lady down.”

Rhiannon did not miss the faint quirking at the corners of Lina’s mouth. Something amused her, but what?

“Without delay, Jacob. Follow me.”

Rhiannon fell behind the men, walking side by side with Lina. “Where are we going?”

“Do not spoil the surprise, my dear,” Lina replied.

The doctor led the group away from the tracks to a pony trap, and invited them to take seats. Brown helped Lina and Rhiannon climb aboard. Within moments, a touch of the whip set the sturdy horse leaning into the traces, carrying them from the station at a quick clip. The journey down the road was not long, merely a few miles from Wickworth.

Remembering what Lina had told her earlier, Rhiannon kept watch for a burning hayrick. When the trap came within sight of a large cattle cart stopped quite close to the railroad tracks, the doctor slowed the vehicle, coaxing the horse to come to a halt.

“Here we are,” he said, climbing off the driver’s seat.

Brown stared at the bulls in the cart. “Is this a joke, doctor?”

“No indeed, Jacob. Come along, and all will be made clear.”

At the cattle cart, Lina asked Flavell, “Which one is it?”

He pointed at a large red bull with a splash of white on its broad forehead. The bull’s face was stained on one side with dark brown, almost black trickles that seemed to have come from its horn, similarly stained. Flies crawled over the darkness, irritating the bull, who kept shaking its head and trying to rub its face on its neighbor’s shoulder.

“Is the animal ill? A disease?” Brown asked. “I don’t understand.”

“Perhaps this will aid your understanding,” Lina said, revealing an ivory colored fragment in the palm of her hand. “I took this from the floor of the Number Two first-class carriage.”

“What is it?” Rhiannon asked.

Standing on tiptoe and ignoring Rhiannon’s furious hiss of disapproval, Lina reached towards the red bull. She lifted the fragment to the tip of its stained horn … and it fitted perfectly.

Brown made spluttering noises.

Flavell nodded.

Rhiannon could scarcely believe the implications of what she’d just seen.

“I believe the sequence of events to be thus,” Lina began. “Our victim – let us refer to her as Miss X for lack of a proper surname – was alone in her carriage when she spied the smoke from the hayrick which had caught fire. Like many people bored with a long journey, she welcomed the distraction. Lowering the window, she thrust her head outside to obtain the best view of the conflagration, particularly since the train slowed at that point to take the curve.”

A sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach told Rhiannon what was coming next.

“Unfortunately, in her enthusiasm, she failed to notice the cattle cart, which the drovers abandoned in their haste to be diverted by the same sight which attracted the attention of Miss X. As the train accelerated past the curve, the bull’s horn struck Miss X in the side of her head, dealing a fatal blow before being wrenched out as the train continued on its way. The tip of the horn broke off. I suppose the initial gush of blood drove it from the wound.”

Brown had turned a trifle pale. “So I … I mean, the bull’s face … the flies …”

“That is Miss X’s blood, I assure you. A sad and terrible tragedy, but certainly not a crime,” Lina said, spreading her hands apart. “Dr. Flavell has kindly volunteered to take charge of the body and the task of identifying the young lady and notifying her relations.”

“Oh.” Brown did not seem very capable of speech. He stared at the bull and the buzzing flies, and then his horrified gaze turned on Lina.

“Then our journey to Brighton is no further impeded and we may we may continue on our way, but only, my dear,” Lina said, giving Rhiannon a stern glance, “if you give me your word that the carriage window stays up at all times, regardless of whatever sights may tempt you otherwise!”

Recalling the blood, the sightless eyes, and the fist-sized hole in the victim’s head, Rhiannon agreed without a single thought of protest.

THE END