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MISS SMITH & THE DEVIL’S LIBRARY
Yes, I know, the original publication date has come and gone. The delays were beyond my control. However, I have some good news for those who’ve been waiting ever-so-patiently:  I’ve been assured that Miss Smith & the Devil’s Library will be published in August, which is just a couple of months away. Yay! As soon as it becomes available, I’ll post an update here.

This is an exciting, action packed, thrill a minute adventure novel, if I do say so myself. And it’s the first novel in what I hope will be a series to remember, so be sure to get your copy (and hey, books make great gifts, too, hint hint). 🙂

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Fans of the Gaslight Series will be pleased to know the fourth novel, titled The Curse of the Jade Dragon, is now published and available at on-line retailers like Amazon.com, etc.

At the publisher’s page you can read an excerpt as well as the back cover blurb:

http://www.pdpublishing.com/jadedragonendpage.html

I’m sure you’ll enjoy this latest mystery adventure featuring your favorite lady detective and her much loved partner!

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THE CUPID’S DART
Nene Adams Copyright 2005

My hand doth not bear witness with my heart,
She saith, because I make no woeful lays,
To paint my living death and endless smart:
And so, for one that felt god Cupid’s dart,
She thinks I lead and live too merry days.
—Sir Phillip Sidney, Must Love Lament

The ladies were tucking into a luncheon of jellied chicken and asparagus béarnaise when the butler, Jackson, entered the dining room bearing a calling card on a silver salver. As usual, he affected the sort of mournful mien that a bloodhound might have envied.

“Begging your pardon, milady,” the old man said to Lady Evangeline St. Claire in his most funereal tones, “but the gentleman caller insisted that his business could not wait. I have taken the liberty of showing him into the study.”

Lina wiped her mouth with a napkin, taking the card and examining it. “Sir Richard Somerset. I do not know the fellow. Do you, my dear?”

“No, his name doesn’t sound familiar to me,” confessed her partner, Rhiannon Moore.

“Well, we shall leave Sir Richard to cool his heels a little while. Jackson, if you will be so good as to fetch the ‘S’ volume of my Compendium?”

“At once, milady.”

Rhiannon took a sip of wine and signaled the footman to remove her plate. “What do you suppose Sir Richard wants?”

“I have no idea,” Lina replied, shrugging, “and it is impossible to speculate. Ah, here is Jackson with my Compendium. Let us see if the Somerset family is represented.”

The Compendium, Rhiannon knew, was a multi-volume set of large books into which Lina pasted articles from newspapers and periodicals, as well as hand-written notes on various items and persons and happenings that she deemed worth recording, in case they might be of further interest. Lina accepted the leather-bound book from Jackson, turning the pages while a footman finished clearing the table.

“Ah, here he is… Sir Richard Somerset,” Lina said, consulting the Compendium. “Not of the beau monde, my dear, but rather a parvenu, an upstart who made a fortune in trade after his business partner, Jonathon Cox, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Mr. Cox took his habitual constitutional after dining at his club and was never seen again. Sir Richard – at the time, merely Mr. Somerset – inherited his partner’s share of the business. Quite a wealthy gentleman these days. Married to Minerva Somerset née Dalrymple of the Northumberland, Kent and Staffordshire Dalrymples – an old family with old money and a great many social connections.”

“Do you know Mrs. Somerset?” Rhiannon asked as the footman slid a plate with a portion of Cook’s excellent apricot iced jelly in front of her.

Lina shook her head, slapping the leather covers of the book closed. She declined a serving of iced jelly with a wave of her hand. Jackson, who had been discreetly hovering nearby, took the Compendium from her lap and tottered out of the dining room.

“No, I have not had that pleasure,” Lina said, answering Rhiannon’s question, “although I believe her mother and mine are contemporaries and shared a London season when they were both girls. He must have urgent business to attempt an interruption of our luncheon, for the hour is far too early for paying polite calls. Are you finished, my dear? Then let us repair to the study and satisfy our curiosity.”

Lina rose from the table, spending  a few moment straightening the skirts of her leaf-green Liberty’s silk dress, made in the loose aesthetic style that she preferred. The color made her emerald eyes seem even darker, an effect Rhiannon appreciated. She followed Lina into the study to take her first look at Sir Richard Somerset.

The gentleman, though beyond the first flush of youth, had aged very gracefully. He was still handsome as the Devil, with a charming smile and a smoldering look of appreciation in his dark eyes that spoke eloquently of past successes with the ladies. He first apologized for being so bold as to forgo convention and introduce himself. The pleasantries and requisite chit-chat dispensed with, he directed the conversation straight to business.

“Lady St. Claire,” Sir Richard said, hooking a thumb in the pocket of his gorgeous peacock-blue waistcoat, “I have heard from friends that you sometimes act in the capacity of a confidential inquiry agent.”

“That is correct,” Lina answered. “How may I assist you?” She sat on the settee, drawing Rhiannon down to sit beside her, while Sir Richard sat in the chair opposite.

“The matter is a delicate one,” Sir Richard said. “My son, Bertram, had gotten himself entangled with an actress, Charlotte Palmer. The affair is over; I’ve seen to that. However, Miss Palmer is armed with certain indiscreet letters written by Bertram, in which the boy foolishly promised to wed her. I want those letters.”

“And how much are you willing to pay Miss Palmer to get them?” Lina asked bluntly. He jerked in surprise, and she continued, “In my experience, Sir Richard, extortionists – even of the genteel variety – require their monetary demands to be met before they willingly surrender their advantages.”

Sir Richard smoothed his well-trimmed mustache. “It galls me to give that harpy a single shilling,” he said, shrugging broad shoulders. “I had hoped that you might… one hears tales, you know, at dinner parties and the like.”

“Oh?” Lina arched a dark brow. “Pray tell, what secrets has that barking dog, rumor, disclosed regarding my activities and proclivities?”

“That you occasionally utilize, shall we say, less-than-legal procedures should the case require taking measures beyond those deemed lawful by the police.” Sir Richard took a heavy silver case out of his jacket pocket, removed a cheroot and asked silent permission, which was given with a nod. Taking a paper spill from the vase on the mantelpiece, he leaned down to the fire, and then used the flaming spill to light his cheroot.

Rhiannon got up to pull back the heavy velvet curtains and open a window against the strong reek of smoke.

“I use whatever methods are necessary in order to bring the case to a successful resolution, if such a thing is within the realm of possibility,” Lina said, her expression carefully neutral. “You ought to know that I am a private citizen, Sir Richard, not a police detective, and furthermore, the authorities frown upon extra-legal procedures.”

“Very well, let me be frank, milady. I wish to hire you to extract those letters from Charlotte Palmer’s possession by any means whatsoever, legal or illegal.” Sir Richard blew out a thick cloud of smoke, working the cheroot in the corner of his mouth. “She is asking for five thousand pounds – quite impossible, as you may imagine, and I reckon hiring you will be a cheaper and more effective means of stilling the woman’s ambition. Bertram is engaged to a perfectly respectable young heiress, and I don’t want the girl upset.”

Lina flushed. Rising to her feet, she turned a blazing glare upon the man. “I do not approve of blackmail, sir. Less still do I approve of bullying males who, having tasted of the fruits offered by a woman, flinch upon receiving the bill.”

“My son was generous enough with the Palmer woman,” Sir Richard said coolly. “Five thousand pounds is too much to pay for a reputation already tarnished by other lovers before she got her claws into Bertram. However, out of deference to your lady-like sensibilities, I am willing to pay five hundred pounds for the letters, not a penny more. That is, I feel, a more than adequate recompense for an actress who has likely found another victim.”

“And if she refuses?” Lina asked, twitching with what Rhiannon recognized as impatience and the aftermath of ire.

Again, Sir Richard shrugged. “Then I shall know what to do,” he said, sneering. “I am not a man who can be easily crossed, Lady St. Claire. Charlotte Palmer will discover this fact to her sorrow if she attempts to take matters further than I am willing to indulge. I’m not one of your soft-hearted, deep pocketed, weak-blooded dandies who haven’t an ounce of common sense. I came to my fortune the hard way, and I’m a harder man for it.”

Lina nodded, looking grim. “I shall certainly bear that in mind. And you ought to know, Sir Richard, that I am hardly soft-hearted or weak-blooded. Should anything untoward happen to Charlotte Palmer – I am well aware that acid thrown into the woman’s face is considered by some to be justice for her crime – I shall know who is to blame and act accordingly. Am I rightly understood?”

“You are, madam. I like the way you state yourself and your intentions without coyness or falsity. Plain dealing is the way I do business.” Sir Richard took a last puff and tossed the stub of his cheroot into the fire. “Act as my representative in this matter and I’m certain that Charlotte Palmer need not fear retribution of any kind.” He checked his pocket watch. “I must fly, for I’ve an urgent appointment at my club. Contact me at any time, but particularly when you have possession of the letters.”

Jackson was summoned to show Sir Richard Somerset out of the house.

When the man had gone, Lina grimaced. “Well, that was an unpleasant interview with an unpleasant fellow,” she said.

“Poor Charlotte Palmer,” Rhiannon murmured. “She’s an actress, he said.”

“Yes, although her name is unknown to me. Miss Palmer is therefore not one of the stage’s foremost divas. I must send a note of inquiry to a theatrical agent of my acquaintance; Sidney will be able to tell us the latest gossip regarding our erstwhile blackmailer.  One would think that the son of a businessman such as Sir Richard would have had more sense than to write incriminating billet doux to a mistress.”

“Do you think that she’d be so bold as to try and break up Mr. Somerset’s engagement to his respectable heiress?”

“No, but Miss Palmer is most certainly threatening a breach of promise civil suit, and I am certain that Sir Richard wishes to avoid adverse publicity.” Lina sighed. “It is early days yet, my dear. Let us find out what we can regarding Charlotte Palmer before we confront the lady in her lair.”

The plan was not to be. The same morning that Lina received a letter from the theatrical agent Sidney Graves in answer to her query, she also received an urgent summons asking her to come at once to Sir Richard Somerset’s home in South Kensington. She and Rhiannon donned jackets and hats and gloves, and eschewing breakfast – much to Cook’s outrage – they set out at once via Lina’s private carriage for Somerset House.

The place was magnificent, a newly-built brick edifice skillfully  crafted to seem as if it had simply sprung full-grown from the earth, as the goddess Athena from the brow of Zeus. The surrounding gardens were no less marvelous. As their carriage rolled up the crushed stone drive to the front of the house, Lina noted the presences of police constables prowling around the grounds in an attempt to appear busy.

“A Scotland Yard inspector must be… ah, my dear, there he is.” Lina nodded at the paunchy figure of Inspector Harold Valentine standing on the front steps. The man was flanked by a pair of stone lions. Above the doorway was inscribed the Latin phrase audaces fortuna iuvat – Fortune favors the bold. It was obviously the Somerset motto and, as far as Lina was concerned, suited the man she had met.

“Milady, what brings you to Kensington so early on a Sunday morn?” Valentine asked, automatically moving to help Lina and Rhiannon out of the carriage.

“I received a message to attend an emergency meeting here,” Lina replied.

“I see.” Valentine’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Would you care to tell me how you’ve involved in the matter?”

“Until I know what the matter is…” Lina’s voice trailed off suggestively.

Valentine sighed, shifting his feet. “Sir Richard Somerset has been murdered,” he said. “Poor fellow was shot with an arrow through the heart, if you can believe it.”

Although Lina was taken aback – Rhiannon could tell by the way the woman stiffened all over – she showed nothing of her surprise. “Has he indeed? Then I suppose it was his son, Bertram, who sent me the note urging me to come to Somerset House post haste.”

“I couldn’t say, milady,” Valentine replied blandly.

Before the Scotland Yard inspector could speak further, a tall, thin young man burst out of the door and descended upon Lina. The newcomer’s manner was suggestive of a lost lamb who has, after enduring many horrors in the night, at last found his shepherd.

“Lady St. Claire!” he babbled, wringing Lina’s gloved hand. His gooseberry-pale eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. “I am ever so glad that you’ve come! We’re all at sixes and sevenses, you know, on account of what’s happened to Father. Please, you must tell these awful policemen that Charlotte isn’t responsible. She couldn’t be! The most delightful, gentle creature… wouldn’t hurt a fly…”

Lina wrenched her hand out of the young man’s grip. “Might you be Mr. Bertram Somerset?”

“Yes, yes!” he nodded. “Do come in! This is some dreadful mistake, I know it-”

“In a moment, Mr. Somerset. Kindly permit me to have a few words with Inspector Valentine first, then Miss Moore and myself will be happy to join you in the house.”

“Oh, very well! But Charlotte is most upset and so is Mother and Jenny, and the servants are in an uproar, and I’ve no idea what’s to be done!”

Rhiannon almost felt sorry for the man,  a quivering bundle of nerves who might suffer a collapse at any time.

Lina patted him on the shoulder, steering him towards the open doorway. “Mr. Somerset, go inside and have a cup of tea, or… yes, perhaps a brandy might be more efficacious. My companion and I will join you shortly.”

“Will you? Thank you, Lady St. Claire. Thank you.” Somerset stumbled back into the house.

Valentine quirked an eyebrow at the retreating young man’s back. “A definite rabbit, milady, as opposed to the wolf that was his father.”

“Indeed. So what has happened here?”

“Minerva Somerset is the chair-mistress of the Alborium Toxophily Society; that’s a group of amateur archers in her social circle who meet weekly for practice shooting,” Valentine said. “The Alborium Society recently scored a victory over rival toxophilists, the Viburnums, headed by Mrs. Somerset’s sister, Lady Florence DeBurgh.”

“Married to Lord Inglemarch,” Lina supplied. “Go on, Harry.”

“At any rate,” Valentine continued, “last evening, Mrs. Somerset hosted a victory dinner for the Alborium members. After dinner, the attendants were gathered in the drawing room for coffee. At some point in the evening, after midnight and before one o’clock in the morning, Sir Richard Somerset disappeared. His body was discovered by his wife.”

“When was the discovery made?”

“Some time after midnight, according to Mrs. Somerset,” Valentine said. He peered at Rhiannon. “And how are you faring, Miss Moore?”

“Quite well, Inspector Valentine,” Rhiannon answered, giving him a smile. She liked the inspector, and he always treated her with a grave and sincere sort of courtesy.

“We had better go and speak to Mrs. Somerset,” Lina said, taking Rhiannon’s arm. “If you will excuse us, Harry.”

“So long as you don’t interfere in an official investigation, milady,” he replied, inclining his head.

Lina snorted, escorting Rhiannon into the house.

Minerva Somerset was a plump and pretty matron of indeterminate age. Her slightly graying hair was dressed in little ringlets; her fingers flashed with jewels. She regarded Lina with a somewhat jaundiced expression. “I cannot imagine what Richard was about, asking you to interfere in my darling Bertram’s affairs.”

“Do you refer to Mr. Somerset’s affair with the actress Charlotte Palmer?” Lina asked without any attempt at subtlety. “It was my understanding that Miss Palmer was blackmailing your husband using indiscreet letters sent to her by your son in which he recklessly promised marriage.”

Minerva waved a dismissive hand through the air, gemstones striking sparks in the early morning light. “The merest trifle, the indiscretion of a naïve, unworldly young man.”

“The breach of promise suit,” Lina prompted.

“An annoyance, to be sure, but not worth murder, surely.”

“Mrs. Somerset, under what circumstances did you discover your husband’s body?” Lina asked.

Rhiannon had come prepared to take notes, jotting down everything said in a little mother-of-pearl notebook she kept in her pocket for the purpose.

“It was around one o’clock in the morning,” Minerva answered. “I had gone to the dining room to speak with our butler, Truemay, as I had found his after-dinner coffee to be an inadequate offering and wished to call him to account at once, while the matter was still fresh in my mind. As I spoke to Truemay, I glanced outside and saw my husband’s body in the garden, at the foot of the statue of Eros. It was obvious from the body’s position that Richard was beyond the aid of mortal man, therefore I instructed Truemay to send for the police without delay.”

Minerva turned in her seat at a noise from the doorway of the very formal parlor, where she had deigned to meet with Lina and Rhiannon. “Ah, dear Bertram, do join us -” her cooing voice turned to ice “- although that creature with you may remain in the servant’s hall, if she must remain at all.”

Bertram came into the parlor, followed by a woman who sported hennaed hair and a daring décolleté. “Mother, you know that Charlotte isn’t a servant…”

“Well, she certainly doesn’t belong here!” Minerva said tartly. “Let her stay with those of her own class. How dare a female of low birth and dubious occupation pollute our home!”

Charlotte Palmer turned to go, stumbling in her haste. She stopped in her tracks when Lina said, “Miss Palmer, may I have a word with you?”

“I am hardly in a position to object,” Charlotte murmured.

“I say, Charlie, don’t let anyone bully you!” Bertram cried.

“It’s all right, Bertie dear.”

“Oh, Lord, Bertram, get away from that woman!” Minerva squirmed on the couch, casting  a supplicating look at a willowy, horse-faced girl in pink satin who sat in a chair opposite. “Jenny, can you not take your fiancé in hand?”

Jenny – Lady Jane Fanshaw, daughter of the Earl of Moncrieve, as Rhiannon had read in Burke’s – gave Somerset a withering glance and said to Minerva, “Far be it from me to prevent Bertie from making a ass of himself over a common tart.” She sniffed, elevating her nose in clear dismissal while Bertram Somerset’s bulging gaze traveled from his mother to his fiancée and back to his former lover Charlotte in a clear agony of indecisiveness.

“Pray excuse us, Mrs. Somerset. Thank you for your time.” Breaking the dead-lock, Lina rose to her feet, urging Charlotte out of the parlor and down the corridor. Rhiannon remained at her partner’s side, moving in a rustle of ivory taffeta skirts. As they walked, Lina introduced herself and Rhiannon to Charlotte Palmer.

“Now, Miss Palmer, perhaps you’d care to explain your relationship with Sir Richard and Bertram Somerset. I have been told that the police believe you may be involved in Sir Richard’s death. Tell me everything and I shall attempt to help you,” Lina said, staring down at Charlotte from her superior height. The actress’ brave front dissolved without further prompting.

“Oh, Lady St. Claire! What am I to do? The police think I’m responsible for killing Richard but it isn’t true! I hated him but I would never have done him harm,” Charlotte said, her voice cracking. Lina drew the woman into a small room – a linen closet – and Rhiannon shut the door behind them after taking a candle from a hall table and lighting it with a lucifer. The air inside the closet was redolent with lavender and Charlotte Palmer’s desperation.

“Why five thousand pounds? Did you really suppose a self-made man, a noveau riche like Sir Richard, would pay a king’s ransom to hush up his son’s indiscretion?” Rhiannon asked, moved to pity by the actress’ tear-stained countenance.

“Not Bertram’s but Richard’s,” Charlotte sniffled, accepting the handkerchief that Rhiannon offered. “Before I met dear sweet Bertie, I was involved with Sir Richard himself. He was the one who introduced me to his son. It is my belief that he hoped a love affair would improve Bertie’s confidence. Believe me, I do love Bertie. He’s kind and gentle, a truly beautiful soul. He had no idea, of course, that Sir Richard was my former protector, and I never told him. I had letters from Bertie, true, but as far as I was concerned, the more valuable billet doux were from Richard himself.”

“And when you learned of Bertram’s engagement with Lady Jane Fanshaw…?”

“I lost my temper. The arrangement is not of Bertie’s choosing. Richard is selling Bertie off like a stallion at Tattersall’s, trading the heir to his fortune for the social respectability and connections that the daughter of an Earl can bring his family and himself. I thought that if I made an impossible demand of Richard, he might at least be willing to negotiate.” Charlotte mopped her face with the handkerchief. “All I wanted was a little pension and a promise from Richard not to interfere if Bertie continued to see me after his marriage.”

“Adultery is…” Lina began, but shewas interrupted by Charlotte, who tossed her head and said with a gleam of defiance in her hazel eyes, “Expected of a wealthy gentleman, and you won’t hear too many wives complain so long as their husbands are discreet.”

“How did you come here to the house?” Lina asked, shifting the topic of the conversation.

Charlotte’s shoulders slumped. “Bertie sent me a note telling me that his mother had forbidden him from seeing me anymore. I needed to see him, and Richard, too. Mrs. Somerset is somewhat manic on the subject of infidelity, which is why I thought Richard might give me what I wanted rather than risk exposure. He holds the purse strings, but Mrs. Somerset’s connections among the beau monde are very important to him and his business. When Richard and I were together, he was quite frantic lest someone see us and inform his wife. I had the feeling that she had made it plain, in the early days of their marriage, that infidelity would not be tolerated. Mrs. Somerset is a woman used to having her own way.

“At any rate, I wanted to try to make Richard see reason. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t take one seriously unless one is holding an advantage, which those damnable letters gave me. I also wanted an opportunity to speak to Bertie. He doesn’t understand that he’s his own man. He doesn’t need Mama or Papa to make decisions for him.”

Lina rubbed her chin. “Are you familiar with the use of bow and arrow?”

“My father was a gamekeeper as well as a poacher,” Charlotte said with a bitter laugh, “which is how my family came to live in London after he was let go from Lord Valery’s estate for poaching his Lordship’s deer. I am no expert but I suppose that I could fit arrow to bow well enough to be accurate at short range. There’s no point in hiding my past, milady; the police will find out soon enough, if they don’t know already.”

“And they will consider you a chief suspect?” Lina asked.

“Naturally. I am a crow among swans, milady. The rest of the guests were titled and wealthy. I am a woman of uncertain means and dubious reputation. Even if I should be proved innocent in the end, an arrest will be enough to ruin my career and my livelihood.”

“Did you ever threaten to harm Sir Richard?”

“I was angry. I may have said something… I don’t know.”

Rhiannon stifled a sneeze. The scent of lavender in the small room was almost overwhelming. “What happened last evening, Miss Palmer?” she asked.

“When the play was over – I have a small role in a West End production of The Rose of Amiens – I received a message from Richard. It was a nasty, insulting note filled with threats,” Charlotte said. “He was being quite horrid; Richard had an ugly side that roused when he was thwarted. Some of the things he wrote made me very angry, including the news that he had hired a detective whose sole purpose was to make my life a misery unless I entirely gave up any expectations I may have had.

“I came to Somerset House to confront him. Richard was a dark man with dark appetites and I feared his temper. Nevertheless, I hoped that here, in his own home – surrounded by guests, as I found out – he would not dare make a scene.  I never had the chance to see him. By the time I arrived in a hired cab, it was around midnight and Richard was nowhere to be found. Bertie was terrified that his mother or his fiancée might take umbrage at my presence, so he bade me stay hidden in the library. That was before Mrs. Somerset discovered Richard’s body and the police were fetched.”

“Are there any witnesses to your waiting  in the library?”

“No. Only Bertie, but he did not stay with me very long.”

Rhiannon suddenly remembered something that Minerva Somerset had said. She tugged Lina’s sleeve to gain her partner’s attention, and asked Charlotte, “Did you see Mrs. Somerset when you arrived?”

“I don’t…” Charlotte hesitated. “No, I don’t recall seeing Mrs. Somerset but the house was full of people and Bertie hurried me straight into the library.”

“Did you see the dining room?” Rhiannon asked, earning an odd glance from both Lina and Charlotte.

“Yes, Bertie took me through the dining room as it was empty of all save servants.”

“And were you able to see quite well in the room? The gas jets were lit and so on?”

Charlotte’s confusion was clear but she replied, “Yes. The illumination was quite bright, as servants were still cleaning the room.”

Understanding bloomed on Lina’s face. She gave Rhiannon a proud grin and said to Charlotte, “Miss Palmer, I believe that you have nothing to fear from the police.”

The door opened and Inspector Harry Valentine stood there, scowling. “I beg to differ, milady,” he said. “Miss Palmer, if you’ll come with me to Scotland Yard, I have some questions to ask you.”

“Harry, do not arrest Miss Palmer, I beg you,” Lina said. “It would be a mistake.”

“Is that so, milady?” Valentine crossed his arms and regarded the tall, dark-haired woman with speculation and curiosity writ large on his face. “I’m listening.”

Lina said, “What sort of arrow was used to kill Sir Richard? It is my understanding that each toxophilist’s arrow is unique in regards to color and fletching, in order to distinguish it from that of another archer.”

“The arrow used belonged to the Honorable William Yates, the younger son of the Duke of Godolphin,” Valentine replied, “but we’ve already established that young William couldn’t have killed Sir Richard, as he was caught by the butler in flagrante delicto with Mrs. Somerset’s maid. According to Truemay, Yates was drunk as a boiled owl and incapable of either rising to his feet or rising to the occasion.” The inspector chuckled. “Everyone’s bows and quivers were stacked in the mud room. It would have been easy for the killer to slip through the mud room, pick up a weapon, and nip straight out to the garden.”

“Do you recall Mrs. Somerset’s statement?” Rhiannon asked. “About finding her husband’s body in the garden.”

“She said that she was in the dining room. She looked out of the window and saw Sir Richard’s body. What of it? Seems straightforward to me,” Valentine said.

“At one o’clock in the morning, Harry,” Lina said insistently.

Valentine frowned, his brows drawing together over the bridge of his nose. “Milady, are you trying to make a point?”

“The dining room was well lit,” Rhiannon said, willing him to understand. “The garden was not. The night was dark. Under those circumstances, it would be virtually impossible to see anyone or anything in the garden from the house. The only thing one would see in looking out of the window would be a reflection of one’s self in the glass panes.”

Valentine gaped at her a moment, then his mouth settled into a grim line. “Mrs. Somerset lied about that,” he said. “I wonder what other tales she may have told?” He spun about on his heel and stomped away in the direction of the parlor, presumably to further interrogate the dead man’s wife.

Charlotte’s eyes went wide in amazement. “Mrs. Somerset killed Richard?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Lina said with a shrug. “It seems likely. She must have found out that Sir Richard had an affair with you, Miss Palmer. A wife always knows, although she may pretend to ignorance for the sake of domestic tranquility. Seeing you at the house must have confirmed her worst suspicions. Killing her husband was the impulsive act of a jealous woman driven to violence by Sir Richard’s infidelity. It would have been easy for her to lure Sir Richard to the garden under some pretext, slipping out through the mud room and taking a handy weapon with her. As chair-mistress of the toxophily society, Mrs. Somerset must be a decent shot with bow and arrow. She might have gotten away with the crime, too, had it not been for that lie about seeing her husband’s body from the house.”

“Murder will out,” Rhiannon said.

“Charlie!” Bertram Somerset appeared, his gooseberry-pale gaze fastened hungrily on Charlotte’s face. “Darling! Are you all right?”

“Yes, Bertie,” Charlotte replied, moving easily into the scrawny man’s embrace. “I am very well, indeed.” She guided him down the corridor, talking softly while Somerset made contented noises and occasional wordless exclamations.

Rhiannon looked at Lina. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” she quoted.

“As always, the Bard of Avon is apt in his observations of human nature. Bertie has lost a Papa and a Mama – and presumably, a fiancée as well, as I do not think he will marry Lady Jane now – but he has gained an affectionate and loving companion, as well as his freedom and the fortune necessary to ease his passage through life. In that, we may suppose Mr. Bertram Somerset to be the most fortunate of men.” Lina smiled. “And I am the most fortunate of women.” She  took Rhiannon into her arms, blew out the candle and kicked the door shut.

THE END

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THE EMPTY TRUNK
Nene Adams Copyright 2006

“Oh, Evangeline! Thank God you have come!”

Lady Evangeline St. Claire stripped off her kidskin gloves and surveyed the thin, anxious woman standing in front of her. Lady Florence Westmacott’s blond hair and blue eyes had faded somewhat over time, gently blurring her beauty to watercolor softness. She appeared far too pale, however, and the woman’s look of distress made Lina reach out to take her hands.

“What has happened?” Lina asked, drawing Florence to a sofa and sitting down with her. “When I received your note, I came straightaway.”

Rhiannon Moore, Lina’s partner in all things, sat on a nearby hassock without a murmur at not being introduced. Lina shot her a grateful glance; at the moment, she needed to concentrate on Florence. The older woman was her godmother, and a sweet, gentle and generous soul. Lina intended to do everything within her power to root out the cause of Florence’s apprehension and eradicate it. She noted with approval that Rhiannon had taken a small notebook and mechanical pencil out of her reticule, preparing to take notes. Turning back to Florence, Linsa said, “Tell me everything that has happened.”

Florence’s mild blue gaze was red-rimmed, as if she had been crying. “I am at my wits’ end, and hardly know where to begin,” she murmured.

“Begin at the beginning,” Lina advised her. “Omit no detail, however unimportant you feel it may be. You are among friends who wish only to offer assistance.”

Still, Florence hesitated. Lina waited patiently. An earlier analysis of the woman’s note (delivered by a messenger boy in Brown’s Hotel’s distinctive livery) indicated it had been written in some haste and under extreme emotional distress, as evinced by the near savage slashing of pen’s nib into the surface of the foolscap in some places, and in others a weak dragging of ink barely discernible. As for the handwriting itself, the broken loops and cramped lines spoke of worries held in check by the thinnest of threads.

“I suppose it began when the Teutonic docked in Liverpool,” Florence said at last. She was not relaxed by any means – the corset she wore beneath her floral ruffled dress appeared to keep her spine too rigid for slumping – but she did appear a trifle more at ease. Lina made a wordless sound to encourage the woman to continue her tale.

Florence went on, while Rhiannon scribbled in her notebook, “I have been in New York City visiting my daughter Mary, who is, as you know, married to an American businessman, one of those railroad millionaires. My husband was required to stay in England on business, so I traveled alone with my maid, Hill. The Teutonic returned to Liverpool four days ago, and as I was wearied from the journey, I decided to spend the evening in a hotel rather than take the train down to London. Hill collected my trunks from the ship’s hold, arranging for them to be delivered to the hotel.

“I particularly wanted to wear a new gown I had purchased in New York, and directed Hill to lay it out for dinner. She gave me the shocking news that the gown was gone. In fact,  everything inside that particular trunk had been stolen. Well, Evangeline, you can imagine that I immediately sent a scathing note to the White Star Line’s head office! Who else had access to my trunks save the ship’s porters? Hill assured me the baggage had not been out of her presence since it was loaded into the hired cart. I also made a complaint to the police.”

“What was taken?” Lina asked. “Can you be more exact?”

Florence waved a hand in dismissal. “Nothing of immense value. I carry my jewels in a locked portmanteau which never leaves my side. The trunk contained a few gowns, a hat, my favorite pair of slippers. At any rate, I examined the trunk and thought that the lock had been forced. I had done everything that could be done, so I directed Hill to put my jewels into the hotel safe and went to dinner. The following morning, quite early, a gentleman paid a call upon me. It was one of the most bizarre interviews I have ever experienced.”

“Bizarre? In what way?”

“He introduced himself as Franklin Weems of New York City, New York. He was a stranger to me. Mr. Weems carried no letter of introduction, nor could I ascertain that we had any acquaintances in common.”

Lina raised an eyebrow. For a gentleman to introduce himself to a lady with whom he had no previous connection, or any acquaintance in common, was astonishingly forward behavior. Add to that calling on Florence in the early morning in her hotel room… but Lina understood that some Americans did not necessarily behave with the same degree of social decorum as their English cousins. “What did Mr. Weems want?” she asked.

“He told me that our trunks had gotten mixed up on the ship,” Florence said. “Mr. Weems had my trunk, and I presumably had his. I informed the gentleman that he was welcome to examine the trunk, but it was empty, the contents having been stolen. Mr. Weems flew into a rage, Evangeline. I was taken aback. His language… well, suffice it to say that I requested him to take his leave several times, and was ultimately forced to send Hill to fetch the hotel manager. I quite feared for my safety! After thoroughly anathematizing me, and accusing me of stealing his effects, he was forcibly ejected from the hotel by the manager. Since Mr. Weems left me no card or address, I was unable to contact him further and request the return of my own trunk. It was all very vexing, and frightening, too.

“But that is not all.”

Florence faltered. Lina gave her an encouraging nod. “Go on.”

“Hill has relations in Liverpool.” Florence took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Her gaze fell to her hands, clasped together in her lap. “I gave her permission to pay calls on her family, since we would not be traveling to London until the following day. One of the hotel’s maids assisted me with dressing and with my hair, and when I retired, she stayed in Hill’s connecting room in case I required anything. Her name was Symmons. Sometime during the night, her room was broken into, and she was strangled with the curtain cord.”

“Good Lord!” Rhiannon exclaimed.

“Yes, it was dreadful,” Florence said, shaking her head. “The poor girl… she was younger than my own daughter, you know. I found her in the morning, in that little bed, her face almost black… her tongue… her eyes…” Florence turned even more ashen.

Lina laid a hand atop Florence’s. “Take your time.”

“My baggage was in that room. The police believe the maid’s murder was the work of a thief, but the only thing stolen was the empty trunk belonging to Mr. Weems. I provided them with a description.” Florence paused and seemed to be trying to collect her thoughts. “That poor, poor girl,” she repeated, sighing. “I told the manager if there was anything I could do for Symmons’ family, he was to let me know. Needless to say, when Hill returned and learned what had happened, she turned white as a ghost.”

“And you came to London directly after the discovery of the maid’s murder?”

“Yes, that seemed prudent. On the way to the train station, however, our cab was deliberately blocked in the street by several ruffians. Fortunately, a nearby police constable intervened and the men fled before anyone came to harm. I don’t mind telling you, Evangeline, that my nerves are in a shocking state. What if this Mr. Weems was responsible for the maid’s death? What if I am next? Or Hill? Oh! I can hardly bear it.” Tears trembled on her lashes.

Without waiting to be asked, Rhiannon rang the bell to summon Hill, who proved to be a plump, middle-aged, cheerful-looking woman in a black bombazine dress with white celluloid collar and cuffs. Her apron and hat were freshly starched. Rhiannon asked her to order tea to be brought up to the suite, and she left at once.

“Do you wish me to locate Mr. Weems and ascertain his intentions?” Lina asked Florence.

“I would like you to discover who…” Florence broke off. “Do you smell smoke?”

Lina sniffed the air. There was a stronger trace of smoke than might be expected from the single small fire burning in the sitting room’s fireplace grate. She stood. “Perhaps we ought to-”

A male voice bellowed from the corridor, audible through the closed door: “Fire! Fire!”

“Oh, God.” Florence shot to her feet.

Hill ran back into the room, out of breath. “Milady, there’s a fire down the hall. We must leave now.”

“No one panic. Remain calm,” Lina ordered. “We will proceed to the stairway in good order. My dear, remain close to me. Hill, be kind enough to lead the way. Florence,  I beg you will stay close to Miss Moore.  Should we be separated, we will meet below in the street.”

Rhiannon took Florence’s hand. “It will be well, milady,” she said with a reassuring smile. Florence returned the smile, but she still appeared frightened.

The four women proceeded into the corridor. Hill had left the hotel room door open. Billows of choking grey smoke poured into the room. Lina coughed. Her eyes immediately began to water. She reached behind her, fumbling for Rhiannon’s wrist, only for her grasp to be broken as a bulky body barreled into her, knocking her off her feet.

“Lina?” Rhiannon called, a note of panic in her voice. “Lina!”

Lina could not make out much in the disorienting smoke. “Go on,” she called, coughing. “I will follow you.”

The man who had run into her reached down and hauled Lina to her feet, setting her upright with a thump that rattled her teeth together. “Gimme what I want,” the man said, the menace in his tone clear, “or you ain’t gonna live to see another day, lady!”

A part of Lina’s well-trained mind processed the few clues that could be gleaned, even as her body was prepared to respond to the threat with force. He was American, that was certain, his vocal expression roughened by a New York accent that sounded nasal to her ears. The man was her height but much burlier, his strength evident in the way he had lifted her without apparent strain. There was an overlay of fat on his hard muscles, telling her that he was a man who worked hard but enjoyed some luxuries in his life. His face was hardly more than a smudge in the smoke that filled the corridor, his features reduced to invisibility.

Why had he attacked her? What did he want? Was this Weems? These were questions whose answers would have to wait.

“Gimme back what you took, you damned thief…” he demanded, shaking her a little.

Using the Oriental martial art of baritsu, Lina broke his hold on her arms, then drove her elbow into the soft spread of his belly. He let out a gust of beer-scented breath and doubled over, clutching himself. Had they been on the street, Lina would have likely followed up her initial blow with a strike to his vulnerable head with her knee. However, the hotel was on fire, her lungs felt as if they were three sizes too small, and somewhere Rhiannon was waiting. Another man was passing them at that moment, stumbling alone with his hand on the wall for navigation. Lina felt the vibration of his footsteps. She reached out, snagging some part of his costume – his jacket, she thought.

“Help me,” she wheezed, guiding him down to put his hand on her attacker’s shoulder. The other man let out an exclamation and began to help the American to his feet. Shouts and heavier footsteps told her that members of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade had arrived, bringing with them the crystalline sound of shattering glass – no doubt Patent Fire Grenades, she thought, filled with carbonic acid to extinguish the blaze. Lina took the opportunity to leave the scene, wondering if the fire would be of sufficient interest to the Prince of Wales, who was known to have a keen interest in fire fighting and would often make his presence felt at notable blazes.

The stairwell was thankfully almost free of smoke. Lina gasped fresh air and made her way down to the street level where she found Rhiannon, Florence and Hill standing in a group with other hotel guests and employees who had fled the fire.

“Thank God!” Rhiannon said, going to Lina and embracing her in obvious relief. Lina put her arms around Rhiannon’s waist, holding her tightly for a blessed moment.

“Good heavens, what a to-do!” Florence said. Her face was smeared with soot, as was her taffeta dress. “I hope you were not injured, Evangeline.”

“I am quite well,” Lina said. During the walk down the stairs, her mind had been making deductions at rapid speed. She had some conjectures that required more facts to prove or disprove. “My dear,” she said to Rhiannon, “I must send some telegrams. Will you stay with Lady Westmacott until my return?” A realization struck her and she continued, “I beg your pardon, Florence. May I present Miss Moore, my companion?”

“How do you do?” Florence murmured politely. “Evangeline, must you send telegrams at this precise moment?”

Instead of answering her, Lina turned her attention back to Rhiannon. “I want you to take Lady Westmacott and Hill to our home. Once you arrive there, have the footmen arm themselves as a precaution.”

“Is there… is Lady Westmacott in danger?” Rhiannon asked, gazing at Florence out of the corner of her eye.

“In a word, yes,” Lina answered. “Stay with her. Do not let her out of your sight. Upon no account admit strangers into the house, not even delivery men by the servant’s entrance. Let Grosvenor Street become a fortress.”

“And you? Do I need to worry about you, love?” Rhiannon’s hand stole out to smooth a crumpled ribbon on Lina’s bodice.

“Suffer no such apprehension, my dear. I am not the intended victim.”

Lina took a cab-whistle out of her reticule and stepping close to the curb, summoned a four-wheeled ‘growler’ with a single shrill blast. Helping Florence, Rhiannon and the maid into the conveyance, she gave the driver the address and sent the cab on its way.

That task completed and the fire in the hotel having been put out – it proved to be the result of arson, she learned, but the purpose seemed to have been the creation of smoke rather than serious damage – Lina was able to engage a room and spent a bit of time cleaning the smut from her face and hands. After these necessary ablutions, she directed her steps to a nearby telegraph office, sending a telegram to the New York City Police Department, as well as numerous telegrams to banks in the vicinity of Brown’s Hotel, as well as several banks in Liverpool. It was fortunate that she had once been in New York following a counterfeiter, and assisted a detective in solving a case of murder involving a debutante found dead in a locked room. She and Detective Jacob Hawley still corresponded from time to time.

Going to a tearoom to refresh herself with a full pot of Oolong and a plate of dainty sandwiches, she returned to the telegraph office. There were already some replies. She perused the flimsy yellow papers, nodding to herself. Yes, the situation was as she had thought; her deductions had been proved correct. Stuffing the telegram flimsies into her reticule, she directed the telegraph office clerk to have further replies delivered to Grosvenor Street. Back at the hotel, she engaged an idle messenger to deliver a note to Inspector Harold Valentine of Scotland Yard.

At home, Lina was met by a relieved Rhiannon. “Inspector Valentine is here,” the red-haired woman said. “He’s with Lady Westmacott in the drawing room.” Rhiannon paused. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“My dear, all is well and all is well in hand,” Lina replied, bending to give her a nuzzle and a kiss, just a chaste brush of mouth upon mouth that was also a promise of more passionate embraces to come. “Let us join our guests,” she said, parting from Rhiannon reluctantly. “I have information to impart which will provide an explanation of current events.”

Rhiannon’s smile was dazzling. She threaded her arm through Lina’s, and led her to the drawing room where Florence, Inspector Valentine and Hill were waiting.

“What’s this about a New York murderer?” Valentine asked upon catching sight of Lina. He stood near the fireplace, his elbow propped on the mantel.

“Good afternoon to you, too, Harry,” Lina said. She turned to Florence, noting that her godmother had a little more healthy color in her face. “How are you?” she asked.

“Oh, the inspector and I have been having the most fascinating conversation regarding criminal elements in Brunswick Street,” Florence said. She had changed her smoke-damaged dress for one of Rhiannon’s unstructured tea gowns, and sitting among the elegant furnishings in the drawing room, was the picture of a genteel dowager.

Lina saw that Valentine’s face was acquiring some color as well – twin stripes of ire-induced crimson on his cheekbones. As amusing as it was to watch the inspector simmer, she did not want to keep Florence waiting. Gesturing for Rhiannon to take a seat, she said, “I am now prepared to disclose the details concerning Lady Westmacott’s empty trunk, the subsequent murder of Symmons – the hotel maid in Liverpool – the fire at Brown’s Hotel earlier today, and the connection these events have to a recent robbery in New York City.”

“Get on with it,” Valentine growled.

“I deduced there had been some kind of robbery, otherwise why harass Lady Westmacott? My conjecture was confirmed after I sent a telegram to the New York City Police Department and received their reply furnishing me with the particulars. ” Lina could not help pausing for dramatic effect.

Valentine rocked back and forth on his heels. “Go on,” he said. “I’ve heard somewhat of this New York robbery. The American police asked Scotland Yard to keep an eye out for one of the fellows involved, a real nasty character.”

“According to Detective Hawley, with whom I am acquainted, the robbery was perpetrated by one Frederick Slattery Whitaker, aided by his gang.” Lina opened a camel bone box on a table and took out an Egyptian cigarette. After lighting it with a lucifer and blowing out a stream of smoke, she tossed the spent match into the fireplace grate and went on, “The thieves escaped with $50,000 but not without engaging in a firefight with law enforcement officials. In the process, three police officers were killed and innocent bystanders wounded. I am certain Inspector Valentine will bear me out when I say that no matter the country, the police take a dim view of the murder of their own.”

“Just so, milady. Just so,” said Valentine.

“Whitaker betrayed his gang and took the entire sum for himself, eluding detectives and boarding the Teutonic in New York under the name Weems,” Lina said. “One of his trunks contained the stolen money. This was the same trunk that was mistakenly switched for one of Lady Westmacott’s when she disembarked in Liverpool.”

Florence put her fingertips against her lips. “Lord! But the trunk was empty… the ship’s porters took the lot, I presume. Why blame me?”

“No, the original error may be laid at the porters’ door, but it was, in fact, another who purloined the cash.” Lina surveyed the room, relishing the tightening of tension that could be felt in the atmosphere. She let it build a moment before saying, “I took the liberty of making inquiries at banks here and in Liverpool, desirous of ascertaining if a large amount of American dollars had recently been exchanged into pounds by a woman…”

The maid, Hill, burst out, “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

Florence was clearly taken aback. “Hill? What did you do?”

For a moment, Lina wondered if Hill would maintain her air of defiance, but a mild look from Florence had the woman sinking back into her chair, her shoulders slumping in a classic sign of defeat. “I didn’t mean any harm,” Hill said. “My sister’s got so many little ones, and her husband’s out of work these six months… it wasn’t milady’s money, so I thought it would never be missed.”

“Oh, Hill…” Florence sighed. “Had you told me, I would have gladly done what I could to help your sister. Do you believe me to be so hard-hearted?”

Hill gulped. “I’m sorry, milady.”

“Well, the harm’s been done. How much of the money is left?”

“Most of it, milady. I only gave Hetty fifty pounds.”

“Where is the remainder?”

“In a bank on Threadneedle Street.”

Florence sighed again. “I will not dismiss you,” she said, “but I do expect to be kept better informed of your family situation and obligations. I can’t have my servants pocketing stolen bank funds. You will naturally return what is left of the money to the police, and the fifty pounds will be repaid in increments from your salary.”

Hill wiped her wet eyes with a handkerchief and hiccupped. “Of course, milady. Thank you. You’ve been too kind to me.”

Valentine nodded. “You’ll be coming to the bank with me when this is over, my good woman,” he said to the maid. “And count yourself lucky that I don’t press charges myself.”

Lina interrupted before the unfortunate Hill could burst into noisy tears. “To continue, as soon as Whitaker discovered the mistake, he inquired at the shipping office for potential passengers who shared his initials F.W. and was put onto Lady Westmacott. No doubt he made further inquiries at hotels in the area. Having located her, he assumed his Weems guise and paid a call to retrieve his trunk. One can imagine his fury and frustration upon being thwarted by a mere woman, and a woman who had presumably stolen $50,000 of his money at that!

“Unbeknownst to him, Hill took the money secretly and went to visit her family in Liverpool, leaving Lady Westmacott alone save for a hotel maid.

“During the night, Whitaker broke into Lady Westmacott’s room, determined to locate his trunk. He found it in the maid’s chamber, empty. Enraged, he strangled the maid, took the empty trunk and left. Why did he not perform a more thorough search for the money?” Lina shrugged. “I do not know. Perhaps he feared discovery if he lingered any longer, or perhaps, like many criminals, he harbors a dread of remaining in the room with a dead body. I have seen hardened career criminals blanch when confronted by a corpse of their own making.

“At any rate, it was Whitaker who arranged for her ladyship’s cab to be attacked by ruffians. I believe he thought the missing money was in your jewel case, since you keep it always about your person while traveling,” Lina said to Florence. “He was thwarted for a second time. Whitaker then followed you to London, waiting for another chance.”

“The hotel fire!” Florence exclaimed.

“Yes, begun with a few handfuls of smoldering straw. I believe it was not Whitaker’s intention to burn the hotel to a cinder, but to drive you out of your room so that he might search it in relative peace. Do you know the fellow attacked me in the corridor?”

“What?” Rhiannon stood up, her face paling. “You said nothing of this!”

“I had no wish to cause undue apprehension,” Lina said hastily. She had forgotten that Rhiannon was likely to have a negative reaction to the news. “My dear, in the mistaken belief that I was Lady Westmacott, he merely threatened me with violence should I not return to him the missing money. I was able to defend myself against him quite handily.”

“Yet you promptly went off alone,” Rhiannon accused, “with that man Whitaker free to act as he pleased, and who knows what he might have done!”

“All is well,” Lina said soothingly. “Pray do not trouble yourself with ‘what ifs.’ I am certain that he did not remain at the hotel, but followed the cab here and is no doubt watching the house.”

Rhiannon sank back onto the settee. “I still don’t like it.”

“I will endeavor not to incommode you in the future.” Lina tried to convey to Rhiannon the silent message that she would submit to a discussion later. Finally, Rhiannon sniffed, nodding at her to go on.

“To return to Whitaker,” Lina said, gesturing with her cigarette, “it is my belief that he remains in London. Indeed, where can he go without his ill-gotten gains? Therefore, I propose a trap be set for him. Harry, if you followed my instructions and brought with you a smooth-cheeked and youthful constable…”

“Aye, that’d be young Dashwood,” Valentine said. “He used to play petticoat roles at school, he tells me. A prettier man you’ll not likely see. He’s in your kitchen now, milady, being petted and spoiled by your cook, scullery maids, and every other female in the house, I’ll wager. Women are drawn to Dashwood like flies to treacle.”

“Excellent. And the other arrangements?”

“Done.”

“Harry, you are a pearl among men.”

Valentine bared his teeth in a smile.

Lina finished smoking her cigarette and threw the remains into the fireplace grate. “I suppose I ought to help Constable Dashwood don his disguise.”

“Lina, what arrangements have you made?” Rhiannon asked.

“Constable Dashwood, costumed as Lady Westmacott and shadowed by the inspector’s men, will attempt to lure Whitaker into a trap and capture him.”

“And what if you fail, Evangeline?” Florence asked. “I should not like to spend the remainder of my life in fear of this American scoundrel.”

Lina crossed the room and put a reassuring hand on Florence’s shoulder. “Have no worries on that score. Whitaker will be taken. His greed ensures it.”

A short while later, Lina was dressed in a black bombazine maid’s outfit, her hair drawn back into a severe knot and powdered to simulate traces of grey as Hill was, like Lady Westmacott, ‘un femme d’un certain âge.’ Opposite her in the growler was Constable Dashwood, looking willowy in a violet silk dress, his features blurred by the net veil on his hat. Judicious corseting and padding had given him a credible female figure.

There was a single source of dissatisfaction, however, and that came from the presence of Rhiannon in the growler, crouched down between the seats so that she was not visible to casual view. Lina had argued against her lover’s presence, but Rhiannon remained adamant about her inclusion in the proceedings. In the end, Lina had been forced to acquiesce. Rhiannon was armed with a British Bulldog revolver at Lina’s insistence, although the woman had promised not to become involved in any shooting unless it was absolutely necessary. Both Dashwood and Lina were also armed. The driver of the growler was a police detective, and the growler was being follwoed by other constables and detectives in various vehicles and on foot. Lina was confident of success.

When it came, the attack was almost an anti-climax.

As had happened in Liverpool, a furniture cart drawn by large horses halted in front of the growler to stop its progress. A nearby hired carriage disgorged several rudely-dressed men bearing cudgels. One of them – broad shouldered, barrel-chested, broken-nosed and possessing carroty red hair – came to the growler’s door and jerked it open.

“I want my money, you…” Whitaker gritted, hefting the cudgel. His eyes widened considerably upon seeing the muzzles of three pistols aimed in his direction. He glanced about. His hired help was being apprehended by a veritable flood of uniformed constables pouring from vehicles and side streets. Whitaker’s shoulder tightened, and he snarled.

“Do not attempt an escape, Mr. Whitaker,” Lina told him coolly. “I am an excellent shot, and so are my companions. We can hardly miss at this short distance.”

Much to Lina’s satisfaction, the cudgel dropped from his hands just as a constable approached to put the darbies on him and take Whitaker away to Scotland Yard. She tucked the pistol back into her reticule, assisting  Rhiannon in rising stiffly from her crouch on the floor.

“My dear, shall we return home and tell my godmother the good news?” Lina asked, certain that she already knew the answer.

Rhiannon nodded, a gloved hand seeking Lina’s. “And on the way home, perhaps we can discuss certain matters…” Her voice trailed off as she arched her eyebrows.

An excellent conclusion to the case, Lina thought, and after seeing Dashwood off to a Black Maria that held his uniform, she directed the growler’s driver to take them back to Grosvenor Street, pulling the shades down on the windows for privacy’s sake before taking Rhiannon into her arms.

THE END

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THE BODY ON THE SERPENTINE
Nene Adams Copyright 2004

It was, Lady Evangeline St. Claire reflected, a perfect day for a picnic.

Having some time to themselves with no criminal cases in sight, she and Rhiannon Moore – her lover, partner and other half of her soul – had purchased a large hamper of delectables from Fortnum and Mason, purveyor of ready-made luxuries, and hied off to fashionable Hyde Park to bask in the late summer sunshine.

Having found a lovely spot near the Serpentine, the artificial lake that separated Hyde Park from its neighbor, Kensington Gardens, she and Rhiannon settled beneath a shady tree to indulge in the time-honored occupation of watching passers-by. From shopgirls in bombazine and nannies with their charges, to gaily dressed ladies of leisure and the gentlemen who escorted them, the park was a popular place to be seen en promenade.

“Isn’t that Baroness de Witt?” Rhiannon asked. She was seated on the picnic blanket, leaning on one hip with her legs folded together on the other side – a sidesaddle posture that seemed more uncomfortable than it truly was.

“Yes, I believe that is Cordelia de Witt,” Lina answered, “but the gentleman is not her husband. I had thought her to have a tad more discretion than parading a lover in public. What the newspapers will make of it, I dare not guess.”

“He might be a cousin or a some other relation,” Rhiannon said, biting into a plump scarlet strawberry. “You needn’t assume the worst.” A bit of juice collected at the corner of her mouth. Lina wrestled the urge to lean over and lick it away. The sweetness of the berry juice would not, she knew, equal the sweetness of Rhiannon’s lips.

To quell the sudden insistent thud-thud-thud of her heart, Lina investigated the contents of the picnic hamper. If one appetite could not be satisfied, perhaps another could. The uniform-clad, white-gloved assistant at Fortnum and Mason had outfitted them in style with heavy silver-plate cutlery, crystal glasses and delicate china tableware; the hamper also contained an outstanding selection of foodstuffs including a crock of goose liver paté, a cold lobster, ham, boned quails in aspic with prawns, strawberries and a bottle of champagne.

She expertly eased the cork from the champagne bottle with her thumbs – not for her the showy explosion that resulted in the loss of half the contents and left the remainder unpleasantly flat. After serving herself and Rhiannon with bubbly champagne, Lina took some ham and a bit of quail aspic, happy and content and full of joi de vivre.

This state of affairs lasted until a wail from nearby startled her into dropping her glass of champagne, wetting her skirts most  unpleasantly. Lina looked around to locate the source of the contretemps and saw a woman struggling to rise from the grass, her motion hampered by her bustle; the tight sleeves of her dress threatened to split at the seams under her agitated movements. On the opposite side of the blanket, a fat and florid man seemed to be choking, both beefy hands clutched around his neck, his eyes fairly bulging from their sockets.

“My husband! Someone help my husband!” the woman screamed, wringing her hands in the depths of her distress.

A bewhiskered gentleman with their party was slapping the victim on the back with no discernible result. A second female – much younger than the first, possibly a daughter – had swooned. Lina leaped to her feet, knocking over the champagne bottle, and hastened to help. A fellow in brown tweed, accompanied by a curly-haired spaniel, declared himself a doctor and began to tend to the choking man, who had already collapsed, spasming in every limb. After a few moments, the doctor declared the man dead.

The older woman, whom Lina deduced was the dead man’s wife, let out a blood-curdling scream of grief that sent the doctor’s spaniel into hysterics. The dog raced around in a circle, scattering the picnic things and making an unholy mess in the process. The daughter recovered from her faint, only to lose consciousness again when she learned of her father’s demise. Letting out loud sobs and moans, the girl’s mother clung to the fourth member of their party, the gentleman who had been smacking her husband’s back to so little effect.

Lina took hold of the doctor’s arm, drawing him aside. In the confusion, she had taken the opportunity to perform a cursory examination of the body. What she found was troubling. “We must notify Scotland Yard,” she told him.

The doctor curled his lip. It was clear he disapproved of meddling females. “Madam, there is no reason to summon the Yard for what is a clear case of accidental death. The fellow choked or suffered an apoplexy.”

Lina shook her head. “Did you fail to notice the foam on the man’s lips? The extraordinary floridness of his complexion? The smell of almonds? My dear sir, that man has been poisoned. Considering the symptoms, I suspect prussic acid.”

“Who are you?” the doctor asked, his mustache bristling fiercely.

“Lady Evangeline St. Claire,” Lina answered, having no reason to conceal her identity. “If you will not send for Scotland Yard, I will do it myself.”

“Very well, milady, although I think it’s a fool’s errand.” He bared his teeth in what was not a smile.

A considerable crowd had gathered to observe the proceedings; it was not every day that a man died in Hyde Park, Lina mused, and that generated no little excitement among the hoi polloi and the better classes alike. A police constable’s appearance made the throng sigh with anticipation. The doctor spoke to him at length, both men shooting her glances, but Lina remained unperturbed. She knew she was right and, she believed, the doctor knew it, too. Like most men, he had to show the appearance of reluctance in order to preserve the façade that he was merely indulging a lady, not taking orders from her – a tiresome but necessary self-deception to avoid damaging male pride.

And this is the master of all he surveys, she thought, snorting in amusement.

“May I know your name, sir?” Lina asked the doctor when the constable had gone off to fetch his superiors.

“Dr. Julian Idlewyld,” he replied, cutting his glance towards the victim. Idlewyld had had the decency to cover the man’s engorged features with a clean handkerchief.

Rhiannon joined them, having had the presence of mind to lure the spaniel with a slice of ham and secure the dog before it could continue running amok. “He’s a sweet creature,” she said to Idlewyld, leading the dog over to him, “but perhaps a trifle excitable.”

The doctor snapped the leather lead on the panting spaniel’s collar. The smile he directed towards Rhiannon was distinctly friendlier than the one he had given Lina. “Thank you, Miss…?”

“Miss Moore,” Lina said firmly, “is my companion. Thank you, my dear. There has been enough confusion for one day, I think.”

Idlewyld tipped his hat at Rhiannon. “A pleasure, Miss Moore.”

“Likewise, Dr. Idlewyld,” Rhiannon replied pertly, much to Lina’s disgust.

The constable returned with more Myrmidons of the law, including a figure well-known to both Lina and Rhiannon: Inspector Harold Valentine of Scotland Yard. He drummed his fingers on the round, hard paunch of his belly and squinted at the women in a relatively friendly fashion.

“If it ain’t Lady St. Claire and Miss Moore,” Valentine said, chewing an unlit cigar with his usual ferocity. “Fancy meeting you two at the scene of a murder. Hah!”

“I assure you, Harry, our presence at the unfortunate affair is pure coincidental. We were having a picnic,” Lina said, lacing her arm through Rhiannon’s, “when our idyll was interrupted by this most unfortunate happenstance.”

The bewhiskered fellow comforting the new widow spoke up. “What’s all this hullabaloo? Have some common decency, won’t you – the lady has just lost her husband, damn your eyes”

“And who might you be?” Valentine asked, rocking back and forth on his toes.

“Frederick Gideon Mordecai Butterfield III,” he answered, his hostility clearly written in the sneer and the gimlet glare he directed towards the police inspector.

That Butterfield was American was evident by the man’s accent; his occupation as a photographer could be deduced by the chemical stains on his hands and sleeve cuffs, Lina thought, her keen observational skills making such deductions as natural to her as breathing. In fact, the right jacket sleeve was positively peppered with tiny burn scars from the explosive magnesium and potassium chlorate combination known as flashpowder, which enabled him to take photographs in low light. Lina further concluded that Butterfield was an habitual pipe smoker, as evident by the matted and nicotine-stained section of beard near the corner of his mouth. Thick calluses on his hands indicated that Butterfield had done heavy labor at some time in the not-too-distant past.

Inspector Valentine questioned the sobbing widow gently and patiently while Lina shamelessly eavesdropped. He learned that the dead man was a wealthy dilettante named Simon Barnabas. He left behind a widow – Henrietta – and a daughter, Louisa; no other relatives remained to carry on the family name. Mr. Butterfield offered the information that he was a distant relation of the widow’s; she was his cousin from the English branch of his family.

In the meantime, Dr. Idlewyld applied sal volatile to the fainting Louisa in an effort to restore her to sensibility. The girl recovered slowly from her swoon with much fluttering of eyelashes and soft breathy sounds. Idlewyld muttered something about loosening her corset, which made Louisa spring up as if hot coals had been applied to her feet. She burst into tears, burying her face in the doctor’s waistcoast, clinging to him like a particularly soggy limpet. As she was a very pretty girl despite the tears, it seemed to Lina that Idlewyld did not much mind.

“Poor man,” Rhiannon said, leaning companionably against Lina and nodding at the corpse. “It wasn’t a very pleasant way to die.”

“All persons aspire to slip away peacefully at the ripe old age of one hundred or thereabouts, my dear, but in my experience, death is often violent or painful or both, and usually unexpected.”

“How do you suppose the poison was introduced into Mr. Barnabas?”

“That is a question,” Lina answered, pushing a stray lock of black hair behind her ear. Murder was hard on the coiffure; half her pins had been loosened in the excitement. “Let us wait upon Harry, since he has official sanction here. I am certain that I can winkle the facts out of him when he has finished his interrogation.”

Rhiannon smiled. Lina’s heart was so swollen and tender with affection, she could not help the idiotic grin that stretched her own mouth. Nearly two years together and she could not imagine life without her fiery, red-headed partner.

“In the meantime,” she said after regaining control of herself, “let us beg a quantity of empty bottles from the onlookers. I wish to take samples of the food to test for poison myself. The police laboratory is adequate for the court’s purposes but I would prefer to verify the work with my own hands.”

“What poison is it?”

“Did I not tell you? Prussic acid, my dear. At least, I believe it to be so based upon the symptoms that Mr. Barnabas displayed.”

“Prussic acid…” Rhiannon frowned. “That sounds familiar.”

Before Lina could expand upon the subject, Valentine sauntered over, his eyes narrowed to slits. “Well, I’ll wait upon the surgeon to confirm your diagnosis, milady. Barnabas may have been poisoned, but he may also have choked on a chicken bone.”

Lina was about to give him her opinion of his opinion – Harry Valentine had known her long enough to show a modicum of trust – when it suddenly struck her that the Barnabas’ picnic goods were unusual, to say the least. The damage done by Dr. Idlewyld’s spaniel could not explain what was scattered over the blanket. She got down on her knees, the better to examine the mess.

Vichyssoise – she wrinkled her nose at cold potato and leek soup – had made a creamy white splash on the blanket. The orange pool in the corner was carrot soup flavored with (from the smell) plenty of dill. There was evidence of turtle soup, a nice clear consommé au naturel, something that she tentatively identified as potage a la Crécy from the Wellington supper rooms in Piccadilly, and an oxtail soup spiked with sherry.

No bread, no fruit, no meat… just soups which had, Lina discovered when she peered into the Barnabas’ hamper, been preserved at the proper temperature in large glass bottles. The party had been eating their meal of soup out of earthenware bowls; each ‘place’ was set with a water glass, a spoon and a napkin. No, not a single spoon, Lina thought. Simon Barnabas had six spoons, while the rest made do with one apiece.

Someone nudged her shoulder. Lina looked up; it was Rhiannon, balancing a number of empty beer bottles in her arms. “Will this be enough for your samples?” Rhiannon asked.

“Yes, my dear, more than sufficient,” Lina replied. She took the bottles and proceeded to take a sample from each of the spilled soups on the blanket. On the chance that the prussic acid had been present in the bowls used by the man, she took those , too, and all six of Barnabas’ spoons, blessing Rhiannon when the woman distracted Inspector Valentine by asking after a mutual acquaintance. Lina quickly turned up the hem of her petticoat and pinned it to form a large pocket under her voluminous skirts, large enough to hold her booty securely.

Rising, she joined Rhiannon and said to Valentine, “If you are quite done reminiscing on the career of ‘Blinker’ Pinker the one-eyed burglar, I ought to be returning home.”

“If you must,” Valentine said, giving Rhiannon a friendly wink. “You remember me in your prayers, luv. I reckon the Good Lord’ll listen to an angel like you instead of an old reprobate like me.”

Rhiannon chuckled, giving him a brilliant smile, and took Lina’s arm.

It was the work of a moment to gather their own picnic things and summon thecarriage driver, Henry, to take them back to their house in Grosvenor Street. As soon as she returned home, Lina took her bottles and bowls and spoons to the study, keeping the footmen busy fetching instruments and apparatus from the attic. Soon, she had a small chemical laboratory set up on a table near the Chinese screen that hid the overflowing bookcase.

Rhiannon remained coiled upon the green velvet settee, chin in hand, while Lina prepared the samples. Unfortunately, testing for prussic acid was a meticulous, time-consuming process. First, one had to combine the sample with chlorine; if the poisonous substance was present, cyanogen chloride would be formed. That was the first step. While she worked, Lina explained the process to her watchful lover.

“The introduction of pyridine into the flask should form glutocondialdehyde, which, when combined with dimethylbarbituric acid, will turn the substance a violet color if cyanide is present,” Lina said, watching the flask. “The intensity of the hue varies upon the strength of the poison.”

Rhiannon sat up straight. “Did you say cyanide?”

“Yes, I did.” Lina put the flask down on the table. The color had not changed; no prussic acid was present. She marked the result on a scrap of paper.

“You said before it was prussic acid!”

“My dear, hydrogen cyanide and prussic acid are one and the same.”

Rhiannon bit her lip, then blurted, “The photographer did it. Mr. Butterfield.”

Lina had donned a white smock before beginning her work; she wiped her hands on the protective muslin garment and inquired, “How do you know this, my dear?” It was not that she did not believe Rhiannon, but the law and logic demanded proof.

“As you know, my late father’s hobby was photography. He once poisoned himself with potassium cyanide, which is used in the photographic process.” Rhiannon shivered. She stood and fetched a paisley shawl, which she wrapped around her shoulders. “Would potassium cyanide work as well as hydrogen cyanide?”

“Oh, yes, for a murderer’s purposes, the two substances work in similar fashion.” Lina considered her next words carefully; she did not want to hurt Rhiannon’s feelings. “Mr. Butterfield certainly had access to cyanide, but that is not the only question which must be answered. He had means and opportunity… but what was his motive?”

“I don’t know,” Rhiannon said. “He seemed somewhat close to Mrs. Barnabas, but she was in shock and he is a relation, although a distant one.”

“We have only his word for that.” Lina picked up a new sample – the turtle soup, she thought. “Let me complete the laboratory tasks first, then we will pay a visit to Inspector Valentine in Scotland Yard… provided we have news to tell.”

However, it was not until the following morning that Lina was able to compete her tests. The results made her raise an eyebrow until it ached. Not quite what she expected, and there remained the troublesome question of motive, but there was evidence that needed to be presented to Inspector Valentine.

Rather than go to the Yard, Lina elected to send a note to the inspecor, asking him to join her in Grosvenor Street. His arrival coincided with the tea tray brought into the study by a footman. Valentine let out the glad cry of a bachelor condemned to his own cooking, and wasted no time tucking into egg-and-cress and tomato sandwiches with the crusts cut off, Eccles cake and toasted muffins dripping with butter.

Rhiannon, a woman who enjoyed her afternoon tea, watched Valentine make a proper pig of himself with some dismay before ringing Jackson to bring more sandwiches and cake from the kitchen. Lina stifled her amusement and poured tea, although she did wince at the obscene amount of sugar cubes that Valentine dropped into his milk-laced cup.

At last, his appetite satisfied, Valentine sat back, made a discreet belch behind his hand, and said, “Thank ‘ee kindly for the tea, milady. Now what can I do for thee, eh?”

Lina showed him the things she had taken from the picnic, earning a cry of outrage from the man. “B’God, milady, that ain’t fair doings!” Valentine said, his cheeks gone red with fury. “You stole them spoons from under my nose!”

“So I did, Harry,” Lina replied calmly. “Now do you want to waste time berating me for my sins, or do you wish to solve this case?”

“Don’t think we won’t have more words about your sticky fingers,” Valentine grumbled, but Rhiannon thoughtfully supplied him with a slice of Cook’s best lemon tart, and he subsided into a sort of sugar-induced state of semi-bonhomie.

“Can you tell me, Harry, whose idea was the picnic?” Lina asked.

“Mrs. Barnabas, or so the daughter says,” Valentine replied around a mouthful of tart. “The soup was her idea, too, being as how the late Mr. Barnabas was having some trouble with his teeth.”

“I see. Why did Barnabas use six spoons instead of one?”

“To hear Mrs. Barnabas tell the tale, her husband was one of those fellows that can’t stand a flyspeck. When he ate his supper, he used a different fork and knife for every item on his plate, not just different cutlery for every course. Daft, eh? Oh, beg pardon… Barnabas was eccentric ‘cause he could afford not to be mad,” Valentine snorted. “A poorer man we’d have just called insane and sent to Colney Hatch in a leather jacket.”

“Did everyone eat the same?”

“Yes, all four of them ate some of each soup.”

Lina sat back on the settee, steepled her fingers together and asked the final question that would either confirm or deny her suspicions. “Harry, you have a keen sense of judgment when it comes to your fellow man. What is your impression of the relationship between Mr. Butterfield and Mrs. Barnabas?”

Valentine’s sandy brows came together in a frown. “What might you be after, milady?”

“The truth, of course.”

“I had a wee chat with the Barnabas family’s butler, a cheeky fellow name of Quillard,” he said, leaning back in the chair. “You know servants, milady; they see everything, they hear everything ’cause folks forget they’re in the room.”

Pas devant les domestiques,” Lina murmured.

“As you say, milady.” Valentine delayed a few moments choosing a cigar from a case that he took from the inner pocket of his  jacket. After the business of lighting the cigar with a lucifer and seeing that it was drawing properly, the inspector continued, “Quillard says that Mr. Fred Butterfield showed up about two months ago claiming a cousin’s privilege from Henrietta Barnabas. The husband was happy to accommodate his wife’s relation; ‘tweren’t no skin off his nose to give bed n’ board to an American abroad. Only Simon Barnabas didn’t know his wife was sneaking into Butterfield’s bedchamber at night, when she thought everyone was asleep. She never reckoned on Quillard bein’ one of those chappies who can’t go to bed without a drink or two of the master’s brandy.”

Rhiannon nodded. “Motive,” she said to Lina.

Sui bono?” Lina asked Valentine, who blew a smoke ring and professed his ignorance. She repeated the question in English: “Who benefits? I assume his wife is the principle beneficiary in  Mr. Barnabas’ will.”

“I’ve not had time to question the solicitor but I reckon you’re right,” Valentine said. “Now, milady, it’s my turn to ask the questions, if you don’t mind.”

“As a matter of fact, I do mind,” Lina said, cutting him off rather rudely. “Harry, I know who murdered Simon Barnabas; I know how it was done and why. If you would be so kind as to request the presences of Henrietta Barnabas, Frederick Butterfield and Louisa Barnabas here tonight, I shall reveal all.”

“What are you, a bleedin’ conjurer? You’ll tell me now, milady, or I’ll know the reason why!”

Lina smiled in the face of Valentine’s bluster. “Tonight, Harry,” she repeated.

Familiar with her stubbornness, Valentine gave in with a frustrated grunt.

That evening, the scene was set. Lina had sent out to several restaurants to obtain the right sort of soups, while Rhiannon was dispatched in the carriage with a wad of notes in order to purchase the rest of the required stage props. When Mrs. Barnabas, her daughter Louisa, and Mr. Butterfield arrived at Grosvenor Street, they found a reconstruction of their ill-starred picnic laid out in the study. A blanket was spread on the floor. Earthenware bowls, cutlery and napkins were set out in the correct places; the hamper itself was off to one side.

“Is this some sort of disgusting joke?” Henrietta asked, a handsome, thin woman whose complexion owed a good deal to rouge and pearl powder. Her brunette hair was tightly curled. Deep lines carved from nose to mouth were evidence of a spleenish nature; Lina would have wagered that Henrietta Barnabas rarely smiled.

In contrast, her daughter Louisa was pretty, pert and a dreadful flirt. Lina had seen the girl trying to work her infantile wiles on Dr. Idlewyld in the park; now she witnessed the painful spectacle of Miss Louisa batting her eyelashes and wriggling her hips at poor Harry Valentine. Judging the inspector’s color, Lina thought he was mortified.

Fortunately for Valentine’s countenance, Rhiannon intervened, sending Louisa to sit on the blanket in approximately the same position as she had been the day before. The bewhiskered Mr. Butterfield was persuaded to assume his proper place. Although she continued to protest, Henrietta allowed herself to be lowered to the floor.

Lina knew that she was shamelessly indulging her love of the melodramatic and theatrical, but it felt good to have an audience, even a captive one. “It is incumbent upon me to make this announcement,” she began, glancing around to gauge the expressions of the people staring at her. “I shan’t be coy but state my business –  Simon Barnabas was murdered yesterday by someone in this room.”

As she had anticipated, there was a loud and noisy burst of protests from both of the Barnabas women – Louisa was particularly shrill for such a young, tender creature – but Mr. Butterfield overrode them. “I have never been so insulted in my life!” he bellowed. “How dare you, madam! I cannot believe this farce is approved by the authorities. You, sir, ought to be ashamed!” He shook his finger at Valentine. The inspector shrugged.

“Shut your hole or I’ll shut it for you,” Valentine said in a silky drawl. His rude response was so shocking, Butterfield’s mouth closed with a click.

“Thank you,” Lina said to Valentine. “To continue… I do not know who formulated the plot, but I can tell you this – Mr. Barnabas was poisoned with potassium cyanide.” To quell the new uproar which greeted her words, she held up both hands for silence. Valentine put on his best glare, which proved most effective.

When she was certain of being heard, Lina said, “The poison was not in any of the soups because all four members of the party consumed a sample of each. My tests have concluded that cyanide was not present in the earthenware dishes that Mr. Barnabas ate from. The true culprit was a most unusual article at the picnic. Can you guess what I mean?” She tilted her head. “Can you guess, Mrs. Barnabas? Mr. Butterfield?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Henrietta said.

“Your husband was an extremely fastidious gentleman. His habits were, to say the least, somewhat strange.” Lina went to the fireplace, resting an elbow against the mantelpiece. “I have heard that he required a different set of cutlery for each item on his dinner plate.”

Henrietta snapped, “What of it?”

“Simon Barnabas needed six spoons at the picnic – one for each of the different soups which you caused to be purchased, Mrs. Barnabas. Soup is such an unusual item to bring to a summer picnic. I must ask myself why you did not choose more traditional fare.”

“My husband suffered from bad teeth.”

“It is more than that.” Lina suddenly stooped down to contront the seated woman. “Mrs. Barnabas, the amount of cyanide solution that can be painted on a knife or fork is fairly minimal, but on the bowl of a spoon…! And six spoons at that, madam – enough potassium cyanide to kill a man. Hence the soup, since you were familiar with your late husband’s habits. Each spoonful that Simon Barnabas consumed brought him closer to his doom.”

A bead of sweat slipped down Henrietta’s brow. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Lina pointed a finger at her. “Shall I spell it out for you, madam?” She swung that finger to include Mr. Butterfield. “You were having an affair with this man under your husband’s very nose. Yes, there is a witness to your infidelity. You and your lover plotted to be rid of an inconvenient spouse. Butterfield has access to potassium cyanide; it is a chemical much used in the photographer’s profession. Did he lead you to the murder, madam, or was it you who seduced him into committing the deed?”

“No!” Henrietta gasped, while at the same time, Louisa Barnabas drew her hand back and slapped Mr. Butterfield hard enough to knock him over.

“You poncy bastard!” Louisa shrilled, her face turning an ugly shade of brick red. “You told me I was the only one!”

Sometime later, when Valentine had departed with his prisoners – mother and daughter having turned upon Butterfield, whose crime other than a murder conspiracy was to believe he could get away with playing the merry sultan with two females in the same house – Lina sat on the settee with a well-earned whiskey-and-soda.

Rhiannon sat next to her, working on a piece of embroidery.

“Poor Simon Barnabas,” Lina sighed, sipping from her glass and watching Rhiannon out of the corner of her eye. “For him, cleanliness was truly next to Godliness; had he not been such an obsessed individual, it is doubtful that Butterfield’s plot would have gone off as successfully as it did.”

“Poor Mr. Butterfield,” Rhiannon replied, plucking the glass out of Lina’s hand and taking a sip before putting it on the floor. “The Chinese write using a system of pictograms. The pictogram illustrating ‘discord’ is two women under one roof. Of course, however wise the Chinese are supposed to be, that’s not been my experience at all.”

“Oh?”

“I would never describe what is between us as discord, my love.”

“How would you describe us, my dear?”

“Words simply will not suffice.” Rhiannon laid the embroidery aside. “I must demonstrate, I’m afraid.”

Lina tensed.

Rhiannon pounced, her hands rucking up Lina’s skirts, her voice muffled against Lina’s bodice.

“Oh… oh… oh!” The glass of whiskey-and-soda was tipped over onto the hearth rug, but Lina did not notice.

THE END

______________________________________________________________________________________

The Gaslight Series Novels
Black by Gaslight
The Madonna of the Sorrows
The Witch’s Kiss
The Curse of the Jade Dragon – 2010

Award winning novels of suspense, mystery and romance available at on-line retailers and your favorite bookstore

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THE SCARLET POOL
Nene Adams Copyright 2006

“ Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’” Lady Evangeline St. Claire muttered the Shakespeare quotation while surveying the corpse on the floor. Beside and slightly behind her, Rhiannon Moore – her partner in the private detective enterprise as well as in life – pressed a handkerchief to her mouth, staring at the body in the centre of the wide spread scarlet pool.

A fly buzzed in through the open window and settled on the dead man’s eyelid, which had frozen open to show a crescent slit of white.

“That’s not all blood, you know,” said Inspector Harry Valentine, rocking back and forth on his heels as was his habit. The Scotland Yard inspector had a unlit cigar jammed in the corner of his mouth. “A deal of it is paint. Alfred de Morgan was an artist, may his soul rest in peace… but perhaps I ought to let his friend, Mr. Watts, give you the particulars.” He indicated a gentleman standing nearby, his back to the gory scene.

Solomon Watts proved to be a very neat and tidy figure of a man: spotless and perfectly groomed from his pomaded head down to his masterfully shined shoes. “Alfred and I were boys together in school,” he said, looking down his nose at Lina – a difficult feat since she was unusually tall for a woman – and sniffing loudly. It was clear from his expression that he disapproved of her, a female inquiry agent whose conduct was far outside the bounds of polite Society… even though she was the daughter of a Duchess.

He glanced at Valentine, received a grin of encouragement, and went on with obvious misgivings, “At any rate, Alfred and I were rivals for the affections of a young lady, the Honourable Miss Caroline Leighton. Last week, I learned that Alfred was the lucky chap who won the fair lady, and we had a falling out. He’s one of my oldest friends, after some consideration, I felt that I should extend the olive branch, hence my visit to his studio.”

“What happened?” Lina asked.

Rhiannon risked a glance at the body. In death, Alfred de Morgan was unlovely, lying on his face with his limbs a-sprawl in the pool of blood and vermilion paint that surrounded him. The stain was contained to the immediate area, and had not spread beyond. There was a single small splash of blood – a few elongated droplets – on the wall near the window, where the artist had set up his easel. She caught Lina’s gaze and nodded towards the splatter, gratified at her partner’s answering nod and approving smile.

“The poor fellow!” Watts grimaced. “In his haste to greet me, Alfred dropped a large pot of paint on the floor, then he slipped and struck his head on the corner of the work table. I suppose the blow killed him instantly. A most unfortunate incident, most grievous…. had I not been eager to take his hand, had I been able to break his fall, Alfred might still be alive.”

“Yes, if you were close enough,” Lina said, her eyes hooded and watchful.

Watts interrupted. “Our fingertips actually touched,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose and turning pale. “I blame myself. I might have saved my dearest friend! This guilt will haunt me forever. I do not know what I will tell Miss Leighton. She will be utterly desolate.”

“I see.” Lina turned to Inspector Valentine. “How were the police alerted?”

“The maid,” Valentine said, taking the cigar out of his mouth and inspecting the chewed end. “She was upstairs and heard a thud. She came straight down, and found de Morgan as you see him, and Watts in the room as well.”

“Harry, Alfred de Morgan was murdered, and before you stands the murderer!” Lina said, taking hold of Watt’s upper arm. The man’s convulsive jerk was arrested by her strong grip. Rhiannon took a step backwards, realized she was almost treading in the pool of drying blood and paint, and found herself standing near Inspector Valentine.

“Care to explain?” Valentine asked Lina with a hint of sarcasm. He took a pair of handcuffs out of his pocket and held them loosely while watching Watts, who pulled his arm out of Lina’s grasp.

“Woman, are you deranged?” Watts asked Lina angrily, smoothing his rumpled jacket sleeve, then turning to Valentine. “You should keep better control of your… of Lady St. Claire. I am not in the mood for jests, nor do I appreciate being mauled.”

Lina’s expression might have been carved from stone. “Did you believe that by eliminating Mr. de Morgan, you might have a better chance at winning the fair lady?”

“I will not stand here and be insulted.”

“On the contrary,” Lina said, her voice cold and silky. Rhiannon recognized that tone, and felt a frisson of sympathetic apprehension shiver down her spin. When her partner spoke so softly, so smoothly, it boded very ill, indeed. “Are you certain that you do not wish to make a confession at once, and save Scotland Yard and the Crown a good deal of trouble?” the lady asked.

Watts sneered. The glance he threw Valentine’s way was full of scorn. “Are you going to allow this female to usurp your duty? What sort of man are you?”

A flush crept into Valentine’s cheeks, but he did not say a word.

Lina went on, “You came to the studio to see your ‘old friend,’ and I suspect you did not intend to kill him. That decision was made later, at the spur of the moment. Perhaps you argued with Mr. de Morgan regarding Miss Leighton. You snatched up a weapon and struck! Hearing the maid coming downstairs, you thought quickly, and poured red paint around the body to support your tale of accidental death.”

“Madness! Hysterical madness!” Watts was sweating. Fascinated, Rhiannon watched a glistening bead slide down his temple, and slant towards the corner of his mouth. “Why are you subjecting me to this travesty?” he asked Valentine.

“I suggest you pay attention to the lady,” was the inspector’s laconic reply.

“Harry, you ought to have some of your men comb through the garden, particularly in the area beneath the open window. They will be searching for a candlestick, a small bronze statue… something with blood on it. I doubt Mr. Watts had time enough to cleanse his weapon of the evidence of his crime.”

Valentine moved to the window, while watching Watts out of the corner of his eye. “Oi! You lot! Come here!”

A muscle beneath Watts’ eye began to twitch. Lina gave him a predatory smile. The hairs on the back of Rhiannon’s neck prickled. Tension thickened in the room. A fat fly buzzed into the air and butted against the window pane, its sound a harsh rattle in the otherwise quiet room. Rhiannon blinked. Suddenly, Watts moved.

He started for the door, which put him between Lina and Valentine. The inspector made an aborted lunge, brought up short by Rhiannon, who darted forward and thrust out a foot to trip Watts. The man fell headlong, struck the wainscoting, and lay in a crumpled heap, semi-conscious and groaning. Rhiannon, meanwhile, clung to Lina’s hastily offered arm until she regained her balance.

The fly found the open window and escaped to freedom.

Watts did not. In a few moments, he was handcuffed in the custody of a pair of burly constables. Rather than accompany his prisoner to the Metropolitan Police headquarters, Valentine lingered behind, raising his brows at Lina, clearly waiting for an explanation.

In response to his mute inquiry, Lina said, “Had events transpired in the manner in which Mr. Watts described – had he indeed been close enough to the unfortunate de Morgan to touch him – then he should have red paint splashed about his person. Most especially his shoes, which you will note show no trace of anything other than the boot boy’s polish.”

Rhiannon remembered Watts’ shoes, the leather glossy and without a speck of dust or paint to mar the shiny surface.

“Furthermore, I believe when the police surgeon removes the body, you will find that the area directly beneath it is clean, therefore proving that the paint was spilled after de Morgan’s demise.” Lina took a breath, and transfixed Watts with a triumphant glare. “The fact that he chose a weapon of convenience speaks to the ill-considered nature of the crime. Had he intended harm to his former friend, Mr. Watts would have brought something more appropriate to the scene, such as a revolver. As to his haste… you told me, Harry, that the maid was summoned by a thud, which must have been caused by de Morgan’s collapse after Watts inflicted the fatal head wound. The murderer had no time for detailed concealment. He threw his weapon out the open window, tipped the paint pot, and pretended horror.”

A young woman, fashionably and expensively dressed, came to the door. She was pretty in a chocolate box fashion, all blonde and pale except for twin spots of hectic colour on her cheeks. “Solomon? What’s happened?” she cried. “They told me that Alfred is…”

The silence in the room was broken by a brassy buzzing as a fly, disturbed by a constable who had found a bloodied candlestick in the rose bushes outside and raised a shout. The insect flew in through the open window. The sound quieted when the fly settled on the sticky blood surrounding the body, and began to feed. A heartbeat later, startled by Miss Leighton’s screams of anguish and horrified disbelief, the itdeparted through the window once more.

The fly did not return when the silence was restored after Miss Leighton swooned.

THE END

______________________________________________________________________________

The Gaslight Series Novels
Black by Gaslight
The Madonna of the Sorrows
The Witch’s Kiss
The Curse of the Jade Dragon – 2010

Award winning novels of suspense, mystery and romance available at on-line retailers and your favorite bookstore

Read Full Post »

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