Excerpt: A Body in Berkeley Square

A Body in Berkeley Square (Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries) by Ashley Gardner

Book 5: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

At two o’clock in the morning on the fifth of April, 1817, I stood in an elegant bedchamber in Berkeley Square and looked down at the dead body of Mr. Henry Turner.

Mr. Turner was in his twenties. He had brown hair arranged in fashionable, drooping curls and wore a black suit with an ivory and silver waistcoat, elegant pantaloons, and dancing slippers. An emerald stickpin glittered in his cravat, and his collar points were exceedingly high.

Only a slight red gash marred the waistcoat where a knife had gone in to stop his life. Except for the waxen paleness of his face, Mr. Turner might be asleep.

“And he died where?” I asked.

“In a little anteroom off the ballroom downstairs,” Milton Pomeroy, my former sergeant, now a Bow Street Runner said. “Right in the middle of a fancy ball with the crème de la crème. Lord Gillis had him brought up here, so the guests would not be disturbed by a dead body, so he said.”

Lord Gillis was an earl who lived in this opulent mansion on Berkeley Square. Tonight he had hosted a ball which the top of society had attended, including Lucius Grenville, Lady Breckenridge, Lady Jersey, and the Duke of Wellington.

Colonel Brandon and Louisa Brandon had been invited also because Lord Gillis had been an officer before he’d inherited his title, and he loved to gossip with military men–at least those ranked colonel and above.

After supper had finished and dancing had recommenced–about midnight–Mr. Turner had been found in a small anteroom, alone and dead.

“What about the weapon?” I asked.

For answer, Pomeroy held up a knife. It was slim and utilitarian, with a plain handle, unmarked. I’d had one much like it in the army and regretted its loss when I wagered it away in a game of cards.

Pomeroy laid it carefully on Mr. Turner’s chest.

“Belongs to one Colonel Aloysius Brandon,” he said.

I stared at it in sudden shock, then back at Pomeroy.

“I am afraid so, sir,” he said. “He admitted the knife was his, but has no idea how it came to be a-sticking out of the chest of Mr. Turner.”

I at last understood why Pomeroy had so urgently sent for me. Colonel Brandon had been my commanding officer during the recent Peninsular War. He’d also at one time been my mentor and my friend.

Currently, Brandon was my enemy. His actions had ended my career as a cavalry officer and brought me back to London tired and defeated.

“And where is Colonel Brandon now?” I asked tersely.

“Bow Street. I sent him off with my patroller. He’ll face the magistrate tomorrow.”

Like a common criminal, I thought. The magistrate would examine him and decide whether he had enough evidence to hold Brandon at Newgate for a trial.

I studied the knife. Nothing remarkable about it except that it had belonged to Colonel Brandon.

“Did Brandon offer any explanation as to how the knife got there?” I asked.

Pomeroy rocked on his heels. “None whatsoever. Our colonel looked blank, said he didn’t do it, and I should take him at his word.” He cocked his head. “Now what kind of Runner would I be if I believed every criminal what told me that?”

I could imagine Brandon, his back straight, his blue eyes chill, telling Pomeroy that his word should be enough to clear him of a charge of murder. He had likely marched off with the patroller, head high, indignation pouring from every inch of him.

“That the knife belongs to Brandon does not mean he stabbed Turner,” I said. “Colonel Brandon could have used the knife at any time this evening–to pare an apple or some other thing. He might have laid down the knife, and anyone might have picked it up.”

Pomeroy tapped the side of his nose. “Ah, but the good colonel told me that was nonsense. Said he never remembered taking the knife out of his pocket.”

Typical of Brandon to make everything worse with heated protests. He would expect Pomeroy to obey him without question, as though we still stood on the battlefields of the Peninsular War.

But we’d left Spain three years ago, Napoleon had been defeated, and Brandon and Pomeroy and I were now civilians. Brandon, with a large private income, lived in a rather opulent house on Brook Street, and I, with no private income, lived in rooms over a bake shop near Covent Garden.

Even so, Pomeroy’s instant acceptance that Brandon had stabbed this young man through his so elegant suit irritated me a bit. Pomeroy liked solutions to be simple.

“I never remember Brandon mentioning having acquaintance with Mr. Turner,” I said. “He does not look like the sort of young man Brandon would even consider speaking to.”

“True, the colonel did not know Mr. Turner, he says. I believe him, for the reasons you give. But he didn’t have to know him, did he? Turner was annoying the colonel’s paramour, and the colonel killed him in a fit of jealousy.”

I stared at Pomeroy in abject astonishment. “Paramour?”

The Colonel Brandon I knew would never have anything so common as a paramour.

Pomeroy nodded. “A woman named Mrs. Harper, Christian name, Imogene. According to guests at the ball, Colonel Brandon became angry at Mr. Turner’s pursuit of Mrs. Harper and threatened to kill him.”

I stood still in incredulity. Brandon in a temper might call out a man who behaved badly to a lady, but what Pomeroy said was unbelievable.

“Sergeant, you are speaking of Colonel Aloysius Brandon. He does not have a paramour. He never did. He is the most moral and faithful husband a wife could have. He is tiresome about it. The idea that he murdered a rival lover in a fit of jealousy is beyond absurd.”

Pomeroy held up his forefinger. “And yet, not a few witnesses put him walking off alone with her several times during the evening, never mind escorting her in to supper. These same witnesses say they overheard quarrels between himself and Mr. Turner about Mrs. Harper. Besides”–Pomeroy played his trump card–“Colonel Brandon admitted to me that Imogene Harper was his mistress.”

My mind whirled. “Pomeroy, this is astonishment on top of astonishment. I cannot credit it.”

“It has much credit, sir, and ’twill be the colonel’s debit, so to speak.” He chuckled at his joke.

I stood still a moment, trying to take it all in. “Mrs. Brandon was at the ball with him, you say?”

“Aye. That she was.”

“Did he admit this in front of her?”

Pomeroy nodded, losing his smile. “Aye, that he did. Mrs. Brandon refused to leave his side while I questioned him.”

She would have insisted on staying, thinking it must all be a mistake. I imagined the blow of Brandon’s admission striking her, her face whitening, her gray eyes growing moist with pain. I would wring Brandon’s neck when I saw him.

“Where is Mrs. Brandon?” I asked sharply.

“Gone home.”

“Alone?”

“No, sir. Her maid toddled off with her, and the Viscountess Breckenridge and Lady Aline Carrington.”

Aline Carrington was Louisa’s closest woman friend, and I was happy the lady had chosen to take care of her. The addition of Lady Breckenridge surprised me. She was a young widow, friend to Lady Aline, but she’d not been acquainted with Louisa. Also, Lady Breckenridge was a woman about whose motives I was not always clear.

Pomeroy went on, “Mrs. Brandon told me to fetch you here.”

“Mrs. Brandon is a wise woman.”

“Aye, sir. I always obey when Mrs. Brandon gives orders.”

“Good man.”

I lifted the knife and held it between my palms, the point touching one hand and the handle touching the other. The knife told me little. The blade was slim and stained with blood. Neither blade nor hilt contained any markings or engravings. In itself, the knife indicated nothing.

I laid the knife on the table. “Please show me where he was found.”

Pomeroy raised thick yellow brows. “Don’t know what good that is. It’s just a room.”

“All the same.”

Pomeroy gave me the look he’d always reserved for my more questionable orders, but he lumbered away.

Before I left I looked down at Turner once more. A young man, his life abruptly ended. Did he have a father and mother, brothers, a wife, an affianced? His face told me nothing. He’d been a dandy and a well-to-do young man–his clothes and the emerald stickpin attested to that.

Lucius Grenville would know all about him. Grenville would know the young man’s crowd, his intimates, his family. Grenville would also be able to tell me where Mr. Turner went to school, what wagers he liked to place at White’s, and what kind of horses he drove. The Polite World knew everything about everyone, and this was definitely a crime of the Polite World.

I followed Pomeroy down the staircase. This house was opulent, with no expense spared to impress the invited guest. Lord Gillis had remodeled his abode with modern conveniences–large windows, airy rooms, and hidden halls and stairs through which servants could pass without being seen by the inhabitants or their guests. The main staircase lifted three stories from a wide hall paved with marble, and paintings of Gillis ancestors by Reynolds and Holbein marched up the walls to the domed ceiling at the top. The stair railing was wrought iron, shaped in fantastic curlicues.

Pomeroy’s boots clumped swiftly as we descended. I followed more slowly, my footsteps punctuated by the sharp tap of my walking stick. At forty-one, I already walked like an old man, courtesy of a painful wound in my left leg–a wound for which Colonel Brandon was directly responsible.

We left the staircase and trudged through an equally grand corridor that led to the ballroom, and down a short sweep of stairs that took us to the ballroom floor. The ballroom’s ceiling was punctuated with ponderous chandeliers, each holding about fifty candles.

All but a few candles had been extinguished, rendering the room gloomy. Hours ago, this chamber had blossomed with light and music, with gentlemen in evening dress and ladies in velvets and jewels gliding elegantly about.

Lucius Grenville waited for us with Lord Gillis. Lord Gillis drank brandy, and from his pink complexion, he’d consumed quite a few glasses.

Grenville, brandy glass in hand, cool sangfroid in place, greeted us with a nod. “Lord Gillis, may I present my friend, Captain Gabriel Lacey. Captain Lacey, Lord Gillis.”

We might have been at a soiree. Lord Gillis was fifty and gray, but he had the physique of a man who enjoyed hearty walking and riding. He looked up at my six-foot height with strong eyes.

According to Pomeroy, Lord Gillis had been serving as a major on the Peninsula in 1811, when he’d received word that his cousin, the previous earl, had died. He’d quit the army and returned home, but he still retained his military bearing and his interest in military men and events.

“I wish the circumstances of the meeting were happier, Captain,” Lord Gillis said, shaking my offered hand. “Our little ball will be a nine days’ wonder.”

“Will you show me where it happened?” I asked.

Lord Gillis pointed. “In the room at the foot of the stairs. Forgive me, but somehow I never want to see it again.”

“I am sorry,” I said. “Did you know Mr. Turner well?”

Lord Gillis looked surprised. “Not at all. Henry Turner was the friend of a friend of my wife’s. So she tells me. But murder is a grim business, Captain. It was a gruesome sight.”

Death in battle was far more gruesome. I recalled piles of bodies before the walls at Badajoz, young men torn in half by blasts, some ripped open but still alive, screaming in pain and fear. Henry Turner had looked peaceful, hardly touched.

Grenville volunteered to show me the room. His face, which was rather pointed, revealed no emotion, and his dark eyes did not glitter with as much curiosity as I’d thought they would.

Tonight, Grenville wore the finest clothes I’d ever seen on him. His coat was black superfine, cut in a style likely invented this morning and which would be all the rage by tomorrow. Next week, Grenville would return to his tailor and invent yet another fashion, and this week’s coat would be discarded by one and all.

Black pantaloons hugged muscular legs ladies liked to admire. I’d seen caricatures and cartoons in newspapers about his legs and the way ladies ogled them. The diamond stickpin in his cravat was large and elegant, though not so large as to be vulgar.

“It was not pleasant, I must tell you,” Grenville said as we crossed the inlaid floor toward the stairs. We walked alone; Lord Gillis stayed behind to speak to Pomeroy. “Mrs. Harper found him a little past midnight. She began screaming in a horrible way, half mad with it. She had blood on her hand and it seemed to make her crazed.”

“Blood?” Turner’s wound had been small and nearly clean.

“I saw it on her glove. The poor woman was horrified. The ladies near her seemed more inclined to recoil from her than to help her. I was able to take her aside to pour brandy into her.”

“Where is Mrs. Harper now?”

“Home. Her servants rallied round and got her away.”

I was becoming more and more intrigued by this Imogene Harper. Why had she gone into the room where she’d found Turner? How had she gotten the blood on her glove without putting her hand on the knife or the wound itself? And why the devil did Brandon agree to Pomeroy’s accusation that Mrs. Harper was his mistress?

“I must meet this woman,” I said.

Grenville gave me an odd look. “I’d never seen her before tonight. You did not know her?”

“No.”

“Hmm.”

He opened a door with panels picked out in gold. The room behind the door was small, a retiring room for the convenience of the guests.

Scarlet damask covered the upper walls which were framed by gold-painted panels. The wainscoting was pale gray, also framed in gold leaf. The ceiling, much lower than that of the ballroom, had been painted with a gaudy scene of Apollo and his chariot chasing nymphs across an arch of sky.

The only furniture in the room was a slim-legged Sheraton writing table and a small Sheraton chair with two carved slats on its back. The tastefully austere table and chair contrasted sharply with the ornamentation of the walls and ceiling.

“He was found here.” Grenville pointed to the chair. “Slumped forward, as though he’d fallen asleep or was foxed. Lord Gillis himself lifted him, and then we saw the knife in his chest. His eyes were open, but he was quite dead.”

I studied the chair and writing table. Both pieces of furniture were innocuous, betraying nothing of Turner’s sudden and violent death. The desk presented a smooth, golden satinwood surface with an inlaid design on its edges. Nothing rested on its top.

The chair faced the desk, away from the door. I circled chair and desk once then stopped.

“Grenville, would you mind?”

“Show you how he looked, you mean?” Grenville gave his usual cool shrug, but his face was white. He strolled to the chair and sat down. “Slumped over the desk, as I said.” He arranged himself in an untidy hunch, resting his head and one arm on the desk and letting the other arm hang to the floor. “Like this, I think.” His voice was muffled.

I moved to the doorway and looked in. “Interesting.”

Grenville sat up. “I found it rather appalling, myself. Are you finished?”

I started to tell him to stay a moment longer, then I realized he found sitting in the dead man’s chair distasteful. “Of course. I beg your pardon.”

Grenville stood, removed a handkerchief from his pocket, and dabbed his lips. “I know you must have seen worse sights than a man dead in a chair, but the entire business gave me a turn. It was so quick– “

He broke off and patted his lips again.

I thought I understood. The month before, Grenville had received a deep knife wound in his chest, one that had barely missed killing him. The sight of the knife and the fact that it had killed Turner instantly must have given him pause.

Grenville tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket and assumed his usual air of calm. If I hadn’t come to know him well, I would think he’d found the whole thing a dead bore. But he betrayed himself with the twitching of his fingers and the tight lines about his mouth.

“If Imogene Harper entered and saw Turner sitting here, she might have thought him drunk or asleep,” I said. “But as soon as she touched him . . .” I moved to the chair and laid my hand on an imaginary Turner’s shoulder. “She would have noticed he was dead. How, then, did she get the blood on her glove?”

I saw Grenville’s interest stir. “Yes, I see what you mean. He bled very little. If she’d merely shaken his shoulder, where would she have picked up the blood? She would have had to reach down to grasp the knife or press her fingers to the wound.”

“And why should she?”

Grenville looked grim. “Unless she did the deed herself.”

“Then why scream and draw attention to herself and the blood on her glove? Why not quietly walk away and dispose of the glove somewhere?”

“Perhaps she never meant to kill him. Perhaps there was a quarrel, she shoved the knife in, then realized what she’d done in her anger. Horrified, she began screaming.”

I wandered around the desk again. “He was sitting down when he was killed, or the killer took the time to arrange his body so. He was a healthy young man. Would he not be able to deflect a blow from a woman? Even one crazed with anger?”

“Not if he were taken by surprise.”

“As you were,” I finished for him. “This is different. It was pitch dark when you were stabbed. You did not have a chance to defend yourself.”

“No, I didn’t.”

I remembered fighting to save Grenville’s life, remembered him lying in the dark on cold stone cobbles, his breath so very shallow. I had watched him, fearing every breath he drew would be his last. But Grenville’s constitution was strong, and he’d recovered.

The incident had happened over a month ago, but the wound still pained him, I knew. It had made him a bit more nervous as well, though he strove to hide it.

“The circumstances here are entirely different,” I said. “A brightly lit room, a hundred guests outside, a strong man facing his attacker. In addition, if Imogene Harper indeed killed him, how did she obtain Brandon’s knife? I refuse to believe Brandon handed it to her and told her to kill Turner with it.”

“She might have stolen it,” Grenville suggested. “Or Brandon might have left it lying somewhere. Or it might be her knife, and Brandon lied to protect her.”

“No, I do believe the knife belonged to Colonel Brandon. Such knives were common in the army–they are utilitarian and handy to have.”

For a time we both looked at the desk and its herringbone inlay. I imagined Turner lying there, his curled brown hair, nearly the same color as the satinwood, splayed over the desk.

“Lacey,” Grenville said in a quiet voice, “we can speculate all night, but the fact is, it looks pretty damning for your colonel. Brandon tried to place himself next to Imogene Harper from the moment he arrived. He was seen speaking sharply with Turner by more than one person–myself included. He even followed Turner into this room, although, admittedly, they emerged together not a few minutes later. An overheard quarrel, the knife, and Brandon seen chasing Turner from Mrs. Harper earlier, all point to one conclusion.”

“I know.” I closed my fists. “And yet, it is the wrong conclusion. It feels wrong.”

“Your Sergeant Pomeroy does not much care about how a thing feels.”

“He is a practical man, is Pomeroy. It makes him a good sergeant, but not a good investigator.”

“No?” Pomeroy boomed behind me.

He filled the doorway, the tall bulk of him crowned with pomaded yellow hair. His face was red, his right cheekbone creased by a scar from a cut he’d recently received from a thief reluctant to be caught. Pomeroy grinned at me, his stalwart good humor in place.

“No,” I said. “You see much and see nothing at the same time.”

“Now that, Captain, is why you are the captain and I am the sergeant. You do the plotting and the planning and the inspiring, and I do the drilling and the fighting. We get it done in the end. You should have seen him on the Peninsula, Mr. Grenville. His men would have followed him to the mouth of hell itself. A fine sight.”

“You flatter me,” I said dryly.

My men had followed me because they’d known I’d make damn sure they’d come back. I’d seen no reason for us all to die in a heroic charge to satisfy a general’s lust for glory. The generals had often disagreed with me, and I’d told them exactly what I’d thought. Shouting back at those above me, many of them aristocrats, had earned me the reputation as a hothead and made certain I never progressed to the rank of major. Colonel Brandon had, many times, had to intervene between myself and a superior I’d insulted, thus, if only temporarily, saving my future.

“He did not do it, Sergeant,” I said.

Pomeroy shrugged. “That’s as may be. But it’s my duty to take in a man to face the magistrate. If you believe you can get him off, then I leave you to it. I won’t hinder you.”

He would not. Pomeroy liked getting convictions, because he would receive the reward money, but if a man were proved innocent, well then, the gent had had a bit of luck, and who was Pomeroy to rob him of it?

“I will certainly try,” I said.

“Best to you,” Pomeroy said cheerfully. “I’ll be off then. Done all I can do here.”

“What about Turner?” I asked. “If the coroner’s been and gone, what is to become of his body? You cannot leave him in Lord Gillis’s spare bedroom.”

“Already taken care of, sir. Lord Gillis sent for Turner’s man, who will trundle it back to Turner’s ma and pa.” He tugged his forelock. “‘Night, sir. Mr. Grenville.”

Grenville murmured his good night, and Pomeroy trudged out, whistling a tune.

“Who is Turner’s father?” I asked Grenville.

“Retired MP, lives in Epsom. Cousin to the Earl of Deptford.”

As always, Grenville had everyone’s pedigree in his pocket. “I would like to speak to him.”

“I would, as well,” Grenville said. “I will fix an appointment. But what about tonight? Will you speak to this Mrs. Harper?”

“Not yet,” I said. I did need to visit her–she was key to this matter, but I had an even greater need to see someone else. “I must go to Louisa.”

Grenville shot me a look. “She is with Lady Aline.”

“I know. But I want to reassure her.”

I broke off, uncertain of how I could reassure her. I wanted Louisa to know I would pursue this inquiry and find out what had truly happened. Brandon might well be guilty, and, if so, I had to make the shock easier for her. If he were not guilty, I would work to get him free. I had to.

“Do you want me along?” Grenville asked.

I shook my head, and he cleared his throat. “Very well then, I’ll leave you to it. I need to look in at Clarges Street.”

He meant he would visit Marianne Simmons, an actress who had lived upstairs from me in Grimpen Lane until recently. Grenville, whether wisely or not, had taken her to live in luxury in a house he owned in Clarges Street. Their relationship thus far had been stormy, any progress made usually followed by a painful regression.

“Greet Marianne for me,” I said. “And send me word when you’ve obtained an appointment with Mr. Turner’s father. It might be decent of us to attend the funeral.”

“I will,” Grenville agreed, and we parted.

Lord Gillis’s quiet and efficient footmen let me out of the house. Berkeley Square was wet with rain, but the bitter chill of winter had gone, and my breath did not hang in the air.

I had expected to have to hike a long way to find a hackney, but another carriage already waited at the door, and a footman I recognized as Brandon’s hopped down and approached me.

“Good evening, Captain,” he said. “Mrs. Brandon said we was to have the town coach to fetch you to her. Will you get in, sir?”