Excerpt: A Regimental Murder
Book 2: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries
A new bridge was rising to cross the Thames just south and east of Covent Garden, a silent hulk of stone and scaffolding slowly stretching its arches across the river. I walked down to this unfinished bridge one sweltering July night through darkness that belonged to pickpockets and game girls, from Grimpen Lane to Russel Street through Covent Garden, its stalls shut up and silent, along Southampton Street and the Strand to the pathways that led to the bridge.
I walked to escape my dreams. I had dreamed of a Spanish summer, one as hot as this, but with dry breezes from rocky hillsides under a baking sun. The long days came back to me and the steamy rains that muddied the roads and fell on my tent like needles in the night. The warmth took me back to the days I had been a cavalry captain, and to one particular night when it had stormed and things had changed for me.
Now I was in London, Iberia far away. The damp warmth of cobblestones caressed my feet, soft rain striking my face and rolling in little rivulets down my nose. The hulk of the bridge was silent, a dark presence not yet born.
That is not to say it was deserted. A street theatre distracted passersby on the Strand and game girls stood at the edges of the pavement. A threesome of burly men, arm in arm and smelling of ale, pushed through singing a happy tune off-key. They slithered and dodged among wheeled conveyances, never loosening their hold on one another. Their merry song drifted into the night.
A woman brushed past me, making for the tunnel of darkness that led to the bridge. Droplets of rain sparkled on her dark cloak, and I glimpsed beneath her hood a fine, sculpted face and the glitter of jewels. She passed so close to me that I saw the shape of each slender gloved finger that had held her cloak, and the fine chain of gold that adorned her wrist.
She was a furtive shadow in the midst of the city night, a lady where no lady should be. She was alone–no footman or maid pattered after her, holding slipper box or lantern. She was dressed for the opera or the theatre or a Mayfair ballroom, and yet she hastened here, to the dark of the incomplete bridge.
She interested me, this lady, pricking the curiosity beneath my melancholia. She might, of course, be a high flyer, an upper-class woman of dubious reputation, but I did not think so. High flyers were even more prone than ladies of quality to shutting themselves away in gaudy carriages and taking great care of their clothes and slippers. Also, this woman did not carry herself like a lady of doubtful morals, but like a lady who knew she was out of place and strove to be every inch a lady even so.
I turned, my curiosity and alarm aroused, and followed her.
Darkness quickly closed on us, the soft rain our only companion. She walked out onto an unfinished arch of the bridge, slippers whispering on boards laid over stones.
I quickened my steps. The boards moved beneath my feet, the hollow sound carrying to her. She looked back, her face pale in the darkness. Her cloak swirled back to reveal a dove gray gown, and her slender legs in white stockings flashed against the night.
She reached the crest of the arch. The rain thickened, a gust of wind blowing it like mist across the bridge. When it cleared, a shadow detached itself from the dark arms of scaffolding and moved toward her. The woman started, but did not flee.
The person–man or woman, I could not tell which–bent to her, speaking rapidly. The lady appeared to listen, then she stepped back. “No,” she said clearly. “I cannot.”
The shadow leaned forward, hands moving in persuasive gestures. She backed away, shaking her head.
Suddenly, she cried out, turned, started to run. The assailant lunged at her, and I heard the ring of a knife.
I ran forward. The assailant–male–looked up, saw me coming. I was a large man, and I carried a walking stick, within which was concealed a stout sword. Perhaps he knew who I was, perhaps he’d seen me and my famous temper at work. In any event, he flung the woman from him and fled.
She landed hard on the stones and boards, too near the edge. I snatched at the assailant, but his knife flashed in the rain, catching me across my palm. I grunted. He scuttled away into the darkness, disappearing in a wash of rain.
I let him go. I balanced myself on the slippery boards and made my way to her. To my left, empty air rose from the roiling Thames, mist and hot rain and foul odors. One misstep and I would plunge down into the waiting, noisome river.
The woman lay facedown, her body half over the edge. Her cloak tangled her so that she could not roll to safety, and her hands worked fruitlessly to pull herself to the firm stones.
I leaned down, seized her about her waist, and hauled her back to the middle of the bridge. She cringed from me, her hands strong as she pushed me away.
“Carefully,” I said. “He is gone. You are safe.”
Her hood had fallen back. The jewels I’d glimpsed were diamonds, a fine tiara of them. They sparkled against her dark hair, which lay in snarls over her cloak.
“Who was he?” I asked in a gentle voice.
She looked about wildly, as though unsure of who I meant. “I do not know. A–a beggar, I think.”
One with a sharp knife. My hand stung and my glove was ruined.
I helped her to her feet. She clung to me a moment, her fright still too close.
Gradually, as the rain quieted into a soft summer shower, she returned to herself again. Her hands uncurled from my coat, and her panicked grip relaxed.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for helping me.”
I said something polite, as though I had merely opened a door for her at a soiree.
I led her off the bridge and out of the darkness, back to the solid reality of the Strand. I kept a sharp eye out for her assailant, but I saw no one. He had fled.
Our adventure had not gone without attention. By the time we reached the Strand, a small crowd had gathered to peer curiously at us. A group of ladies in tawdry finery looked the woman over.
“Why’d she go out there, then?” one remarked to the crowd in general.
“Tried to throw herself over,” another answered.
“Belly-full, I’d wager.”
The second nodded. “Most like.”
The woman appeared not to hear them, but she moved closer to me, her hand tightening on my sleeve.
A spindly man in faded black fell in beside us as we moved on. He grinned, showing crooked teeth and bathing me with coffee-scented breath. “Excellent work, Captain. How brave you are.”
I knew him. The man’s name was Billings, and he was a journalist, one of those damned insolent breed who dressed badly and followed the rich and prominent, hoping for a breath of scandal. Billings hung about the theatres at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, waiting for members of the haut ton to do something indiscreet.
I toyed with the idea of beating him off, but knew that such an action would only replay itself in the paragraphs of whatever scurrilous story he chose to write.
The curious thing was, the lady seemed to recognize him. She pressed her face into my sleeve, not in a gesture of fear, but betraying a wish to hide.
His grin grew broader. He saluted me and sauntered off, no doubt to pen an entirely false version of events for the Morning Herald.
I led the lady along the Strand toward Southampton Street. She was still shaking and shocked and needed to get indoors.
“I want to take you home,” I said. “You must tell me where that is.”
She shook her head vehemently. “No.” Her voice was little more than a scratch. “Not home. Not there.”
But she would not give me an alternate direction, no matter how much I plied her. I wondered where she had left her conveyance, where her retinue of servants waited for her. She offered nothing, only moved swiftly along beside me, head bent so I could not see her face.
“You must tell me where your carriage is,” I tried again.
She shook her head, and continued to shake it no matter how I pleaded with her. “All right, then,” I said, at my wit’s end. “I will take you to a friend who will look after you. Mrs. Brandon is quite respectable. She is the wife of a colonel.”
My lady stopped, pale lips parting in surprise. Her eyes, deep blue I saw now that we stood in the light, widened. “Mrs. Brandon?” Suddenly, she began to laugh. Her hands balled into tight fists, and she pressed them into her stomach, hysteria shaking her.
I tried to quiet her, but she laughed on, until at last the broken laughs turned to sobs. “Not Mrs. Brandon,” she gasped. “Oh, please, no, never that. I will go with you, anywhere you want. Take me to hell if you like, but not home, and not to Mrs. Brandon, for God’s sake. That would never do.”
*** *** ***
In the end, I took her to my rooms in Grimpen Lane, a narrow cul-de-sac off Russel Street near Covent Garden market.
The lane was hot with the summer night. My hardworking neighbors were in their beds, though a few street girls lingered in the shadows, and a gin-soaked young man lay flat on his back not far from the bake shop. If the man did not manage to drag himself away, the game girls would no doubt rob him blind, if they hadn’t already.
I stopped at a narrow door beside the bake shop, unlocked and opened it. Stuffy air poured down at us. The staircase inside had once been grand, and the remnants of an idyllic mural could be seen in the moonlight–shepherds and shepherdesses pursuing each other across a flat green landscape, a curious mixture of innocence and lust.
“What is this place?” my lady asked in whisper.
“Number 5, Grimpen Lane,” I answered as I led her upstairs and unlocked the door on the first landing. “In my lighter moments, I call it home.”
Behind the door lay my rooms, once the drawing rooms of whatever wealthy family had lived here a century ago. The flat above mine was quiet, which meant that Marianne Simmons, my upstairs neighbor, was either on stage in Drury Lane or tucked away somewhere with a gentleman. Mrs. Beltan, the landlady who ran the bake shop below, lived streets away with her sister. The house was empty and we were alone.
I ushered the woman inside. She remained standing in the middle of the carpet, rubbing her hands as I stirred the embers that still glowed in my grate. The night was warm, but the old walls held a chill that no amount of sun could leach away. Once a tiny fire crackled in the coals, I opened the windows, which I’d left closed to keep birds from seeking shelter in my front room. The breeze that had sprung up at the river barely reached Grimpen Lane, but the open window at least moved the stagnant air.
By the fire’s light, I saw that the woman was likely in her late thirties, or fortyish as I was. She had a classic beauty that the bloody scratches on her cheek could not mar, a clean line of jaw, square cheekbones, arched brows over full-lashed eyes. Faint lines feathered from her eyes and corners of her mouth, not age, but weariness.
I took her wet cloak from her, then led her to the wing chair near the fire and bade her sit. I stripped her ruined slippers from her ice-cold feet then fetched a blanket from my bed and tucked it around her. She sat through the proceedings without interest.
I poured out a large measure of brandy from a fine bottle my acquaintance Lucius Grenville had sent me and brought it to her. The glass shook against her mouth, but I held it steady and made her drink every drop. Then I brought her another.
After the third glass, her shaking at last began to cease. She leaned against the worn wing chair, her eyes closing. I fetched a cloth, dampened it with water at my wash basin, and began to wipe the blood and grime from her hands.
Sitting this near to her let me study her closely. Her hair, now tangled and loose, was darkest brown, bearing only a few strands of gray. Her mouth was regal and straight, the mouth of a woman not much given to laughter.
She was a lady, highborn and wealthy, who had been to a ball or soiree or opera. Who had managed to get herself away from her carriage and servants to walk alone to the unfinished bridge at the Strand for her secret errand.
I still did not know who she was.
Grenville would know. Lucius Grenville knew everyone who was anyone in London. Every would-be dandy from the Prince of Wales to lads just down from Eton copied his dress, his manners, and his tastes in everything from food to horses to women. This famous man had befriended me, he’d said because he found me interesting, a relief from the ennui of London society. Most Londoners envied me my favored position, but I had not yet decided whether I should be flattered or insulted.
“Will you tell me who you are?” I asked as I worked.
“No.” The voice was matter-of-fact, the timbre rich and warm.
“Or why you went to the bridge?”
Her closed eyes tightened. “No.”
“Who was the man who accosted you? Did you have an appointment to meet him?”
She opened her eyes in sudden alarm. Then she focused her gaze on my left shoulder, holding it there as if it steadied her. “He was a beggar, I told you. I thought to give him a coin, because he was pitiable. Then I saw he had a knife and tried to flee him.”
“Happy chance I was there to stop him.” My palm still throbbed from the cut he’d given me, but it was shallow, my glove having taken the brunt of it. “That still does not answer the question of why you went to the bridge in the first place.”
She lifted her head and bathed me in a haughty stare. “That is my own affair.”
Of course she would not tell me the truth, and I had not thought she would. I wondered if the women at the bridge had been right, that she’d gone there to end her life. Suicide was a common enough means of ending one’s troubles in these times–a gentleman ruined by debt, a soldier afraid to face battle, a woman raped and abandoned.
I was no stranger myself to melancholia. When I’d first returned to London from Spain, the black despair had settled on me more times than I cared to think about. The fits had lessened since the turn of the year, because my sense of purpose was slowly returning to me. I had made new friends and was beginning to find interest in even the most wretched corners of London.
She offered nothing more, and I carefully touched my cloth to the scrapes on her cheek. She flinched, but did not pull away.
“You may rest here until you feel better,” I said. “My bed is uncomfortable, but better than nothing. The brandy will help you sleep.”
She studied me a moment, her eyes unfocussed. Then, with a suddenness that took my breath away, she lifted her slim arms and twined them about my neck. The light silk of her sleeves caressed my skin, and her breath was warm on my lips.
I swallowed. “Madam.”
She did not let me go. She pulled me into her embrace and pushed her soft mouth against mine.
Primal blood beat through my body, and I balled my fists. I tasted her lips for one heady moment before I reached up and gently pushed her from me. “Madam,” I repeated.
She gazed at me with hungry intensity. “Why not? Does it matter so much?” Her eyes filled and she whispered again, “Why not?”
I could easily have accepted what she offered. She was beautiful, and her lips were warm, and she had quite entranced me. It was devilish difficult to tell her no.
But I did it.
She sat back and regarded me limply. I picked up the cloth I had dropped and resumed dabbing the blood from her face. My hands trembled.
Silence grew. The fire hissed in the grate, coal at last warming the air. My lips still tingled, still tasting her, and my body absolutely hated me. None would blame me, it said. She had come here, alone, deliberately forsaking protection, and had offered herself freely. The censure would go to her, not to me.
Except the censure from myself, I finished silently. I had already tallied too many regrets in my life to add another.
After a time, her eyes drifted closed. Her breathing grew steady, and I thought she slept. I returned the cloth to my washbasin, but when I came back to her, she was watching me.
“They killed my husband,” she announced.