Excerpt: The Glass House
Book 3: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries
The affair of the Glass House began quietly enough one evening in late January, 1817. I passed the afternoon drinking ale at The Rearing Pony, a tavern in Maiden Lane near Covent Garden, in a common room that was noisy, crowded, and overheated. Sweating men swapped stories and laughter, and a barmaid called Anne Tolliver filled glasses and winked at me as she passed.
I first learned of anything amiss when I left the tavern to make my way home. It was eight o’clock, the winter night outside was black and brutally cold, and rain came down. A hackney waited at a stand, white vapor streaming from the horse’s nostrils while the coachman warmed himself with a nip from a flask.
I walked as quickly as I could on the slick cobbles, trying to retain the warmth of ale and fire I’d left behind in the public house. My rooms in Grimpen Lane would be dark and lonely, and Bartholomew would not be there.
Since Christmas, Bartholomew, the tall, blond, Teutonic-looking footman to Lucius Grenville, had become my makeshift manservant, but tonight he had returned to Grenville’s house to help prepare for a soiree. That soiree would be one of the finest of the Season, and everyone who was anyone would be there.
At least my lodgings had become something less than dismal since Bartholomew’s arrival. Grenville had lent him to me and paid for his keep, because the lad wanted to train to be a valet, the pinnacle of the servant class. Therefore, I now had someone to mix my shaving soap, brush my suits, keep my boots polished, and talk to me while we chewed through the beefsteak and boiled potatoes he fetched from the nearby public house.
I suspected Grenville’s purpose in sending Bartholomew to me was twofold–first, because Grenville felt sorry for me, and second, because he wanted to keep an eye on me. With Bartholomew reporting to him, Grenville would be certain not to miss any intriguing situation into which I might land myself.
Bad fortune for Grenville that he had chosen to call Bartholomew home to help him tonight.
My rooms lay above a bakeshop in the tiny cul-de-sac of Grimpen Lane, which ran behind Bow Street. The bakeshop was a jovial place of warm, yeasty breads, coffee, and banter when it was open. Mrs. Beltan let the rooms above it cheap, and I’d found her to be a fair landlady. The shop was closed now, Mrs. Beltan home with her sister, the windows dark and empty.
As I reached to unlock the outer door that led to the stairs, a voice boomed at me out of the darkness.
“Happily met, Captain.”
I recognized the strident tones of Milton Pomeroy, once my sergeant, now one of the famous Bow Street Runners. The light from windows in the house opposite shone on his pale blond hair and battered hat, the dark suit on his broad shoulders, and his round and healthy face.
In the Thirty-Fifth Light Dragoons during the Peninsular War, Pomeroy had been my sergeant. In civilian life, he’d retained his booming sergeant’s voice, his brisk sergeant’s attitude, and his utter ruthlessness in pursuit of the enemy. The enemy now were not the French, but the pickpockets, housebreakers, murderers, prostitutes, and other denizens of London.
“A piss of an evening,” he said jovially. “Not like the Peninsula, eh?”
Weather in Iberia had been both hot and cold, but usually dry, and the summers could be fine. Tonight especially, I longed for those summer days under the sweltering sun. “Indeed, Sergeant,” I said.
“Well, I’ve not come to jaw about the weather. I’ve come to ask you about that little actress what lives upstairs from you.”
I regarded him in surprise. “Miss Simmons?”
“Aye, that’s the one. Seen her about?”
“Not for a week or so.”
Marianne Simmons, a blond young woman with a deceptively childlike face and large blue eyes, eked out a living playing small parts at Drury Lane theatre. She lived in the rooms above mine and stretched her meager income by helping herself to my candles, coal, snuff, and other commodities. I let her, knowing she might go without otherwise.
Marianne often disappeared for long stretches at a time. I had once tried to inquire where she went on her sojourns, but she only fixed me with a cold stare and told me it was none of my business. I assumed Marianne found a protector during these absences, temporarily at least. In the past, she’d always returned within a month, proclaiming her general disgust at men and asking whether she could share my supper.
“Well, then, sir,” Pomeroy went on. “Can you come along with me and look at a corpse from the river? It might very well be hers.”
I stopped in shock. “What? Good God.”
“Pulled out of the Thames not a half hour ago by a waterman,” Pomeroy said. “She looked like your actress, so I thought I’d fetch you to make sure.”
My blood went cold. Marianne and I had our differences, but I certainly didn’t wish so terrible a death on her. “There’s nothing to tell you who she is?”
“Not a thing, so the Thames River gent says. She’s not been dead long. A few hours or more, I should say. Officer of the Thames River patrol sent for the magistrate, who sent for me.”
So explaining, Pomeroy led me out of Grimpen Lane and Russel Street and down to the Strand. My walking stick rang on the cobbles as I strove to match Pomeroy’s long stride and tried to stem my rising worry.
I doubted Marianne would try to do away with herself; she had a brisk attitude toward life, no matter that it had not dealt her very high cards. She was not a brilliant actress, but the gentlemen of her audience liked her bright hair, pointed face, and round blue eyes.
But accidents happened, and people fell into the river and drowned all too often. I wondered, if the dead woman proved to be Marianne, how on earth I would break the news to Grenville.
We walked east on the Strand and entered Fleet Street through one of the pedestrian arches of Temple Bar. The road curved with the river that flowed a few streets away, though the high buildings hid any aspect of it.
We walked to New Bridge Street, then to Blackfriar’s Bridge and a slippery staircase that led to the shore of the Thames. As we descended away from the stone houses, the wind took on a new chill.
The river lay cold and vast at the bottom of the steps, lapping softly at its banks and smelling of rotting cabbage. Lights roved the middle of the river, barges and small craft strolling upriver or back down to the ships moored at the Isle of Dogs or farther east in Blackwall and Gravesend.
A circle of lanterns huddled about ten yards from the staircase. “Saw her bobbing there,” a thin voice was saying. “Told young John to help me fish her out. Dead as a toad and all bloated up.”
As Pomeroy and I crunched over the shingle toward them, a man on the gravel bank turned. “Pomeroy.”
“Thompson,” Pomeroy boomed. “This is Captain Lacey, the chap I told you about. Captain, Peter Thompson of the Thames River patrol.”
I shook hands with a tall man who had graying hair and a sunken face, long nose, and thin mouth. He was muffled in a greatcoat that hung on his bony frame, and his gloves were frayed. But though his features were cadaverous, his eyes were strong and clear.
The Thames River patrol skimmed up and down the river from the City to Greenwich, watching over the great merchant ships that docked along the waterway. Their watermen picked up flotsam from the river, either turning it in for reward or selling it. When they found bodies, they sent for the Thames River officers, although I suspected that some of the less scrupulous sold the poor drowned victims to resurrectionists, unsavory gentlemen who collected bodies to sell to surgeons and anatomists for dissection.
Thompson asked me, “Pomeroy said the woman might be an acquaintance of yours.”
“Perhaps.” I steeled myself for the possibility. “May I see her?”
“Over here.” Thompson pointed a finger in his shabby glove to the thin gathering of men and lanterns.
I stepped past the waterman, who smelled of mud and unwashed clothes, into the circle of light. They had laid the woman out on a strip of canvas. Her gown, a light pink muslin, was pasted to her limbs, the sodden cloth outlining her thighs, the curve of her waist, and her round breasts. Her face was gray, bloated with water. A wet fall of golden hair, coated with mud, covered the stones beside her.
She had been small and slim, with a girlish prettiness. Her hands were tiny in shredded gloves, and her feet were still laced into beaded slippers. Although her coloring and build were similar, she was not Marianne Simmons.
I exhaled in some relief. “I do not know her. She isn’t Miss Simmons.”
“Hmph,” Pomeroy said. “Thought it was her. Ah, well.”
Thompson said nothing, looking neither disappointed nor elated.
I went down on one knee, supporting my weight on my walking stick. “She had no reticule or other bag?”
“Not a thing, Captain,” Thompson replied. “Although a reticule might have been washed down river. No cards, nothing on her clothes. I imagine she was a courtesan.”
I lifted the hem of her skirt and examined the fabric. “Fine work. This is a lady’s dress.”
“Might have stolen it,” Pomeroy suggested.
“It fits her too well.” I dropped the skirt and ran my gaze over the gown. “It was made for her.”
“Or her lover sent her to a dressmaker,” Thompson said.
I looked at the young woman’s neck and wrists, which were bare. “No jewels. If she had a protector, she would wear the jewels he bought her.”
“Someone could have taken them,” Pomeroy said.
I touched the woman’s throat. “There is no sign of bruising or force on her neck, nor on her arms. I do not believe she was wearing any jewels before she fell in. She was not robbed.”
Thompson leaned down with me. “No,” he said. “But she was murdered.”
He turned the woman’s head to one side. I recoiled, my hand tightening on my walking stick.
The entire back of the woman’s head had been caved in, rendering her skull and hair a black and bloody mess.