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Excerpt: A Darkness in Seven Dials

Book 17: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

1820

“A person to see you, sir.” The cool words of Barnstable, my wife’s butler, cut into the enjoyment of my newspaper and morning toast.

Barnstable paused on the doorstep of the dining room, his face frozen in an expression of disapproval. His use of the word “person” told me that he considered whoever it was to be no gentleman or lady, or even a respectable member of the lower classes.

That he announced the visitor at all was odd. When Barnstable didn’t like the look of someone, he turned them away at his discretion. My wife had given him that power, which Barnstable used without hesitation.

I finished my slice of toasted bread slathered with sweet orange marmalade, a luxury from my earl father-in-law’s hothouses in Oxfordshire, and reluctantly set aside my paper. The details of the Cato Street Conspiracy, as it was now being called, filled the pages. Radicals had planned to incite a revolution after murdering everyone in the cabinet but had been thwarted by diligent Bow Street Runners, including my former sergeant, Milton Pomeroy and his rival, Mr. Spendlove.

“Who is it?” I asked, keeping my question calm. It never did good to upset Barnstable, who was clearly unhappy he’d had to interrupt me.

“He claims his name is Gibbons,” Barnstable replied frostily.

Gibbons. It took me a moment to connect the name with a face, but it came to me like a slap. Dry, papery, dangerous. Gibbons was the butler of James Denis and had once been a hardened criminal himself, possibly still was.

Curious. Whenever Denis summoned me, he’d send a note of one line, using a whole sheet of expensive paper to do so. Or he’d send word via Brewster, who’d become my more or less permanent bodyguard and, I hoped, friend.

“A strange but intriguing event,” I said as Barnstable hovered. “Send him in, please.”

“Perhaps you would like to speak to him in the foyer, sir.”

Barnstable’s tone and the fact that he stared at the wall as he spoke, guided me to the correct way to receive another man’s servant, whether he was a former criminal or not.

Barnstable had been very patient with me as I learned to navigate the world of the aristocracy. I was a man of property, but my father’s small, rundown estate in Norfolk hardly compared to Donata’s elegant townhouse in South Audley Street or her eight-year-old viscount son’s vast home in Hampshire.

I eyed the remaining slices of toast and the slab of beef awaiting me, laid aside my napkin, and rose, smothering a sigh as I motioned Barnstable to precede me out.

The dining room, a grand chamber with high ceilings and a long table, lay on the main floor of the house. I descended the to the ground floor, following  Barnstable, down the curved staircase with wrought-iron railings.

Gibbons, a thin man with gray hair in a subdued dark suit, awaited me on the cross-hatched parquet floor of the lower hall. He wore a greatcoat against the March rain and clutched his hat as though he’d been reluctant to remove it upon entering.

Before I could greet him as I stepped off the stairs, he strode forward and barked a command.

“You will come with me at once.”

Whenever I visited Denis in his luxurious house in Curzon Street, Gibbons rarely said a word. He’d usher me to a chair, serve me a beverage in cold silence, and then stand behind me to prevent me escaping the room.

Now he spoke rapidly, his eyes black pools of agitation in his hard face.

My brows rose. “What does Mr. Denis wish me to do for him this time?”

“You will see when we get there. Now, Captain.”

As much as I bristled at being peremptorily ordered about, my very inconvenient curiosity perked. I often landed myself in great trouble letting my long nose lead me, but it was a fault I’d not tried very hard to correct.

“Barnstable,” I said to the disapproving butler. “Will you please fetch my greatcoat?”

***

Gibbons had arrived in a coach pulled by matching bay horses of fine conformation. He slammed open the carriage door once I, bundled against the rain, exited my house, and brusquely motioned me inside.

“Perhaps I should send for Brewster,” I said in belated caution. I’d come to trust Denis—in some situations—but I’d never warmed to Gibbons. He was a hard man working for an even harder one.

“He’s already there,” Gibbons snapped, impatient. “We need to hurry.”

Despite my misgivings, I heaved myself into the coach, unsteady on my bad leg. Brewster or one of Denis’s other minions might have lent me a hand, but Gibbons only stood stiffly and waited for me to struggle into the vehicle.

Once I was on the seat, he sprang in behind me with an energy that belied his years and waved for the coachman to drive on.

I tried to persuade Gibbons to give me a hint about the issue I’d been summoned for as the carriage jolted down South Audley Street, but he remained stiffly silent. He kept his stare on the wall of the carriage behind my head, and I turned to the mist-filmed window to avoid it.

We did not halt in Curzon Street, where Denis lived, but turned from there to a narrow lane that led to Piccadilly. Carts and wagons filled this wide thoroughfare, and I heard the coachman’s curses as we wove through traffic. Piccadilly took us to Haymarket, and from there we entered the Strand.

At St. Martin’s Lane, the coach turned north, passing the elegant church of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields. My misgivings mounted. The environs past the church grew more insalubrious as we went.

“You really need to tell me where the devil we are going, Gibbons,” I commanded.

Gibbons did not answer. My fears were confirmed when we entered the dark and vile environs of Seven Dials and creaked along to a tiny street there.

I was in a dangerous neighborhood with a man from an underworld gang, without Brewster to guard me. I’d foolishly hopped into this coach with no regard as to where it would take me, assuming we’d arrive at Denis’s elegant home in Curzon Street. Gibbons had no loyalty to me and no liking for me either.

The man remained stone-faced and silent, his unnerving gaze never wavering.

The coach pulled to a halt near a tall house whose facade wasn’t as crumbling as those around it. It did not look occupied, and I had no idea why we were here.

Gibbons wrenched open the coach’s door and stepped down, motioning me to descend behind him. He hadn’t lowered the step, so I scrambled out without much dignity, nearly falling when my bad knee gave way upon my landing.

I managed to remain upright, without uttering any savage words, and limped behind Gibbons toward the house. The front door opened, and I was relieved to see the broad form of Brewster filling the small foyer.

I relaxed only slightly as I entered the cold interior. Again, I’d been brought here for who knew what reason, and no one in my own home knew where I’d gone.

“It’s bad, Captain,” was Brewster’s greeting. “We’re trying to decide what to do.”

He waved me into the sitting room, which was as gloomy as I remembered it. No fire had been built in the hearth, and my breath misted in the dank air.

Gibbons, having delivered me, disappeared without a word into the back of the house. I did not believe he’d gone to prepare tea for his guest.

“Where is Denis?” I asked. “This is his house, but where is our host?”

Brewster’s grim expression told me it was not the time for humor. “Newgate,” came his gruff reply. “He was arrested early this morning.”

Then I gaped in astonishment as the words seeped into me. “Arrested? Denis?

He was most careful man I knew. Denis ran a successful criminal organization, but he was very, very cautious. He made certain that the men he employed were scrupulously loyal and that no evidence would ever be found to incriminate him or anyone who worked for him.

I would have believed this was some elaborate joke at my expense, but for the involvement of Gibbons, who had no use for me, and the anxiety on Brewster’s face.

“It’s true, Captain,” Brewster said. “Taken by none other than Timothy Spendlove, Bow Street Runner. Didn’t he rub his hands in delight?” he finished bitterly.

My jaw remained slack. “How the devil did Denis let Spendlove arrest him?”

Timothy Spendlove, the man with red hair and brows so light they faded into his freckled face, had been after Denis for years. He’d tried in every way to pin something on Denis or his crew, but Denis had evaded him with efficient ease.

Brewster answered in some despair. “Because Spendlove caught His Nibs standing over a dead man, right there in the street.” He pointed out the window with a blunt finger. “The man in question was dead as a stone, and His Nibs was just pulling the knife out of the wound. Spendlove couldn’t believe his good luck. He dove in and carted His Nibs off to Bow Street Nick before Mr. Gibbons could do damn all about it.”

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