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Excerpt: The Custom House Murders

Book 15: Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

London, 1819

I pondered the package that reposed on the dining-room table for a long time. 

It had been delivered by a thickset man in a long woolen coat as I was descending the main staircase in the South Audley Street house in search of breakfast on a foggy September morning. From the dining room, I watched the man scan the front windows, and Barnstable, my wife’s cool, dark-haired butler, venture out to discover his business there. 

After exchanging a few words, our butler stiff with hauteur, the man handed Barnstable a small, paper-wrapped package. Barnstable took it gingerly between his fingers and carried it inside through the front door.

The man remained in place, staring intently at the windows as though trying to watch Barnstable move through the house. Once Barnstable entered the dining room, where I had filled my plate from the sideboard, the man turned away and vanished into the fog.

Barnstable deposited the parcel on the table’s edge, as though it contained a tin of horse manure. Next to it, he laid a letter. I sat down with my plate, broke the seal on the heavy paper, and read:

Deliver this to Mr. H. Creasey at Number 11, Hill Lane, off Lower Thames Street, near the Custom House. To be done by the end of the day. J. Denis

I was growing used to James Denis’s brevity. He’d used an entire sheet of paper for this message, as usual. Also as usual, I tore the clean part off for my own use, a habit from the days I’d had little money for such luxuries as foolscap.

Barnstable, who would never profess interest in a gentleman’s correspondence, had discreetly departed. I was alone in the room, only the crackle of a fire on the hearth as my company. 

After regarding the package with deep misgivings, I carefully slid it to me and unwrapped it. The parcel was not addressed to me, but the last time I had delivered a message for Mr. Denis I had become embroiled in a tangle that had nearly killed me. Ironically, it had nearly been the end of Denis as well.

Inside the wrappings, which were clean and crisp, I found a wooden box, about four inches by four and three inches high. A fine piece, made of mahogany, varnished and polished.

The box had a clasp but was not locked. I imagined Denis knew I’d want a look inside and hadn’t bothered with a lock I’d only break.

I opened the lid. Inside, nestled on a bed of black velvet, lay a chess piece. A queen, made of ivory. 

The piece was perhaps two and a half inches long, carved in a simple shape. I lifted it between thumb and forefinger and held it up to the gray light from the foggy window.

It was an ordinary piece, the sort sold in shops. No costly gilding or gems adorned it, and nowhere was there any indication of a cavity inside, perhaps to smuggle something small and exotic. I examined the queen thoroughly for telltale cracks or hidden catches but found none.

I contemplated the piece for some time then laid it back into its box. 

It meant something—why else would Denis insist I deliver it when he could have any of his lackeys, such as the man who’d brought it to me, run such a simple errand?

Denis had told me, at the end of my holiday in Brighton this summer, that he expected me to perform a task for him in return for his help during that sojourn. I’d expected an onerous chore, one dangerous or distasteful. Instead I was being instructed to carry a chess piece to an unknown man on the docks.

Very likely the task was dangerous, but I knew Denis would never impart the details to me. He was the sort who expected obedience without question.

However, I refused to let forebodings of doom spoil my breakfast. I returned to my plate and tucked into a hearty if cooling portion of our cook’s best offerings.

* * *

I inquired of Bartholomew, my valet, when he entered to see if I needed anything, whether Thomas Brewster was in the house. 

“Indeed, he is, Captain,” Bartholomew answered. “In the kitchen, come to have his breakfast.” 

It was a rare day that Brewster, my hulking bodyguard, did not come to breakfast to supplement his wages with food. My lady wife, whose house this was for her lifetime, had given the kitchen staff orders to feed him. If Brewster’s job was to keep me safe from harm, she said, the poor man ought to gain some reward for it.

My wife’s servants, proud of their status as staff to a viscount and his mother, had been coolly distant at first to Brewster, a ruffian and thief who did not hide his past, but they’d begun warming to him. Brewster could be blunt and rude—he was to me, always—but he was also loyal, friendly, and even kind in his own way, when he wished to be.

Brewster turned up at my home almost every morning to escort me on even the most trivial of errands. He no longer worked for Denis, who had employed Brewster to keep me alive and useful, but he continued to watch over me because, in Brewster’s opinion, I needed a minder.

He came up from the kitchens after I sent Bartholomew down to him, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, and met me in the ground floor hall. A sweeping staircase, paneled in white, its niches filled with statuary, wrapped around this hall to the next landing. The decor was beautifully elegant, reflecting the taste of my wife, the former Viscountess Breckenridge.

“Should let me deliver it, guv,” Brewster said after I told him my errand.

“I doubt Mr. Denis will thank you. This is the task that will release me from my debt to him for saving my life.”

“Seems I did my share of the saving.” Brewster shoved his hands into the pockets of his square-cut coat. “’Tis one reason I got the sack.”

“He asks that I go to this Mr. Creasey and hand him the box,” I said. “That is all.”

“Huh. Creasey’s a right evil bloke. No good will come of it.”

“Well, I did not expect the errand to be mundane. Why would Denis send Mr. Creasey a chess piece?” I lifted the box, which I’d rewrapped in its paper. “A white queen?”

Brewster pursed his lips then shrugged. “No idea. Is it solid gold?”

“No, quite ordinary.”

“Then it could mean anything, guv. Right. We go, me one step behind you. You throw the box at Creasey, and then you run the other way. Understand?”

“I will hand it to him politely, or better still, leave it with whomever answers his door. I agree we should not linger.”

“Good.” Brewster sent me a doubtful glare, but he at last ceased arguing, and we were off.

It was a foul day, too cool for summer and too warm for winter, the fog hanging in thick patches that grew denser as we approached the river. I’d acquiesced to letting Hagen, my wife’s coachman, drive us in the family carriage. I did not relish the idea of rolling into the docklands with the viscount’s coat of arms blazoned on the coach’s door, but the carriage did move us quickly through the crush. 

Mayfair had been quiet, as most families that leased houses there had retired to the country for the remainder of the year. As we traveled through Piccadilly to Haymarket and into parts of London where residents lived year-round, the traffic increased. Not all had the means to escape the hot, stinking London summers, and laborers were needed throughout the year. Commerce did not cease because Parliament wasn’t sitting and the haut ton had departed for more salubrious climes. 

Hagen drove us along the Strand to Fleet Street and then around the bulk of St. Paul’s to Cheapside. From that busy thoroughfare we inched down lanes until we reached the Thames and its many wharves. I was alone inside the coach, but I imagined Brewster, sitting on a perch on the back, watching the teeming masses with a sour eye.

At London Bridge, Upper Thames Street became Lower Thames Street. London Bridge had occupied this spot since the Middle Ages, although about ten years before my birth, the last of the houses built upon it had been pulled down, and the bridge widened and shored up. No more did heads adorn pikes at its end, just as hangings were no longer a public spectacle at Tyburn. Men and women were executed behind the walls of Newgate, in private, with other prisoners for their audience.

The Custom House stood at the end of the row of docks, with its wide frontage facing the Thames. To the east, the street ended in the wall that surrounded the Tower of London. 

Hagen halted in front of the Custom House, and we found Hill Lane, a narrow artery that led north. The street was too narrow for the carriage, so Brewster and I descended and made our way on foot.

The lane was narrow, inky in the fog. I was now thankful Brewster had insisted on accompanying me. I’d have had to think long and hard before entering that passageway alone.

“Lacey? Good Lord, it is you.”

I turned at my name and gazed, mystified, at the man who strode toward me from the arched doorway of the Custom House. He wore the black of a fashionable gentleman, with a tall hat slightly askew, his coat tightly buttoned. He had no walking stick and approached with a swift, easy gait.

As he drew closer, memory cleared, and I went gladly forward to meet him.

“Captain Eden,” I exclaimed.

The man grasped my hand and shook it hard. I faced Miles Eden, a fellow officer of the Thirty-Fifth Light Dragoons. “It’s Major now,” he said breezily. “Was promoted after Waterloo.”

“Well deserved.” I stepped back to study him. Miles Eden was a tall man, standing an inch or so above me, with a thatch of light-colored hair that had grown thicker since I’d last seen him. Thin lines of hair curved along his cheeks to a mouth that was prone to smiles. His eyes were brown, like strong tea, and his skin had tanned to a shade of butternut, a thin scar from Peninsula days white on his cheek.

Eden had been one of the few officers I’d respected. He’d gained his commission through family connections—his uncle was a baron—but he’d proved competent in leading men and thinking quickly in battle. He’d also been good-natured and likable though not a soft touch. His sergeants and men had respected him as well.

“Is it still Captain Lacey?” he asked. “I’ve been away—Antigua, actually. I sold my commission, and since then have heard little of the Thirty-Fifth.”

“I indeed bear that title. I took half pay after Vitoria and came home.”

“After your injury.” Eden glanced at my walking stick in sympathy. “Waterloo would have gone quicker and not been so bloody if you’d been there, I’m certain.”

I had to laugh at the exaggeration. “I doubt that very much. Have you returned to England permanently? Or have you become a colonist in truth?”

“No, no, I am home to stay. In fact …” Eden stepped closer to me, bending to me as men and carts teemed around us. “I would not mind speaking to you about a thing, Lacey. You’re just the man to advise me.”

“Of course. I am happy to help, if I can.”

Eden relaxed as though he’d been afraid of his reception. “Would now be convenient? Or do you have business?”

He trailed off with a glance at the Custom House, where men flowed in and out, shippers paying duties or trying to collect goods held there. I’d heard that the Custom House regularly had plenty of brandy and other seized smuggled goods like gunpowder in their cellars. Indeed, the previous building, only six or seven years before, had exploded like a fiery volcano when it had caught fire. The building I faced now, built a little to the east of the original site, was quite new.

“I do have a man to visit, but my errand should not take long,” I explained. I gestured with my stick to the foggy lane. “Just there.”

Eden blinked. He regarded Brewster, who hovered at my back, then the small street, then me. “There? A more menacing track I’ve not seen in a long while, and I have been to some terrible places, Lacey.” He squared his shoulders. “Perhaps I ought to accompany you.”

Brewster gave him a slow nod. “Another pair of fists might not be amiss.”

“I think you are both making heavy weather of it,” I said. “I do not intend to linger. But very well. This is Thomas Brewster. He is …” I could not think of a word to describe his position. “He works for me.”

“I’d say a good thing he does. Well met, Mr. Brewster.” Eden stuck out his hand.

Brewster gazed at him askance for a heartbeat then conceded to the handshake.

“Getting darker by the minute,” Brewster said once introductions were finished. “Storm must be coming in.”

“Rain will clear the fog,” I said with optimism. “Shall we, gentlemen?”

I led the way, my walking stick tapping. Truth be told, I was glad of my friends’ presence, both stout fellows, as we reached the mouth of the Stygian lane and plunged inside.

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