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A fugitive moon scurried across the predawn sky. Heavy fog shrouded London, muffling the footsteps of the night creatures that would, at daybreak, creep into their secret crevices, into the ramshackle tenements and stinking alleyways of the dilapidated, verminous rookeries. On the dark Thames, the mournful bell of a riverboat keened.
Through the thick mist slid a furtive figure. He avoided the brilliant beacons of the druggists' globes, deep red, green and blue, and shunned even the dimmer glow of the wrought-iron gaslights, for he had no wish to be glimpsed by a member of a Bow Street foot patrol. With pleasure, he inhaled the damp, cold air, so different from the heavily rose-scented atmosphere that he'd recently left behind.
Through cobbled lanes and streets, past dark houses and inns, he moved silently. An ancient watchman leaned heavy-eyed on a pole too stout for him to raise; another dozed within the haven of his sentry box. The safety of the streets was the responsibility of these men. In grogshop cellars and attics, drunks lay in snoring stupor on bales of stinking straw, waking only to stagger into the taproom to buy more gin.
The felon's footsteps faltered. Unobserved, he paused in a deserted doorway and reached into a pocket of his voluminous coat. Emeralds, sparkling against his glove, lit his eyes with greed.
London began to stir. In a few hours' time these streets would fill with peddlers and pedestrians and carriages. Maroon and black mail coaches would rattle over the cobblestones. Mingled smells of horse manure and sweat would hang heavy in the air. Smiling grimly, the wrongdoer skirted a tall gray-black building with an arched gateway and narrowwindows. He would not be caught in the shadow of Newgate by the merciless light of day.
Through rifts in the fog, the Arbuthnot residence in Cavendish Square stood revealed in all its misguided magnificence. Originally built in the neoclassical style, its Greek pediments, porticoes, and colonnades had since then been floridly adorned. As mismatched as Arbuthnot House and its Egyptian, Chinese and Gothic statuaries were Sir William Arbuthnot and Lady Arabella, the dashing widow who had lately become his wife.
The youngest housemaid rose at dawn. Stretching and yawning, she built up the kitchen fire. Countless tasks stretched before her: she had to dust and polish in the breakfast room, prepare the table, attend to the downstairs fireplaces and shine the grates. Pleasant it might be to catch a few more moments' sleep, but it was as much as her job was worth. Lady Arabella would want her morning chocolate, and she was not one to tolerate delay. On her way to the stairs the housemaid passed a lower storey window, which stood open. On the ground outside it lay a dull brass button, torn from some visitor's coat.
Upstairs in the master bedchamber, a morning breeze ruffled the open draperies. On the massive mahogany bed, hung with deep crimson that matched the damasked walls, the coverlet was still turned back invitingly. The pristine bed, untouched since the little housemaid had made it up the previous day, stood out in stark contrast to the room's shocking disarray. Chairs were overturned and mutilated, their stuffing pouring out like lumpy sawdust from a disintegrating doll. The soft crimson silk that had once draped the dressing table from mirror top to table toe lay shredded on the floor. Hinged glass cosmetic containers were shattered, their contents ground into the Aubusson rug. A wall-safe hung open: from it dangled a broken string of pearls. Thomas Lawrence's portrait of Lady Arabella lay in the fireplace, the exquisite face mutilated and charred. The door to Lady Arabella's dressing room stood slightly ajar.
Here, too, chaos ruled. The contents of a dainty writing desk were strewn heedlessly about, the privacy of her ladyship's communications no longer a matter of consequence. A delicate rose-colored chair had been wrenched from its brass paw feet. Supported by intertwined dolphins, sea horses, and eagles. Lady Arabella sprawled on a recamier. Her slender neck was twisted at a grotesque angle; her rich brown curls were in tangled disarray. The perfect features that had led one admirer to compare Arabella to Helen of Troy were contorted in nightmare. Red streaked her dressing gown.
Humming tunelessly, the little housemaid mounted the stair. It was a marvel that Lady Arabella could dance half the night away, yet arise refreshed at such an early hour. The maid suffered a moment's indecision when there was no answer to her gentle tapping on the door. The Arbuthnot retainers stood in awe of their new mistress, whose moods fluctuated rapidly between gentle charm and icy rage.
Holding hard to her courage, the girl balanced her tray with one hand and cautiously pushed open the door. Blinking, she shook her head. Her mouth formed a silent gasp of astonishment as she gazed upon the wreckage; then, as she looked further, into the dressing room, she screamed.
Motes of light danced merrily on the shaft of the silver knife that protruded from Arabella's breast. Rivers of dark liquid made patterns on the rug. The little maid cried out again as her tray clattered to the floor.