By Anne Perry
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1981 Anne Perry
All rights reserved.
Inspector Pitt stared down at the girl, and an overwhelming sense of loss soaked through him. He had never known her in life, but he knew and treasured all the things that now she had lost.
She was slight, with fair brown hair, a childish seventeen. Lying on the white morgue table, she looked brittle enough to have snapped if he had touched her. There were bruises on her arms where she had fought.
She was expensively dressed in lavender silk, and there was a gold and pearl chain around her throat—things he could never have afforded. They were pretty, trivial enough in the face of death, and yet he would like to have been able to give such things to Charlotte.
Thoughts of Charlotte, safe and warm at home, brought a sickness tightening in his stomach. Had some man loved this girl as he loved Charlotte? Was there someone right now for whom everything clean and bright and gentle had gone? All laughter snatched away, with the breaking of this fragile body?
He forced himself to look at her again, but his eyes avoided the wound in her chest, the stream of blood, now congealed and thick. The white face was expressionless, all surprize or horror ironed out of it. It was a little pinched.
She had lived in Paragon Walk, very rich and very fashionable, and no doubt also idle. He had nothing in common with her. He had worked ever since leaving the estate that had employed his father possessing nothing but a cardboard box with a comb and a change of shirt and an education shared with the son of the great house. He had seen the poverty and the despair that teemed just behind the elegant streets and squares of London, things this girl had never dreamed of.
He pulled a face as he remembered with a twist of humor how horrified Charlotte had been when he had first described them to her, when he was merely the policeman investigating the Cater Street murders, and she a daughter of the Ellison house. Her parents had been appalled even to have him in the establishment, let alone to address him socially. It had taken courage for Charlotte to marry him, and at the thought of it the warmth burst up inside him again, and his fingers clenched on the edge of the table.
He looked down at the girl's face again, furious at the waste, the wealth of experience she would never know, the chances gone.
He turned away.
"Last night after dark," the constable beside him said glumly. "Ugly business. Do you know Paragon Walk, sir? Very 'igh class neighborhood, that. Most of it is, around there."
"Yes," Pitt said absently. Of course, he knew it; it was part of his district. He did not add that he knew Paragon Walk especially, because Charlotte's sister had her town house there and so it had remained in his mind. As Charlotte had married socially beneath her, so Emily had married above and was now Lady Ashworth.
"Not the sort of thing you'd expect," the constable went on, "not in a place like that." He made a slight click of disapproval with his tongue. "I don't know what things is coming to, what with General Gordon killed by that there dervish, or whatever, in January, and now we got rapists loose in a place like Paragon Walk. Shockin', I call it, poor young girl like that. Looks as innocent as a lamb, don't she?" He stared down at her mournfully.
Pitt turned round. "Did you say raped?"
"Yes, sir. Didn't they tell you that at the station?"
"No, Forbes, they did not," Pitt was sharper than he meant to be, to cover the new misery. "They just said murder."
"Oh, well, she's been murdered, too," Forbes added reasonably. "Poor creature." He sniffed. "I suppose you'll be wanting to go to Paragon Walk now it's morning, like, and talk to all them people?"
"Yes," Pitt agreed, turning to leave. There was nothing more he could do here. The means of death was obvious, a long, sharp-bladed knife at least an inch broad. There was only one wound, which had to have been fatal.
"Right," Forbes followed him up the steps, his heavy feet loud on the stone.
Outside Pitt gulped at the summer air. The trees were in full leaf and already at eight o'clock it was warm. A hansom cab clopped by at the end of the road, and an errand boy whistled about his business.
"We'll walk," Pitt said, striding out, coat flapping, hat jammed on the top of his head. Forbes was obliged to trot to keep up with him, and long before they were at Paragon Walk the constable was distressingly out of breath and wishing fervently his duty had landed him with anybody but Pitt.
Paragon Walk was a Regency road of great elegance, facing an open park with flowerbeds and ornamental trees. It curved gently for about a thousand yards. This morning it looked white and silent in the sunlight, and there was not even a footman or a gardener's boy to be seen. Word of the tragedy would have spread, of course; there would be huddles in kitchens and pantries and embarrassed platitudes over the breakfast tables upstairs.
"Fanny Nash," Forbes said, catching his breath for the first time as Pitt stopped.
"Fanny Nash, sir," Forbes repeated. "That was 'er name."
"Oh, yes." The sense of loss returned for a moment. This time yesterday she would have been alive, behind one of those classic windows, probably deciding what to wear, telling her maid what to lay out for her, planning her day, whom to call on, what gossip to tell, what secrets to keep. It was the beginning of the London Season. What dreams had crowded through her mind such a little while ago?
"Number Four," Forbes prompted at his elbow.
Inwardly Pitt cursed Forbes for his practicality, though he knew that was unfair. This was a foreign world to Forbes, stranger than the back streets of Paris or Bordeaux would have been. He was used to women in plain, stuff dresses who worked from waking to sleeping, large families living in a few, overfurnished rooms with the smell of cooking everywhere and the intimate usage of faults and pleasures. He could not think of these people as the same, under their silks, and their rigid, stylized manners. Without the discipline of work, they had invented the discipline of etiquette, and it had become just as ruthless a master. But Forbes could not be expected to understand that.
As a policeman, Pitt knew it was customary for him to present himself at the tradesman's entrance, but he would not now begin something he had refused all his life.
The footman who came to the front door was grim and stiff-faced. He stared at Pitt with unaffected dislike, although the superciliousness of the look was somewhat spoiled by the fact that Pitt was several inches taller.
"Inspector Pitt, of the police," Pitt said soberly. "May I speak with Mr. and Mrs. Nash?" He assumed assent and was about to go in, but the footman stood his ground.
"Mr. Nash is not at home. I will see if Mrs. Nash will receive you," he said with distaste, then backed half a step. "You may wait in the hall."
Pitt looked around him. The house was larger than it had appeared from outside. He could see a wide stairway with landings leading from it on either side, and there were half a dozen doors in the hall. He had learned something of art from working on the recovery of stolen goods, and he judged the pictures on the walls to be of considerable value, if too stylized for his own taste. He preferred the modern, more impressionistic school, with blurred lines, sky and water merging in a haze of light. But there was one portrait, after the manner of Burne-Jones, that caught his attention, not for its artist, but for its subject, a woman of exceptional beauty—proud, sensuous and dazzling.
"Cor!" Forbes let out his breath in amazement, and Pitt realized he had not been inside a house such as this before, except perhaps in the servants' hall. He was afraid Forbes's gaucheness would embarrass them both, and perhaps even handicap his questioning.
"Forbes, why don't you go and see what you can learn from the servants?" he suggested. "Perhaps a footman or a maid was out? People don't realize how much they notice."
Forbes was torn. Part of him wanted to stay and examine this new world, not to be shut out of anything, but a larger part wanted to escape to the more familiar and do something he was confident in. His hesitation was brief and came to a natural end.
"Right, sir! Yes, I'll do that. Might try some of the other houses, too. Like you say, never know what they've seen, till you try, like?"
When the footman returned, he conducted Pitt into the morning room and left him. It was five minutes before Jessamyn Nash appeared. Pitt knew her immediately; she was the woman from the portrait in the hall, with those wide, direct eyes, that mouth, that radiant hair, thick and soft as summer fields. She was dressed in black now, but it did nothing to dim her brilliance. She stood very straight, her chin high.
"Good morning, Mr. Pitt. What is it you wish to ask me?"
"Good morning, ma'am. I'm sorry to have to disturb you in such tragic circumstances—"
"I appreciate the necessity. You do not need to explain." She walked across the room with exquisite grace. She did not sit, nor did she invite him to do so. "Naturally you must discover what happened to Fanny, poor child." Her face froze for just an instant, stiff. "She was only a child, you know, very innocent, very—young."
It was the same impression he had had, extreme youth.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
"Thank you." He had no idea from her voice whether she knew he meant it, or if she took it as a simple courtesy, the automatic thing to say. He would like to have assured her, but then she would not care about the feelings of a policeman.
"Tell me what happened." He looked at her back as she stood at the window. She was slender, shoulders delicately soft under the silk. Her voice, when it came, was expressionless, as though she were repeating something rehearsed.
"I was at home yesterday evening. Fanny lived here with my husband and myself. She was my husband's half sister, but I presume you know that. She was only seventeen. She was engaged to marry Algernon Burnon, but that was not to be for three years at least, when she became twenty."
Pitt did not interrupt. He seldom interrupted; the slightest remarks that seemed irrelevant at the time could turn out to mean something, betraying a feeling if nothing else. And he wanted to know all he could about Fanny Nash. He wanted to know how other people had seen her, what she had meant to them.
"—that may seem a long engagement," Jessamyn was saying, "but Fanny was very young. She grew up alone, you see. My father-in-law married a second time. Fanny is—was—twenty years younger than my husband. She seemed forever a child. Not that she was simple." She hesitated, and he noticed that her long fingers were fiddling with a china figurine from the table, twisting it around and around. "Just—" She fumbled for the word. "—ingenuous—innocent."
"And she was living here with you and your husband, until her marriage?"
"Why was that?"
She looked round at him in surprize. Her blue eyes were very cool, and there were no tears in them.
"Her mother is dead. Naturally we offered her a home." She gave a tiny, icy smile. "Young girls of good family do not live alone, Mr.—I'm sorry—I forget your name."
"Pitt, ma'am," he said with equal chill. He was ruffled, surprised that he was still capable of feeling slighted after all these years. He refused to show it. He smiled within himself. Charlotte would have been furious; her tongue would have spoken as quickly as the words came to her mind. "I thought she might have remained with her father."
Something of his humor must have softened his face. She mistook it for a smirk. The color rose in her exquisite cheeks.
"She preferred to live with us," she said tartly. "Naturally. A girl does not wish to enter the Season without a suitable lady, preferably of her own family, to advise and accompany her. I was happy to do so. Are you sure this is relevant, Mr.—Pitt? Are you not merely indulging your curiosity? I appreciate our way of life is probably quite unknown to you."
An acid reply came to his mind, but anger was irrevocable, and he could not yet afford to commit himself to her enmity.
He pulled a face. "Perhaps it has nothing to do with it. Please continue with your account of yesterday evening."
She took a breath to speak, then apparently changed her mind. She crossed over to the mantel shelf, piled with photographs, and began again in the same flat voice.
"She had spent a perfectly usual day. She had no household affairs to attend to, of course—I do all that. She wrote letters in the morning, consulted her diary, and kept an appointment with her dressmaker. She lunched here at home, and then in the afternoon she took the carriage and went calling. She did tell me upon whom, but I forget. It is always the same sort of people, and as long as one remembers oneself, it really hardly matters. I dare say you can find out from the coachman, if you wish. We dined at home. Lady Pomeroy called, a most tiresome person, but a family obligation—you wouldn't understand."
Pitt controlled his face and regarded her with continued polite interest.
"Fanny left early," she went on. "She has very little social ability, as yet. Sometimes I think she is too young for a Season! I have tried to teach her, but she is very artless. She seems to lack any natural ability to invent. Even the simplest prevarication is a trial to her. She went on some small errand, a book for Lady Cumming-Gould. At least, that is what she said."
"And you do not think it was so?" he inquired.
A slight flicker crossed her face, but Pitt did not understand it. Charlotte might have interpreted it for him, but she was not here to ask.
"I should think it was precisely so," Jessamyn replied. "As I have tried to explain to you, Mr.—er—" She waved her hand irritably. "Poor Fanny had no art to deceive. She was a guileless as a child."
Pitt had seldom found children guileless; tactless perhaps—but most he could remember were possessed of the natural cunning of a stoat and the toughness in a bargain of a moneylender, although certainly some were blessed with the blandest of countenances. It was the third time Jessamyn had referred to Fanny's immaturity.
"Well, I can ask Lady Cumming-Gould," he replied with what he hoped was a smile as guileless as Fanny's.
She turned away from him sharply, lifting one slender shoulder, as if his face had somehow reminded her who he was and that he must be recalled to his proper position.
"Lady Pomeroy had gone and I was alone when—" her voice wavered, and for the first time she seemed to lose her composure, "—when Fanny came back." She made an effort not to gulp, and failed. She was obliged to fumble for a handkerchief, and the clumsiness of it brought her back. "Fanny came in and collapsed in my arms. I don't know how the poor child had had the strength to come so far. It was amazing. She died but a moment afterward."
"I am sorry."
She looked at him, her face devoid of expression, almost as if she were asleep. Then she moved one hand to brush at her heavy taffeta skirt, perhaps in memory of the blood on her the night before.
"Did she speak at all?" he asked quietly. "Anything?"
"No, Mr. Pitt. She was nearly dead by the time she got so far."
He turned slightly to look at the French doors. "She came in through there?" It was the only possible way without having passed the footman, and yet it seemed natural to ask.
She shivered minutely.
He walked over toward them and looked out. The lawn was small, a mere patch, surrounded by laurel bushes and a herbaceous walk beyond. There was a wall between this garden and the next. No doubt, by the time he had closed this case, he would know every view and corner of all these houses—unless there was some pathetic, easy answer, but none presented itself yet. He turned back to her.
"Is there any way your garden connects with the others along the Walk, a gate or door in that wall?"
Her face looked blank. "Yes, but it is hardly the way she would choose to come. She was at Lady Cumming-Gould's."
He must send Forbes to all the gardens to see if there was any sign of blood. A wound such as that must have left some stain. And there might even be broken plants or footprints in gravel or grass.
"Where does Lady Cumming-Gould live?" he asked.
"With Lord and Lady Ashworth," she replied. "She is an aunt, I believe, and is visiting for the Season." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Paragon Walk by Anne Perry. Copyright © 1981 Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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