St. Katharine’s, East London Thursday, 21 January 1813
Paul Gibson lurched down the dark, narrow lane, his face raw from the cold, his fingers numb. There were times when he wandered these alleyways lost in brightly hued reveries of opium-induced euphoria. But not tonight. Tonight, Gibson clenched his jaw and tried to focus on the tap-tap of his wooden leg on the icy cobbles, the reedy wail of a babe carried on the night wind—anything that might distract his mind from the restless, hungering need that drenched his thin frame with sweat and tormented him with ghosts of what could be.
When he first noticed the woman, he thought her an apparition, a mirage of gray wool and velvet lying crumpled beside the entrance to a fetid passageway. But as he drew nearer, he saw pale flesh and the gleaming dark wetness of blood and knew she was only too real.
He drew up sharply, the dank, briny air of the nearby Thames rasping in his throat. Cat’s Hole, they called this narrow lane, a refuge for thieves, prostitutes, and all the desperate dispossessed of England and beyond. He could feel his heart pounding; the stars glittered like shards of broken glass in the thin slice of cold black sky visible between the looming rooftops above. He hesitated perhaps longer than he should have. But he was a surgeon, his life dedicated to the care of others.
He pushed himself forward again.
She lay curled half on her side, one hand flung out palm up, eyes closed. He hunkered down awkwardly beside her, fingertips searching for a pulse in her slim neck. Her face was delicately boned and framed by a riot of long, flame red hair, her lashes dark and thick against the pale flesh of her smooth cheeks, her lips purple-blue with cold. Or death.
But at his touch, her eyelids fluttered open, her chest jerking on a sob and a broken, whispered prayer. “Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu, priez pour nous pauvres pécheurs . . .”
“It’s all right; I’m here to help you,” he said gently, wondering whether she could even understand him. “Where are you hurt?”
The entire side of her head, he now saw, was matted with blood. Wide-eyed and frightened, she fixed her gaze on him. Then her focus shifted to where the black mouth of the passage yawned beside them. “Damion . . .” Her hand jerked up to clutch his sleeve. “Is he all right?”
Gibson followed her gaze. The man’s body was more difficult to discern, a dark, motionless mass deep in the shadows. Gibson shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Her grip on his arm twisted convulsively. “Go to him. Please.”
Nodding, Gibson surged upright, staggering slightly as his wooden peg took his weight and the phantom pains of a long-gone limb ripped through him.
The passage reeked of rot and excrement and the familiar coppery stench of spilled blood. The man lay sprawled on his back beside a pile of broken hogsheads and crates. It was with difficulty that Gibson picked out the once snowy white folds of a cravat, the silken sheen of what had been a fine waistcoat but was now a blood-soaked mess, horribly ripped.
“Tell me,” said the woman. “Tell me he lives.”
But Gibson could only stare at the body before him. The man’s eyes were wide and sightless, his handsome young face pallid, his outflung arms stiffening in the cold. Someone had hacked open the corpse’s chest with a ruthless savagery that spoke of rage tinged with madness. And where the heart should have been gaped only an open cavity.
Bloody and empty.
Friday, 22 January
The dream began as it often did, with the sun shining golden warm and the laughter of children at play floating on an orange blossom–scented breeze.
Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, moved restlessly in his sleep, for he knew only too well what was to come. The thunder of galloping horses. A shouted order. The hiss of sabers drawn with deadly purpose from well-oiled scabbards. He gave a low moan.
Laughter turned to screams of terror. His vision filled with slashing hooves and bare steel stained dark with innocent blood.
He opened his eyes, his chest heaving as he sucked in a deep, ragged breath. He felt his wife’s gentle fingertips touch his lips. Her face rose above him in the darkness, her features pale in the glow of the fire that still burned warm on the bedroom hearth. “It’s a dream,” she whispered, although he saw the worry that drew together her dark brows. “Just a dream.”
For a moment he could only stare at her, lost in the past. Then he folded his arms around Hero and drew her close, so that she could no longer see his face. It was a dream, yes. But it was also a memory, one he had never shared with anyone.
“Did I wake you?” he asked, his voice a hoarse rasp. “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head, her weight shifting as she sought in vain for a comfortable position, for she was nearly nine months heavy with his child. “Your son keeps kicking me.”
Smiling, he placed his hand on the taut mound of her belly and felt a strong heel grind against his palm. “Shockingly ill-mannered of her.”
“I think he’s beginning to find it a wee bit crowded in there.”
“There is a solution.”
She laughed, a low, husky sound that caught without warning at his heart, then twisted. As much as he yearned to hold this child in his arms, thoughts of the looming birth inevitably brought a sense of disquiet that came perilously close to fear. He’d read once that more than one in ten women died in childbirth. Hero’s own mother had lost babe after babe—before nearly dying herself.
Yet he heard no echo of his own terror in Hero’s calm voice when she said, “Not long now.”
He felt the babe kick one last time, then settle as Hero snuggled beside him. He brushed his lips against her temple and murmured, “Try to sleep.”
“You sleep,” she said, still smiling.
He watched her eyelids drift closed, her breathing slow. Yet the tension that thrummed within him remained, and he found himself wondering if it was the coming babe that had sent his unconscious thoughts drifting back to a time he wished so desperately to forget. A cold wind stirred the heavy velvet drapes at the windows and banged an unlatched shutter somewhere in the darkness. There were nights when the high, arid mountains and ancient, stone-walled villages of Spain and Portugal seemed a lifetime away from the London town house sleeping around him. Yet he knew they were not.
He was still awake when an urgent message arrived in Brook Street from Paul Gibson, asking for Sebastian’s help.
• • •
The woman lay in a narrow bed in the front chamber of Gibson’s Tower Hill surgery. The room was small and plain and lit only by a single candlestick and the enormous fire that roared on the hearth. Piles of blankets covered her thin frame, yet still she shivered. Between the blankets and the thick bandage that swathed the side of her head, Sebastian could see little of her face. But what he could see looked ominously pale and bloodless.
“Will she live?” he asked quietly, pausing in the chamber’s doorway.
Gibson stood beside the bed, his gaze, like Sebastian’s, on the unconscious woman before him. “Difficult to say at this point. There could be bleeding in the brain. If so . . .” He let his voice trail away.
Sebastian shifted his gaze to his friend’s gaunt face. He was looking unusually haggard, even for Gibson, his cheeks hollow and unshaven, his green eyes sunken and bloodshot, his wiry frame close to emaciated. He was only in his early thirties, yet streaks of gray already showed at the temples of his dark hair.
The two men came from different worlds, one the son of a poor Irish Catholic, the other heir to the powerful Earl of Hendon. But they were old friends. Once, they’d both worn the King’s colors, fighting from the mountains of Italy to the fever-racked swamps of the West Indies and the stony uplands of Iberia. As a regimental surgeon, Gibson had learned the secrets of life and death with an intimate familiarity rarely matched by his civilian peers. When a French cannonball tore off the lower part of one of his legs and left him bedeviled by chronic pain, he had come here, to London, to share his knowledge of anatomy at the teaching hospitals of St. Thomas’s and St. Bartholomew’s, and to open this small surgery in the shadow of the Tower of London.
“And if there is bleeding in the brain?” Sebastian asked.
“Then she’ll die.”
“How can you know?”
“Only time will tell. And then there’s the risk of pneumonia . . .” Gibson shook his head. “Her body temperature was dangerously low when I found her. I’ve packed flannel-wrapped hot bricks around her, but there’s not much else I can do at this point.”
“What was she able to tell you about the attack?”
“Nothing, I’m afraid. She lost consciousness when she learned of her companion’s death, and she’s yet to come around again. I don’t even know her name.”
Sebastian glanced at the bloodstained gray wool walking dress and velvet-trimmed spencer tossed over a nearby chair back. Both were worn but, other than for the new stains, clean and respectable. This was no common woman of the streets.
“And the dead man? What do you know of him?”
“He’s a French physician named Dr. Damion Pelletan.”
Gibson nodded. “According to his papers, he registered as an alien just three weeks ago.” He raked his disheveled hair back from his face with splayed fingers. “The fools who pass for the authorities in St. Katharine’s are convinced the attack was the work of footpads.”
“St. Katharine’s is a dangerous place,” said Sebastian. “Especially at night. What the devil were you doing there?”
Gibson’s gaze drifted away. “I . . . I sometimes feel the need to walk, of an evening.”
Sebastian studied his friend’s flushed, half-averted face and wondered what the hell would drive a one-legged Irish surgeon to wander the back alleys of St. Katharine’s on one of the coldest nights of the year. “You’re lucky you didn’t fall victim to these footpads yourselves.”
“Footpads had nothing to do with this.”
Sebastian raised one eyebrow. “So certain?”
Gibson nodded to the middle-aged matron who dozed in a slat-backed wooden chair beside the fire. “Keep an eye on the woman,” he told her. “I won’t be long.”
To Sebastian, he said, “There’s something I want you to see.”
At the base of the frost-browned, unkempt yard that stretched to the rear of the surgery stood a low stone outbuilding where Gibson conducted both his official postmortems and the surreptitious, illegal dissections he performed on cadavers filched from the city’s churchyards by body snatchers. Of one room only, with high windows to discourage the curious, the building had a flagged floor and was bitterly cold. At its center stood a granite slab with strategically placed drains and a channel cut into the outer edge.
The body of a man, still fully clothed, lay upon it.
“I haven’t had a chance to begin with him yet,” said Gibson, hooking the lantern he carried onto the chain that dangled over the slab.
It sometimes seemed to Sebastian as if every suicide, every bloated body pulled from the Thames, every decaying cadaver that passed through this building, had left a stench that seeped into its walls, their muted howls of anguish and despair echoing still.
He took a deep breath and entered the room. “If St. Katharine’s authorities are convinced he was killed by common thieves, I’m surprised they agreed to an autopsy.”
“They weren’t exactly what you might call enthusiastic. To quote Constable O’Keefe”—Gibson puffed out his cheeks, narrowed his eyes, and adopted a decidedly nasal accent—“‘Wot ye want t’ be botherin’ wit’ all that fer, then? Sure but any fool can see wot killed him.’” The lantern swung back and forth on its chain, casting macabre shadows across the slab and its grisly occupant. He put up a hand to still it. “I had to promise I wouldn’t be charging the parish for my services. And I paid the lads who carried the body here myself.”
Sebastian studied the slim, slightly built man upon the surgeon’s slab. He was young yet, probably no more than twenty-six or twenty-eight, with a pleasant, even-featured face and high forehead framed by soft golden curls. His clothes were of good quality—better than the woman’s and considerably newer, fashionably cut in the Parisian style and showing little wear. But what had once been a fine silk waistcoat and linen shirt were now ripped and soaked with blood, the chest beneath hacked open to reveal a gaping cavity.
“What the hell? He looks like he was attacked with an axe.”
“It’s worse than that,” said Gibson, tucking his hands up under his armpits for warmth. “His heart has been removed.”
Sebastian raised his gaze to the Irishman’s solemn face. “Please tell me he was already dead when this was done to him.”
“I honestly don’t know yet.”
Sebastian forced himself to look, again, at that ravaged torso. “Any chance this could be the work of a student of medicine?”
“Are you serious? Even a butcher would have been more delicate. Whoever did this made a right royal mess of it.”
Sebastian shifted his gaze to the dead man’s face. His eyes were large and widely spaced, the nose prominent, the mouth full lipped and soft, almost feminine. Even in death, there was a gentleness and kindness to his features that made what had been done to him seem somehow that much more horrible.
“You say he was a physician?”
Gibson nodded. “He was staying at the Gifford Arms, in York Street. The constables brought round a gentleman from the hotel—a Monsieur Vaundreuil—to identify him.”
“Yet he couldn’t identify the woman?”
“Said he’d never seen her before. He also said he’d no notion what Pelletan might have been doing in St. Katharine’s.” Gibson rubbed the back of his neck. “I should mention that, along with his papers, the constables also found a purse containing both banknotes and silver.”
“Yet they’re convinced he fell victim to footpads?”
“The theory is that the thieves were interrupted.”
“I certainly didn’t see anyone. But then . . .”
“But then—what?” asked Sebastian.
Gibson colored. “I was rather lost in my own thoughts.”
Sebastian watched his friend look pointedly away but remained silent.
Gibson said, “If he were English, the circumstances might be strange enough to prod even St. Katharine’s authorities into taking action. But he’s not; he’s a Frenchman—a stranger—which makes it all too easy to simply dismiss the murder as the work of footpads and forget it.”
Sebastian lowered his gaze to the pallid corpse on the slab between them. For some reason he could not have named, he knew a faint, unsettling echo of that night’s troubled dream and all the unwanted memories it had provoked. For two years now he had dedicated himself to achieving a measure of justice for murder victims who would otherwise be forgotten. And it occurred to him, not for the first time, that those faraway events in Portugal had more to do with his preoccupation than he cared to explore.
He said, “Where exactly in Cat’s Hole were they?”
“There’s a small passage that opens up between a cooperage and a chandler’s shop, on the river side of the lane. I suspect he was attacked in the street and then dragged back into the passage before this was done to him.”
“And the woman?”
“Was lying in the lane, just before the passage.”
Sebastian nodded and turned toward the door. “I’d best have a look around the area now, before the neighborhood begins stirring.”
“Now? It’s the middle of the bloody night.”
Sebastian paused to look back at him. “You think it unwise of me to go wandering about St. Katharine’s, alone, in the dark, do you?”
Gibson grunted and reached to unhook the lantern. “Here. At least take this.”
“Thanks. But I don’t really need it.”
Gibson gave a rueful laugh, his fist tightening around the lantern’s handle. Sebastian was as famous for his ability to see in the dark as for his keen hearing and sharp eyesight. “No, I don’t suppose you do. But, Devlin . . . be careful. Whatever this is, it’s ugly. Very ugly.”
• • •
The ancient district known as St. Katharine’s ran along the northern bank of the Thames, just to the east of the ancient Tower of London. A warren of crooked lanes, crowded tenements, and dark courts, it was named for the hospital of St. Katherine’s that lay at its center.
Although called a “hospital,” St. Katharine’s was not so much a medical institution as a benevolent establishment dedicated to the care of the poor. As one of London’s medieval “liberties,” the area surrounding the old monastic buildings had long been a haven for foreign craftsmen seeking the protection it offered from the city’s powerful guilds. But along with the Flemish coopers, French artisans, and German brewers who flocked to the area had come thieves and whores, beggars and vagabonds. It was not an area a wise man wandered after dark, and Sebastian found himself wondering, again, what the hell Paul Gibson had been doing here, alone, on such a cold winter’s night.
Or what Damion Pelletan and his unidentified female companion had been doing here.
Sebastian walked up the dark, narrow lane with one hand on the double-barreled pistol in his pocket, his footsteps echoing hollowly in the icy silence, his senses alert for the slightest hint of movement or whisper of sound. The wind had died, and with the approach of false dawn a mist was beginning to creep up from the water’s edge, thick and stealthy. In another hour, these streets would begin to fill with costermongers, apprentices, and dustmen. But for the moment, all was still.
He found the passage readily enough, just beyond the battered, shuttered facade of a cooperage. Like virtually all the lanes in St. Katharine’s, Cat’s Hole was too narrow for footpaths; the dilapidated, closely packed tenements and tumbledown shops rose directly from the worn, ice-glazed cobbles of the roadway itself.
It took Sebastian only a moment to find the smear of blood near the corner of the passage. The woman’s blood? he wondered. Or Pelletan’s?
Squatting beside the bloodstain, he studied the surrounding jumble of muddy footprints and crushed ice. But between Gibson, the constables, and the men who’d helped carry Pelletan and his injured companion to Gibson’s surgery, any traces left by the murderer had been hopelessly trampled over and destroyed.
The sound of a soft snort brought up his head, and he found himself staring into the soft brown eyes of a half-grown pig that had been rooting through a nearby pile of garbage. “So,” said Sebastian. “Did you see anything?”
The pig snorted again and trotted away.
Sebastian rose thoughtfully to his feet, his eyes narrowing against the thickening fog as he turned to consider the deserted lane. From here he could see the massive, soot-stained walls of the Tower rising at the far western end of the lane. Which direction had Pelletan and the unknown woman been traveling? he wondered. Toward the relatively open ground surrounding the old medieval fortress? Or had they been headed east, deep into St. Katharine’s warren of dark, dangerous alleys and courtyards?
He turned his attention to the foul passageway beside him. Unlike the lane, the passage had never been paved. Beneath the soles of his Hessians, the thick, ice-crusted muck reeked of offal and manure and rotting fish heads. Yet despite the trampling of so many feet, Sebastian was able to find the impression left by the dead man’s body in the lee of a pile of broken crates and hogsheads.
He hunkered down, his gaze carefully assessing the surrounding area. He noted the blood-splattered wood of a nearby crate, the piece of torn, bloodstained linen trampled into the mud, more footprints, hopelessly muddled. Then he widened his search, looking for something—anything—that might give a hint as to who had killed Damion Pelletan. He was also looking for the dead man’s heart.
He did not find it.
Frustrated, he brought his gaze back to that blood-splattered pile of broken crates. What kind of a murderer hacks open his victim and steals his heart? Sebastian wondered. A madman? It was the obvious answer. Yet Sebastian had known British soldiers—even officers—who laughingly collected from their fallen enemies mementos ranging from severed fingers to ears. It was, after all, the British and French who had taught the American natives to collect scalps.
Was that what they were dealing with here? Some half-mad collector of war trophies? He supposed it was always possible. But a heart? Why would a murderer steal his victim’s heart? The heart was a potent symbol of so many things: of love, of courage, of life itself. Was the theft of Damion Pelletan’s heart symbolic? Or was it something else, something darker, something more . . .
And he knew it again, that whisper of memory, elusive and troubling.
He pushed quickly to his feet.
He was turning to leave when he saw it: the clear imprint of a shoe left on a broken slat of wood half trampled into the mud. It wasn’t an entire footprint, only the heel and part of the sole. But there was no mistaking that mingling of mud and blood. The shoe’s wearer had obviously trod here after Damion Pelletan’s death.
Reaching down, Sebastian freed the piece of wood from the muck, careful not to disturb the telltale outline of mud and blood it bore.
He stared at the imprint thoughtfully. It was always possible that the shoe’s owner had come through the passage in the last several hours and had nothing to do with the murder. So Sebastian began, again, to study the confusion of footprints in the garbage-strewn muck.
It took some time, but he finally found a place where a similar shoe print had been clearly pierced by the imprint of a peg leg. Whoever left these footprints had been in the passage after Pelletan’s death, but before Gibson.
Sebastian shifted his gaze, again, to the slat of wood in his hands. The shoe print wasn’t much to go on—certainly not enough to identify the killer. But it forced Sebastian to reassess completely every assumption he’d made about that night’s events, for there was no mistaking the curve of that arch or the fashionable shape of the small, narrowed heel.
It was the print of a woman’s shoe.
When Hero Devlin was twelve years old, she came to three life-altering conclusions: There were just as many stupid men as stupid women in the world—if not more; she would never, ever hide her own intelligence or knowledge in a craven attempt to conform to her society’s expectations and prejudices; and as long as England’s laws gave a husband virtually the same powers over his wife as those exercised by slave owners over slaves, Hero herself would never marry.
She had announced these convictions one evening at dinner. Her father, Charles, Lord Jarvis, simply continued eating as if she’d never spoken, while his mother snorted in derision. But Hero’s own mother, the gentle, slightly addlebrained Annabelle, Lady Jarvis, had whispered softly, “Oh, Hero.”
Over the next several years, Hero’s critical assessment of society had continued unabated. She read Mary Wollstonecraft and the Marquis de Condorcet. She refused to allow her revulsion at the excesses of the French Revolution to diminish her admiration for its fundamental principles. And she began to write, using her research skills and reasoning abilities to work to change the numerous injustices she observed around her daily.
Now in her mid-twenties, Hero’s radical opinions remained intact. But her determination never to marry had fallen victim to a certain dark-haired, golden-eyed viscount with a mysterious past and a powerful passion of his own.
She felt the baby kick again, hard enough this time to take her breath, and she set aside the new article she was writing on London’s working poor to go stand at the drawing room window overlooking the street below. A thin white mist drifted between the tall houses, dulling the rising sun to a glowing red ball and muffling the sounds of the waking city. It was just the kind of morning for a good gallop. Unfortunately, one did not gallop in Hyde Park—especially when one was nine months heavy with child.
She fought down an uncharacteristic upwelling of impatience and frustration. She had borne most of her pregnancy with ease, continuing her normal activities here and in the country, and sallying forth frequently to conduct interviews for her series of articles. But over the past few days the baby seemed to have settled. Even sitting was becoming difficult, sleep nearly impossible. And she found herself filled with a restlessness that was becoming increasingly difficult to stifle.
She was about to turn back to her article when she heard the front door open and Devlin’s quick tread on the stairs. He drew up in the entrance to the drawing room to swing off his greatcoat and set aside the broken slat of wood he carried.
“I was hoping you’d lie in this morning,” he said, coming to catch her to him and give her a long, lingering kiss that made her breath quicken—even now, big with his child. “You aren’t sleeping much these days.”
He smelled of wood smoke and frosty air and all the invigorating scents of early morning, and before she could stop herself, she said, “What I’d really like to do is go for a walk—a real walk, in the park.”
He laughed, his hands tightening on hers. “Then let’s go.”
She shook her head. “Dr. Croft warns me that I may take a brief turn around the garden, once in the morning and again in the evening, but no more.”
Richard Croft was London’s most respected accoucheur, a pompous and self-important little man utterly convinced of the efficacy of what he called his Lowering System for the Treatment of Ladies Facing Confinement. He had tut-tutted in horror when Hero and Devlin finally returned to London after spending three months at Devlin’s estate down in Hampshire, going for long walks in the bracing rural air and enjoying the countryside’s abundant fresh foods. In Croft’s professional opinion, anything more than a severely restricted diet and ladylike, restrained exercise could be disastrous for the safe outcome of a confinement.
“Is that before or after you have the bowl of thin gruel he allows you?” asked Devlin.
“Oh, definitely before. To exercise after taking sustenance can be fatal, you know—if you call walking in the garden exercise and thin bouillon sustenance.”
He laughed again, his smile fading slowly as his gaze searched her face. “How are you feeling? Truly?”
“Truly? I’m hungry, uncomfortable, and beyond cranky. But never mind that. I want to hear about Gibson.”
Another man might have sought to spare his pregnant wife the more macabre aspects of Damion Pelletan’s murder. Devlin knew better. As she listened to him describe his search of Cat’s Hole and the passageway where the body was found, she went to pick up the broken slat.
“A woman’s shoe? Are you certain?”
“Have you ever seen a man’s shoe with that kind of heel?”
She stared down at the clear imprint of mingled mud and blood. “No; you’re right. This was definitely left by a woman’s shoe.” She looked up at him. “How difficult is it to remove a heart, anyway?”
“I honestly don’t know. I’ll need to ask Gibson.”
The clang of a milkmaid’s pails drew Hero’s gaze, again, to the street. The fog was beginning to burn off, the white sky filling with seagulls wheeling above the rooftops, their haunting cries beckoning her like a siren’s call. The urge welled within her again, to feel the cold mist on her face and let the wind catch at her hair and be done with this interminable waiting.
As if aware of the drift of her thoughts, Devlin said, “How about if I order the carriage and take my wife for an illicit early-morning walk in the park? We won’t tell Dr. Croft, and between the fog and your heaviest pelisse, not even London’s nosiest busybodies will be able to tell that my bride of six months is only weeks away from delivering my daughter.”
She smiled. “Your son. I keep telling you it’s a boy.” Then she shook her head. “No. You need to visit the Gifford Arms Hotel and see what they can tell you about this Frenchman.”
He came to bracket her cheeks with his palms and kiss her on the mouth, a long, slow kiss that reminded her they hadn’t made love since the previous October, when the esteemed Dr. Richard Croft had sternly warned that she must carefully avoid any “animalistic appetites.”
He said, “The Gifford Arms will wait an hour.”
• • •
A small but eminently respectable hotel built of neatly squared sandstone blocks, the Gifford Arms lay on the south side of St. James’s Park, not far from the intersection of James and York streets. Dating to late in the previous century, it had tidy rows of sashed windows flanking a central door that led to a short, flagged stairwell. As was typical of inns of that period, the coffee room opened off the passage to the right, with a dining parlor to the left. Closing the door against the damp cold, Sebastian breathed in the warm, welcoming scents of roasting lamb and beeswax and hearty ale. But both the entrance passage and the rooms opening off it were deserted.
“Hello,” he called.
Stepping into the oak-paneled coffee room, he turned a slow circle, his gaze drifting over the scattering of empty tables and chairs. “Hello?”
He heard a quick step, and a droopy-jowled, lanky man in a leather apron appeared in a far doorway. “May I help you, sir?” He had straight fair hair just beginning to turn gray and protuberant, widely set eyes that gave him somewhat the look of a startled mackerel.
“I’m here about Dr. Damion Pelletan,” said Sebastian, choosing his words carefully.
The man’s face puckered. “Oh, dear. Are you a friend of Dr. Pelletan’s, sir?”
“Ah. Well, the thing is, you see, we’ve had the constables here. They’re saying Dr. Pelletan is dead.” The man edged closer and dropped his voice to a confidential whisper. “Murdered. In St. Katharine’s, just last night. Footpads.”
“How long had Dr. Pelletan been staying here?”
“’Bout three weeks, I’d say. Same as the rest of ’em.”
“The rest of them?” prompted Sebastian.
“Aye. They rented the entire inn, you know. They’re the only ones staying here now.”
“No, I didn’t know.”
“Mmm. Frenchmen.” He said the word as if it were enough to explain any eccentricity. “Even brought in their own cook and servants, they did. I’m the only regular left.”
“Are all their servants French as well?”
“Oh, aye. The lot of ’em.”
“Émigrés, I assume?”
The man tweaked the top of one ear and screwed up his face. “We-ell, they say they are.”
“But you doubt them?”
The man gave a quick look around and leaned closer still. “Seems a queer thing to do, don’t it?” he asked, his voice sinking even lower. “To take over a whole hotel like this? I mean, why not hire a house, like proper Englishmen?”
“Perhaps they don’t intend to be in London long. Or perhaps they’re looking to purchase something.”
“I ain’t seen no sign of it. If you ask me, it’s more than queer. I mean, why go to such pains to stay someplace all together? ’T’ain’t as if they like each other, that’s for certain.”
“Do they quarrel?”
“All the time! Leastways, it sure looks and sounds like they’re quarreling—not that I can understand what they’re saying, mind you, seein’ as how I don’t speak the French and all.”
“Families frequently do quarrel,” observed Sebastian.
“Aye. But this lot ain’t family—leastways, not most of ’em.”
“Oh? Who is here besides Dr. Pelletan?”
“Well, let’s see. . . . There’s Harmond Vaundreuil; he’s the one in charge—although I get the feeling that don’t sit too well with the colonel.”
“Aye. Colonel Foucher, he calls himself. Don’t know the rest of his moniker. Then there’s Vaundreuil’s clerk. Bondurant is his name. A skinny rabbit of a man, he is—spends all his time with his nose stuck in some book.”
“So only four, including Pelletan?”
“Five, if you count the girl.”
“Ah. And they hired the entire hotel?”
“Like I said, they’re a queer bunch.” His mouth hung open, allowing his jowls to sag even farther. “And up to no good, I’d say—or my name’s not Mitt Peebles.”
A heavy thump sounded overhead. Sebastian said, “When did you last see Dr. Pelletan?”
Mitt looked thoughtful. “Hmm . . . I suppose that would’ve been last night, when them two come looking for him.”
“A man and a woman. Didn’t give their names.”
“What time was this?”
“’Bout nine, maybe.”
“What did the woman look like?”
“Couldn’t rightly say. She wore a veil, you see.”
“And the man?”
“’Fraid I didn’t pay him much mind. Stayed in the background, he did. Don’t recollect even hearing him speak.”
“They met with Pelletan in the dining room?”
“Oh, no, sir; the doctor went outside and talked to them—like he didn’t want none of the others to see them.”
“And how long after that did Pelletan leave?”
“Not long. He come back in and went up to his room for his greatcoat; then he left.”
“I dunno. I didn’t notice.” Mitt frowned. “Why you asking all these questions, anyway?”
“I’m interested. Tell me this: Was the woman English or French?”
“Oh, she was a Frenchie—although I’ll admit her English was considerably better than most of ’em’s.”
“How was she dressed?”
Mitt shrugged. “Respectable-like, I suppose you could say. But not in the first stare of fashion, if you know what I mean?”
“How old would you say she was?”
He gave another twitch of the shoulder. “Not old, but not real young, neither. With that veil, I couldn’t tell you much else.”
The description fit the unknown woman in Gibson’s surgery. But it would also fit a thousand or more Frenchwomen in London. Sebastian said, “Tell me this: What manner of man was Dr. Pelletan? Would you describe him as pleasant? Or quick-tempered?”
“Pelletan?” Mitt paused to scratch the side of his face. “He weren’t half-bad, for a Frenchman. There’s no denying he was the nicest of the lot—him and Miss Madeline.”
“And how old is she?”
“’Bout twenty-five, I’d say. Maybe a bit less.”
Sebastian, who had been picturing a child in pigtails, was forced to readjust his mental image. “Have you seen Miss Madeline this morning?”
“Oh, aye.” Mitt’s eyes narrowed with a sudden renewal of his earlier suspicion. “Why’d you say you was asking all these questions?”
“Just curious,” said Sebastian.
Mitt Peebles fixed him with a long, hard stare. “You’re a right curious fellow, ain’t you?”
“I am, yes. Can you think of any—”
He broke off at the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the stairs, and a man’s deep voice saying, “À quelle heure?”
Sebastian could see them now: two men, one middle-aged and stout, the other taller, younger, and considerably leaner, with the swooping sandy-haired mustache and unmistakable carriage of a military man. They crossed the short entry passage and left the inn without glancing toward the coffee room.
Sebastian nodded after them. “I take it that was Monsieur Vaundreuil and Colonel Foucher?”
“It was, yes.”
Sebastian watched through the old-fashioned, wavy glass in the multipaned front windows as the two men hailed a hackney. The tall, rather gaunt man with the military bearing was unknown to him. But he recognized Harmond Vaundreuil immediately. He had seen the Frenchman just the week before, briefly, in Pall Mall, riding in a carriage with the King’s powerful cousin, Charles, Lord Jarvis.
Ruthless, cunning, and utterly devoted to both the monarchy and Britain, Lord Jarvis controlled a personal network of spies and informers that made him virtually omnipotent. He was also Sebastian’s new father-in-law.
And a dangerous, deadly enemy.
Paul Gibson sat in a wooden chair drawn up to the unknown woman’s bedside, his gaze on her face. She was so pale, her closed eyelids fragile and nearly translucent, the skin drawn tight over the exquisitely molded bones of her face. And if she didn’t awaken soon, she probably never would.
He pushed to his feet and went to stare out the narrow window overlooking the ancient medieval street beyond. The sun was high enough to begin burning off the fog, but there was little warmth in it. Rows of icicles glistened from the eaves, and he could feel the bitter cold radiating off the glass. Turning, he went to stoop beside the hearth and throw more coal on the fire. He was about to straighten when he became aware of the sensation of being watched.
Glancing over at the bed, he found himself staring into a pair of dark brown eyes. “Good morning,” he said, lurching awkwardly as he straightened.
Her tongue flicked out to wet her dry lips, her chest jerking as if with fear.
He said, “You needn’t worry. I’m a friend.”
“I remember you.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper, her English accented but distinct. “You are the one who—” Her eyes darkened as if with a resurgence of remembered grief. “Is Damion truly dead?”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
She blinked rapidly several times and turned her face away, her glorious, flame-colored hair fanning out over the pillow.
“He was your friend?” Gibson asked quietly.
Rather than answer, she put her hand to her head, the long, fine fingers exploring the bandage she found there. “What happened to me?”
“You don’t remember?”
He walked up to the side of the bed again. “It may eventually come back to you. Memory is a funny thing.”
She looked at him again. “Where am I?”
“This is my surgery.”
“You are a surgeon?”
“I am.” He sketched an awkward bow. “Paul Gibson, late of His Majesty’s Twenty-fifth Light Dragoons.”
She let her gaze drift over him, making him wish he’d taken the time to wash and shave and maybe change his clothes.
She said, “You lost your leg fighting the French?”
“I did, yes.”
“I am French.”
He smiled. “I had noticed.”
To his surprise, the flesh beside her eyes crinkled with amusement. Then the smile, faint as it was, faded. Her gaze drifted about the room, as if searching for something or someone. “I remember hearing another man’s voice. Someone talking to you.”
“The constables, perhaps.”
“No; this was an educated voice.”
“Ah. That would have been Lord Devlin.”
“He’s a friend of mine.”
She was silent for a moment, lost in her own dark thoughts. Then she said, “You did not tell me what is wrong with my head.”
“I suspect you were either hit, or you struck the side of your head when you fell.”
“How badly am I injured?”
“I don’t think the skull is fractured. But I’m worried about concussion.”
“Are my pupils dilated?”
“No.” The question revealed a depth of medical understanding he wouldn’t have expected. “Was your father a doctor?”
Something flared in her eyes, only to be quickly hidden by the downward sweep of her lashes. “He is, yes. In Paris.”
“Is there someone I should let know you’re safe? I—” He decided the personal pronoun sounded too familiar and changed it. “We don’t even know your name.”
Again she studied his face, as if assessing him. “My name is Alexandrie Sauvage. I live alone, with only a servant. But Karmele is a good woman and is doubtless concerned about what has become of me.”
“I’ll see she knows you are safe.”
She gave him directions to her rooms in Golden Square. Then she fell silent, her eyes drifting half-closed. But she was still alert—tense, even. And Gibson suspected her thoughts had returned to the man whose corpse lay in the outbuilding at the base of the yard.
Gibson said, “Do you remember why you were in Cat’s Hole last night?”
Her gaze refocused on his face. “Yes, of course; Damion had agreed to go with me to see the child.”
“Child? What child?”
“There is a Frenchwoman—Madame Claire Bisette—who lives in Hangman’s Court. Her little girl, Cécile, is gravely ill.”
“And did Pelletan see her?”
“He did, yes. But he was as baffled by her condition as I. I fear she is dying.” Her head moved restlessly against the pillow. “I promised I would be back this morning to see her. I—”
Gibson put his hand on her shoulder, stilling her. “Don’t distress yourself. I’ll visit her, if you’d like.”
Beneath his hand, her flesh was soft and warm. She stared up at him. “She has no money to pay you.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Just tell me—”
He broke off, his gaze meeting hers, her eyes wide with a new leap of fear as loud voices sounded in the street outside and a heavy fist pounded on the front door.
In addition to extensive estates in the country, Charles, Lord Jarvis, owned a large town house on Berkeley Square that he shared with his invalid wife and his aged mother. Since his contempt for the former was matched only by his profound dislike of the latter, he spent as little time at home as possible. When in London, he could generally be found either at his clubs or in the chambers reserved for his use here, at Carlton House, by the Prince Regent.
For thirty years, he had served the House of Hanover, dedicating his prodigious intellect and unerring talents to the preservation and exaltation of his country and its monarchy. Acknowledged by all as the real power behind the Prince’s fragile regency, he had steered Britain safely through decades of war and the perils of social unrest that could all too easily have consumed her.
Now he stood at the window overlooking Pall Mall, his attention seemingly divided between the forecourt below and the slight, freckle-faced Scotsman who lounged with his back to the fire, the tails of his exquisitely tailored coat lifted up and to the sides so as to better warm his backside.
Angus Kilmartin had a small bony face with oversized features and a halo of frizzy, copper-colored hair that combined to give him an almost comical appearance. But in the Scotsman’s case, appearances were definitely deceptive. Kilmartin was shrewd and venal and utterly amoral. By heavily investing in well-selected war-related manufactories, he had risen in the space of twenty years to become one of the wealthiest men in Britain.
“The question is,” said Kilmartin, “does his death mean anything?”
Jarvis reached for his snuffbox and flicked open the box’s filigree and enamel lid with one agile fingertip. “It undoubtedly means something to someone. Whether it should concern us or not, however, remains to be seen.”
The silence in the room was suddenly, dangerously strained. “Are you questioning my analysis or my veracity?” asked Jarvis with deceptive calm.
A dull red stain tinged the other man’s cheeks. “I’m . . . Surely you understand my concern?”
“Your concern is unnecessary.” Jarvis lifted a pinch of snuff to one nostril and sniffed. “Was there something else?”
Kilmartin’s fingers tightened around the brim of the hat he held in his hands. “No. Good day, sir.”
He swept a precisely calculated bow, turned on his heel, and left.
Jarvis was still standing at the window, snuffbox in hand, when he heard an odd yelp from his clerk in the anteroom; an instant later, Viscount Devlin strode into the chamber without bothering to knock.
“Do come in,” said Jarvis dryly.
A hard smile touched the younger man’s lips. “Thank you.”
He was thirty years old now, tall and lean, with a vaguely menacing bearing that reminded one of the time he’d spent as a cavalry officer. Two years ago, Jarvis had sought to have the man killed. Jarvis little realized at the time how much he would eventually come to regret that rare failure.
He slipped his snuffbox into his coat pocket and frowned. “How does my daughter?”
“She is well.”
Jarvis grunted. His wife, Annabelle, had exhibited numerous shortcomings over the years of their marriage, but by far her most grievous failure was her inability to provide Jarvis with a healthy male heir. Despite numerous miscarriages and stillbirths, she had succeeded in presenting him with only two children: a disappointingly sickly and idealistic son named David, who’d gone to a watery grave at the bottom of the sea, and Hero.
Tall, strong, and brutally brilliant, Hero was exactly the sort of child who might have delighted Jarvis—if she’d been born a boy. As a daughter, however, she was far from satisfactory. Strong willed, unapologetically bookish, and dangerously radical in her thinking, she had sworn off marriage at an early age and dedicated herself to a succession of appalling projects, only to allow herself to be impregnated by this bastard. Jarvis had never understood exactly what happened, but he uncharacteristically had no desire to know more about it than he already did.
Now the two men faced each other across the width of the room, the air crackling with their mutual animosity.
Devlin said, “What can you tell me about Harmond Vaundreuil? And don’t even think of trying to pretend you don’t know him. I saw you together.”
Jarvis went to settle comfortably in the Louis XIV–style chair behind his desk. He stretched out his legs, crossed his ankles, rested his folded hands on his rather large stomach, and heaved an exaggerated sigh. “You’ve involved yourself in the death of that young French doctor, have you? What was his name again?”
“Mmm. Somehow, when I heard a certain Irish surgeon had been so unfortunate as to discover the body, I knew you would feel compelled to interfere.”
“What has Vaundreuil to do with you?”
“Nothing that is any of your affair.”
“Damion Pelletan’s murder makes it my affair.”
Jarvis possessed an unexpectedly winsome smile he had long used to cajole or deceive the unwary. He used it now, although he knew Devlin was neither cajoled nor deceived nor unwary. “Fortunately, Damion Pelletan’s murder has been taken out of the hands of the bumbling East End authorities and turned over to Bow Street—by which I mean to the chief magistrate, Sir James—not to your good friend Sir Henry Lovejoy. So you see, there really is no need for you to involve yourself.”
Devlin, in turn, showed his teeth in a hard, nasty smile. “Concerned, are you?”
“Hardly. Sir James understands the delicacy of the situation.”
“Let’s say that, at least, he understands enough to do what must be done.”
“There will be no postmortem. The body has already been removed from Gibson’s surgery and turned over to Vaundreuil for burial.”
“And that’s to be it?”
“I suggest you read the papers. Dr. Pelletan was brutally set upon by footpads. The Regent has expressed outrage at the growing boldness of the criminal class in the city, and an initiative will soon be launched to remove the worst of the ruffians from the streets. Those who make it a practice of attending the hangings at Newgate are in for some good sport in the months ahead.”
Devlin’s eyes narrowed. He had the strangest eyes Jarvis had ever seen—the tawny gold of a tiger, with an unnatural, almost feral gleam. For some reason Jarvis could not have named, he suddenly found himself hoping that his coming grandson—or granddaughter—would not inherit this man’s damned yellow eyes. And he silently cursed Hero, again, for having mixed their noble blood with that of this bastard.
Devlin said, “Harmond Vaundreuil must be important.”
“In and of himself? No. But what he stands for is very important indeed. Far more important than the death of some random physician. If you love your country, Devlin, you will heed me on this and leave well enough alone.”
“Oh, I love my country, all right,” said Devlin. “But I’ve found that my vision for Britain and your vision are frequently two very different things.” He turned toward the door. “I’ll tell Hero you were inquiring about her.”
Jarvis stood abruptly. “I meant what I said. Do not involve yourself in this.”
“Why?” Devlin paused to look back at him. “What are you concerned that I might find?”
But Jarvis simply shook his head, his nostrils quivering with the intensity of his dislike.
Adiminutive but earnest man with a bald head and an abnormally high-pitched voice, Sir Henry Lovejoy was the newest of Bow Street’s three stipendiary magistrates. Sebastian had heard that, once, he’d been a moderately prosperous merchant, until the deaths of his wife and daughter had driven him to dedicate his life to something outside of himself. But he spoke little of those early years, or of the family he’d lost and the stern, somewhat controversial reformist religion that guided his life. In most ways, the two men could not have been more dissimilar. But there was no one whose integrity and honesty Sebastian trusted or admired more.
“Bow Street has received strict instructions from Carlton House that the residents of the Gifford Arms are under no circumstances to be approached,” said Sir Henry as the two men walked along the terrace of Somerset Place, overlooking the Thames. A frigid wind was kicking up whitecaps on the turgid gray water and dashing the incoming tide against the embankment’s walls. “Sir James is adamant that the wishes of the Palace be respected. There will be no investigation of Damion Pelletan’s death—either officially or unofficially.”
Sebastian looked over at the magistrate. “Ever hear of a murder victim in London having his heart cut out?”
Lovejoy pressed his lips into a tight, straight line and shook his head. “No. It’s the most troublesome aspect of this killing, is it not? At least that ghastly detail has been kept out of the papers. It could cause a dangerous panic in the streets, were it to become known.”
“Then let us hope it doesn’t happen again.”
“Merciful heavens.” Sir Henry pressed the folds of his handkerchief to his mouth. “You think it might?”
“I honestly don’t know.” Sebastian stared off across the river, to where the jagged construction of the new bridge stood out stark against the heavy gray clouds. “How much do you know about the other residents of the Gifford Arms—specifically Colonel Foucher and the clerk, Bondurant?”
“Nothing, frankly. But I could ask one of my constables to look into them. I don’t believe the Palace said anything in reference to making discreet inquiries about the residents of the inn.”
Sebastian ducked his head to hide his smile.
The magistrate said, “And the woman I’m told Paul Gibson found at the murder scene? Is she still alive?”
“Last I heard. I’m on my way to Tower Hill now.”