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Anthony de Portnay Smythe sat at his regular table in the darkest corner of the Blade and Scabbard pub. The grey wool of his coat blended with the shadows around him, rendering him almost invisible to the rest of the room. Without appearing tofor to stare at his fellows might prove suicidally rudehe could observe the other patrons. Cutpurses, thieves, petty criminals and transporters of stolen goods. Rogues to a man. And, for all he knew, killers.
Of course, he took great care not to know.
The usual feelings of being comfortable and in his element were unusually disconcerting. He dropped a good week's work on to the table and pushed them towards his old friend, Edgar.
Business associate, he reminded himself. Although they had known each other for many years, it would be a mistake to call his relationship with Edgar a friendship.
'Rubies.' Tony sorted through the gems with his finger, making them sparkle in the light of the candle guttering on the table. 'Loose stones. Easy to fence. You need not even pry them from the settings. The work has been done for you.'
'Dross,' Edgar countered. 'I can see from here the stones are flawed. Fifty for the lot.'
This was where Tony was supposed to point out that they were investment-grade stones, stolen from the study of a marquis. The man had been a poor judge of character, but an excellent judge of jewellery. Then Tony would counter with a hundred and Edgar would try to talk him down.
But suddenly, he was tired of the whole thing. He pushed the stones further across the table. 'Fifty it is.'
Edgar looked at him in suspicion. 'Fifty? What do you know that I do not?'
'More than I can tell you in an evening, Edgar.Far more. But I know nothing about the stones that need concern you. Now give me the money.'
This was not how the game was to be played. And thus, Edgar refused to acknowledge that he had won. 'Sixty, then.'
'Very well. Sixty.' Tony smiled and held out his hand for the money.
Edgar narrowed his eyes and stared at Tony, trying to read the truth. 'You surrender too easily.'
It felt like a long hard fight on Tony's side of the table. Tonight's dealings were just a skirmish at the end of the war. He sighed. 'Must I bargain? Very well, then. Seventy-five and not a penny less.'
'I could not offer more than seventy.'
'Done.' Before the fence could speak again, he forced the stones into Edgar's hand and held his other hand out for the purse.
Edgar seemed satisfied, if not exactly happy. He accepted the stones and moved away from the table, disappearing into the haze of tobacco smoke and shadows around them, and Tony went back to his drink.
As he sipped his whisky, he reached into his pocket to remove the letter and his reading glasses. He absently polished the spectacles on his lapel before putting them on, then settled his chin in his hands to read.
Dear Uncle Anthony,
We are so sorry that you were unable to attend the wedding. Your gift was more than generous, but it does not make up in my heart for your absence on my most happy of days. I hardly know what to say in thanks for this and so many other things you have done for my mother and me over the years. Since Father's death, you have been like a second father to me, and my cousins say the same.
It was good to see Mother finally marry again, and I am happy that Mr Wilson could be there to walk me down the aisle, but I cannot help but think you deserved the position more than he. I do not wish my marriage or my mother's to estrange me from your company, for I will always value your wise counsel and your friendship.
My husband and I will welcome your visit, as soon as you are able.
Your loving niece,
Tony stopped to offer a prayer of thanks for the presence of Mr Wilson. His sister-in-law's discovery of Mr Wilson, and marriage to same, had stopped in its tracks any design she might have had to see Tony standing at the altar in a capacity other than loving brother or proud uncle.
Marriage to one of his brothers' widows might have been expedient, since he had wished to involve himself financially and emotionally in the raising of their children, but the idea always left him feeling squeamish. Not an emotion he sought, when viewing matrimony. Seeing the widows of his two elder brothers well married, in a way that did not leave him legshackled to either of them, had been a load off his troubled brow.
And the wedding of young Jane was another happy incident, whether he could be there to attend or no. With the two widows and only niece comfortably remarried, all to gentlemen that met his approval, he had but to worry about the boys.
And, truth be told, there was little to worry about from either of his nephews, the young earl or his brother. Both were settled at Oxford, with their tuitions paid in full for the duration of their stay. The boys were sensible and intelligent, and appeared to be growing into just the sort of men that he could wish for.
And it left Tonyhe looked at the letter in front of him. It left him extraneous. He had hoped, when at last he saw the family set to rights, to feel a rush of elation. He was free of responsibility and the sole master of his own life. Now that the time had come, it was without joy.
With no one to watch over, just what was he to do with his time? Over the years, he had invested wisely for the family as well as for himself, and his forays into crime had been less and less necessary and more a relief from the boredom of respectability.
Now that he lacked the excuse that there were mouths to feed and no money in the bank, he must examine his motivations and face the fact that he was no better than the common criminals around him. He had no reason to steal, save the need to feel the life coursing through him when he hung by drainpipes and window sills, fearing detection, disgrace or, worst of all, incarceration, and knowing every move could be his last.
No reason save one, he reminded himself. There was a slight movement in the heavy air as the door to the tavern opened and St John Radwell, Earl of Stanton, entered and strode purposefully towards the table.
Tony slipped the letter back into his pocket and tried not to appear too eager to have employment. 'You are late.' He raised his glass to the earl in a mocking salute.
'Correction. You are early. I am on time.' Stanton clapped Tony on the shoulder, took the seat that Edgar had vacated, and signalled the barman for a whisky. St John's smile was mocking, but held the warmth of friendship that was absent from others Tony typically met while doing business.
'How are things in the War Department?'
'Not so messy as they were on the battlefield, thank the Lord,' responded St John. 'But still not as well as they could be.'
'You have need of my services?' Tony had no wish to let the man see how much he needed the work, but he itched to do something to take away the feeling of unease he experienced as he read the letter. Anything which might make him feel needed again.
'I do indeed. Lucky for you, and most unlucky for England. We have another bad one. Lord Barton, known to his companions as Jack. He's been a naughty boy, has Jack. He has friends in high places, and is not afraid to use those connections to get ahead.'
'Dealing with the French?'Anthony triednot to yawn.
St John grinned. 'Better than that. Jack is no garden-variety traitor. He prefers to keep his crimes within the country. Recently, a young gentleman from the Treasury Department, while in his cups and gaming in the company of Lord Barton, managed to lose a surprising amount of money very quickly. Young men often do, when playing with Barton.'
'Does he cheat?' Tony asked.
'I doubt he would balk at it, but that is not why the Treasury Department needs your help. The clerk's efforts to win back what he had lost went as well as could be expected. He continued to gamble and lost even more. Soon he was facing utter ruin. Lord Barton applied pressure and convinced the man to debase himself further still, to clear his debt. He delivered to Barton a set of engraving plates for the ten-pound note. They were flawed and going to be destroyed, but they are near enough to perfect to make the notes almost undetectable.'
'Counterfeiting?' Tony could not but help admire the audacity of the man, even as he longed to ruin his plans.
St John nodded. 'The clerk regretted his act almost immediately, but it was too late. Barton is now in a perfect position to destabilise the currency for his own benefit.'
'And you need me to steal your plates back.'
'You will be searching his home for an excessive number of ten-pound notes, paper, inks and, most especially, those plates. Use your discretion. Your utmost discretion, actually. This must not become a public scandal, but it must end immediately, before he begins circulating the money. We wish to break him quickly and quietly, so as not to upset the banks or the exchange.'
The earl dropped a full purse on the table. 'As usual, half in advance and half when the job is completed. Feel free to take an additional payment from the personal wealth of Barton and any associates you might need to search. He has homes in London and Essex. But it has been less than a week since the theft. I doubt he has had time to get the plates out of the city.' As an afterthought, Stanton added, 'You had best search his mistress's home, as well.'
'A criminal's mistress?' Tony grinned. 'You are sending me off to search the perfumed boudoir of some notorious courtesan? And paying me for the privilege.' He rolled his eyes. 'I fear what may become of me, if I am discovered by her. I had no idea that government service would hold such hardship.'
St John sighed with mock-aggravation. 'I doubt there will be any such threat to your dubious virtue, Smythe. The lady is of good character, or was until Barton got his hooks into her. The widow of a peer. It is a shame to see such an attractive young thing consort with the likes of Jack. But one never knows.' He scrawled an address down on a scrap of paper. 'Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess of Wellford. Constance Townley.'
Tony felt the earth lurch under him, as it always did when her name rose unexpectedly in a conversation. But this time, it was compounded by a thrill of horror at hearing it in the current context.
Oh, my God, Connie. What has become of you?
He took a careful swallow of the whisky before speaking. Any hoarseness in his voice could be attributed to the harsh spirit in his glass. 'The loveliest woman in London.'
'So they say,' St John responded. 'The second-loveliest, perhaps. She is a particular friend of my wife and I've often had the opportunity to compare them.'
'Night and day,' remarked Tony, thinking of Constance's shining black hair, her huge dark eyes, her pale skin, next to the fair beauty of Esme Radwell. In his mind, there was no comparison. But to be polite he said, 'You are a fortunate man.'
'As well I know.'
'And you say the duchess has become Barton's mistress.'
'So I have been told. It is likely to become most awkward in my home, for I cannot very well encourage Esme to associate with her, if the rumours are true. But Constance is often seen in Barton's company and he is most adamant about his intentions towards her in conversation with others. Either she is his, or soon will be.'
Tony shook his head in pretended sympathy, along with Stanton, and said, A shame, indeed. But at least that part of the search will be of no difficulty. If the duchess is naïve enough to involve herself with Barton, then she might be unprepared to prevent my search and careless in hiding her part in the crime. When would you like results?'
As soon as can be managed safely.'
Tony nodded. 'I will begin tonight. With Constance Townley, for she will be the weak link, if there is one. And you will hear from me as soon as I have something to tell.'
Stanton nodded in return. 'I will leave you to it, then. As usual, do not fail me, and do not get caught. My wife expects you to dinner on Thursday and it will be damned difficult explaining to her if you cannot attend because I have got you arrested.' He stood then, and took his leave, disappearing into the crowd and out the door.
Tony stared down into his glass and ignored the pounding blood in his ears. What was he to do about Constance? He had imagined her lying alone in the year following her husband's death, and expected she would be quietly remarried to some honourable man soon after her period of mourning ended.
But to take up with Barton, instead? The thought was repellent. The man was a cad as well as a criminal. Handsome, of course. And well mannered to ladies. He appeared most personable, if you did not know the truth of his character.
But at thirty, Constance was no green girl to be dazzled by good looks and false charm. She might appear to be nothing more than a beautiful ornament, but Tony remembered the sharp mind behind the beauty. Even when she was a girl, she would never have been so foolish as to fall for the likes of Jack Barton. And the thought that she would willingly betray her own country
He shook his head. He could not bring himself to believe it. If he must search her for Stanton, best to do it quickly and know the truth. And to do so, he must put the past behind him and clear his mind for the night's work ahead of him. He finished the whisky, dropped a sovereign on the table for the barman, and went off into the night, to satisfy his curiosity as to the morals of the Dowager Duchess of Wellford.