A string of murders cuts close to home for the Victorian courtesan and professional sleuth in this mystery thriller set in 19th century London.
London, 1863: Little Margaret Lovejoy is found brutally murdered in the outhouse at her family’s estate. A few days later, a man is cut down in a similar manner on the doorstep of Heloise Chancey’s prestigious address. But the courtesan detective has other troubles to attend to. Heloise’s maid, Amah Li Leen, has just discovered that events from her past have resurfaced to threaten her present life.Once again, Heloise is caught in a maelstrom of murder and deceit that threatens to dismantle her carefully crafted existence. But she has always been adept at deceiving the dishonest. Pursuing two investigations at once, Heloise is about to demonstrate just how skilled she truly is.
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I peer into the mirror and run my tongue along the ridge of my teeth until it catches on the tiny chip in my right canine tooth.
"Stop worriting at it, Heloise," says Amah, lifting my hair from the nape of my neck as she brushes. "You can't even see it."
"Yes, but I can still feel it." A reminder of that ghastly day. Each time my tongue catches on that chip, something slips in my stomach. I see the knife's blade, as mottled as an old shilling piece. I feel the sting to my lip, the strain upon my limbs.
"Well, Sir Thomas paid you handsomely for clearing up that mess, so go to a dentist, have it fixed."
I know she's not serious. She has that smirk on her face, knows I won't have some hairy brute of a dentist gouge around in my mouth. I've seen the pictures. She wouldn't either, the old mosquito.
I bare my teeth again in the mirror. It's true what Amah says. I can't even see the chip. My teeth are bright and even. Maybe that Marie Duplessis was right — telling lies whitens the teeth. I smile, bunch my cheek so the dimple fades in and out.
"Stop admiring yourself." Amah parts my hair down the middle, taking the left side of my hair to roll back from my face. Her hands are cold — have always been cold. I remember those winter evenings in Liverpool when I was small, when she'd pull my bloomers up for bed, how I used to hop away from her chilly fingers. "Who do you have coming tonight?" she asks.
"Well, Hatterleigh, of course, and Cunningham."
"Naturally." She twists the roll tight at the back of my head, and forces it into place with a hairpin. I'm sure my scalp curls away under the force of that hairpin, like potato skin under a peeler. "Who else will there be? Agneau hasn't prepared all that food for only three people."
"Well, the Pidgeons." I smile, as I dust pearl powder across my forehead. Sir Henry and his daughter.
Amah's brow lifts. "I do not like them."
"What are you talking about?" I think of dear Isobel Pidgeon. Of her sweet-serious countenance, of her pretty, flaxen hair. And her father, with his long face and kind eyes. "They're two of the nicest people I know." Of this I am certain. How many other respectable ladies would sit quietly in my house, conversing civilly with the notorious paon de nuit, Heloise Chancey? Of course, it's because Isobel has travelled to many other countries with her father, seen things that even I've not experienced. She's seen men, naked, except for long, long sheaths covering their cocks, and she's nibbled on fried spiders, as big as my palm. But still, in London, she could certainly choose to act differently towards me if so inclined.
Amah simply nods, with that irritating look on her face, as if she thinks she's the bloody moon goddess, Chang'e. "Who else will be here?"
"Maurice Cosgrove." Hatterleigh's friend from his time at Oxford. I feel warmth in my face. I lean forward so that Amah tuts, and pour myself a glass of sherry. Sweeping aside the curtain of hair that still hangs across the right side of my face, I take a sip. Then another. "And some of his cronies. His admirers really."
Amah coils the remaining hair back. "Ah. So tonight it is a meeting of your friends who think they've mastered the world."
I frown. "They've explored some of the world, yes."
"Explored. I can think of other words."
"Well, do so elsewhere, please. I rather like these people."
Amah breathes out through her nose, a sniff of derision. "At least they're a bit better than those pretty poets you have around — with all their languishing and posing." She scrapes more hairpins into my scalp, securing the second roll.
"How on earth would you know?"
Her mouth twists to the side again. "Sometimes I watch through the peacock tail, when I have nothing better to do. Although the stench of their cologne reaches all the way to my room."
I have another sip of sherry, and watch as a dappled blush rises to my chest. It resembles the first moments a tincture of carmine bleeds into a bowl of water, clouding it crimson. The blush is from the wine. It often happens with those first few sips. But I know it'll fade within minutes — definitely within half an hour — which is why I often have at least one drink in my boudoir before my guests arrive. Amah has told me that the same happened to her grandfather when he drank too much rice wine. My great-grandfather. I pick up the locket that was once his, that has found its way to me after all these years. It's now attached to the pearl choker I wear most days.
"He used to wear it on a gold chain," says Amah, nodding towards the gold dragon on the underside of the jade. "My mother had earrings made from the same gold."
"Where are they?" I tilt my head with the question but Amah tugs it back into line. She loops my remaining hair into a chignon at the nape of my neck.
"Lost them." Her mouth is set firm. I don't ask her to tell me more. I know she's lost a lot. More than she will ever admit.
She helps me clasp the choker around my neck as I gaze in the mirror. I don't like how Amah has done my hair tonight. It makes my face look wide.
"What's wrong?" Amah stands behind me, arms crossed.
I tease at the hair flattened to the top of my head, try to encourage a little more height. "Nothing."
"It's the same as that picture you showed me in the magazine," she insists. Of course she's right. She's done a superb job as usual. But I don't like it.
I angle my face from side to side. Maybe if I accentuate my eyes a little more. Or rub more rouge into my cheekbones.
Amah rolls her eyes, takes hold of my head to pull pins out. "I'll start again."
I duck away, laugh. "Don't be silly. Pass me that bunch of cherries I bought the other day. Or the pheasant feathers I wore to the play on Saturday night. It just needs a little decoration."
Amah's face softens. "Good idea. Your guests will be here before long anyway."
I watch her as she rummages through the trinkets, hair pieces and pomades on my dressing table. Her hands are tiny. Her fingers are thinner than mine, taper at the tips. I must have gotten my long fingers from my father.
I take another sip of sherry. Poor Amah. How bored she must be. What does she do with her time when I'm entertaining? I feel an urge to take her downstairs with me, to have her sit on the sofa with my friends. Surely they will find her stories enthralling? And how wonderful it would be to share her. But my thoughts snag. She's not simply an oddity at the fair, nor an exotic artefact from the East. And I think of how stiff my guests might be, of their shocked whispers as they climb into their carriages, how insufferably polite the Pidgeons would be to her. It can never be. And Amah would never agree anyway. Like most people in London, my guests do not realise she is more to me than a mere lady's maid. They don't realise I carry Amah's blood. How could they? I take great pains to hide it.
Amah's hand brushes some pins aside, and she picks up the newspaper. "Ghastly Murder at Stoke Newington," she reads. She mumbles over a few sentences and then reads aloud again. "The house was locked and secured as usual by the housekeeper, but found opened upon the morning. A way was evidently taken through the drawing room ..."
"Appalling, isn't it? Their little girl was found in the privy. Murdered."
"Sir Thomas isn't involved, surely?" Amah's voice is sharp. "He doesn't want you to stick your nose in?"
"No." I dab some colour onto my lips. "Not at all."
Amah reads from the paper again, and nods. "Ah. Well, that is good. They will use real detectives this time."
I catch her eye in the mirror. It's just like the old wasp. Right when I start to feel a little sorry for her, she stings me in the neck.CHAPTER 2
What Amah Li Leen really feels like eating is a steamed dumpling — the dewy dough between her fingers, the crunch of chives between her teeth.
She can hear people arriving, two floors down, shedding their coats and talking brightly with Heloise as she ushers them into the drawing room. Amah knows the side tables are laden with cheeses, pastries and sweetmeats because she'd assisted Heloise's chef, Agneau, with preparing the menu. She helped herself to three olives and an Indian pie, but what she really craves is one of Miriam's dumplings.
She glances out her window. Heavy clouds have replaced the sun, and the red bricks of the building across the way have taken on a muddy cast. Really, though, it isn't too late to make her way to Limehouse. Taff will be too busy to take her in the carriage, but she'll find a cab if need be.
Amah's rooms are on the third floor of the terraced house and used to be the nursery suite. The damask wallpaper's faded to the colour of courgette flesh, but she still feels remnants of its velvety texture when she runs her fingers over its surface. A picture border of shrubs and fruit trees, rabbits and leaping deer, circles the room, waist high. According to the nicks scraped into the door jamb, the previous tenants' son, Tom, was over seventy inches when he escaped the schoolroom, while Eliza was almost as tall as Amah herself. But poor Will stopped short at thirty-four inches. Amah always feels a splinter of sadness when that low notch in the timber catches her eye.
She riffles through her trinket tray for the pearl earrings Heloise had given her as a birthday present. As she settles her velveteen bonnet snug onto her head, the lace netting ready to pull down over her face, she pauses for a moment, staring at her reflection. Eyes the shape of almonds and the colour of cacao beans stare back at her. Her hair is mostly black — apart from the threads that are as fine and silvery as the silk of a spider's web. Heloise has threatened to wash the white strands away with a dark dye, but Amah steadfastly refuses. She isn't sure why. Maybe as a snub to the vanities that rule Heloise's life. Or maybe it's just a feeble bid to stay true to herself. But which self? The fierce, grief-stricken girl forced out of Makassar, or the young woman, as determined and clever as a weaverbird, who had made her own way to these cold shores of England? Looking at herself now, in her white blouse with the high collar and full pagoda sleeves, Amah wonders where that young woman has gone.
Sweeping her silk gloves to the side of the oak dressing table, she pulls its middle miniature drawers out from their casings. Easing her fingertips around the edges of the cavity, she slides out the whole frame, revealing a secret drawer. She pokes amongst the silk purses filled with beads and coins until she pulls forth one pendant earring — a golden orb, with a figure of a dragon entwined around its circumference, tiny feet splayed, tail teetering from the earring's base. It's the one thing she has left of her mother's. It nestles in the palm of her hand, its smooth surface surprisingly warm, and there's a tightness in her chest.
Amah's mother always wore these earrings, even when Amah's stepfather gave her the large diamonds, as square and cloudy as shattered window glass. She'd worn those diamond earrings for one day and night, before slipping the golden dragons into her earlobes again. When Amah was young, really young, she'd lie tucked in her mother's arm, so that she could smell the sour-sweetness of the sweat caught between her mother's hairline and throat. She'd suck her thumb, gently patting at the dragon earring with her fingertip so that it swung to and fro against her mother's neck. At that time, they shared a room out the back of her grandfather's house, a room her mother had painted bright red — lacquer red, the colour of joss sticks and Chinese altars. She'd even glossed the timber flooring. A sumptuous, warm room it was, with a large, hard mattress strewn with silk clothing and jars of her mother's unguents.
Amah looks up for a moment, at her cheerfully faded room, and wonders if she should also have her walls painted red. Her lip curls into a grim smile. How Heloise would rant at her if she did. Heloise likes her rooms to be reminiscent of the stylised Orient favoured by her more artistic, wealthy friends — of peacock feathers, silk turbans and cold porcelain. She has limited humour for pork dumplings and timber that holds the scent of sandalwood.
Amah stares down at the earring again, until her eyesight blurs — at the dragon as thin as a serpent, at the gold that's deeper in colour than any to be found in London. She can't help but wonder about its twin.
A shout of laughter from the drawing room breaks into her reverie. What use is it to wonder about the past? She puts the earring back amongst her hidden treasures and replaces all the drawers. Taking up her gloves and reticule, she treads down the servants' stairs at the back of the house in order to avoid her daughter's visitors.
Once out on the street she pulls the black netting over her face so people won't stare at her brown skin, or worse. Rounding the corner, a little further on from Heloise's house, she passes a young couple. As they stroll along, they gaze into each other's faces with an openness, a tenderness, born of intimacy and care. Amah once knew that look, but never beyond a room lightened by a lamp, or sometimes the dawn's unwelcome light. The memory makes her both happy and sad.
Across the road, a man, lean and of medium height, pauses at the corner, turning sharply to glance into the apothecary's window. His black hat, peculiar in shape — wide-brimmed, but curled up at the sides — is pulled low over his brow, but there's something familiar about the slope of his shoulders, the curve of his back.
"Pardon me," says a voice, as she bundles into someone walking in the opposite direction. The rough texture of his wool coat rubs against her ear, just as her eye catches the blue and green tartan tie at his neck.
Amah takes a sharp breath as she pulls away, and her fingers curl around an iron fence paling. That voice, it's still as deep as a bronze gong. And that scent that rises from his body, the sweet pungency of nilam oil. She stares into his face, at the pores on his cheeks that resemble the oily skin of an orange.
He takes a step back, bows, lifts his top hat from his head. "Please forgive me. I was searching my way and didn't see you in my path."
He doesn't recognise her. Of course he wouldn't. She's so much older now, and the veil covers her face, thank heavens.
"That is no problem, sir," she murmurs, as she veers around him to move on down the street. Her legs tremble and the skin on her neck feels clammy.
She glances back once she reaches the main thoroughfare. He's staring up at Heloise's house. Pushing the gate open, he strides up her front steps.
Seeing that horrible, orange man takes Amah back.
She presses her eyes shut in the back of the hansom cab. Ignoring the sound of carriage wheels crunching across gravel, and the call of a costermonger by the side of the road, she thinks of Makassar. The pallid men who rode through town towards the port, and the Arabs and Chinese men who hawked silks, birdcages and bamboo chopsticks. She recalls the smoky fragrance of teak and cloves, and the sweetness of rambutan, how sometimes ants hid in its spiky skin, and bit into her tongue as she slurped on the fruit's flesh.
But London's wretched cold seeps back into her mind. Months and months go by and it feels like her bones cannot thaw. Her right hand is puckered with arthritis, and her skin is papery. Not like that last night she spent in Makassar, when her skin was plump and had the lustre of an olive.
She still had droplets of Tiri's blood on her arms when her mother's youngest brother, Chee, fetched her. The blood had dried into her skin, staining it. She wanted the spots to stay there forever, a memory of revenge, a mark of her anger, etched into her like the tattoos the dark sailors had scored into their flesh.
With the servant's help, Chee made Amah pack a few pieces of clothing. He said he had to take her far away, before the governor found out what she'd done and hanged her from the persimmon tree by the marketplace. She took no notice of what the silly servant packed, but she made sure her mother's bangles and earrings were tied into a piece of silk. Chee hurried her along, so all she had time to grab from her mother's dressing table was her comb, made of carved sandalwood. Even now, if Amah closes her eyes and breathes in, she can smell its spiced fragrance. But the comb is gone. Lost on that first voyage to this chill land.
It was almost dawn by the time they left Tiri's house. The light of the moon glimmered across the slate sky, lighting the clouds. Uncle Chee held her tightly by the wrist as they scampered towards the waterfront, her bare feet wobbling across the rocks in the road. Finally, they arrived at the Dukano, a dark mass that rose out of the sea, blocking Amah's view of the sky.
"Come," he said, ushering her forward on the gangway. "You will be a maid for my master's wife, Mrs Preston."
A white woman's maid? Never. She did not know this Mrs Preston. She barely knew her Uncle Chee. He had only been in port for a matter of days to take care of her mother's things. "But ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Necessary Murder"
Copyright © 2018 M. J. Tjia.
Excerpted by permission of Legend Times Ltd.
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