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“MR. MONK?” she said, then took a deep breath. “Mr. William Monk?”
He turned from the desk where he had been sitting, and rose to his feet. The landlady must have let her through the outer chamber. “Yes ma’am?” he said inquiringly.
She took another step into the room, ignoring her huge crinoline skirts as they touched against the table. Her clothes were well cut and fashionable without ostentation, but she seemed to have donned them in some haste and without attention to detail. The bodice did not quite match the skirt, and the wide bow of her bonnet was knotted rather than tied. Her face with its short strong nose and brave mouth betrayed considerable nervousness.
But Monk was used to that. People who sought the services of an agent of inquiry were almost always in some predicament which was too serious, or too embarrassing, to have dealt with through the more ordinary channels.
“My name is Genevieve Stonefield,” she began. Her voice quivered a little. “Mrs. Angus Stonefield,” she amended. “It is about my husband that I must consult you.”
With a woman of her age, which he placed between thirty and thirty-five, it most usually was; or else a minor theft, an unsatisfactory household servant, occasionally a debt. With older women it was an errant child or an unsuitable match in prospect. But Genevieve Stonefield was a most attractive woman, not only in her warm coloring and dignified deportment, but in the frankness and humor suggested in her face. He imagined most men would find her greatly appealing. Indeed, his first instinct was to do so himself. He squashed it, knowing bitterly the cost of past misjudgments.
“Yes, Mrs. Stonefield,” he replied, moving from the desk into the middle of the room, which he had designed to make people feel at ease—or more accurately, Hester Latterly had persuaded him to do so. “Please sit down.” He indicated one of the large, padded armchairs across the red-and-blue Turkey rug from his own. It was a bitter January, and there was a fire burning briskly in the hearth, not only for warmth but for the sense of comfort it produced. “Tell me what disturbs you, and how you believe I may help.” He sat in the other chair opposite her as soon as courtesy permitted.
She did not bother to rearrange her skirts; they billowed around her in exactly the way they had chanced to fall, hoops awry and showing one slender, high-booted ankle.
Having steeled herself to take the plunge, she had no need of further invitation, but began straightaway, leaning forward a little, staring at him gravely.
“Mr. Monk, in order for you to understand my anxiety, I must tell you something of my husband and his circumstances. I apologize for taking up your time in this manner, but without this knowledge, what I tell you will make little sense.”
Monk made an effort to appear as if he listened. It was tedious, and in all probability quite unnecessary, but he had learned, through error, to allow people to say what they wished before reaching the purpose of their visit. If nothing else, it permitted them a certain element of self-respect in a circumstance where they found themselves obliged to ask for help in an acutely private matter, and of someone most of them regarded as socially inferior by dint of the very fact that he earned his living. Their reasons were usually painful, and they would have preferred to have kept the secret.
When he had been a policeman such delicacy would have been irrelevant, but now he had no authority, and he would be paid only according to his client’s estimate of his success.
Mrs. Stonefield began in a low voice. “My husband and I have been married for fourteen years, Mr. Monk, and I knew him for a year before that. He was always the gentlest and most considerate of men, without giving the impression of being easily swayed. No one has ever found him less than honorable in all his dealings, both personal and professional, and he has never sought to take advantage of others or gain by their misfortune.” She stopped, realizing—perhaps from Monk’s face—that she was speaking too much. His features had never concealed his feelings, especially those of impatience, anger or scorn. It had served him ill at times.
“Do you suspect him of some breach in his otherwise excellent character, Mrs. Stonefield?” he asked with as much concern as he was able to pretend. It was beginning to appear that her interesting face covered a most uninteresting mind.
“No, Mr. Monk,” she said a little more sharply, but the fear was dark in her eyes. “I am afraid he has been done to death. I wish you to find out for me.” In spite of her desperate words, she did not look up at him. “Nothing you can do will help Angus now,” she continued quietly. “But since he has disappeared, and there is no trace of him, he is presumed by the law simply to have deserted us. I have five children, Mr. Monk, and without Angus, his business will very rapidly cease to provide for us.”
Suddenly the matter became real, and genuinely urgent. He no longer saw her as an overwordy woman fussing over some fancied offense, but one with a profound cause for the fear in her eyes.
“Have you reported his absence to the police?” he asked.
Her eyes flickered up to his. “Oh yes. I spoke to a Sergeant Evan. He was most kind, but he could do nothing to help me, because I have no proof that Angus did not go of his own will. It was Sergeant Evan who gave me your name.”
“I see.” John Evan had been Monk’s most loyal friend at the time of his own trouble, and would not have dismissed this woman could he have helped her. “How long since you saw or heard from your husband, Mrs. Stonefield?” he asked gravely.
The shadow of a smile crossed her features and was gone. Perhaps it was a reflection in the change in his own expression.
“Three days, Mr. Monk,” she said quietly. “I know that is not long, and he has been away from home often before, and for longer, sometimes up to a week. But this is different. Always before he has informed me, and left provision for us, and of course he left instructions for Mr. Arbuthnot at his place of business. Never before has he missed an appointment, or failed to leave authority and direction so Mr. Arbuthnot might act in his absence.” She leaned forward, almost unaware of the charming tilting of the hoops of her skirt. “He did not expect to be gone, Mr. Monk, and he has contacted no one!”
He felt a considerable sympathy for her, but the most practical way he could help was to learn as many of the facts as she was able to give him.
“At what time of the day did you last see him?” he asked.
“At breakfast, about eight o’clock in the morning,” she replied. “That was January the eighteenth.”
It was now the twenty-first.
“Did he say where he intended going, Mrs. Stonefield?”
She took a deep breath, and he saw her folded hands in her lap clasp each other more firmly in their neat white gloves. “Yes, Mr. Monk. He went from home to his place of business. From there he told Mr. Arbuthnot that he was going to see his brother.”
“Did he call upon his brother often?” he asked. It seemed an unremarkable occurrence.
“He was in the habit of visiting him at irregular intervals,” she replied. She looked up, staring at him intently, as if the meaning of this were so vital to her she could not believe it would not have the same impact on him. “As long as I have known him,” she added, her voice dropping and becoming husky. “You see, they are twins.”
“It is not uncommon for brothers to visit each other, Mrs. Stonefield.” He remarked it only because he could see no reason for her white face, or her tense body as she sat uncomfortably on the edge of her chair. “Of course, you have been in touch with the other Mr. Stonefield and asked if your husband arrived safely, at what time, and in what circumstances he left?” It was barely a question. He had already assumed the answer.
“No …” The word was no more than a whisper.
“No,” she repeated with despair, her eyes wide, blue-gray and burningly direct. “Angus’s brother Caleb is everything he is not—violent, brutal, dangerous, an outcast even among the underworld along the river beyond Limehouse, where he lives.” She gave a shuddering sigh. “I used to beg Angus not to keep seeing him, but in spite of everything Caleb did, he felt that he could not abandon him.” A shadow crossed her face. “There is something very special about being a twin, I suppose. I confess, it is not something I understand.” She shook her head a little, as if denying her own anguish. “Please, Mr. Monk, will you find out what happened to my husband for me? I …” She bit her lip, but her eyes did not waver. “I shall need to know your terms in advance. My resources are limited.”
“I will make inquiries, Mrs. Stonefield.” He spoke before he considered the implications for his own financial status. “Then when I report their results to you, we can make arrangements accordingly. I shall need certain information from you in order to begin.”