When Lord Wrexford discovers the body of a gifted inventor in a dark London alley, he promptly alerts the watchman and lets the authorities handle the matter. But Wrexford soon finds himself drawn into the investigation when the inventor’s widow begs for his assistance. It seems her husband’s designs for a revolutionary steam-powered engine went missing the night of his death. The plans could be worth a fortune . . . and very dangerous in the wrong hands.
Joining Wrexford in his investigation is Charlotte Sloane, who uses the pseudonym A. J. Quill to publish her scathing political cartoons. She doesn’t mind tapping her extensive network of informants critical to her work to track down an elusive killer. With danger lurking at every turn, the potent combination of Wrexford’s analytical mind and Sloane’s exacting intuition begins to unravel the twisted motivations behind the inventor’s death. But they are up against a killer ready to strike again before they can recover the inventor’s priceless designs . . .
“Penrose deftly combines a Regency romance with a tricky mystery that delves into social unrest and the darker side of this storied period.”
“Its complex story line and authentic historical details bring the early days of the Industrial Revolution vividly to life. Bound to fascinate readers of C.S. Harris and even fans of Victorian mysteries.”
—Library Journal, Starred Review
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"Why is it that I never win at dice and cards, Wrex?" Christopher Sheffield kicked aside a mound of rotting cabbage before leading the way through a low archway. "While you always walk away from the gaming hells with your pockets stuffed with blunt." He expelled a mournful sigh. "It defies logic."
The Earl of Wrexford raised a brow in bemusement. "Hearing you invoke the word 'logic' is what defies reason."
"No need to be sarcastic," grumbled Sheffield.
"Fine. If your question was truly meant to be more than rhetorical, the answer is I watch the cards carefully and calculate my chances." He sidestepped a broken barrel. "Try thinking, Kit. And counting."
"Higher mathematics confuses my feeble brain," retorted his friend.
"Then why do you play?"
"I was under the impression that one doesn't have to be smart to gamble," protested Sheffield. "Didn't that fellow Pascal — and his friend Fermat — formulate ideas on risk and probability ? I thought the odds should be roughly fifty-fifty for me winning simply by playing blindly." He made a rueful grimace. "Bloody hell, by that calculation, I must be due to win a fortune, and soon."
"So you weren't actually sleeping through lectures at Oxford?" said Wrexford dryly.
"I was just dozing." A pause. "Or more likely I was cup-shot. Aberdeen was awfully generous with his supply of fine brandy."
"Speaking of brandy," murmured the earl as he watched his friend stumble and nearly fall on his arse. "You've been drinking too much lately."
"Hell's teeth, since when did you become such a stick in the mud?"
"Since you led me into this putrid-smelling swamp of an alleyway," he retorted. His own wits were a little fuzzed with alcohol, and he winced as he slipped, nearly losing his balance. "Pray, why are we taking this route past Half Moon Gate? Tyler will raise holy hell at having to clean this disgusting muck from my boots."
"Heaven forbid we upset your valet." Sheffield made a face. "You know, you're in danger of becoming no fun to carouse with."
Wrexford came to a halt as the alley branched off into three twisting passages. "Which way?"
"The middle one," said Sheffield without hesitation. "As for why we're cutting through here, there are two reasons. It's much shorter than circling around by the main street." A grunt, as he slipped again. "More importantly, there's a chance we'll encounter a footpad, and given my recent losses at the gambling tables, I'm in the mood to thrash someone to a bloody pulp."
The earl tactfully refrained from comment. Like many younger sons of aristocratic families, his friend was caught in a damnably difficult position. The heir and firstborn usually had a generous stipend — and if not, tradesmen were willing to advance generous credit. But those who trailed behind were dependent on parental pursestrings. Sheffield's father, however, was a notorious nipcheese, and kept him on a very puny allowance.
In retaliation, Sheffield made a point of acting badly, a vicious cycle that did no one any good.
It was, mused Wrexford, a pity, for Kit had a very sharp mind when challenged to use it. He had been of great help in solving a complicated crime a handful of months ago —
"Has Mrs. Sloane decided to move to a different neighborhood?" asked his friend, abruptly changing the subject.
"The last time I paid her a visit, she made no mention of it," he replied.
Sheffield shot him an odd look. "You didn't ask?"
The squish-squish of their steps filled the air. Wrexford deliberately said nothing.
"Never mind," murmured his friend.
Charlotte Sloane. A sudden stumble forced a sharp huff of air from his lungs. That was a subject he didn't care to discuss, especially as the throbbing at the back of his skull was growing worse.
He and Charlotte Sloane had been drawn together — quite literally — by the gruesome murder of a leading religious zealot, a crime for which he had been the leading suspect. Secrets twisted around secrets — one of the more surprising ones had been that the notorious A. J. Quill, London's leading satirical artist, was a woman. Circumstances had led him and Charlotte to join forces in order to unravel a diabolically cunning plot and unmask the real miscreant.
Their initial mistrust had turned into wary collaboration, and then to friendship — though that was, mused Wrexford, a far too simple word to describe the bond between them.
Chemistry. As an expert in science, Wrexford could describe in objective detail how the combination of their special talents seemed to stir a powerful reaction. However, they lived in different worlds and moved in vastly different circles here in Town. Rich and poor. Aristocrat and Nobody. Charlotte had made it clear after solving the crime that said circles were unlikely to overlap again.
Despite her assumption, he did pay an occasional visit to her humble home — simply out of friendship — to ensure that she and the two urchin orphans she had taken under her wing were suffering no consequences for helping prove his innocence. But given his own reputation for being a cold-hearted bastard, Sheffield didn't need to know —
"We turn again here."
Sheffield's murmur drew Wrexford from his brooding.
"Mind your head," added his friend as he squeezed through a gap between two derelict buildings. "A beam has broken loose from the roof."
The alleyway widened, allowing them to walk on side by side.
Wrexford grimaced as a particularly noxious odor rose up to assault his nostrils. "The next time you want my company while you try your luck at the gaming tables, let's choose a more civilized spot than The Wolf's Lair. I really don't fancy —" His words cut off sharply as he spotted a flutter of movement in the shadows up ahead.
He heard an oath and the sudden rustling of some unseen person scrambling to his feet and racing away.
"Don't fancy what?" asked Sheffield, who had stopped to light a cheroot.
"Strike another match and hand it over," demanded Wrexford. "Quickly!"
Sheffield dipped a phosphorus-tipped stick into a tiny bottle of nitric acid, igniting a flame.
Wrexford took it and approached the corner of a brick warehouse. Crouching down, he watched the sparking point of fire illuminate what lay in the mud and then expelled a harried sigh.
"I really don't fancy finding yet another dead body."
* * *
Setting aside her pen, Charlotte Sloane took up a fine-pointed sable brush and added several bold strokes of blood-red crimson to her drawing.
Man versus Machine. Her latest series of satirical prints was proving very popular. And thank God for it, considering that there had been no sensational murder or flagrant royal scandal of late to titillate the public's prurient interest. As A. J. Quill, London's most celebrated gadfly, she made her living by skewering the high and mighty, as well as highlighting the foibles of society.
Peace and quiet put no pennies in her pocket.
Charlotte expelled a small sigh. Financial need had compelled her to take over her late husband's identity as the infamous Quill, and she was damnably good at it. However, her income would disappear in a heartbeat if it ever became known that a woman was wielding the pen. She, of all people, knew that no secret — however well hidden — was perfectly safe. But among the many hard-won skills she had acquired over the last few years was the art of survival.
Forcing aside such distractions, she turned her attention back to her drawing. The recent unrest at the textile mills in the north had struck a raw nerve in the country. A heated debate was now raging over whether steam power would soon replace manual labor. Many people lauded the new technology.
And many feared it.
Charlotte leaned back in her chair, studying the violent clash of workers and local militia she had created, the human figures balanced precariously on the iron-dark pistons and condensers of a monstrous, steam-belching engine.
We are all creatures of habit, she mused. However awful, the known was preferable to the unknown.
The thought caused a wry smile to tug at the corners of her mouth. She seemed to be one of those rare souls drawn to exploring beyond the boundaries of convention.
"Not that I had much choice," she murmured.
Not to begin with, perhaps. But honesty compelled her to admit that the challenges, no matter how daunting, were what added a spice of excitement to the humdrum blandness of everyday existence.
Raising her gaze, Charlotte looked around at the half-packed boxes scattered around the room and was once again reminded of the current theme of her art.
"Change is good," she told herself. Only unimaginative minds saw it as terrifying.
But at the sight of all her earthly possessions — a rather unimpressive collection of flotsam and jetsam — lying in disorderly piles, she couldn't help feeling a twinge of trepidation.
For several months she had wrestled with the idea of moving from her cramped but cheap quarters on the fringes of the St. Giles stews to a more respectable neighborhood. The previous week she had finally made up her mind, and, with the help of a trusted friend, had leased a modest house on Buckridge Street, near Bedford Square.
Her art was now bringing in a handsome salary from Fores's print shop. And along with the unexpected windfall she'd received for partnering with Lord Wrexford ...
Charlotte expelled a long breath. She had not yet come to grips with how she felt about taking the earl's money. Yes, she had earned every last farthing of it. And yet ...
Beggars can't be choosy. She silenced her misgivings with an old English adage.
All those lovely gold guineas would allow Raven and Hawk, the two homeless urchins she'd taken under her wing, to have a chance at bettering themselves. Basic schooling, decent clothing, entrée to a world outside the sordid alleyways in which they had been abandoned.
Rising, she rolled up her finished drawing within a length of oilcloth and carefully tucked in the flaps, readying it for delivery to the engravers. A glance at the clock on the rough-planked table showed it was past midnight.
The boys had not yet returned from their nightly rambles and Charlotte tried not to worry about why. From the first time she had found them sheltering in the outer entryway of her tiny house, there had been an unspoken understanding that they were free to come and go as they pleased. She tried to make sure they had more than pilfered scraps of food to eat and better than tattered rags to wear. They were very bright and clever, and under her guidance they had learned to read and write ...
But there were moments when she thought she detected a half-wild gleam in the depths of their eyes. A fierce independence, an elemental wariness that refused to be tamed.
What if they hated the idea of a nicer house, and proper schooling?
What if ...
Steeling her spine, Charlotte cut off such thoughts with a self-mocking huff. Hell's bells, if she had a penny for all the times in the past she fretted over the consequences of a decision, she'd be rich as Croesus.
She had done her best to always be forthright with them and be deserving of their trust. Unlike John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's legendary seer and spymaster, she didn't possess a magical scrying glass in which to see the future. She could only try to deal with the present.
And at this moment, the present was grumbling for a cup of tea.
At least she could now afford the luxury of a spoonful of sugar to sweeten it.
* * *
A sharp hiss slipped through Sheffield's clenched teeth as he leaned in over Wrexford's shoulder.
"Is he dead?"
"Yes." Wrexford had felt for a pulse, though the three bloody stab wounds piercing the left ribs indicated the victim couldn't have survived. Sitting back on his haunches, he surveyed the violence of the attack — the ripped clothing, the slashed boots, the mutilated flesh of the dead man's belly.
"Holy hell," muttered his friend, fumbling to light another match. The flare of light showed all the color had leached from his face.
"The Devil's own work," he agreed.
Sheffield swallowed hard. "It's an awfully brutal attack, even for this part of Town." The man's neck had been broken and a knife slash had badly disfigured his face.
Lifting the dead man's hands, the earl examined the broad knuckles, noting the bruising and scrapes. "Looks like he put up a fight."
"That explains the victim's wounds." Sheffield averted his gaze. "The footpad must have panicked at the resistance."
"Perhaps." Wrexford frowned, sensing there was more to it than met the eye. "But that doesn't explain the cut-up clothing or the slashes made to the body after death —"
"How the devil can you tell that?"
"There was little bleeding from the cuts on his belly. Which means his heart had stopped pumping."
Sheffield was starting to look a little green around the gills.
"Footpads strike for pragmatic reasons," mused the earl, as much to himself as to his friend. "They want money and valuables — which they assume are in pockets or on fingers. They don't waste time searching seams or mutilating their victims. Unless ..." He took a closer look at the ripped lining of the coat and ran a hand between the wool and satin.
"Unless the fellow's attacker knew the fellow had something special hidden on his person," suggested Sheffield.
"There's that possibility," conceded Wrexford. "But given the signs of blind rage, it's more likely personal. Perhaps a betrayal or a business deal gone bad."
His friend appeared unconvinced. "But by his clothing — or what's left of it, the fellow appears to be a gentleman."
Wrexford arched a brow as he continued to examine the coat. "Meaning a gentleman is never involved in anything sordid?"
A fresh match caught Sheffield's answering grimace. "Point taken."
He nodded absently, his attention caught by a small tailor's mark sewn in discreetly at the back of the collar. It appeared that the victim was from Leeds. Which added yet another layer of mystery as to why he was lying murdered in one of London's most dangerous stews. A stranger to the city did not simply stumble by chance into these fetid alleyways ...
As the stinking sludge began to seep through his own boots, Wrexford shrugged off the conundrum. Whatever reason had brought the fellow here was none of his concern. After draping the remains of the coat over the death- distorted face, he rose.
"There's nothing more to do here. Let's find a watchman in Red Lion Square and alert him of the crime." A pause. "Assuming you know your way out of this cursed maze."
"That way," said his friend indicating the passageway to their left.
As they turned, the earl spotted two wraith-like shapes flitting, dark on dark, within the shadows.
"The Weasels," he muttered.
"Where?" demanded Sheffield. "I see nothing."
"You wouldn't." Already they had disappeared in the gloom. "They're more slippery than quicksilver."
An instant later, two boys darted out from a plume of mist on the other side of the alleyway.
"Oiy," grunted the older of the two. "Another dead body, m'lord?"
"Don't be insolent to your elders," shot back Wrexford.
Sniggers greeted the rebuke. Unlike the beau monde, the Weasels weren't intimidated by his lofty titles.
The younger boy grinned. "I gotta new toof coming in." He raised a hand to his lower lip — or perhaps it was a paw. It was too filthy to be sure. "Here, would ye like te take a peep?"
"Good God — do not put that finger in your mouth," he snapped. "You'll likely get the plague."
The older boy — whose name was Raven, though the earl pretended not to know it — made a rude sound. "Our tutor, Mr. Keating, says there ain't been an attack of the plague in London since 1665."
"Yes, well, ingesting a mouthful of that disgusting muck could very well change that."
Hawk — like his brother, he, too, had an avian moniker — obediently dropped his hand.
Raven hesitated, then turned his attention back to the corpse. He crossed the footpath and leaned in for a closer look. "Cor, that's a nasty bit of blade work."
"It's a nasty part of St. Giles," replied Wrexford. There was no need to mince words. The brothers had grown up amid the brutish realities of life in the stews. Hoping to forestall further questions, he added, "Which begs the question as to what you Weasels are doing here at this time of night."
Excerpted from "Murder At Half Moon Gate"
Copyright © 2018 Andrea DaRif.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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