The Earl of Wrexford possesses a brilliant scientific mind, but boredom and pride lead him to reckless behavior. So when pompous, pious Reverend Josiah Holworthy publicly condemns him for debauchery, Wrexford unsheathes his rapier-sharp wit and strikes back. As their war of words escalates, London’s most popular satirical cartoonist, A.J. Quill, skewers them both. But then the clergyman is found slain in a church—his face burned by chemicals, his throat slashed ear to ear—and Wrexford finds himself the chief suspect.
An artist in her own right, Charlotte Sloane has secretly slipped into the persona of her late husband, using his nom de plume, A.J. Quill. When Wrexford discovers her true identity, she fears it will be her undoing. But he has a proposal—use her sources to unveil the clergyman’s clandestine involvement in questionable scientific practices, and unmask the real murderer. Soon Lord Wrexford and the mysterious Mrs. Sloane plunge into a dangerous shadow world hidden among London’s intellectual enclaves to trap a cunning adversary—before they fall victim to the next experiment in villainy . . .
“Sharp, engaging characters, rich period detail, and a compellingly twisty plot, Andrea Penrose delivers a winner.” —Deanna Raybourn, New York Times–bestselling author
“Fans of C.S. Harris take note! A riveting ride through Regency London, from the slums of St. Giles, to the mansions of Mayfair.” —Lauren Willig, New York Times–bestselling author
“Historical chemistry meets alchemy . . . A delight of a book.&rdquo
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Murder on Black Swan Lane
By Andrea Penrose
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Andrea DaRif
All rights reserved.
A plume of steam rose from the bubbling crucible, the curl of silvery vapor floating ghost-like against the shadowed wood paneling before dissolving into the darkness. After consulting his pocket watch, the Earl of Wrexford scribbled a few more notations in his ledger, the scratch of his pen punctuated by the soft pop, pop, pop of colorless chemicals.
"The Devil's brew," he murmured, leaning back in his desk chair and staring at the brightly colored satirical print propped up against a stack of books. "Though I give the artist credit for coming up with a far more poetic phrase."
Satan's Syllabub. Pitchforks had been drawn in to replace the two l's of the print's red-lettered title. As for the caricature of him ...
A mirthless laugh slipped from his lips.
A pair of scarlet horns poked out from the tangle of long black hair. "I must remember to visit my barber this week," he murmured, brushing a strand of the shoulder-length locks from his collar. "And is my nose really that beaky? I have always thought it rather elegantly aquiline."
Shifting his gaze lower, he saw that the artist had drawn him without his trousers on and that his bare hairy legs — a gross exaggeration — ended in cloven hooves. The fine print of the caption explained that he was in the habit of concocting his noxious brews right after enjoying an amorous interlude with his latest conquest.
"Lies," muttered Wrexford wryly, taking a moment to eye the clever caricature of a near-naked lady peeking out from the large copper crucible cradled between his knees. The deft pen strokes had captured Diana Fairfield's petulant pout with frightening accuracy.
Yes, the face was perfect, but the implied timing was all wrong.
"I never mix business with pleasure." For one thing, performing chemical experiments in the nude could have very painful consequences.
But then, he supposed the artist couldn't be blamed for taking poetic license. A. J. Quill had earned a reputation for creating London's most scathing satirical prints, and no doubt earned a pretty penny for his merciless skewering of those caught up in the latest Society scandal.
Be damned with truth. Ruthless images, cutting commentary — that was what the paying public wanted. Misery loved company, especially when the sufferer was one of the Privileged Few.
"Ah, I see you've found today's delivery from Fores's print shop." The door to the workroom closed quietly behind Tyler, the earl's valet and occasional laboratory assistant, as he carried a tray of chemicals to the small worktable by the spirit lamp.
"Yes. And this latest one is really quite upsetting." Wrexford glanced back at his timepiece and waited ten more seconds before turning off the flame. "Quill has made my legs look awfully spindly, and you know how vain I am about my shapely calves."
"It's gone beyond a jesting matter, milord."
A gentleman's gentleman would not ordinarily dare to rebuke his master. But Tyler was no ordinary valet, reflected the earl. To begin with, he didn't swoon over the task of removing foul-smelling stains and singe marks from a finely tailored evening coat. More importantly, his scientific education made him far more useful in other matters.
Tyler cleared his throat with a brusque cough — never a good sign. It meant a lecture was coming, a blunt one, delivered in a rough-cut Scottish brogue. "Perhaps you ought to consider ignoring Reverend Holworthy's attacks from now on. Engaging in a public war of words isn't doing your reputation any good."
Wrexford picked up the half-empty glass of brandy by his inkwell and drained it in one prolonged swallow.
He hadn't initiated the hostilities. The first salvo had been fired off several weeks ago when the Reverend Josiah Holworthy, a clergyman of rising oratorical note, had preached an emotional Sunday sermon decrying the corruptive influences of dissolute debauchery on a civilized society. Holworthy had used the earl as an example of Wickedness Personified, describing his recent behavior in lurid detail.
Wrexford knew restraint would have been the wiser course of action, and had the man's rhetoric been halfway clever, he would have let sleeping dogs lie. But the attack had been crude and so he couldn't resist sending a rebuttal to the editor of the Morning Gazette.
It had been published in the newspaper the following morning, and from there, the trading of insults had escalated, much to the glee of the rest of London.
A miscalculation. He wasn't as careful in his personal life as he was with his scientific experiments. Holding his empty glass up to the Argand lamp, Wrexford watched the shards of light refract off the cut crystal for several long moments before replying.
"Since when have you known me to care about my reputation?"
His valet carefully rearranged the chemical vials into two neat rows before fetching one of the decanters on the sideboard and crossing the carpet to pour out a fresh measure of brandy.
Or perhaps it was hemlock. Of late, his mercurial moods had no doubt made him an awfully difficult fellow to deal with.
"It's just as well, I suppose," intoned Tyler. "For if that sanctimonious, self-anointed saint keeps attacking you as the Devil Incarnate, and you keep stirring the flames to a hotter burn with your outrageous comments on Society's narrow-minded morality, the only reputation you'll have will be black as sin."
"But it's so amusing to stick one of those clever French self-igniting matches up his pompous arse," muttered Wrexford, "and watch smoke come out his ears."
"Playing with fire is dangerous, milord."
He expelled a sigh. "He called me a witch."
"And you promptly corrected him," said Tyler, "pointing out that 'witch' refers to a female and he should properly refer to you as a warlock."
"I was right," retorted the earl. "The man is a bloody idiot."
"I believe what you called him in print was an illiterate widgeon, whose brain could fit twice over on the head of a pin."
"Ye god, can you blame me? All that blather about how my soul needs to be transmuted to a higher plane —"
Tyler cleared his throat to cover a snicker.
"Remind me again why I keep you in my employ," grumbled Wrexford. "Aside from your obsequious respect for my exalted person."
"I have concocted a polish for your boots that outshines Beau Brummel's secret recipe," replied Tyler.
"Dare I hope that you will tell me what's in it before I toss your insolent arse into the street?"
"Eye of newt, frog sweat —"
The earl let out a bark of laughter. The fact that Tyler didn't take his ill-tempered caustic comments to heart was also a mark in his favor.
"Pray tell, what is the point of all your chidings?" When his valet didn't answer right away, Wrexford pressed, "You think I should take steps to end this debate?"
Tyler shrugged. "It might be wise. Things appear to be on the verge of getting out of control."
"I shall consider it." Wrexford rose and stretched. Keeping precise control of the liquid's temperature and timing the addition of each ingredient had left him feeling fidgety. The conversation hadn't helped. Tyler was right — baiting a religious fanatic had been a bad decision.
Only one of many he had made in recent weeks.
But Wrexford pushed such musings aside for now. "There's no need for any further work here this evening. The liquid must cool completely, so we will wait until morning to continue with the experiment."
"You are going out again, sir?"
"Yes. I need a walk to clear my head." He reached for the print and folded it into a neat square before tucking it into his coat pocket. "And then I may stop at the new gaming hell on St. James's Street. Don't wait up. I shall likely be late."
"Good luck at the tables, sir. But then again, you usually do come away with your pockets stuffed with blunt."
"Luck is said to be a Lady, and you know that I have the devil's own way with women." The more accurate explanation probably lay in not giving a damn whether he won or lost. He gambled because watching the frenzy of brandy-fueled emotions — sweaty fear, giddy exultation, blank despair — play across the flushed faces was a diversion that kept boredom at bay.
"So we shall see how the cards fall."
* * *
"M'lady! m'lady!" The boy skidded to a breathless stop in the entrance hall and poked his head into the tiny parlor. "Bloody hell, ye've got te move yer pegs! The fancy church cove wots roasting His Nibs —"
Charlotte Sloane set down her pen and waved for silence. "Speak English, Raven."
"But I was!"
"The King's English. Pronounced clearly and like a gentleman," she chided. "And no swearing."
"Gentlemen swear," he shot back. "A lot."
Charlotte bit back a smile. "True. But under this roof, you must temper your tongue."
"Hurry! Hurry!" Raven's younger brother peltered through the front door. "Wot's keeping ye?"
"Put a cork in it, Hawk. I'm trying te tell her." Drawing a deep breath, Raven turned back to her. "You must come quickly, milady," he said, this time enunciating his words like a proper little Etonian. "The churchman in your drawings has just been murdered. Skinny, the streetsweep who works the corner by St. Stephen's Church on Black Swan Lane, heard the watchman scream and run off to fetch the magistrate. If we move fast, you'll have time for a peek before they return."
Charlotte flinched, nearly spilling the bottle of ink over her unfinished cartoon.
"Skinny said it's horrible," volunteered Hawk in an awed whisper. "The reverend's head is near cut off and there's enough blood pooled round the body to float a forty-gun frigate."
She hesitated. It wasn't that she was a ghoul, but a look at the scene would give her a great advantage over her competitors. In her business, knowledge was money.
And God knows, she needed money.
Having all the gruesome details at her fingertips ...
Shooting up from her chair, Charlotte gestured at the stairs leading down to the tiny kitchen. "Fetch a lantern. I'll just be a moment changing into my breeches and boots."
A short while later, garbed as just another grubby urchin prowling the unlit streets, Charlotte squeezed through the back gate of the churchyard and followed the boys as they picked a path through the crumbling gravestones. Scudding clouds hid the crescent moon and the faint mizzle of starlight was lost in the thick malodorous mists drifting up from the river. Somewhere in the trees, a lone owl hooted.
Quickening her pace, she darted into the alcove between the buttresses and crouched down in front of the iron-banded side door. Raven was already at work on the lock, the thin shaft of his steel pick probing, probing ...
The massive hinges swung open with a rusty groan.
"Keep watch out here," whispered Raven to his brother. "The usual signal — two sharp whistles — if we need te scamper quick-like."
Hawk nodded solemnly.
"I'll go first, m'lady." Raven drew a short cudgel from inside his jacket.
"No, stay behind me." Charlotte slipped past him into the chill gloom. The air was damp and heavy with a cloying odor. The smell of old bones and moldering sadness. For those who lived outside the glittering opulence of Mayfair, life in London could grind even the brightest dreams into dust.
Shaking off such mordant thoughts, she waited to hear the door shut, then struck a flint to the lantern's wick and eased back the shutter.
The oily beam flickered over the thick granite columns, the age-blackened oak pews, the mortared stone tiles. ...
"Holy hell," hissed Raven through his teeth.
"Don't come any closer," Charlotte rasped as a spurt of bile, sharp and sour, shot up to burn the back of her throat. Swallowing hard, she crept closer to the body sprawled on the floor by the ornately carved lectern.
Dear God — so much blood.
Up close, the sight was more hideous than any demon-demented nightmare. The Right Reverend Josiah Holworthy — yes, she recognized him despite the disfigured face — was lying on his back, his arms outstretched as if in supplication to God for mercy.
If so, the plea had fallen on deaf ears.
His head ...
Charlotte choked back a gag.
The slash of a blade had nearly severed the man's neck, and his head, attached to his body by only a few bits of tendon, bone, and flesh, had fallen awkwardly to one side. A dark, viscous pool was spreading out from beneath the crumpled coat collar, and rivulets of rusty red were snaking a serpentine trail over the grey stone.
Careful to avoid leaving any telltale scuff, Charlotte edged around for a different angle of view. Steady, steady. Her hand was trembling as she pulled a small notebook and pencil from her pocket.
"Cor, someone must have hated him awful bad," murmured Raven, who had snuck up behind her despite the order to the contrary.
"Hold this," she said, passing him the lantern to keep him occupied. It seemed pointless to argue with him. Having grown up in one of London's roughest slums, he was no stranger to violence.
But this ...
Dark spots discolored the reverend's sightless eyes and his cheeks were badly burned by some sort of chemical. Faint streaks of a greenish-yellow substance had dribbled down to his chin and a white powder flecked the pitted flesh where the liquid had started to dry. Forcing her mind to concentrate on the tiny details helped control the violent churning in her stomach. She opened the book to a fresh page and hurriedly made some notes.
The powder, she noted, was also caked at the corners of his mouth and the protruding tongue had turned a mottled black. A strange smell ...
She crouched down and sniffed, then jotted down a few more lines.
A low sound gurgled in Raven's throat.
"If you are going to cast up your accounts, kindly step outside," said Charlotte coolly, hoping the challenge would make him forget his nausea. "We mustn't leave any sign that someone has been in here."
"I ain't — I'm not — gonna shoot the cat," he vowed.
"Then move the light a little to your left."
"We gotta be going now." Raven shot a nervous look down the main aisle towards the front entrance.
"In a moment." Charlotte rose and slowly circled the corpse, making a few quick sketches. Stepping back, she noted a faint partial footprint in the dust of the side transept. Curious, she went to take a look. A boot — an oddly small one, with a distinctive mark cut into the heel.
Another quick crouch, another quick sketch.
"Yes, yes." Charlotte stepped into the shadows to see where the footprints led, then changed her mind. The crime wasn't her concern, just the gristly details. She returned to the body and crouched down for a last look.
Raven let out another impatient hiss. As she turned slightly to chide him, she caught sight of something caught in the dead man's right-hand shirt cuff. A scrap of paper? After hesitating just a fraction, Charlotte reached out —
A sharp whistle, followed by another, shattered the silence.
"We gotta flee!" called Raven. He blew out the lamp.
Her fingers plucked the paper free, just as Raven grabbed her sleeve and yanked her to her feet.
Half stumbling, half running, Charlotte let herself be led. The boy was nimble as an alley cat and seemed to be able to see in the dark.
Thuds, shouts, and the clatter of boots echoed behind her. Up ahead, a sliver of starlight glimmered in the arched entryway.
"Hurry, hurry," urged Hawk in a frantic whisper as he pushed the door a touch wider.
Raven bolted through the opening, dragging Charlotte with him. She thought her lungs might burst, but somehow the boys hurried her to an even faster pace over the clotted earth and loose stones of the graveyard. Finally, after they were two streets away from the church, Raven allowed her to slow to a walk.
Pulse pounding in her ears, heart thumping hard enough to crack a rib, Charlotte bent over and braced her hands on her knees. "That," she gasped, "was close."
And then she began to laugh.
"You're mad, m'lady," wheezed Raven. "Mad as a Bedlamite."
"Yes, no doubt I am."
* * *
Wrexford took a seat at the gaming table to the chant of "Satan, Satan," from the other five men engaged in play.
While the others punctuated the words with a rhythmic pounding of their palms against the green felt, Fitzwilliam, a portly baron with a bald pate and ginger sidewhiskers, waggled a hand at one of the serving girls. "Bring us a bowl of syllabub!" he trilled. "Served hot as the devil's pitchfork."
"Stubble the attempt at humor, Fitz," growled the earl as the others laughed uproariously. "You have more hair than wit."
"Is it true that this morning's cartoon showed the Divine Diana as your latest paramour?" asked Pierpont, once the hilarity had died away.
Excerpted from Murder on Black Swan Lane by Andrea Penrose. Copyright © 2017 Andrea DaRif. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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