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Late for work, Reginald Oren raced across the street, the cobblestones slick from the night’s rain. Dodging a horse and carriage, he jumped over a puddle then ran toward a brick building that took up half the city block. He shrugged out of his overcoat, hung it on a hook just inside the door then quietly entered a large workroom filled with a half-dozen young men sitting at their desks, their attention focused on the office at the far side of the room. No one noticed that Reginald was late, and he took his seat, glancing toward the open door, where Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, both dressed in dark suits, were talking to a policeman.
“That looks ominous,” Reginald said, glancing over at his cousin, Jonathon Payton, who sat at the desk next to his. “What did I miss?”
“The forty-fifty prototype.”
“Last night. They went there this morning to finish up the coachwork and it was gone.”
Reginald leaned back in his chair as he looked around the room, then focused on the men in the office, imagining what this would do to the company. Rolls-Royce had put all their money and that of their investors into this improved six-cylinder engine. Every last penny had gone into the design of that, as well as a chassis meant to withstand the harsh country roads. When the world seemed to laugh at them, saying it couldn’t be done, they’d persevered. And now, when they were on the verge of accomplishing the impossible….
Jonathon leaned toward him, lowering his voice. “Was Elizabeth pleased?”
“Pleased?” he said, unable to draw his gaze from the office. Reginald’s wife, Elizabeth, had taken their newborn son to visit her mother, and for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why Jonathon would bring her up at a time like this. “About what?”
“About the pianoforte.”
A shame he couldn’t hear what they were discussing in there, and he finally turned toward his cousin, belatedly recalling last night’s conversation when he’d solicited Jonathon’s assistance. “Undoubtedly, she will be. Meant to thank you for helping my friends and me move it, but you’d disappeared. One minute you were next to me, the next you were gone.”
“I guess I had a bit much. Not sure what happened.” He was quiet a moment, then whispered, “You won’t mention that to my father, will you?”
“Of course not.” Jonathon’s father, Viscount Wellswick, had raised both boys after Reginald’s parents died, though Reginald always suspected he’d have ended up in an orphanage if not for the intervention of Jonathon’s mother. Ironic, considering that she was the reason their fathers had been the bitterest of enemies. Reginald’s father had been in love with her, but her fortune was needed to restore the viscountcy, so she was wedded to Jonathon’s father instead. He often wondered if she regretted the marriage. Her husband, the viscount, was frugal beyond belief, as well as a strict disciplinarian. He certainly wouldn’t have approved of either of them spending a night at one of the local taverns, drinking ale with the neighborhood residents. The viscount was all about propriety. How it would look to his friends if his son and nephew stepped out of line. Appearances were everything, which was why Reginald and Jonathon were expected to oversee the running of the orphanage that bore the viscount’s name. Jonathon, in line to be the next viscount and heir to the Payton estate, was expected to be there six days a week, usually stopping in after work. In Reginald’s mind, that was the one advantage of being the poor relation living under his uncle’s roof. He was only expected to volunteer his time at the orphanage twice a week. Of course, that was in addition to the six days a week both men spent working for Rolls-Royce.
There were no free rides in the Payton home, the old man thinking that working at a job each day built character. Had the viscount discovered Reginald had led Payton astray, he’d likely toss Reginald, his wife and son out to the streets. “Not to worry,” Reginald said, turning his attention back to the office. “Your secret of drunken debauchery is safe with me.”
Reginald watched the men talking in the office, the faces of the two owners, Rolls and Royce, looking drawn, the loss weighing on them. The stolen car, named the Grey Ghost for the color of the body and the quietness of the forty-fifty engine, had been kept a secret from all but their investors, for fear that someone might try to steal their ideas. Apparently, it had never occurred to them that someone might steal the entire car. Payton’s father, the viscount, had offered the family warehouse to store the car while they were fitting it with its custom coachwork, hoping to enter it into the Olympia car show in just a few months. Reginald and Jonathon had discussed the idea that the vehicle would be more secure there, less likely to fall prey to anyone skulking around the factory, stealing plans. Jonathon, however, was the one who’d presented it. “Tough break this happening on your watch, don’t you think?” Reginald said.
“Quite. I expect they’ll sack me for it.”
“Have they said anything to you?”
“No,” Payton whispered, his face paling as Mr. Rolls shook the officer’s hand then escorted him out the door.
Mr. Royce stepped out after them then looked right at Jonathon. “Do you have a moment?”
“Right away, sir.” Jonathon Payton rose, not looking at his cousin as he walked toward the office.
“Close the door.”
“Yes, sir.” He shut the door behind him.
Reginald eyed the journals on a cabinet against the wall near the office, casually walking over, picking up the topmost one, pretending to read it. The walls were thin enough to hear what was being said.
“You’ve no doubt heard what happened?” Mr. Royce asked Jonathon.
“You realize what dire straits we’re in?”
Reginald leaned in closer. In charge of the books, he knew every penny the company spent and what would happen to their investors if they didn’t recover that car and start turning a profit. They’d go bankrupt, his uncle, the viscount—who’d invested everything—right along with them. Jonathon’s response, though, was covered by the return of Mr. Rolls, who nearly ran into Reginald as he came back from seeing the officer out.
“Pardon,” Mr. Rolls said, stepping past him. He started to open the door, then paused, looking over at Reginald, and then the other young men sitting at their desks, their attention on what was happening in the office. “I daresay we’re all frightfully worried over this setback. But we’ll get past it. In the meantime, let’s all get back to our tasks, shall we?”
The young men nodded, as did Reginald, and their employer gave a worried smile then entered the office. “This is disastrous,” he said, pushing the door closed. It didn’t latch tight. “We have to find that engine.”
“Why would anyone bother?” Mr. Royce asked. “The blasted coachwork wasn’t even finished.”
“Why do you think?” Rolls replied. “Sending spies sniffing around, trying to best us. Whoever it was, they stole it because they couldn’t build anything close to what we have.”
“Problem is, it’s still in the prototype stage. If they get it out there before we do, we lose it all. Every investor we have will pull out.”
“Good point. What if we lose the patent?” Rolls said. “We have to get that car back before the Olympia car show.”
“The policeman suggested we hire a detective.”
Mr. Rolls made a scoffing noise. “Not sure we want that to get out to our investors. Can’t even keep track of our own products before they find their way into the hands of our competitors.”
Jonathon Payton started to speak, his voice cracking. He cleared his throat and started again, saying, “What about those parts we sent out to be machined? If we could get them back in time, we might have a chance to finish that other forty-fifty.”
“Brilliant idea,” Royce said. “They’ve got to be ready by now. Give them a ring, Payton. If they’re ready, see if they can’t get them on the next train. We might just save this company after all.”
One week later…
Just before sunrise, ten-year-old Toby Edwards and his nine-year-old brother, Chip, picked their way down the street, avoiding the low spots where the rain flowed down from the previous day’s storm. They stopped at the entrance to the alley. “Wait here,” Toby said, moving his brother into the shadow. “I’ll be back soon.”
“Why can’t I go? I’ll be quiet as a mouse.”
“Just wait. If anything happens, run back.”
The boy nodded and Toby moved off. The last time he’d stolen something from the bakery, he’d nearly gotten caught after stepping in a deep puddle. The water had soaked through his worn soles, his boots squeaking with every step he took. A customer was the one who’d heard, calling out to the baker that a thief had broken in, then chased after him.
He wasn’t about to make that mistake again.
Worried the baker might catch him again, he’d stayed away for several days, until hunger drove him out once more. This time, when he reached the back of the shop, he wiggled his toes, grateful that they seemed relatively dry. He glanced back, could just make out his brother in the dark. Satisfied he was waiting as he should, Toby moved in.
The waiting was the hardest part. He breathed in the scent of fresh-baked bread drifting into the alley. Every morning, the baker opened the back door a crack, just enough to let his grey tabby in and out. The door was locked tight, and Toby wondered if, after he’d nearly been caught, the man had realized it left him ripe for theft. Every minute that slipped by, Toby despaired. About to turn away, he heard the door open. The cat slipped out, its tiny paws silent on the wet cobblestones as it walked toward him, then rubbed its whiskered face against Toby’s patched trousers.
When the cat meowed loudly, Toby crouched beside it, petting the feline’s head, feeling it purr against his fingertips. “Hush, you,” he whispered, watching the door.
Finally, he heard the faint tinkle from the bell that hung on the shop’s front door, then the baker’s deep voice, greeting whoever it was that had walked in. Usually it was the servants in the big manor houses that ventured out this early, those who didn’t bake their own bread.
Toby edged over, listening before slipping into the door, immediately enveloped by the heat, wishing he could find a spot beneath the table to spend the night where he wouldn’t be seen. To be that warm while he slept…
Right now, food was more important. Suddenly he stopped, his heart sinking. The basket the baker had always left on the table with the burned and broken loaves wasn’t there.
The table was empty.
His gaze flew to the door that led to the front of the shop, just able to make out the perfect loaves stacked in baskets on the counter.
For a moment, he wondered how hard it would be to race out there, grab one, then keep running.
He could never do that. It was one thing to take what was going to be tossed out—quite another to brazenly steal something the baker made a living on.
Stomach rumbling, he backed from the room, his foot hitting a wooden crate near the door. He froze, grateful when no one came racing into the kitchen. When he turned to leave, he saw what was in the wooden crate. Nearly a dozen rolls, the tops a bit too brown, the bottoms black as coal.
Unable to believe his luck, he stuffed several rolls into his pockets, resisting the temptation to take every last one of them.
Slipping out the door, he raced down the alley, pausing to grab his brother’s arm. The two boys darted around the puddles then out to the street, where massive brick warehouses lined the railroad tracks. Toby and Chip lived in the orphanage on the other side. After a quick glance behind him to make sure no one was following, Toby guided his brother that direction. When they reached the corner, he saw a man astride a black mare, the horse champing at the bit. The horseman, struggling to keep his mount in control, glanced in their direction.
Toby grasped Chip’s hand, holding tight. Instinct told him to continue past as though that had been their intent the entire time.
As soon as they were out of sight, they broke into a run. Up ahead, Toby saw an alcove, and pulled his brother into it, hiding the boy behind him.
A few seconds later, he heard the staccato clip of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones. Toby peered out, caught a glimpse of the man, and pressed back against the wall, praying the shadows would hide them.
“Who’s that?” Chip asked.
“I’m hungry,” Chip whispered. “And cold.”
There was a familiarity about the man when he’d looked over at Toby.
As though he’d seen him before.
And this was what bothered Toby. Something told him that if he didn’t find out who the man was, his brother and sisters wouldn’t be safe.
After their father, a coal miner, died of black lung, their mother had moved them all to Manchester, working at one of the textile mills. But then she’d taken ill and could no longer care for them. They’d lived the last year at the Payton Home for Orphans. Had it not been for Toby’s trips to the bakery, he and his siblings would have starved.
He had to get back to his sisters, but the only way to the orphanage was across the tracks. Seconds ticked by, and the low rumble of an approaching train grew louder. Suddenly the horseman turned and galloped back toward the tracks.
“Wait here,” Toby said, tucking his brother safely in the shadows.
Three days ago, if someone had told Toby that he’d be brave enough to follow a horseman in the dark to see what the man was about, he might have laughed. He was the least brave person he knew. But his mother had made him promise to look after his sisters and brother, and that’s exactly what he intended to do.
He’d gone no more than a few feet when Chip appeared at his side. Toby backtracked, taking his brother’s hand. “I told you to wait.”
“I don’t want to stay by myself.”
Toby considered taking him, until he remembered that feeling of terror when they’d almost been caught stealing from the bakery. “Hold these for me,” he said, pulling three of the four rolls from his pocket and helping his brother put them in his. When he pulled out the fourth roll, he held it up. “If you stay here until I come back for you, I’ll let you have the extra one.”
Chip’s eyes went wide as he stared at the burnt bread. But then he shook his head. “If I have that, what’ll you have?”
“Ate one in the kitchen before I got out,” he said, hoping the rumble of his stomach wouldn’t give him away. “So hungry, I couldn’t wait. But you want that extra one, you have to stay here.”
“You don’t want Lizzie or Abigail to see you eating it. You think you can do that?”
When Toby gave him the last roll, he gripped it in both hands, holding it up to his nose.
“Don’t leave here until I come get you,” Toby said, gently guiding his brother back to the alcove. As soon as Chip was safely tucked away, Toby started the other direction, keeping to the shadows.
As he neared the tracks, he saw a wagon stopped just on the other side, a stack of lumber strewn across the rails. Stars faded from the predawn sky, still too early for anyone to be out to help the man who’d spilled his load. The driver seemed unconcerned about moving the wood, instead just sitting there holding the reins of his team as the train approached.
Why would someone be moving lumber at this hour…?
His gaze flew back to the horseman in time to see him lifting a mask over his face. In the distance, on the other side of the tracks, he saw two other horsemen, both masked.
The train squealed to a stop, sparks flying up from the rails. He glanced at the men, saw the pistols they held. Fear coursed through his veins. He pivoted, about to run off when someone grabbed him from behind, clamped a hand over his mouth, and dragged him beneath the wooden staircase near the corner building.
Toby clawed at the hands, trying to squirm free.
“Quiet!” The man pulled Toby back, his hand so tight Toby could barely breathe. “You want them to hear you?”
Several terror-filled seconds passed before he realized the man wasn’t there to hurt him. He whispered in Toby’s ear again. “I’m going to let go. Not a word, lad. Understand?”
Heart thudding, Toby nodded. The man lowered his hand and Toby sucked in air, stealing a gaze at his captor. Dressed all in black, he was tall, late twenties, a dark bowler covering his brown hair. “Who are you?”
“Will Sutton,” he said. “Been following this gang since last week. Thought they were just after engine parts. Turns out they had something bigger in mind.” His blue eyes were focused on the horsemen racing toward the stopped train.
Toby peered between the splintered stairs as the engineer stepped out from the locomotive, the first horseman pointing a gun at him. The engineer lifted his hands, backing up. The brakeman appeared behind him, his hands going up as well. The other two horsemen rode past, stopping three cars down, boarding. They climbed to the top of the car, opening a trap door, both disappearing below.
“Interesting,” Will said. “I’d think it would’ve been locked.”
Toby had no idea what he was talking about. His attention was on the first horseman. “I know him.”
“That man with the gun. Seen him in the orphanage, I have.”
Toby nodded. “That’s why I followed him.”
Will kneeled in front of him, holding Toby by his shoulders, his gaze boring into him. “Did he see you? Out there in the street?”
“I—Maybe.” He thought about it. Surely the man had been too far away? “I don’t think so.”
“If he comes back to the orphanage, make sure he doesn’t see you.”
The rattle of wagon wheels caught their attention. The driver shook the reins, the team of horses pulling the wagon around to the freight car, next to the two waiting horses. The freight door opened and the two men started tossing heavy wooden crates into the wagon bed, each landing with a thud. Then they followed it with large canvas bags that landed with a metallic ring.
When they’d emptied the car, the two men jumped down, then mounted their horses. The wagon driver cracked his whip. The team of horses took off down the street, followed by the two horsemen.
The third horseman, the one Toby recognized, watched his men then turned back to the engineer and brakeman. “On the ground. Now!”
They kneeled, both lying face down near the tracks. The horseman circled the two men, his gun pointed toward their heads. He fired twice. The gunshots cracked, the sharp report echoing off the bricks of the warehouse.
Unable to look away, Toby’s knees buckled, and he sank to the ground. A soft whimper grew louder.
“Quiet, lad,” Will cautioned.
But Toby wasn’t the one making the sound.
His brother, the half-eaten burnt roll in his hand, stood in the middle of the street, crying. “T—Tobe…?”
The horseman pulled at the reins, whirled his steed about, his gaze landing on the boy. He lifted his gun, aiming.
Will swore, then darted out. The first shot missed. He grabbed Chip, swinging him around, practically throwing him at Toby as another shot rang out. He stumbled forward, falling to his knees, just a few feet from Toby as the horseman fired again. When he fell forward, he looked right at Toby, mouthing something he couldn’t hear.
Trapped beneath the staircase, tears welled in Toby’s eyes as he gripped his brother’s hand, unable to move, transfixed by the dark stain growing on Will’s back, only vaguely aware of the horseman breaking open the pistol, reloading.
“Boy…” Will said, his voice a soft rasp.
Holding tight to his brother, Toby took a step forward, not sure what to do.