It's October 1814. The war with France is finally over and Europe's diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together. With peace finally at hand, London suddenly finds itself in the grip of a series of heinous murders eerily similar to the Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.
In 1811, two entire families were viciously murdered in their homes. A suspect--a young seaman named John Williams--was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Williams hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way three years later and others possibly connected to the original case meet violent ends, the city is paralyzed with terror once more.
Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym's colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Williams was not the real killer. Which begs the question--who was and why are they dead set on killing again?
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Saturday, 8 October 1814
Molly Maguire hated the fog. Hated the way it reeked of coal smoke and tore at her throat. Hated the way the damp, suffocating blanket could turn even the most familiar lane into something ghostly and strange.
It was always worse at night, when the temperature plummeted and folks lit their fires. That's when the mist would drift up from the docks, swallowing the dark hulls and tall masts of the big ships at anchor out on the river and creeping along the mean streets and foul alleyways of the part of East London known as Wapping. Sometimes Molly would dream of a different life, the life she'd once known, when cold, wet nights were spent safe and dry in a warm, gently lit cottage. But that life belonged to the past. In this life Molly walked the streets at night.
She'd been on her own since before she turned thirteen, and she told herself she should be used to it by now. Yet after three years, she still shrank from servicing men with foul breath and rough hands and urgent, rutting manparts. It didn't hurt anymore like it had at first, at least not usually. But Molly still hated it even more than she hated the fog.
The bell in the clock tower of St. George's-in-the-East struck midnight, the dull clangs sounding oddly loud in the dense fog. If business had been good, Molly would have given up and gone back to the small, wretched room she shared with five other girls. But she was desperate for money. It might be Saturday night, but the fog had driven most potential customers off the streets. She'd had a couple of drunken seamen who took turns on her, one right after the other, then demanded a discount. But even they weren't as bad as the fat old magistrate who'd pinned her against one of the looming towers of St. George's.
A man like him, he could've bought himself a fine piece of Haymarket ware and tumbled her in the back room of a Covent Garden coffeehouse. Instead he'd picked up a cheap little Wapping doxy and taken her up against the soot-stained old stones of the church, his big hands tearing at her bodice and painfully squeezing her breasts as he thrust into her hard enough to make her wince. She could still smell the stink of his spilled snuff and fine brandy clinging to her. And when it was all over and she'd asked for her money, he'd laughed at her.
"I don't pay whores," he said, buttoning his flap over his ponderous gut.
"Wha-aat?" she'd wailed. "What you think? That I did this because I-"
He backhanded her across the mouth, splitting her lip against her teeth. "Consider yourself fortunate that I've decided not to have you committed."
"Fat old wagtail," Molly muttered now to herself. It felt good saying it out loud, so she said it again. "Fat old wagtail. Should've lifted his bloody watch, that's what I should've done. He owed me, he-"
She broke off as a dark, bulky shadow emerged from the fog swirling up near the corner. Probably old Ben Carter, she thought. She'd already tangled with the watchman once tonight and was in no mood to deal with him again. The black mouth of a noisome alley yawned beside her, and she ducked into it, gagging as the stench of rotting fish heads, rancid cabbage leaves, and what smelled like raw entrails enveloped her. She had her head turned, looking anxiously over her shoulder for the watchman, when her foot caught on something and she pitched forward.
"Mother Mary and all the saints," she swore softly as she came down on what felt like a big overstuffed sack. Her outflung hands slid over warm, smooth cloth and something else. Something wet and sticky.
Rearing back with a gasp, she stared down at the man before her, at the familiar greatcoat with silver buttons, at the hideous yawning wound in that fat neck, at the fine once-white cravat now soaked dark with blood. More blood matted his bushy gray hair and swooping side-whiskers. She sucked in a quick breath and smelled him, smelled the brandy and the snuff and the blood.
A scream rose in her throat, but she choked it back. In her mind she was screaming, screaming over and over again, her heart pounding in her chest. She heard the sound of heavy approaching footsteps and threw a panicked glance back at the mouth of the alley in time to see Watchman Ben pass with his lantern.
"Twelve o'clock on a foggy night and all is well," he called.
She pushed to her feet, ready to run as soon as the watchman was safely gone. Then her gaze fell on the body before her, on the gold watch and chain spilling from that blood-splattered silk waistcoat, and she hesitated.
Molly might have been a whore, but she'd never been a thief. Still, the man did owe her, didn't he?
She told herself he owed her.
Sunday, 9 October
The Frenchman was nervous.
Small, lithe, and dark-haired, with a hawklike nose and hooded, nervous eyes, he stood beside the fire crackling on the hearth of Sebastian's library, hands stretched out to the blaze. The morning had dawned cold and gloomy, the sky leaden, the city wrapped in mist. "They're watching me," said the man, his French low and quick. "Even here in London, I've been followed."
Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, heir to the powerful Earl of Hendon, stood with his hips resting against the edge of his heavy, dark oak desk, his arms crossed at his chest and his gaze on the man who'd been on his payroll for the last five months. "Do you know why?"
"Who can say? When the Bourbons drove into Paris, they claimed the past would be forgotten. They spoke of healing wounds and uniting all Frenchmen together again." The man's lips pulled away from his teeth into a rictus of a smile. "They lied. Louis himself might mean well, but his brother and niece are vicious snakes. They're beginning to move against anyone they consider their enemies, bringing back the Jesuits, strengthening the power of the church. . . . There have already been deaths. There will be more. I'm not going back."
"Where will you go?"
"Louisiana, perhaps. I hear they speak French there." The man, whose name was Labourne, rolled his shoulders in a Gallic shrug. "I'm sorry I do not have more to report."
Sebastian nodded, swallowing his disappointment and frustration. It had been more than twenty years since the sun-spangled summer morning when his mother, Sophia, the beautiful, gay, scandalous Countess of Hendon, had sailed away from Brighton, never to be seen again; three years since he'd discovered she hadn't drowned that day, as he'd always been told. At first, war with France made tracing her difficult. But with the abdication of NapolŽon, Sebastian had assumed the task would become easier.
He'd been wrong.
"Can you recommend someone who could take up where you left off?"
Labourne frowned thoughtfully at the nearby wall of leather-bound books. "There are one or two who might be willing. When I have spoken to them, I will send you their names."
Sebastian pushed away from the desk. "Thank you."
He was standing at the library window and watching the Frenchman stride swiftly down the wet street when Hero came to rest her hand on the small of his back.
"I'm sorry," she said softly.
He turned to take her in his arms, holding her close, breathing in the sweet familiar scent of her. She was a tall woman, nearly as tall as he, dark-haired and Junoesque in build, brilliant and strong, and he loved her and their son with a ferocity that filled his life with joy and, sometimes, terror.
After a moment, he drew a deep breath and said, "Do you think I'm wrong to keep trying to find her?"
Hero lifted her head from his shoulder to meet his gaze. "No."
"She obviously doesn't want to be found."
"Perhaps not. But she owes you answers."
"I think so, yes." She paused, and he expected her to say, I just hope you're ready for whatever answers she might have to give. But all she said was, "The man has no idea where she might be?"
"He says she was in Paris, then traveled to Vienna. It was when he followed her to Vienna that he realized he was being followed himself."
"By agents working for the Bourbons?"
"He thought so, and I'm inclined to believe him."
"But . . . why? Because of what he used to do in the past, or because of what he was doing for you now?"
"I'm not sure." Sebastian glanced down the street again. The Frenchman was gone, swallowed up by the mist. "Her presence in Vienna is . . . puzzling." In the wake of Napoléon's defeat, the representatives of Europe's leading states were gathering in the Austrian capital, intent on hammering out a long-term peace plan and rebuilding the world's power structure. The city was crowded with an influx of powerful Englishmen and their hangers-on; it struck him as the last place to appeal to the errant wife of the Earl of Hendon.
"I assume she no longer calls herself Lady Hendon?"
"No. Dama Cappello."
"Labourne didn't know."
A hackney coach drawn by a big, rawboned bay appeared out of the fog, and they watched together as the ancient vehicle drew up before their steps with a rattle of trace chains.
"Who's that?" asked Hero as a beefy, bushy-browed man in a brown corduroy coat swung open the carriage door and hopped down.
Sebastian felt a sense of foreboding settle upon him. "One of Sir Henry's constables. Something must have happened."
You'd think an East End magistrate'd have more sense than t' go wandering around someplace like Wapping in a stinkin' fog."
This piece of worldly wisdom came from Tom, the small, sharp-faced young tiger who perched at the rear of Sebastian's curricle as he drove east through the City. Once, Tom had been a pickpocket. But after serving as Sebastian's groom for more than three years, the lad had ambitions of someday becoming a Bow Street Runner.
Sebastian guided his chestnuts around a plodding brewer's wagon, then said, "It is rather curious, I'll admit."
"It's bleedin' harebrained, that's what it is."
Sebastian ducked his head and smiled.
They drove up the rain-drenched expanse of the Strand at a spanking pace, then passed through Temple Bar, that ancient division between Westminster and the City of London itself. By now the fog had mostly cleared, with only stray wisps still hovering over the river and clinging to the city's countless belching chimneys. The farther east they traveled, the older, narrower, and more decrepit the houses became, the more ragged the men, women, and wretched children on the streets, the more foul the air. By the time they reached Wapping, they were in an area dominated by the ships rocking at anchor in the Pool of London, by vast docks and looming brick warehouses. This was a district of sailors' victuallers and boat and mast makers, of endless taverns, rowdy seamen, thieves, and whores.
Turning into Nightingale Lane, Sebastian drew up near a shuttered apothecary shop. He could hear the cry of seagulls and the flapping of furled sails from the ships tied up in the nearby basin; smell the reek of tar and resin and dead fish that hung heavy in the air. "That wind has a cold bite to it," he told the boy. "Best walk 'em."
Tom scrambled forward to take the reins. "Aye, gov'nor."
"And keep your ears open. You might hear something useful."
Tom grinned. "I kin do that, too, yer lordship."
Hopping down to the wet, worn cobblestones, Sebastian turned toward a group of somber men huddled in conversation at the mouth of a nearby alley. At his approach, one of the men stepped away from the others and said, "Lord Devlin. My apologies for bringing you out on such a miserable morning."
His name was Sir Henry Lovejoy, and he was one of Bow Street Public Office's three stipendiary magistrates. Small and slightly built, he had a balding head, pinched, unsmiling features, and a serious demeanor. Once, Lovejoy had been a moderately successful merchant. But the tragic death of his wife and daughter some years before had shifted the trajectory of his life, leading him to adopt a severe religious belief and devote himself to public service.
Sebastian had known the dour little magistrate since those dark days when the Viscount had been on the run from a false accusation of murder, and Lovejoy assigned the task of bringing him to justice. Since that time, the two men had cooperated in solving a number of murders, for Sebastian's access to and knowledge of the rarefied world of the Haut Ton made him an invaluable ally when it came to cases involving either the nobility or the royal family. This death was decidedly different, although Sebastian suspected he understood only too well why Lovejoy had reached out to him.
"It's certainly bracing," said Sebastian, walking up to him. Then his gaze went beyond the Bow Street magistrate to the bloody ruin of a man lying farther into the alley, and he whispered, "Good God."
Stout and gray whiskered, the man was sprawled on his back, his heavy arms flung wide at his sides, his legs splayed. What had once been a white cravat was now soaked dark with the blood that had gushed from the gaping slash across his throat and the shattered, sickening pulp that had been the side of his head. The grimy brick walls of the narrow alley were splattered with gore and what Sebastian realized with a twist of his gut must be brain matter. He'd spent six years at war as a cavalry officer, but the sight of violent death still bothered Sebastian, and he suspected it always would.
"Ghastly, isn't it?" said Lovejoy.
Sebastian studied the dead man's full-cheeked, gape-mouthed face; the vacant, staring eyes; the open, buttonless greatcoat; the striped waistcoat; the old-fashioned breeches. Below that, the man's feet were completely bare.
"Someone's helped themselves to his shoes and stockings, I see."
"And his hat, buttons, purse, and watch," said Lovejoy. "I can easily imagine footpads bashing in his head. But why would they bother slitting his throat, as well?"
"It does seem rather excessive."
Lovejoy squinted up at the seagulls wheeling noisily overhead. "I'm told that ten days ago, a seaman by the name of Hugo Reeves was killed not far from here in Five Pipes Fields in Shadwell. His head was smashed in just like this, his throat cut so viciously his head was half off. No one thought much of it at the time. The streets near the docks are always dangerous, although the brutality of the attack was seen as unusual even for around here. But after this . . ."