When the handsome but dissolute young gentleman Lord Ashworth is found brutally murdered, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is called in by Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy to help catch the killer. Just seven months before, Sebastian had suspected Ashworth of aiding one of his longtime friends and companions in the kidnapping and murder of a string of vulnerable street children. But Sebastian was never able to prove Ashworth's complicity. Nor was he able to prevent his troubled, headstrong young niece Stephanie from entering into a disastrous marriage with the dangerous nobleman.
Stephanie has survived the difficult birth of twin sons. But Sebastian soon discovers that her marriage has quickly degenerated into a sham. Ashworth abandoned his pregnant bride at his father's Park Street mansion and has continued living an essentially bachelor existence. And mounting evidenceranging from a small bloody handprint to a woman's silk stockingsuggests that Ashworth's killer was a woman. Sebastian is tasked with unraveling the shocking nest of secrets surrounding Ashworth's life to keep Stephanie from being punished for his death.
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London: Friday, 1 April 1814
Bloodred and splayed wide as if in panic, the dried handprint stood out clearly against the white, freshly painted inside panel of the town house's front door.
Jenny Crutcher was crossing his lordship's grand black-and-white marble-tiled entrance hall, humming to herself, when she saw it. She drew up, one fist clenching around the handle of her broom as she glanced in dismay at the golden glow of the rising sun filtering in through the fanlight above the door. A housemaid in any normal gentleman's establishment would have been shocked by such a discovery. But Jenny had worked in Viscount Ashworth's Curzon Street residence for six years now. Little shocked her anymore.
She was a slight, underfed woman with a pinched face and dull, straight fair hair that combined to make her look older than her twenty-six years. Once not so long ago, folks had called her a pretty little thing. But Jenny didn't mind her fading looks too much. Fresh-faced young housemaids had a tendency to catch his lordship's eye, and Jenny had more than enough trouble in her life already. Frowning at the blood, she hurried off to fetch a bucket of water and a rag. She didn't have time for this; she'd been working since before dawn, and there was still so much to do before the master came down.
"Blast," she muttered when water splashed over the rim of the bucket as she set it down on the marble tiles. More work. It wasn't until she was on her hands and knees, wiping up the spilled water, that she noticed the blood on the door's handle. She cleaned that too, surprised to realize the door was unbarred. His lordship's aged butler, Mr. Fullerton, always made a big show of ceremoniously lowering the bar on the front door every morning. But the old man wasn't up yet.
In a normal household, it would also be the butler's responsibility to bar the door at night before retiring. But that task was often delegated to his lordship's valet for reasons Jenny understood only too well. Forgot something, did we, Digby? Jenny thought, allowing herself a faintly malicious smile. She was not fond of the nasty little valet.
Leaving the bucket of bloody water for later, she scurried off to work her way through the rooms of the first two floors, throwing open curtains, collecting dirty wine and brandy glasses, and straightening the disorder left from the night before. She worked in concert with the second housemaid, Alice, the two women dividing the tasks between them in a familiar routine they'd developed over the years. By the time they climbed the stairs to the floor where the Viscount kept his bedchamber, it was already past ten o'clock. Fortunately, his lordship was never up before noon, so they should still have plenty of time to sneak into his room, quietly make up the fire, leave fresh water, and be away before he stirred.
They'd almost reached the master's door before they realized it was standing ajar. The room beyond gaped dark and quiet.
"Reckon he's up already?" whispered Alice, hesitating.
Jenny shook her head. "Can't be. He didn't ring for Digby."
Alice shifted her grip on the heavy coal scuttle she carried. "So why's the door open?"
"A draft coulda pushed it." Yet even as she suggested it, Jenny was remembering the bloody handprint on the unbarred front door. Something tingled up her spine, and she clutched the water pitcher she carried more tightly to her chest. "Maybe we shouldn't go in there."
"We have to," said Alice. Nudging the door open wider, she took one step into the room.
Anthony Marcus Ledger, Viscount Ashworth, only son and heir of the Marquis of Lindley, lay sprawled naked on his back in the rumpled depths of his vast silk-hung bedstead. His eyes were open but sunken flat, his handsome young face ashen, his lips oddly purple in contrast. One did not need to look at the raw, hacked mess that had once been his chest to know he was dead.
"Ghastly sight," said Sir Henry Lovejoy, one of three stipendiary magistrates attached to Bow Street's famous Public Office. A small balding man with the appearance of a respectable merchant and the demeanor of a stern cleric, he was careful to stand well back from the gore-splattered bed. There'd once been a time when Lovejoy was indeed a merchant, and a moderately successful one at that. But the death of his beloved wife and daughter some thirteen years before had caused him to reevaluate everything from his religious beliefs to his purpose in life and devote his remaining days to public service.
Now pressing a clean white handkerchief to his lips, he let his horrified gaze drift from the blood-soaked fine linen sheets beneath his lordship's mutilated body to the sprayed arcs of blood that showed quite clearly against the champagne-colored silk of the bed's hangings. Silken red cords tied the dead man's widespread hands and feet to the bedstead's stout wooden posts. "I believe we can safely surmise that his lordship was killed here," said Lovejoy.
Beside him, a young constable with thin shoulders and a pockmarked face swallowed hard. "That's an awful lot o' blood, sir."
"It is, indeed."
The heavy curtains at the windows overlooking the street had been hastily yanked open, flooding the elegant bedchamber with the dazzling light of a fine spring morning. Tucking away his handkerchief, Lovejoy turned in a slow circle, taking in the new Aubusson carpet, the gleaming rosewood chests, the gilt-framed paintings of highbred hunters and racing hounds. To all appearances, Ashworth's life had been one of rare privilege and refinement. And while Lovejoy knew only too well that in this instance appearances were in some ways deceptive, the fact remained that the violent murder of the handsome young son of one of the wealthiest noblemen in the kingdom would both shock and terrify the rarefied world of the haut ton-and seriously rattle the palace.
Troubled by the thought, Lovejoy went to stand at the window. Curzon Street lay in that part of London known as Mayfair, home to the fashionable, the titled, the wealthy, and the powerful. There'd been no official announcement yet of his lordship's death, but word of ghastly murders always managed to spread quickly. A dozen or more murmuring gawkers had already gathered in the normally quiet street. Soon there would be more. Many more.
"No answer yet from Brook Street?" said Lovejoy, his gaze on the growing crowd below.
"Not yet, sir."
Lovejoy had already set half a dozen of his constables to searching the house and interviewing the dead man's servants. But he was waiting for someone else, someone to whom he had sent word as soon as news of Ashworth's death reached Bow Street: Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, only surviving son and heir of the Earl of Hendon. There'd been a time not so long ago when Devlin had been on the run for a murder he didn't commit, with Lovejoy determined to bring him in. But in the years since then, an unusual friendship had developed between the two men, an affinity based on profound mutual respect and a shared determination to see murderers brought to justice.
Yet that was not Lovejoy's sole reason for involving Devlin. For just seven months ago, the dissolute, dangerous man now lying dead in that blood-soaked bed had married Lord Devlin's beautiful young niece, Stephanie.
"Reckon 'e's really dead?" asked the boy in a tight voice as Sebastian guided his curricle and pair through the crowd gathered in front of Lord Ashworth's Curzon Street house. "I mean, really, really dead?"
Sebastian glanced back at the sharp-featured young groom, or tiger, who clung to the perch at the rear of the curricle. "There doesn't seem to be any doubt."
Tom nodded, his eyes haunted by a dark, painful memory. "I hope so."
Sebastian drew in close to the kerb. But for a moment he paused, his gaze on the boy's tense, troubled face. Ashworth hadn't been directly involved in the hours-long nightmare the boy had endured last September, but the nobleman's complicity was as significant as it was impossible to prove. "Are you all right, lad?"
Sebastian nodded, taking the boy at his word. "Walk them if I'm too long."
Tom scrambled forward to take the reins. "Aye, gov'nor."
Dropping to the pavement, Sebastian let his gaze drift over the town house's classical facade. The last time he'd been here, seven months before, there'd been subtle signs of neglect-the area steps unswept, the paint on the entrance door dull and peeling. Now, as one of the constables stationed to keep back the crowd leapt to open the door for him, Sebastian noted the gleaming fresh black paint, the newly repaired iron railing. Lord Ashworth's financial situation had obviously improved considerably since his marriage. But then, thought Sebastian as he followed a second constable up the town house's elegant staircase, that was precisely why Ashworth had finally agreed to wed and beget an heir-because his father, the Marquis of Lindley, had cut off his son's generous allowance and refused to reinstate it until he did.
Sir Henry Lovejoy was waiting for Sebastian at the top of the stairs, his habitually grave face even more somber than usual. "My apologies for sending such news with one of the lads rather than coming myself," he said with a bow.
"Understandable," said Sebastian as the two men turned toward the large chamber at the front of the house. From somewhere in the distance came the wail of a woman crying hysterically. "There's no doubt it's murder?"
"None at all, I'm afraid." Lovejoy stood back to allow him to enter the room first. "Look."
"Good God." Sebastian's step faltered on the threshold as he took in the gore-splattered bed and the naked, spread-eagled man who lay within it. The cloying smell of blood and death hung heavy in the air. "Who found him?"
"Two housemaids, shortly after ten this morning. The younger of the two-Alice, I believe is her name-has been weeping uncontrollably ever since."
"I'm surprised they're not both in hysterics after seeing this." Going to stand beside the bed, Sebastian let his gaze travel over the pallid, blood-streaked corpse of his niece's debauched husband. He'd been a good-looking man, Anthony Ledger, with even, sensuous features enhanced rather than marred by a thin scar high on one cheek. His eyes were a light gray, his honey-colored hair artfully disheveled. Like Sebastian, he'd been in his early thirties. A dedicated sportsman, he was tall and well toned, his shoulders broad, his abdomen hard.
His chest was a pulpy, ravaged horror.
As a cavalry officer for six long years, Sebastian had seen more men die-most of them horribly-than he could remember. Yet it didn't seem to make any difference; he typically still found the sight of sudden, violent death profoundly disturbing. Any man's death diminishes me, John Donne had written, because I am involved in mankind. But as he stared down at what was left of Anthony Ledger, Sebastian felt only relief.
Relief, and a vague, niggling fear he hoped desperately was misplaced.
"Lovely," said Sebastian, his eyes narrowing as he studied the multiple gaping wounds. Whoever killed Ashworth had struck him in the chest with a sharp blade over and over again, so many times that it was nearly impossible to distinguish one blow from the next. "What did the killer use? An ax?"
"It looks that way, doesn't it? We haven't found anything that might be the murder weapon yet, although my men are still searching the house. Perhaps an autopsy will give us a better idea of what we're looking for. I've sent for a shell to have the body transported to Paul Gibson."
"Good," said Sebastian. No one could read the secrets a murder victim had to tell better than the former army surgeon.
Lovejoy cleared his throat uncomfortably. "I am informed by his lordship's staff that your niece, Lady Ashworth, does not reside here."
"No, she doesn't," said Sebastian, his gaze drifting to where the dead man's boots, finely tailored coat, cravat, shirt, doeskin breeches, and small clothes lay strewn from the door to the bed as if they'd been stripped off in the frenzied heat of passion. "The house was in such a state of disrepair at the time of their marriage that Ashworth suggested she stay with his father and maiden aunt at Lindley House in Park Lane while the place was being refurbished."
Lovejoy cleared his throat again. "She's with child, yes?"
"She was. She was safely delivered of twin boys early last month."
"Ah," said Lovejoy, who could do sums as well as the next man. "It's certainly understandable that she should be reluctant to relocate at such a time."
Sebastian suspected that wasn't her only reason, but all he said was "What have you learned from Ashcroft's servants?"
"Not as much as we'd hoped, I'm afraid. It seems it was not unusual for his lordship to, er, entertain females in the evening. On such occasions, the servants would retire early, with only his lordship's valet-a gentleman's gentleman by the name of Edward Digby-waiting up to see to his needs."
"And what does Digby have to say about last night?"
"Unfortunately, we've been unable to locate the man."
Sebastian had crouched down to study the splotches of blood on the carpet beside the bed, but at that he looked up. "Perhaps he's our killer. What do you know of him?"
"I gather he's not precisely well liked by the other members of the staff. But no one seems to believe him capable of"-Lovejoy paused as if searching for the right word-"this."
"People can reach a breaking point and snap," said Sebastian. "Particularly when they work for a man as vicious as Ashworth."
Pushing to his feet, Sebastian squinted up at the blood-splattered silk-lined tester that arched over the bed. "Jesus," he said softly. "Whoever did this must have been covered in blood."
Lovejoy nodded. "There's blood on the inside handle of the bedroom door and another streak smeared along its frame. I'm told there was also blood downstairs on the door to the street, but one of the housemaids unfortunately washed it off before the body was discovered."
Sebastian nodded toward the pale-figured carpet. "Interesting there are no bloody footprints leading back to the door. How the devil do you hack a man to death and keep from tracking his blood all over the place?"
A gleam of white peeking out from beneath the bed caught his eye, and he reached to pick up what turned out to be a woman's white silk stocking, gossamer fine and quite new. He held it up to the morning light streaming in the window. "Any idea as to the identity of the woman Ashworth was entertaining last night?"
Reading Group Guide
Who Slays the Wicked
Questions for Discussion
1. What do Sebastian St. Cyr’s background as a cavalry captain and his friendship with Irish surgeon Paul Gibson tell us about the Viscount?
2. Sebastian’s hunt for Ashworth’s killer takes place against the background of the ending of the Napoléonic Wars and the Allied Sovereigns’ visit to London. How do these historical events play a part in the story?
3. What do the hardships faced by the Earl’s granddaughter Stephanie, the shopkeeper’s assistant Giselle Blanchette, child prostitute Sissy Jordan, and housemaid Jenny Crutcher tell us about the legal position of women in early nineteenth-century Britain?
4. Who Slays the Wicked reveals fascinating details about the behind-the-scenes workings of Regency London’s sanitation. Discuss.
5. Young Welsh architect Russell Firth is a brilliant but lowborn man trying to get ahead in Regency Britain. What does his life—and the challenges he faces—tell us about the times? About the character?
6. Nineteenth-century shopkeepers and tradesmen like Lawrence McCay had little hope of redress when cheated by wealthy, powerful men like Lord Ashworth. How have things changed? How are things still the same?
7. The title of this book, Who Slays the Wicked, comes from a biblical verse. How does it resonate with the killing of Lord Ashworth? Why do you think the author chose it?
8. Sebastian’s nemesis Charles, Lord Jarvis, is the King’s ruthless, powerful cousin and Hero’s father. How does that impact Sebastian’s quest to catch this killer?
9. Many people in this book are hiding dangerous secrets. How do their secrets—and their reasons for keeping them—differ? How are they the same?
10. The opulent lifestyles of wealthy royals and aristocrats such as the Prince Regent and the Marquis of Lindley stand in stark contrast to the wretched poverty of crossing sweeps Waldo Jones and Ben King, child prostitute Sissy Jordan, and pure finder Gussie Spilsby. Discuss.
11. Who do you think killed Sir Felix Paige? Why?