[Excerpt] THE BURIED LIFE by Carrie Patel (+ Exclusive Preview of John Coulthart’s CITIES & THRONES Cover Art)
Hot off the heels of the exclusive cover reveal (and giveaway) of Carrie Patel’s The Buried Life comes this excerpt of the book.
To set the mood, here’s the book description, which will be available from Angry Robot in July:
The gaslight and shadows of the underground city of Recoletta hide secrets and lies. When Inspector Liesl Malone investigates the murder of a renowned historian, she finds herself stonewalled by the all-powerful Directorate of Preservation – Ricoletta’s top-secret historical research facility.
When a second high-profile murder threatens the very fabric of city society, Malone and her rookie partner Rafe Sundar must tread carefully, lest they fall victim to not only the criminals they seek, but the government which purports to protect them. Knowledge is power, and power must be preserved at all costs…
The Inspector and the Laundress
The smugglers fled to the surface. Sooner or later, they always did. An underground city only offered so many places to run.
Liesl Malone’s feet pounded a rapid tattoo on the cobblestones, an up-tempo echo of the two sets of footsteps half a block ahead. The smugglers had been faster at the start of the chase, but now they were tiring. And, from the sounds of their clipped grunts and curses, panicking.
Malone’s long breaths filled her with the odors of soot, sweat, and desperation. She hadn’t wanted to move before next month’s clandestine cordite shipment, but the smugglers had recognized her. Someone had tipped them off. If they got away, the contacts she’d spent months grooming wouldn’t just be useless, they’d be dead.
The chase had started in the subterranean labyrinths of the city’s factory districts, where torch smoke choked the tunnels and obscured the murals and carvings left by thief gangs, rowdy youths, and immigrant factions. The factory districts bred criminals the same way sewers bred rats, and she’d spotted the smugglers in a knot around a jewelry fence’s stall. She could just see the whites of their eyes in the flickering torchlight as they squeezed between laborers from the nearby rubber mill. But when a murmur rippled through the crowd about the ghost-pale woman in the black overcoat, the smugglers had noticed her and bolted.
Unfortunately for these two, Malone’s feet were just as sure in the tumbling, jagged passages as theirs were, and her sharp elbows parted crowds as quickly as their girth. The smugglers had drawn their weapons, but she knew they wouldn’t dare fire. Most of the passages in the factory districts were as tight as they were twisted, leaving little open ground for a clear shot. Only the most desperate of fugitives would open fire in the melting pot of gangs and ruffians there. Even the lowest newcomers made allies, and everyone had a long memory.
Above the crowded tunnels and warrens of the underground city, the moonlight and shadows must have promised concealment, and the midnight chill must have tasted like escape. For whatever reason, a fugitive on the last leg of flight almost always made for the surface the way a wounded rabbit crawls to the bushes to die.
And now Malone pursued them through the stone forest of verandas, entrances great and small to the city below. These crumbling shacks listed toward one another, throwing sweeps of ancient brick and concrete into the street. The ones that still stood in this part of the city were especially small, barely big enough for three or four people to stand in. She would not have trusted the rusting chain-winch lifts and staircases within most of them for a seat on Recoletta’s ruling council.
Just ahead, one of the smugglers stumbled and nearly tripped on the cracked cobblestones. Deep trenches from years of carriage and wagon travel gouged the streets in this neighborhood. The air stank with factory smoke, which billowed into the night sky from outlets above the mills and foundries. Malone hoped that a stray wind wouldn’t send the chemical-blackened fumes their way to add to the darkness.
Just ahead, the first smuggler dashed behind a sawtoothed brick wall. His redheaded partner wasn’t as nimble. He smashed into the opposite structure, his pistol clattering into a nest of rubble, before he pivoted and dashed away. She rounded the corner just in time to see him speed ahead. Malone tracked the smugglers’ flickering movements in the moonlight as they wove between half-standing walls.
Reaching a jumble of tumbledown construction that looked more like a ruin than a city block, the smugglers predictably split up. Malone followed the man who had dropped his gun as he peeled off to the right and into a rubble-strewn alley. The smuggler glanced over his shoulder long enough to see her and bent to pull something out of his boot as he loped ahead. She ducked into a scarred crevice between two walls before he could turn again.
She scaled the weathered sandstone building in front of her, digging her hands and boots into jagged pockmarks. She crouched atop it and watched the smuggler five feet below back further into the alley, his eyes scanning for the black-clad inspector. Her polished black boots made nary a sound as she squatted and side-stepped just over the smuggler’s head. He continued to squint into the alley, but when a bank of clouds slid away from the moon, Malone’s shadow appeared at his feet, and he stiffened.
As the smuggler whirled, derringer raised, Malone kicked a foot out and sent a spray of loose sandstone and grit into his face. He clawed at his eyes and fired high, and Malone slid from the veranda in a rain of debris to land behind him. He turned, blinking frantically as her foot sailed toward his outstretched arm and sent his gun spinning to the ground. He grasped at his hip with a shaking hand, drew a knife, and rushed at her.
She retreated to the end of the alley and into the cross-street behind it, hoping that he would notice her revolver and reconsider. He hurled the knife instead. As Malone dodged left, the knife wheeled past her elbow and a bullet whistled by her nose. She saw the other smuggler out of the corner of her eye and heard a click as he thumbed back the hammer on his revolver. A quick release of sweat cooled her scalp. Malone dove back into the alley, knocking the redhead off his feet. She drove her elbow into his stomach and rolled past him, kneeling between him and his fallen derringer as he gasped for air. She pocketed it while he struggled to his feet.
“Back out of the alley. Hands behind your head,” she said, making sure he saw the grinning “O” of her revolver’s muzzle.
He coughed, rising slowly. “He’ll shoot me.”
“So will I.” Malone pointed her gun at his right kneecap.
The smuggler’s face went white. “You can’t do that!”
“I never miss at this distance.”
“But I’m unarmed!”
Malone flicked her revolver at him. “Hands up. Slowly.” He took shuffling steps backwards, his lips working wordlessly and his face flushing in alternating shades of rage and panic. “You two must not be close,” she said.
The smuggler glanced up from his feet. “Anjoli thinks with his gun, that’s all.”
“He’s still armed. What’s that say about you?”
He glared at her. “Says I got other skills.”
“Like knife throwing?”
The smuggler’s nostrils flared and his jaw clenched, but it was the sudden flicker in his eyes that Malone was watching for. She spun, rolling to the side as a muzzle flashed at the other end of the alley. The redheaded smuggler howled behind her. Malone squeezed her trigger twice, and the figure standing thirty yards away collapsed. She turned back to her recent acquaintance on the ground, hunched over his thigh.
“I’m bleeding,” he said, looking up at her.
She tossed him a pair of handcuffs. “Use these.”
The man winced, taking a sharp breath through his teeth. “What are those supposed to do?”
“Keep me from using this,” Malone said, wagging her gun. She turned back into the alley, pointing her revolver into the dimness. At the other end, Anjoli slumped against a bank of fallen masonry, pawing for his fallen pistol with a mangled hand. Blood poured from two stumps on his right hand and onto the gun’s slickened grip. More pooled under his leg, painting the jagged paving stones a shiny black in the moonlight. Anjoli looked up at Malone with dull eyes and slid the blood-wet gun to her feet.
A shadow fell across the alley from the crooked avenue beyond Anjoli. “That was a problem built for two, Inspector Malone.”
She holstered her revolver and patted a derringer snuggled against her thigh. “I’ve got my own pair.”
Inspector Richards stepped over the rubble, circling around to Anjoli. He snapped a white handkerchief out of his pocket and grasped the smuggler’s hand in it, examining the stumps. Anjoli groaned, and Richards left the bloodied rag in his hand. “Pinch it here and hold tight.” Richards straightened and turned back to Malone. “Surgical shot, Malone. Dare I ask the what-ifs?”
“When a contract is eight months old, one less smuggler is the least of our worries. If prisoner transport doesn’t show up soon, though…”
Richards glanced over his shoulder. “The welcome wagon’s a few blocks back. The driver doesn’t know what to do on the surface roads here, if you can call them that, and never mind the subterranean routes. Plenty of time to get these guys patched up and taken to the station.”
Malone buttoned her long black overcoat against the night air. “You got here fast.”
“You’re easy to find,” Richards said. “I just follow the gunfire. Or the curses. You have an effect on people.” Anjoli moaned again.
Malone leaned against the crumbling wall behind her. “Is that why you always show up after I’ve passed around the cuffs?”
Richards smiled, a glint of white in the moonlight. “Oh, leave it. I know you wouldn’t have it any other way. Besides, Recolettans need to know who keeps their city clean.”
She shrugged, looking back down the alley. The hunkered shadow at the other end raised his arms, showing her a pair of glimmering handcuffs.
Richards followed her gaze. “Is that the better half?” Malone nodded. “How’d you know?” he asked.
It was Malone’s turn to grin. “He told me.” The only reason that Anjoli would have come back for his partner was if he knew about their networks and safehouses. Anjoli would never be safe with his partner in the hands of the Municipal Police, which meant that the other man either had to escape with him or die. The redhead’s fear of his partner told Malone that he knew this, too.
A wooden carriage pulled up outside the alley with a clopping of hooves and the groan of wheels. Heavy bars crossed the narrow windows along the sides of the carriage, and the team inside traded muffled orders as they prepared to bind the smugglers’ wounds and load them up. “Since you’ve got it from here, I’ll walk back to the station,” Malone said. “I can finish my report in a few hours.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Richards turned back down the alley as four uniformed officers jogged from the carriage. “The chief has other plans for you,” he said, his voice lowered. She followed, silent. “Break-in at 421 East Eton. One casualty.” Malone met Richards’s gaze, not bothering to ask why her, and why now, after an all-night manhunt.
“Just outside the Vineyard,” he said. “Obviously, the chief wants you to take a look at this as quickly and quietly as possible. It could be nothing.” The edge in his voice suggested this was too much to hope for. Little crime occurred near the Vineyard, and for a good reason. It was home to the whitenails, the most powerful men and women in the city, and the only thing more formidable than their wealth was their mercenary sense of justice. Any criminal in that neighborhood would only hope for the Municipals to catch him first.
To Malone, the Vineyard was even worse than the factory districts. If something had gone wrong beneath those pristine marble verandas, it would in no way be a simple matter.
As if reading her thoughts, Richards looked down at the patterns his boots had scraped into the grit. “There’s something else,” he said. “The victim is named Cahill. He’s a historian. Was a historian.”
Malone stalked out of the alley, her coat swishing against her black slacks and knee-high boots. Within a quarter of an hour, she had left the factory districts for the straight, broad surface avenues that most Recolettans knew. As if aging in reverse, the crumbling ruins gave way to towering structures marking various residences and businesses, whole and austere and gleaming blue in the moonlight. It was a wonder they had been so carefully crafted, particularly when city-dwellers spent most of their time underground. Pressed against one another in the fashion of a crowded metropolis, the monuments took on the character of gruff, mustachioed old men, huddled together in their dress coats and frowning upon passersby.
Malone found a hansom cab at the corner and showed her inspector’s seal to the driver, giving him an address just beyond her destination. If discretion was imperative, it wouldn’t do to travel too close to the Vineyard in the wee hours with a chatty cabbie watching.
As the carriage clattered from the less impressive zones toward the Vineyard, the old men lining the cobbled streets evolved, growing in stature and spreading their arms over tiled avenues. Whether they opened their arms to welcome or to snatch depended entirely upon one’s relationship to them.
Recoletta, like all modern cities, had been constructed around the two values that society prized most: security and privacy. Even hundreds of years after the Catastrophe, people still lived underground. Crude shelters had developed into shining palaces and rudimentary tunnels into yawning halls lit by fire and mirrors. Ornate verandas declared the locations and the prestige of their owners in the flashiest manner affordable. Even the larger structures, some of which could easily house several families, never functioned as actual living or workspaces. The real business went on below, hidden from common scrutiny.
This observation became truer as one traveled from stone to marble.
The hansom came to a halt, and Malone walked half a dozen blocks further to a neighborhood seemingly hewn from fine, veined stone. She found herself alone in the surface streets, grateful that the neighbors were too wealthy to be out at this hour. Malone stopped in front of a tall, narrow building of jet-black with a single elevator cage inside. Whereas the neighboring edifices were polished to a sheen that flashed in the moonlight, the one in front of Malone was worn rough and mottled with lichen. Three steps led to a rusty black gate. It was bowed outward, she noticed, and shards of glass and metal trickled from the upper steps to the perfectly aligned cobblestones below.
Boots stomped in the street behind her with dull, crunchy thumps. She turned to the older man trudging toward her. He also wore Municipal black, but his coat was frayed at the edges and faded at his elbows and shoulders. Inspector Carlyle glowered up at her from beneath thick eyebrows.
“I was wondering when our ghost inspector would appear,” he said through sagging cheeks.
“Richards sent you,” Malone said. She wasn’t surprised that Richards had neglected to mention this.
“Over an hour ago. Someone had to keep an eye on things while you were running around.” He pushed a lantern into her hands.
Malone caught a whiff of whiskey sourness on his breath. “Smells like you had company.” Stepping over the debris, she lit the lantern and called the elevator to the main residence. Carlyle followed close behind. They squeezed into the elevator cage together, and his breath filled the space for the eleven seconds of their descent.
The elevator settled into the bottom of the shaft, presenting them with a wooden door still hanging ajar. Malone took a grateful breath of fresh air. Her pulse slowed ever so slightly as she stepped into the darkened entryway. Dust motes swirled in front of her lantern, and a faint illumination flickered further down the hall.
“You know, this would be a lot easier if you’d flip the gaslights on,” Carlyle said.
Malone kept her gaze trained down the hall. “Were they on when you showed up?”
He grumbled something indistinct.
Malone followed the winking light and a wine-colored carpet to a study, a musty affair of bookshelves and worn leather.
It was almost a relief to see the crime confined to one small room. Four books were massed near the door of the study in an assortment of positions, fanned pages folded beneath the weight of their covers. A lone candle resting on a desk in the far corner lit a crumpled corpse slumped next to one shelf and the pile of fallen books at its feet.
Carlyle stood in the doorway while Malone crossed the study.
The shivering light animated the broken body as if it were still struggling to live, and the man’s hand, still warm and limp, also suggested a tenuous grasp on life. Bending over the dead man, Malone could just make out the shadow of a bruise at the base of his skull.
“Messy old bastard,” Carlyle said. “I thought these fancy folk were supposed to be well kept.”
“Does he look like a whitenail to you?”
“Not much I can see without the damn lights.”
The deceased was fully dressed in stained and rumpled clothes that he must have worn for several days, unusual for a member of high society, though not for an eccentric workaholic.
The study yielded further evidence that the victim had been less of the former and more of the latter. The patterned wool rugs, though obviously expensive, were threadbare in places and compounded with dirt and spills that had never been cleaned. Some of the volumes lining the walls appeared to be falling apart, and a coating of dust blanketed everything but the books.
Carlyle sneezed. “This guy ever heard of a broom?”
“Looks like he was busy.”
“That’s what I’m here to find out.”
Malone hovered over the lit candle. By the substantial pool of warm wax at the base, she guessed it had burned all night. The lid had been removed from the inkpot, and the wet and balding quill lay discarded on the desk, which was otherwise clear. There was every appearance of serious business having taken place throughout the night, but no evidence of the finished product.
She pushed past Carlyle, ignoring his sigh when she finally flipped on the gaslights, and poked around the rest of the house. She might as well have searched in the dark for all the good it did her. A thorough survey of the rest of the house uncovered no other clues: no upturned furniture, no ransacked closets, and there was money and a few valuables left in plain sight.
Malone returned to the study and knelt by the victim. She pulled from his pocket a wallet that, like everything else he owned, appeared well used and ill cared for.
The doorjamb creaked as Carlyle leaned against it. “Any money left in there, Inspector?”
She found his credentials on coffee-stained cardstock that felt soft with age. Werner Thomas Cahill, seventy years old, Doctorate of History. As rare as they were, Malone had never met a historian, but with his disheveled attire and unkempt gray hair, Cahill looked much as she would have expected.
“Directorate of Preservation,” Malone said, reading from Cahill’s papers.
“Obviously. Who else can hire historians?”
“The Quadrivium.” Malone held up an ID card from Recoletta’s premier university.
Carlyle threw his hands up and turned halfway into the hall as if demonstrating his exasperation to an imaginary audience. “This guy was a couple of blocks from the richest quarter in the city, he worked at two of the top institutions, and yet he lived like a tradesman.”
Malone’s eyes flicked up to the shelves. “Not everyone likes pretty manners and parties.”
Carlyle shivered and tried to cover it by shoving his hands violently into his pockets. “Rich weirdos. You tell me what a history-reading geezer does like. More importantly, tell me when you’re done.” He marched back into the hall, and moments later couch springs sighed in the parlor.
For all of the luxuries Cahill lacked, he’d owned more than a few things that even the Vineyard dwellers would never have, and they all sat on his bookshelf. As she skimmed the spines of the books lining the room, her heart jumped. She raised her lantern and squinted at the shelves. Nestled among the ancient and modern fiction classics were a handful of titles concerned with history, or at least theories about it. Most historical records had been lost or destroyed in the period immediately following the Catastrophe. The Council restricted the serious study of antebellum history, and any archives and accounts were guarded within the vaults of the Directorate of Preservation.
Seeing history books on display sent Malone’s gut roiling. Cahill must have been important to have permission to keep history books at his home. Surely he had permission? Even as she wanted to hide the volumes, to push them deeper into the shelf, she caught her hand creeping toward them, her fingers itching. Perhaps, she thought, they might reveal something about Dr Cahill’s mysterious work. She considered this even as she listened for Carlyle’s return.
Malone stopped herself. Had these books been relevant to the crime, the assassin would have taken them, too. And if they weren’t relevant, then there was no professional reason for her to open them. Fingers tingling in midair, she dropped her hand and stepped back from the shelf. Even a scholar such as Dr Cahill would not keep history books of real danger in his home, and if he did, well, such matters were not among the concerns of the Municipal Police.
She let her gaze wander to the other books on the shelves. Beside and beneath their titles were familiar, reassuring words: Novel. The Collected Poetry of… Essays and Anecdotes. Short Stories. These were the kinds of books that appeared in schoolhouses, public libraries, and the salons of the cultured. Censorship didn’t feel as bad when you kept the sweetness and light. History and the darker vignettes, on the other hand, remained under the lock and key of trusted authority, like some virulent epidemic. Above all, such powers feared releasing into the air whatever secrets had nearly destroyed the world so many centuries ago.
Malone turned her back to the bookshelves. For all her searching, Cahill’s desk was still empty, and she had no way yet of knowing what had filled it a few hours before. Carlyle snored in the next room. It was nearly seven when she blew out the candle and returned to the parlor.
She coughed, and Carlyle jerked awake.
“What now?” he said.
“I go back to the station.”
“You wait here for the morgue cart.” Malone headed back to the elevator.
Sunlight barely reached the elevator shaft from the veranda’s tall windows above. As Malone stepped into the cage, she noticed a faint glimmer between her feet. She reached between the bars of the bottom grating and dug into a crumbling line of mortar in the stone flooring, retrieving a layer of grime and a small key just before the elevator began its ascent. As Malone turned the key between her fingers, her mind spun in quick, concentric circles.
Upon reaching the surface, she tested the key on the gate and found a match. Malone noticed for the second time that the inside of the building was clean, with all of the broken glass on the steps and the avenue just outside. She tucked the key into her pocket, reached her conclusion, and made her way to the station downtown.
Halfway across the city, in more modest quarters, warm, astringent water licked at Jane Lin’s elbows as she searched the washbasin. One black pearl button the size of her thumbnail; that was all she needed to save her job. Work with the whitenails would dry up if word got out that she was a butterfingers, or, worse, a thief.
A wool frock coat hung against the opposite wall, its empty buttonhole glaring back at her. She had steamed it to crisp perfection and spot-cleaned it with a toothbrush, yet this somehow made the button’s absence even more conspicuous. Now, as she picked through the linen garments in the basin with exaggerated delicacy, trying to find a small, dark button amidst the soapsuds felt like trying to find a thimble on a crowded railcar. Assuming it was there at all.
A knock at the door brought her to her feet with a swift, startled jump. Wiping her hands on the front of her skirt like a kitchen thief, she unlatched the door for a dour, balding man whose expression suggested that he had just caught a whiff of something awful.
“Mr Fredrick Anders?” he said, his eyes fixed on some point over her head.
“Jane Lin, actually,” she said, suddenly conscious of her damp, wrinkled skirt and the drooping bun into which she had tied her dark hair. She straightened, shifting to block his view of the coat hanging against the far wall. “Mr Anders lives one over. Number 2C.”
The impeccably dressed man twitched, appearing unaccustomed to anything like a rebuff. “Thank you,” he managed. Jane shut the door and turned back to the washbasin in the middle of the floor, where it sat ringed by puddles and suds. She began twirling the clothes inside with a pronged wooden dolly, finally accepting that the priceless button, wherever it might be, wasn’t in the basin.
About ninety seconds later came another knock, this one rapid and irregular. Before she could start toward the door, a tall, wiry man bounded in without preamble.
“Jane, what on earth are you doing? Haven’t you heard?” he said, breathless. “There’s been a murder!”
The way he said it, as if announcing a grotesque exhibit at a street fair, surprised her more than what he said. “A what?” The dolly’s wooden handle slipped from her fingers. “When, Freddie? And where?”
“Only last night,” he said, a little calmer, “just outside of the Vineyard.” His eyes twinkled as he waited for her reaction.
“That’s impossible. How…”
“No one knows yet, but trust me, you’ll be the first to know when I get word.”
Jane mopped a few stray locks away from her forehead. Leaning against the washbasin, the dolly suddenly looked sharp and sinister. “Do you know who died?”
“The Municipals aren’t saying much, but it looks like some shriveled government scholar was choked with his own mothballs.”
“That’s terrible, Freddie.” She frowned, pausing for decency before the necessary follow up. “Did you get the assignment?”
His buoyant expression fell, and he ruffled his sandy-brown hair with one hand. “Blocked again by Chiang, the editor with a vengeance.” He balled a wad of paper from his pocket and flicked it through an imaginary target and into the fireplace behind Jane. “Or maybe just out-bribed by Burgevich. But I will be covering the grand society ball next week! Take a look at this pair of shoe-shiners.” His green eyes sparkled again as he brandished two sheets of vellum adorned with flowing calligraphy.
“Sounds like one of your editors likes you.” Jane rubbed the smooth material between thumb and forefinger. “Hardly seems fair that those go to you, though. I’m in that part of town every day of the week.” Though short of a miracle, that would soon change.
Fredrick beamed again as Jane grabbed the dolly and returned to her wash. “One of the many perks of career journalism. That’s actually what I came by to tell you.” He rolled the sheets and tucked them back into his coat. “That, and to invite you along, of course.”
Jane stopped mid-press, her fingers tight around the handle. “That’s very kind,” she said.
Fredrick laughed. “You know me, I’m not doing it to be kind. I can’t suffer through all those speeches on my own.” He watched her slow, methodical strokes in the basin. “Don’t tell me you already have plans.”
She stared into the filmy water. “Of course not.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll clean up fine in whatever you put together.”
Jane straightened her back and rested a hand on her hip. “Freddie, I fix clothes for a living. That’s the least of my worries.”
“Then whatever the hell is it?” Freddie had circled around her and now stood just a few feet from the damaged frock coat.
Jane’s eyes flicked from the coat to Freddie. “No offense, but you. My clients will be there. And I’ll be there with you, a reporter. I don’t want to give any of them the wrong idea.” It was true, and it was easier to explain than the missing pearl. The last thing she wanted right now was to add Fredrick’s hysteria to her own worries.
Fredrick rocked forward and threw his head back. “Oh, Jane, you and your precious reputation.”
“And my precious commissions.”
Fredrick held up his hands, but his voice carried the tone of an argument already won. “Look, no snooping at the party. Just straight reporting. Besides, most of your clients don’t even know what you look like. Unless all the Vineyard housemaids are there, your good name and your good jobs will be fine.”
Jane looked down at the linens, unwilling to refute him. “It would be nice to visit the Vineyard without my laundry cart.”
“Not to mention without looking like a servant.”
“I’m not a servant,” she said in a quick monotone. Not yet, anyway. “But I’d like to see whitenails at one of their fancy parties, with all their coattails and ball gowns and gentility.” Washing fine clothes for Recoletta’s upper crust engendered the desire to see people actually wear them.
“They’re not half so endearing as you seem to think,” he said, “and they’re twice as dangerous.”
“I’m sure they’re dangerous to someone who makes a living off their secrets.” Her eyebrows flicked upward as she gave him a skeptical grin. “But I’m a little more discreet. Not to mention charming. What’s the occasion, anyway?”
“A delegation from South Haven is coming by train next week, no doubt to arm-wrestle over farming communes. Naturally, no expenses will be spared.” He spread his hands in the air, framing an imaginary canvas. “Brummell Hall, in the heart of the Vineyard, with a sumptuous spread of prime rib, shrimp the length of my finger, pastries light as clouds, and velvet-smooth wines.” His eyes took on a wistful glaze.
“This is a celebration in their honor?”
“On the surface, yes. Making an impression, that’s what these affairs are really about. The Vineyard is known for its sour grapes.”
A kettle filled with a starch mixture whistled from the stove, and Jane went to remove it. “Well, you haven’t handed back your invitation. I’m sure it’ll be fun, even for a jaded old grouch like you.” Though Fredrick was barely in his mid-thirties, he was still a full decade older than Jane and ripe for teasing.
“Let’s get one stiff cocktail in you and we’ll see who’s laughing. But not to worry, I couldn’t ruin this for you if I tried.” Jane winced inwardly, reflecting that Freddie wouldn’t have to try at all if the missing pearl button led to a falling out with her clients.
He glanced at his wristwatch. “I really should get to the office. The paper has to pay me for some kind of work, after all. Ta, Jane.” With an exaggerated bow, he backed out of the door.
Alone again, Jane surveyed her den, lined with piles of clothes. With the quiet years she had worked to build a hopeful life here, it left a sluggish ball of dread in her stomach to imagine that it could all disappear after one day’s mistake. She was in the habit of glancing through her commissions upon receipt, but she’d been in a hurry when Director Fitzhugh’s housekeeper had shoved the bundle into her arms. Now it was impossible to say, and impossible to prove, whether the button had disappeared in her care or before. And it was equally pointless to wonder whether this was an unfortunate accident, an act of sabotage by a housekeeper who’d always stared at Jane’s scuffed shoes a little too pointedly, or a convenient mishap arranged by an employer looking for an excuse to hire someone else. One heard of such incidents from time to time.
As plain as it was, Jane’s apartment was a private haven. She had a bedroom to herself, a small workroom for her tailoring, and space enough to entertain her friends. She knew every nook and cranny and had swept every corner thrice, and the button wasn’t here. The question was, should she confess the problem to Mr Fitzhugh and hope for mercy or try to find a replacement at the market? Not real pearl, certainly, but a near enough approximation?
The question dissolved when Jane recalled a childhood in halls of peeling paint and mildew and nights in crowded, flu-ridden bunks, when she remembered that she lived not half a mile away from the swarming slums and noxious air of the factory districts. She set off for the market. She would save sympathy for a last resort.
As promised, here’s the awesome John Coulthart cover art…both volumes side-by-side. (Well…top by bottom.)
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