Book Detail

Chapter 1

London

October 1820

New arrivals were always a source of interest at the Chat Gris. Men were a source of potential revenue. Certainly to the women who worked the rooms above the common room, but also to men and women who played games of dice and cards at the cracked tables or lifted a purse, a watch, a snuffbox, or an embroidered handkerchief in the course of a game or while serving ale or gin or moving between the tables. Or upstairs in the rooms over the common room before or after—or even during—bedsport. New male guest were also potential rivals for the pickings on offer. Or for the women who worked the tavern. New female guests were less unlikely to come to the Chat Gris plump in the pocket, but they too might be rivals for the night’s pickings, whether those were purses or watches or other trifles to be lifted or gentlemen with money to spend to be enticed upstairs. So the women who worked the Chat Gris eyed female new arrivals with suspicion. And the men who frequented the tavern surveyed them with the interest posed by novelty.

When a tall man in an olive drab greatcoat that could keep most of the denizens of the Chat Gris in funds for weeks came through the door, shaking raindrops from his beaver hat and the four capes on his coat, he drew a gazes from all round the common room. He made his way to a table in the center of the room, set down the hat, and shrugged out of the coat to reveal the high shirt points, padded shoulders, and nipped in waist affected by a dandy. They all knew the type. Sort who fancied himself daring for drinking a pint of ale in St. Giles. The  newcomer with the high shirt points ordered an ale and joined a game of cards, then laughed when he lost heavily. Several women sidled up to him but he showed no interest, though one helped herself to his purse. He also showed no interest in three women, also new to the Chat Gris, who arrived not long after. Despite the fact that they were a striking trio—one dark, one with guinea gold ringlets, one a redhead. Their sarcenet and lustring gowns had once been fine but any of the discerning women in the tavern could recognize hems that had been turned and lace and ribbon that had been added to cover stains and wear. That and the low cut necks and spangled scarves said they came from a different world than the gentleman in the caped greatcoat, even if they were all new to the Chat Gris tonight.

The three women sauntered up to the bar and ordered gin. Then they separated and moved about the room with the air of those going to work, something nearly every other woman in the Chat Gris recognized well.  The red-headed woman attempted to catch the eye of the man with the greatcoat but had no more luck than the Chat Gris’s regulars. Then she fell into conversation with a man in a bottle green coat who was also new to the Chat Gris. Not long after they wandered upstairs, the man’s arm draped round her shoulders and his hand slipping between the green velvet ribbons on her bodice. The dark-haired woman cast a look of annoyance at her redheaded friend, who was having better luck than she was herself, then tossed down the last of her gin and ordered another. The blonde woman was bent over the man in the padded coat, who actually looked up and gave her a smile. Emboldened, the blonde woman dropped down on his lap. 

Five seconds later, the door opened to admit another man, taller than even than the man with the high shirtpoints, though he slouched more and his swagger said he was more at home in St. Giles. He cast a look about as though in search of something. His gaze lit on the blonde woman. He pushed his way between the tables, grabbed the blonde woman’s arm, and pulled her off High Shirt Points’s lap.

“Take your bloody hands off my woman.”

“Take your bloody hands off me.” The blonde woman wrenched away from the new arrival. “What do you think you’re doing, Will?”

“I should be asking you that, witch.”

“No offense meant.” High Shirt Points pushed his chair back. “I had no notion—“

“He doesn’t own me.” The blonde woman yanked her arm from the grip of the man she called Will.

“I’ve spent enough on you.” Will grabbed her again.

“That doesn’t give you rights.”

“Here now.” High Shirt Points pushed his chair back. “I believe the lady asked you to leave her alone.”

“Mind your own business.” Will dragged the blonde woman closer.

“Here now, Julie.” The dark-haired woman, who had been watching with apprehension, broke away from a stout man she’d been flirting with and ran over to the blonde woman. “You know what he’s like when you set him off.”

“He had no business following us,” Julie said.

“How the bloody hell else am I supposed to know what you’re doing?” Will jerked Julie into his arms. Julie pulled away from him and stumbled into the next table. When Will reached for her again, High Shirt Points stepped between them.

“Leave the lady alone, sir.”

“The lady is no lady, she’s a—“

High Shirt Points drew his fist back and aimed a blow at Will’s jaw. A surprisingly strong blow (“Must train at Jackson’s” someone murmured). Except he got his booted foot tangled in the legs of his chair and the folds of the greatcoat he’d flung over it. So he lurched into Will. Will drew his fist back to counter, but instead the two of them went down with the chair and greatcoat in a tangle of broken wood and torn wool.

“Now look what you’ve done,” the dark-haired woman said to Julie.

“Serves him right,” Julie declared, pulling her skirt out of the way to reveal silk stockings worked with clocks and cherry red satin ribbons tied round her ankles.

Will yelped.

“Oh, Will, are you hurt?“ Julie flung herself down beside him.

Will put a hand to his face. “That devil fair near broke my nose.”

“Poor darling.” Julie looked up at a High Shirt Points. “You beast.”

“See here, madam—“

“Oh, Will.” Julie now had his head in her lap. She bent down and kissed him.

High Shirt Points stared down at them. “I suppose all’s well—I say!” He clapped a hand to the side of his closely tailored coat. “My purse is gone.”

“Don’t look at me.” Julie was smoothing Will’s hair, gaze locked on Will’s own.

“Julie.” The dark-haired woman caught her arm. “Let’s out of here.”

“Not before—“

“Hunh—“ Will sat up and shook his head. “Did you accuse my woman of stealing?”

“No. That is—“ High Shirt Points straightened his padded shoulders. “My purse is gone. And I had it when she sat down.”

“Don’t remind me that you were pawing her.” Will scrambled to his feet.

“I was not—“

The dark-haired woman tugged Julie to her feet and pulled her towards the door.

“Here now.” High Shirt Points grabbed Julie’s pink satin sash. “Don’t start running off.”

“Take your bloody hands off her.” Will lunged at High Shirt Points. High Shirt Points blocked the blow and struck back. They lurched into the table, upending High Shirt Points’s tankard of ale. The dark-haired woman dragged Julie through the crowd of interested onlookers. Julie’s skirt caught on a splintery chair leg and tore. The dark-haired women pushed open the door, and pulled Julie into the street. High Shirt Points lurched after them. Will grabbed him and the two of them tumbled out into the street after the women, grappling as they went, to the accompaniment of shouts and calls of encouragement from the onlookers.

Someone threw a tankard after them and someone else slammed the door shut on the wind and rain and mêlée.

Malcolm Rannoch cursed the tight fitting coat of his costume as he stumbled into the street. He aimed another blow at Harry Davenport, the supposed Will. Several stitches gave way in his coat, which made it easier to move. Harry hit him back as they both staggered in the mud. Mélanie and Julien had already run down the alley at the side of the Chat Gris. Malcolm pushed himself up on one hand before he could collapse in the mud, and lurched to his feet. He and Harry stumbled into the alley after Mélanie and Julien.        

The alley was darker than the street, the ground squishy with rotted food from the Chat Gris kitchen and most likely worse. Julien paused below a window, the skirt of his filmy pink gown held up, and gave an owl call good enough to have fooled Malcolm had he not been watching. An answering call sounded and then the casement window above swung open and the candle within the room caught a gleam of tawny hair. A leg clad in a silk stocking and ribboned garter swung over the sill, and with almost no sound, Killy Mallinson let herself out the window, climbed down the upper story, and dropped down into Julien’s arms in a stir of green skirts and lacy petticoat.

“Good timing,” she said. “I’d just secured the papers and our target is out like a light. Everything go all right on your end?”

“As much like clockwork as an improvisation can.” Julien steadied her and put his hands on her shoulders.

“I think we put on a good enough show that no one was thinking about what you were doing upstairs,” Malcolm said.

“Thank you.” Kitty flashed a smile at him.

“Good to be back at work,” Julien said. “Though I’m rather sorry I didn’t get to play your part, Kitkat.”

Kitty’s grin flashed in the moonlight. She touched her fingers to Julien’s blonde hair piece. “There’s a limit to how far you could have carried the masquerade, darling, however good you are at it. And no, I didn’t have to go particularly far with him before the drug took affect.”

Julien grinned. “I didn’t ask.”

“Your husband kissed me.” Harry was stripping off his side whiskers, which were coming loose in the rain. “Quite convincingly.”

“I should hope it was convincing.” Julien pushed his blonde ringlets back from his face. “I try not to do things that aren’t convincing on a mission. Hopefully that report will throw off anyone who happened to be there or who hears about it later and remotely guesses it might have been us. My apologies to Cordelia.”

“Oh, Cordy won’t mind that.” Harry stowed the whiskers in his pocket. “I don’t think she’s quite forgiven all of us for going off without her, though she claims to understand if was risky for someone not trained to fight.”

“Speaking of which we should get home,” Malcolm said. “Before Cordy and Laura lose patience. And before we run more risks.” He looked at his own wife, who was grinning with the excitement of a successful mission. Which he admitted he couldn’t but share himself. He reached for her hand. Just as three men rushed down the alley.

Harry, who was closest, knocked one to the ground first. Another rushed at Malcolm. A glancing blow to the shoulder knocked Malcolm backwards. He stumbled, then used the force of his weight to throw the attacker off balance. A third man screamed as Mélanie tossed the contents of her scent bottle in his eyes.

Malcolm glanced over his shoulder and saw that a fourth man was holding Kitty at the opposite end of the alley, a knife to her throat. Julien had gone still. Kitty fell back as though in a faint, knocked her attacker backwards and twisted away. Julien grabbed the man and forced his knife hand away. The man screamed and the knife went flying. Julien twisted the man’s arm behind his back and forced him to his knees. “Who sent you?”

Kitty snatched up the knife and tossed it to Julien. “Who sent you?” he repeated, the knife now at the man’s throat.

The man made a hoarse sound. The man Malcolm had been fighting broke away and darted down the alley towards Julien and Kitty. The man Julien held slumped to the ground, a knife protruding from his chest.

The other attackers scattered. Julien dropped down beside the man who had attacked Kitty and gave a curt nod. “Gone. Damnation. I should have seen that coming. I’m getting rusty.” He pushed himself to his feet and touched Kitty’s arm. “You all right, Kitkat?”

“Just wounded pride because he got a jump on me.”

Harry looked down at the dead man now spilling blood onto the grimy cobblestones. “Rather proving the point about needing a team versed in fighting tonight. But why the devil—“

“Explanations at home,” Mélanie said.

Julien looked down at the dead man, brows drawn, eyes glassy.

“We can’t move him,” Malcolm said. “Or alert anyone.”

“No.  I know that.” Julien seemed to shake himself. “Let’s get home.”

Chapter 2

It was far from the first time Mélanie Rannoch had returned to her husband’s beautiful Berkeley Square house—their beautiful Berkeley Square house, as Malcolm would be quick to say—with a rag tag group of allies. On more than one occasion they’d encountered the watch on their return. In fact tonight was so familiar, she had her story ready for the watch. On other occasions she or Malcolm or another of the group had been wounded. Tonight, they avoided the watch and none of them was seriously hurt, so they trudged up the steps to the fanlight and ionic portico merely wet and bedraggled.

She opened the door and ushered their friends into the entry hall just as Laura O’Roarke and Cordelia Davenport, Harry’s wife, came running out of the library. “Thank goodness” Cordy said. “We were starting to worry.” Then she went still, her gaze going from one of them to the other. Laura, who was just behind her, did the same.

Malcolm had a bruise beginning to form on his temple. Harry was caked with mud. Kitty’s dress was torn. They were all dripping water onto the black and white marble checkerboard of the floor. ut it was less their appearance that caused the reaction than what their faced betrayed, Mélanie suspected.

“No one’s hurt?” Laura asked.

“Just wounded pride,” Julien said.

“Come into the library and get warm,” Laura said. “I’ll make coffee and Cordy can pour whisky.”

Mélanie set her damp cloak in front of the fire and went to the kitchen to help Laura with the coffee. It was late enough that they had sent all the servants to bed, and they had all got accustomed to doing basic tasks on their own during their exile in Italy two years ago. Or re-accustomed in Mélanie’s case. She had certainly not grown up an aristocrat. Laura flashed a smile at her but said, “I won’t ask questions until you can tell Cordy too. I promise.”

Cordelia had supplied everyone with whisky by the time they brought the coffee to the library. Malcolm and Harry had scrubbed their faces. Julien had changed into a shirt and breeches though he still had traces of rouge and eye blacking. “I forgot how constricting a corset is,” he said, going to take the coffee tray from Mélanie.

“Why do think I avoid one myself whenever possible?” Mélanie said.

They settled round the fire to face the results of a mission that had seemed, as missions go, relatively straightforwards. Gisèle, Malcolm’s sister, who was undercover with the Elsinore League, a mysterious group dedicated to advancing their own interests, had reported that a League agent was buying papers from a contact the Chat Gris. They had gone to the Chat Gris with the aim of intercepting the sale.

“And it all went quite according to plan,” Kitty said, accepting a cup of coffee from Laura. “Well, as according to plan as these things ever do. The drug in his wine took affect right on schedule. I didn’t even have to prevaricate. Or go particularly far. And unlike when we tried to take the papers off George Dalton in June, I found the papers right away. He didn’t have dummy copies. He was still out cold when I got out the window. The others were all there.”

“After staging a quite nice little fight,” Harry said. “Malcolm still has an excellent right hook. Only then in the alley we encountered  a real fight.’

“The League?” Cordelia asked.

“I don’t see how they could have known we had the papers that quickly.” Malcolm was frowning into his whisky glass. He set it down and reached for his coffee cup. “Even if their agent went upstairs the moment Kitty dropped out the window and realized the papers were gone, there’s no way he—or she—could have alerted the men who attacked us.” 

“I was thinking the same thing,” Kitty said. “It looks as though someone else knew the papers were being exchanged tonight. And was trying to intercept them.”

“Just like your ball,” Cordelia said.

“Just like nearly everything involving the king and queen,” Mélanie said. The former prince regent, now George IV since his father’s death at the end of January, though he had not yet been crowned, was determined to divorce his long-estranged wife Caroline. The divorce trial was to take place in the House of Lords. The Tories, as the party in power, were firmly aligned with the king. The Whigs were backing the queen, at least in part because they hoped the defeat of the bill would cause a rift between them and the king and loosen the Tories’ grip on power. The queen’s lawyers, Henry Brougham and Thomas Denman, were aligned with the Radicals, like Malcolm and Julien, and the opinion of the masses was on the queen’s side. The jockeying for power and debates over the witnesses and evidence—much of it involving salacious details such as information about bedsheets—had been the talk of London for months. And the trial was just starting.

“What is in the papers?” Laura asked.

Kitty drew the packet of papers from the bodice of her gown and spread them on the sofa table. Chairs creaked and clothes rustled as everyone gathered round.

There were several sheets, written a in a flowing hand.

Italy was a surprise in many ways. I had thought to escape and recover my equilibrium in a gondola or beside the sea. But the autumn of 1817 was a tumultuous time. I hadn’t reckoned on the people from my past who would follow me there. Or on the new people I would meet. I’m not sure which was the more dramatic in retrospect, but Alexander Radford certainly had an indelible impact.

Multiple indrawn breaths showed they had all got to the name at the same time.

“Surely Nerezza didn’t write this?” Cordelia said.

“I doubt it,” Malcolm said, “though it does look like a woman’s hand. But I doubt Nerezza was the only woman the man known as Alexander Radford was entangled with during his time in Italy.”

Alexander Radford was the name or most likely the alias of the mysterious man trying to take control of the Elsinore League. Nerezza Russo had been involved with him in Naples and the League had tried to have her killed, though Malcolm and Mélanie and the others hadn’t understood why until they connected Alexander Radford to the League. He also seemed to have infiltrated negotiations in Italy with Malcolm and Kitty’s former spymaster Lord Carfax. His real identity seemed to be a matter of some secrecy.

“Now we know why the League wanted the papers,” Kitty said. “But who wrote this? Do any of you recognize the hand?” She looked at her husband, then at the others.

“No.” Julien glanced at Mélanie, at Malcolm, at Harry.

“It hardly proves anything,” Malcolm. “I wouldn’t recognize the hands of most agents I’ve worked closely with.”

“We don’t know this was written by an agent.” Cordelia glanced through the paper again. It sounds more like she’s a courtesan.”

“She could be both,” Kitty said. “But that hardly narrows the possbilities a great deal.” She looked at her husband again.

“Why are you looking at me?” Julien inquired.

“Because you’ve been the most active in those circles recently.”

“Which circles? Intelligence or—“

“Both,” Kitty said.

“I think you over rate me, sweetheart.”

“I doubt it.”

Julien looked down at the papers his wife had retrieved. “I wouldn’t recognize the hand of all sorts of people I’ve known even as intimately as my wife in inferring. But it is an interesting question. As is how Blayney came into possession of the letters.”

“I didn’t spend much time with him,” Kitty said, “but based on the time I did, he struck me as not at all in the league of the woman who penned those words.”

“There’s no obvious connection to the queen and king,” Laura said. “But it is Italy.”

“Quite,” Malcolm said. Princess Caroline, now the queen, had lived in  exile in Italy for some years and her relationship life there, and her relationship with her courier Bartolomeo Bergami, was at the heart of the case against her.

They scanned the papers, but there were few details and they left off abruptly.

“These were just a teaser,” Malcolm said. “Proof Blayney was offering the League’s agent that he had something legitimate to sell.”

“Which means we need to get the rest of the papers,” Harry said. “You didn’t find out where he lodges, did you, Kitty?”

She shook her head. “I went through his coat looking for more, but I didn’t find anything. But we should be able to make inquiries. It’s a simple trace.”

“We should show the papers to Nerezza,” Mélanie said. “I agree it’s unlikely she wrote them—the words don’t sound like her—but she may have an idea of who might have done.”

“Yes,” Mélanie said. “I wonder—“

She broke off as the sound of the front door bell reverberated through the house. She shot a quick glance the mantle clock, though she knew it was long past midnight. If Raoul, Laura’s husband and Malcolm’s father, had returned early from his trip, he’d have used his key.

Malcolm pushed himself away from the table. “I’ll see who it is. At least we’re all more or less presentable.” He glanced at his discarded, padded shoulder coat, shook his head, and went out into the hall in his shirtsleeves. Kitty snatched up the papers and tucked them back into her bodice. Harry and Julien got to their feet. Just in case it was an attack. In general their enemies didn’t ring the door bell. But stranger things had happened.

Voices sounded in the hall, Malcolm’s easy, then a few moments later he returned to the library accompanied by Jeremy Roth. Roth, a Bow Street runner, had worked with them on number of cases and was now a good friend and a frequent guest in their home. But he wasn’t in the habit of calling in the middle of the night. At least not for social reasons.

“I’m sorry to call so late.” Roth took off his damp greatcoat and laid it on the marble library table where it couldn’t make a water mark.

“You know we don’t retire early, Jeremy.” Mélanie poured a cup of coffee, black as she knew he took it, and carried it over to him. “And we’re entertaining friends as you can see.” She didn’t add explicitly that they’d been on a mission, but Roth would surely guess it. She was still wearing her spangled sarcenet gown and paste diamonds and Kitty was also still in her costume. Julien was back in a shirt and breeches but still had rouge and eye blacking on. Harry had pulled off his side whiskers but his hair was still darkened. Malcolm’s high shirt points still flopped about his neck.

“I know,” Malcolm said, moving back to the fire. “We’ve either been rehearsing a play or on a mission.. Without going into details, let me say Mel is still the only one of us employed at the Tavistock.”

Roth gave a faint smile, but his eyes were serious. “I was called to St. Giles this evening. To a tavern called the Chat Gris. Have you heard of it?”

“We don’t generally frequent taverns in St. Giles,” Malcolm said. “Except on missions.”

“Yes, I know.” Roth’s gaze swept the room. “A man was found knifed to death in the alley beside the Chat Gris. People remembered a fight in the tavern earlier in the evening involving two men fighting over a woman and another woman who seems to have been a friend of the first.” His gaze swept the room again, obviously taking in details without lingering on any of them. “But the dead man doesn’t sound like either of the men who were described.  A dandy in a padded coat and a man with side whiskers and a spotted neckcloth.” His gaze settled on Malcolm’s coat, thrown over the back of one of the Queen Anne chairs, and then on the spotted neckcloth now hanging loose round Harry’s throat.

“All right,” Malcolm said, “we were there. The fight was a set up to cause distraction. We fled into the alley where we were attacked. One of the attackers killed the dead man.”

Roth nodded. “To be honest I couldn’t connect you with the description I got. Well, not until I saw how you were dressed. I came because I can always use help in an investigation. Do you know why you were attacked?”

“Most likely to get the papers I’d retrieved,” Kitty said. “That was the reason for the distraction. I had just dropped down from an upstairs window when we were attacked.”

“You were upstairs at the Chat Gris?” Roth said.

“Retrieving the papers from another guest at the tavern,” Kitty said, as cooly as though she’d been talking about meeting someone to view paintings at Somerset House rather than essentially being in a brothel.

“Was he in the room when you left?” Roth’s voice was even, not shocked but intent.

“Sound asleep. Or more accurately drugged.”

“Do you know his name?”

“James Blayney. At least that’s the name we were given.”

Roth nodded, gaze still intent. “Sandy hair, mid-thirties, wearing a bottle green coat?”

“Yes.”  Kitty’s brows drew together. “Was he still at the Chat Gris when you got there?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Roth hesitated for a moment, as though choosing his words with care. “He’s actually the reason I was called there. In addition to the dead man in the alley, we found a sandy-haired gentleman in a bottle green coat dead in a room upstairs at the Chat Gris.”