Black Thumb Society: A Scribe’s House Mystery

Black Thumb Society: A Scribe’s House Mystery

Writers are such bores, aren’t they? Well, not all writers, certainly. Being one myself, I can’t say that all writers are bores, but a good number are. They’re usually the ones who take an age to write a few pages and when they do get published, win all sorts of awards and are lorded about at restaurants and theatres like prize horses. I, at least, produce work at a reasonable clip and don’t have to worry about saying something profound and philosophical. I get to say something interesting.

I write detective stories, in case you were wondering.

Now, of course, writing detective stories is nothing quite like being an actual detective. We get to skip over the hours of waiting in uncertain weather for our suspects to do something interesting. We also get to make certain that all the clues are in the right place, for our fictional detectives to find. We get to sit and figure out how everything fits together, without having to do much more than glance at the tide tables for reference.

(Of course, that can produce it’s own problems. I once had a reader write to me and tell me that the tides couldn’t possibly be how I had described, because of something about the weather and the moon and spring tides and whatnot. I responded with a polite letter saying I’d fix it next time I used the tides in my novels. I make it a point never to kill anyone the same way twice in my stories, so I don’t think that’s much of an issue.)

Some writers, though, think that being a writer of detective stories means that we can do just as well as any real detective.

I tried telling them that it isn’t true, but they wouldn’t listen to me.

They never listen to me.

Anyways, it was a Wednesday afternoon at the Scribe’s House. It was adjacent to a club, but since I’m a woman and the others are too… well, I don’t know the precise word, exactly… to put up with any of the normal club nonsense – like no talking – we went to the Scribe’s House instead. We had every comfort you could want: fireplaces in every room, a library of books, a kitchen complete with angry cook, a doorman who served as our butler and gentleman’s gentleman, and a general dogsbody for odd jobs that none of us could figure out how to do. You’d be surprised how many of us tried to do things we had no business doing. Like electrical work. (We had a whole week when the electrics went out, but honestly, that wasn’t Rome’s fault. Anyone else would have been electrocuted.)

Loads of writers practically live at the Scribe’s House. It requires a membership, but people are always bringing guests. And once a guest shows up, it’s difficult to throw them out. However, there are only four detective writers that attend there, on Wednesday afternoons: Rome Seville, Cassidy Jones, Dr. Howard Graustark, and myself. We call ourselves the Black Thumb Society…

“You can’t put that in a story, Marie darling,” Rome waved his pen at me. I was tempted to pluck it from his hands and throw it at him, but I didn’t. Some people have restraint.

“Why not? What’s wrong with talking about the decomposition of my body?” I snapped.

“People aren’t going to want to read about how seagulls and house cats eat the flesh from your bones. Or about the various small bugs that live in decaying flesh.” Rome sighed dramatically. He might have a point.

“Unenlightened people won’t read that, perhaps,” Graustark said slowly, sipping his tea. “But the intelligent populace, whom I assume you are trying to reach, Marie, they will take it as it is: a fact.”

“Oh, you and your facts!” Cassidy Jones threw his head back and leaned it against the leather club chair. “Readers don’t care whether you’re absolutely accurate. They just want to know that you care enough to get things mostly right. It’s the story that they want.”

“Pah, story,” Rome waved his pen again, splattering yet more ink on his already-stained trousers. “Readers want characters. The mystery is only a means of dealing with characters.”

“The mystery is the central piece of a mystery story,” Graustark quirked one perfectly sculpted eyebrow and scowled. “The characters only matter as much as they further the mystery. That is the intellectual exercise that readers are looking for.”

“Soup’s on!” The cooks’ call came through the woodwork, loud and clear. I swung my legs over the arm of the chair and stood, silently thanking the women that decided a pair of tweed trousers and a men’s smoking jacket was suitable attire for the working woman.

“Thank goodness.” I slid my arm through Cassidy Jones’ as he stood and directed him towards the door. Rome and Graustark wouldn’t keep arguing, not without the two of us as further fodder. “I’m starving. My gas is out, so I can’t do any proper cooking at my flat. And a girl can only go to so many restaurants in two days.”

“You poor dear,” Cassidy crooned. I elbowed him in the ribs, not really caring that it was completely unladylike. I had stopped pretending to be a lady when my first book did well enough for me to afford my flat without my parents’ help. My second book had rocketed me to relative financial success. Cassidy was a big hit in America, which is likely why he had such a ridiculous name. Someone had to write stories about detectives in the Wild West, and apparently, a born-and-bred Yorkshireman was the one to do it.

Sometimes, I don’t think we appreciate irony enough.

“If you are looking for a place for dinner, Marie, you can always accompany me to Figaro’s,” Graustark said, brushing his suit jacket for stray pieces of lint, even though he was immaculate. “I have a standing Wednesday reservation there, for after the theatre.”

“That’s really very kind, Howard dear. I wouldn’t want to interrupt your ritual, though. It’s such bad manners,” I replied. He mumbled something which I pretended not to hear and we strode into the dining area of Scribe’s House.

Because Scribe’s House fed a good number of writers, the dining area looked more like an undergraduate college than a proper club. There were long tables that lined the room, with a head table – if there were guests or speakers – and a few extra chairs sitting around. Wednesdays were fairly quiet, so tea was a quiet affair, with only us four and a poet who habitually took tea at the House.

We were served by a nervous girl who hadn’t quite gotten used to the ways of writers, despite having worked there for four years. “Well, Alice, what do you think? Would you rather read something that is scientifically accurate – if a little unsettling – or something that just glosses over the gory bits?” I asked, being impolite and propping my elbows on the table. Alice blinked and her hand shook a little as she poured tea into the cup in front of me.

“M-Miss?” Alice asked. I suppressed a sigh and served myself some of the cold-cut sandwiches while she poured for Cassidy.

“What Miss Leclerc means, Alice,” Rome smoothed over, using his not-quite-Italian charm to bring a flush to the maid’s face, “is that, if you read a detective story, would you want it to be as realistic as possible, or just sensational?”

“Oh!” Alice pulled the tea pot back a few inches, splattering a few drops on Graustark’s napkin. He straightened in shock, his mouth gaping like a fish. “Oh, I don’t think I would like it at all if it were realistic. I mean, then I’d be looking around every corner for a murderer, and knowing all the horrible things that could happen — no, no, I wouldn’t like that at all.”

“Well, that solves that,” I said, nodding towards Rome and Graustark with a smile.

“Alice, do you actually read detective stories?” Graustark dabbed at the drop of tea on the table before serving himself a sandwich and a cake.

“No, Dr. Graustark, sir,” Alice shook her head, her white cap loosening on her fair curls. Apparently fastening her cap was another thing she had yet to figure out. “They’re much too frightening for me.”

“And thus the question still stands,” Graustark nodded as Alice bobbed and went to go serve the poet. “Her answer is irrelevant, as she does not even read mysteries.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter much anyways. I’ll do exactly as my publisher and editor demand,” I put a firm end to the argument. These sorts of things could go on for weeks if you let them. Once, over Christmas, there was an argument about whether it was preferable to use a serrated knife or a straight dagger when stabbing someone. The experiments ruined the suckling pig; it appeared on the Christmas table with a disturbing number of holes in its hide.

Cassidy took up the cue and launched into a story about a letter one of his readers had sent via his publisher. Apparently, he had praised Cassidy to the point of being disconcerting, but it didn’t matter because the fan was in another country. His real location — and name — were kept quite secret from all possible admirers, critics and the like. It was something I had often wished I had done, but alas, it was too late. My name was well and truly out in the world. At least there were few people who recognised writers by face. I wasn’t that famous.

Tea was interrupted by our butler, Mr. Quimby. He walked in with his usual stately, slow stride, head held high and posture impeccable. His black suit was pressed and starched to perfection, the creases hardly moving despite the steps he took. His mouth was set in his typical disapproving tilt and his eyes were half lidded. The only thing that ruined his perfectly austere appearance were his eyebrows, which were full, wild, and a startling shade of yellow. Quimby glided over to where we four were sitting and, deferring to the highest social standing in the room, he bowed his head to Dr. Graustark.

“I do beg your pardon, sir,” Quimby drawled, the words rolling around in his mouth.

“What is it?” I asked, leaning forwards and almost putting my elbow in my sandwiches.

“A, hmm, body was found in the upstairs storage closet,” Quimby said in a low voice. “We believe it was Thomas Rottery, who is responsible for general maintenance here at Scribe’s House. Having no experience in bodies, it was thought best to consult, hmm, you.”

This last bit was directed specifically to Graustark, but all four of us detective writers sat up and looked around eagerly. Graustark sighed and folded his napkin neatly before putting it on the table and standing up.

“Well, we had better phone the police,” he said. “Then do an initial examination.”

“Very good, sir.” Quimby deferentially followed Graustark from the dining hall. Cassidy was faster in getting to his feet, but I beat him to the door. Rome, though, was the one who put our thoughts into vulgar — if accurate — words.

“A body, here?” he grinned. “It must be Christmas.”

I will admit to being nosey. I practically leaned over Graustark’s shoulder as he rang the police. He, dear man, didn’t push me away. Though, Rome and Cassidy — who were both standing very close as well — did receive annoyed looks.

“Dr. Howard Graustark here… Yes, calling from Scribe’s House… that’s right. Well, a dead body has been discovered in one of our upstairs storage cupboards… yes, it has been identified. A Mr— oh, very well. When might that be? Half-an-hour. Very good, thank you.” And he rang off, placing the receiver onto the cradle with quiet efficiency.

I hate being only on one side of a conversation.

“Well?” Rome asked, raising his brows.

“They are sending someone round. Should be here in half-an-hour,” Graustark said. As if we hadn’t figured that out. I grumbled and moved towards the stairs.

“Might as well have a look, then,” I called over my shoulder as I walked up.

“Be careful not to disturb the evidence!” Cassidy practically shouted, running up behind me.

“I have been writing detective stories for a goodly period of time,” I poked him in the ribs to keep him behind me. I wanted to be the first to see the body. (Truth be told, I had never actually seen a dead body. I had come by my knowledge from medical texts, a good deal of sensational readings from magazines, and a healthy dose of my fellow writers’ works. I had been waiting for a chance to be involved in an actual investigation for ages now.)

We reached the top of the stairs and everything went muffled. The thick carpets of Scribe’s House were picked especially for their plush, sound-dampening quality. It’s amazing how many writers demand absolute silence when working. It’s also amazing how loud writers can be when not working. I felt like I was creeping up on some child sneaking cakes when it was past her bedtime.

The storage cupboard door was standing slightly ajar, leaving enough of a gap for me to see that there was definitely someone in the room, lying over a collection of buckets and mops and other cleaning supplies. Well, I say lying, but what it really looked like was Thomas Rottery had stood near the window before staggering forwards, slipping sideways and falling on top of the buckets and mops and things. His arm was cast dramatically over his head and his legs were splayed on the floor.

“Are bodies meant to look so… vaudeville?” I asked, turning to Cassidy who stood beside me. He had his hands folded across his chest and was looking quizzically at the body, mouth gaping slightly.

“It does look as though he’s come out of a rather bad play, doesn’t he. You know, the ones where the detective has clues practically waved beneath his nose, along with every attractive woman in the show?” This delightful piece of dialogue came from Rome, who was peering over my shoulder.

“What do you think, Howard?” I stepped back so Graustark could have his chance at a look. None of us dared to actually open the door any farther, or poke our heads over the threshold. I think in all of our books, someone had been ribbed for ruining evidence at least twice. Graustark waited a beat until both Rome and Cassidy also stepped back before having his look.

“Hmm.”

That was helpful.

I stepped up to Graustark, having another look at the body. Frankly, it was more than obvious to me that the man was dead. There were no obvious contusions, no blood, no gaping wounds or signs of decomposition. If he hadn’t been dead, he could have been an actor just laying there for dramatic effect. But that essential, human thing was missing, leaving only a corpse in his place. Unfortunately for this corpse, his death left a comic impression. It was rather a strange feeling, looking at the dead body and wanting to laugh.

“I would say that the stiffening set in some time ago,” Graustark said, his voice clinically detached, as it was with many things. “See how his fingers are starting to go limp?”

“How long is some time ago?” I asked, craning my neck to see.

“It can depend. Perhaps twenty-four to thirty hours ago, depending on various things,” Graustark looked at me and blanched, realising, perhaps for the first time, what I was doing. “You really shouldn’t be looking at this, Marie! Or any of us. We should have let the police—”

“Please don’t try and protect my delicate female sensibilities,” I said drily. “After all, I do write murder stories for a living.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to suggest—”

“And we haven’t disturbed the body or the scene. All we’ve done is have a look to see if there were any overt causes of death. Maybe see if someone left a knife behind. That sort of thing.”

“We didn’t even touch the door,” Rome chimed in, Cassidy nodding eagerly at his side.

“I did not mean to imply that none of you could handle this sort of thing,” Graustark straightened up, his authority obvious. “It has been some time, yes, but I have worked with the dead before. I am aware of police procedure and—”

“Please spare us more police coroner stories.” Cassidy was the one to interrupt this time, the corners of his mouth pulling taught. “We all know that you spent the formative years of your career in the depths of the police morgue, dealing with suicides and murders and accidental deaths. We don’t need a reminder on how police procedure works.”

“Cassidy!” Now, I was usually the first to quietly dismiss Graustark when he got to be too pedantic, but there were lines of human decency that one had to maintain. And these writers often pushed those boundaries. (They called women catty. I have never seen women behave in quite the way writers behave to one another. There must be something about professional pride when you’re making up a good deal of what you write. Either that, or writers are just catty by nature. I do my best to stop it, but one can only play nursemaid for so long.) “Where would you be without Howard’s help on your last book, hmm? Now that we have a real body, there’s no need to be jealous.”

“Jealous?!” Cassidy spluttered, eyes bugging out at me. I lifted my chin and raised my eyebrows. He didn’t take the hint. “Why would I be jealous? I don’t need help to put my books together. If you want to take advantage of a man’s experience using whatever feminine wiles are at your disposal, that’s your prerogative. Leave me out of your fantasies.”

The temperature in the hallway seemed to drop suddenly. Graustark and Rome took subtle but firm steps away from Cassidy. Even Cassidy seemed to regret his words; his face became an ashy sort of grey. The men weren’t often dumb enough to bring up my being female in any sort of negative light. But it did happen occasionally. This was not a profession where women thrived, but I had clawed my way into a position of success. The rest of the world noted that with something akin to scorn or disdain. None of the Black Thumb Society was stupid enough to do that. Except, when they were.

“I’m sorry, Marie. I just —”

“Dr. Graustark? Dr. Howard Graustark?” The man who successfully diffused the situation — that is, he saved Cassidy before one of us killed him — was being trailed by two rather despondent looking uniformed policemen. The man was obviously a plainclothes detective, one who had earned his position by skill or favours. He was average looking in every respect except for the look in his eyes that said he’d rather seen too much. I would put him about fifty years of age.

Graustark turned and fixed the detective with a firm, uncompromising look. “Yes?” he asked slowly.

“Detective Yorrik Renfrew,” he held out his hand, which Graustark took with a look of disdain.

“Yorrik?” I couldn’t help my curiosity.

The detective gave me a long look before smiling and nodding, “My father had an unfortunate affection for Shakespeare.”

“Good answer,” I smiled in return.

“We received a call regarding a body…?” Detective Renfrew looked around the hallway. Rome pointed at the slightly ajar door to the storage cupboard.

“Thomas Rottery,” Graustark said. “The House’s maintenance man.”

The two constables went to work, carefully pushing the door open and taking dutiful documentation of the scene. I was torn; should I watch the scene documented or have further conversation with Detective Renfrew.

“Our coroner is on his way,” Renfrew said. “But I have heard of your previous career. I should like your opinion.”

“I left giving opinions to the police when I left my job as a police coroner,” Graustark said flatly. “I have neither the tools nor the qualifications to form an opinion.”

“Surely you can think of something. I’ve read your books.” Renfrew looked hopeful, but that was about the surest way to get Graustark to shut down. Dr. Howard Graustark was not one to give in to pleading, whining, stubborn persistence, wheedling, begging, questioning or hopeful looks. If you had the right to question him, you could do so. Otherwise, he would prefer you left him in peace.

Rome, on the other hand, was happy to oblige. “Well, we didn’t see any obvious signs of a struggle or death. Could be a heart attack. Accidental, perhaps.”

Renfrew, it seemed, was also very good at the disdainful look. “I have also heard of you and read your books. Rome Saville, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,” Rome threw out his hand with a cheeky smile. Cassidy shot him an alarmed look. Obviously Cassidy hadn’t recovered from his earlier brush with death. Wise man. “I’ve been studying police methodology for —”

“And you must be Cassidy Jones. I hear you do very well in America.”

“I-I try,” Cassidy gave a shaky smile and edged slightly away from the group.

Renfrew turned his attention back to me, smiling at me with more kindness and affection than his previous looks. “And you must be Marie Leclerc. I must say, it is a surprise to find you in this company. Dr. Graustark I can understand, but these others…”

I realised what he was doing seconds after I started answering. He was distracting us from the constables processing and securing the scene. Very clever, that one. Play on the egos of us writers. Get us to turn on one another, blush about our success. Meanwhile, the important things were happening behind us.

“They’re a good sort, if you can get to them after they’ve been fed. Besides, who else would let a women writer join their society?”

Cassidy winced.

“Ah, yes. The, what was it? Black Thumb Society?” Renfrew raised his brows and put his hands in his pockets. A casual stance. Firm.

“Comes from our mutual inability to grow anything or keep anything green alive. We figure it’s on account of our tendencies to spend many hours working with ink and libraries with little to no lighting at odd hours of the day. Black Thumb Society was far more appealing than Plant Murder Society. That and most of the other names weren’t allowed to be printed on the register,” I explained with a shrug. It was a true story. More or less.

“I see. Well, what can you tell me about this Thomas Rottery?” The question was no longer directed at one person, but at the group as a whole. As one, though, we all turned to Rome.

“Rottery was a good sort,” Rome nodded. “He didn’t mind fixing things at odd hours. He didn’t seem to have much of a home life. I think he lived here most of the time.”

“You had much contact with him?”

“Well,” Rome hunched his shoulders, going slightly red. “I have a, ah, notorious history with trying to fix things. I don’t break them, per say, but when I try to fix what’s already broken… it just…”

“Gets worse,” Graustark supplied.

“Right.”

“Did Rottery have any problems with anyone in the House?” Renfrew asked, as though he were just mildly curious, not actually interested. If I had been writing him, he would have dutifully been taking notes down. He was probably one of those people that just remembered everything.

“You would have to ask Quimby,” Cassidy said. “Rottery didn’t much talk with the writers. He said once that they were members and he wasn’t and shouldn’t be talking with us. I think Rome was probably the one he had the most contact with.”

“How many writers are members of Scribe’s House?” Renfrew glanced over his shoulder at the muttered grumblings of a constable.

“About seventy,” I said. “Quimby has a register of members. But there are guests coming in and out all the time. You’re asking questions like there’s been a murder. I didn’t see any obvious signs of violence, do you think that—”

“We just like to be thorough, Miss Leclerc,” Renfrew flashed one of those reassuring smiles that is meant to make people feel better, no matter the circumstances. It was a quintessentially British smile, one that tells you to go have a cup of tea and let other people do the worrying.

“Mhm,” I said, not believing him in the slightest. Maybe he was just buying time until the coroner arrived, maybe he was indeed covering his bases, maybe I’m just naturally suspicious. Before any of us could question the detective further, he pulled his hands from his pockets and nodded firmly.

“Well, if you will excuse me, I have to go supervise my constables,” Renfrew said. We replied with the requisite polite farewells and we were herded slowly towards the stairs. Renfrew watched us until we had started our descent.

“What do you think?” Rome asked.

“I think it’s awfully suspicious,” Cassidy said, some of his courage returning.

“We won’t know anything until the coroner does his examination,” Graustark did his best to end this area of speculation.

“Poor Thomas Rottery,” I mused. “Someone needs to figure out what happened to him.”

Graustark laughed drily, “And the police are not the ones to do that?”

“Of course not!” I waved my hand dismissively. “He worked and died in Scribe House. It’s only fair that the scribes investigate his death.”

Knowing Dr. Howard Graustark as I did — as did all the members of the Black Thumb Society — he was going to be protesting for a while yet. So, I led the march back to the dining hall where we were greeted by another round of hot tea. The poet had disappeared off to wherever poets go, meaning it was just the four of us, Alice, and Quimby.

“They will want to talk to you,” I said to Quimby, sipping at my tea. Scalding, just the way I like it. “You knew Rottery the best.”

“There is nothing much to say,” Quimby said in his stiff manner. I exchanged a glance with Rome. Quimby was acting stiffer than usual.

“Don’t worry,” I reached out and grabbed Quimby’s hand, giving it a squeeze. “We’re going to do everything we can to figure this out.”

“You’re investigating?” Quimby asked, not quite able to keep the disbelief from his voice. I guess years of training and practise at being formal couldn’t quite compare to dealing with a body and an investigation.

“Of course,” I smiled. Graustark opened his mouth to complain but I cut him off. “We won’t let the police muck this up.”

“That is a relief, Miss Leclerc,” Quimby nodded his head. I believed he was being sincere. Not because he was incapable of lying (there was this one time that a journalist tried to get into the house under the pretence of being a proper writer. Quimby lied through his teeth to say that we were closed for repairs, when there was a huge party with famous authors from all over the world going on). But because I don’t think even Quimby could be quite so sarcastic under stress. Not even Cassidy, Rome, or myself was that capable. I’m fairly certain Graustark could be sarcastic under any circumstances.

“You’re serious about this investigation,” Graustark said, drawing a hand over his jaw. I frowned, taking another sip of tea.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“This isn’t some sort of game,” Graustark replied flatly. “This is someone’s life — death — you would be meddling with. There are police procedures, laws to follow. Things you can and cannot do.”

“I’m not with the police,” I pointed out. Technically, then, my hands wouldn’t be tied quite so tightly.

“If this is murder,” Graustark continued, as though I hadn’t said a word, “then you could be getting into danger. Someone who doesn’t want you to find out what happened. Why it happened. How it happened.”

I set my tea cup down in its saucer and leaned back in my chair. Rome, sitting next to me, looked between Graustark and I with obvious interest. Cassidy was sitting there with his shoulders hunched, trying not to get involved. I suppose he had been attacked enough for one day. And he wasn’t going to feel the last of it, not if the glares Alice was giving him were any indication. I, though, focused my attention on Graustark.

He was, after all, the obvious obstacle standing in my way.

“I may be just a writer,” I started, “and a woman at that, but I am not a fool. I have done my research into how these things work. If I hadn’t, then my novels wouldn’t be quite as successful as they are. Not only that, but I have shadowed the police on a couple of occasions. Nothing like a murder, of course, but enough to ask them questions about how things work. Besides, I wouldn’t be doing this alone. The Black Thumb Society is investigating. Aren’t we?”

Rome nodded eagerly, “Absolutely. I know it’s a bit crude to use Rottery’s death to our advantage, but I would love to put some of my methods to practise. And I know that you’ve had experience with the whole thing, so you’ll be able to tell us what to do.”

“Rottery was one of us,” Cassidy mumbled. He shrugged. “Maybe not a writer, but he belonged to Scribe House. If we don’t take care of our own, who will? What good are we but for entertainment?”

Graustark sighed and sat back in his chair, looking up at the exposed rafters of the ceiling. “If we do this,” he ground out, “then you follow my lead. Do everything I tell you to do.”

“You’re the one with the experience, Howard,” I said in my best soothing voice. We had ruffled his feathers and I needed him to cooperate with us as much as possible. Or, rather, to let us cooperate with him as much as possible. “We’ll do what you say.”

He let out a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alright. Fine.”

I grinned and immediately felt bad. Rottery was dead and I shouldn’t have been so happy for it. “Where do we start?” I asked, trying to smooth my expression into a polite neutral. I’m not sure it worked, based on the equally infectious grins Rome and Cassidy were giving me.

“We start by determining whether or not it was actually a murder,” Graustark grumbled. “Which we can’t do until the police coroner makes his determination.”

“When will that be?” Rome asked.

“Sometime tomorrow. At the quickest,” Graustark replied. He nodded to the windows at the far side of the dining hall. “They’re taking the body away.”

I shot out of my chair, practically knocking the tea cup to the ground. “What?! I thought… I missed it!”

“They’ll take it away to be officially diagnosed, if the cause wasn’t easily seen. I doubt it was a heart attack. None of the signs,” Graustark followed me to the window, where we watched the stretcher with the white cloth covering Rottery’s form loaded into the back of the police van.

“You would not be wrong.” A quiet, accented voice had me turning around, my hand to my throat. A small man with a solemn expression blinked at me. He was thin, almost skeletal, but obviously young. Frankly, he looked like he should be the one being examined by the coroner, not the other way around.

“Dr. Kamińsky,” Graustark stepped forwards and extended his hand. “I’m surprised to see you here.”

“The position came to me after your successor left. Something about General Practise involving fewer bodies,” Kamińsky said, his face as expressionless as Graustark’s. The two were made for each other, I frowned. Solemn, quietly intelligent. With that unavoidable ability to ignore everyone else in the room when something interesting was happening.

“Indeed,” Graustark nodded.

“What do you mean about Rottery? It wasn’t a heart attack?” I asked, interrupting and not feeling a bit sorry about my rudeness.

“Please, let me introduce Marie Leclerc,” Graustark hovered a hand over the small of my back. “Miss Leclerc, this is Dr. Abel Kamińsky, the police coroner.”

“A pleasure,” Kamińsky said, bowing over my extended hand. “I take it you are also a writer?”

“I am,” I said. Curse these social niceties. The doctor nodded and turned his attention back to Graustark. “There was some blistering on the skin of his fingers. And it looks as though he died from an internal attack of some sort. Possibly due to ingestion of a poison. If it is a poison, though, I have never seen something quite like this.”

“Have the constables checked the cupboard for toxic substances?”

It was like I wasn’t there. I suppose I should have been grateful; most men wouldn’t dare talk about such things in front of a woman. It was a little annoying, though.

“They have. There seems to be nothing stronger than arsenic for rat poison. Detective Renfrew is ordering a search of the entire premises,” Kamińsky said. Graustark nodded slowly, like he was tasting a vintage wine.

“He’s calling it murder, then?” Graustark asked, a slight curl to his lip.

“Indeed,” Kamińsky replied, that same curl present. I wondered if it was a common thing in coroners, or just the fact that these two were so similar. “I do apologise, Howard. I know how much you hate this,” Kamińsky bowed his head slightly. He turned his attention to me, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Leclerc. So rarely does one in my profession get to have such a nice introduction.”

“You flatter me,” I nodded, that pleasant smile that all females know how to wear, in full force. The doctor let out a slow breath and turned to go, taking his coat and hat from Quimby as if it were the most natural thing in the world. There was silence while we waited for him to leave and then, it was like the world had stopped.

Murder.

An actual murder.

Rome was standing by our table, his eyes wide. Cassidy was still sitting, but he looked somewhat sick. I felt somewhat sick. This wasn’t just a heart attack that we could pretend to investigate for kicks. Someone had actually, vindictively, wanted Thomas Rottery dead. And now he was.

“Are you taking this seriously, now?” Graustark asked. The dining hall was empty and his words carried. Cassidy flinched and turned back to his tea. Rome wobbled where he stood. I just stood there, not looking at Graustark.

“I never did not take it seriously,” I replied evenly. Graustark sighed the sigh of the long-suffering and walked back to finish off the tea.

“Miss Leclerc, ma’am!” Alice came bursting into the room, eyes wide.

“Is everything alright, Alice?” I asked.

“They’re searching everything! The whole kitchens! The rubbish, the ice box, the—”

“It’s alright, Alice,” I said, trying to be gentle. “The police are looking for what killed Rottery.”

“What?!” the maid screeched. I looked to the others for help, but they just stood there, useless. Actually, Cassidy was useless, Rome was practically smirking and Graustark was his usual obstreperous self. Which left me to deal with the hysterical maid.

“It’s procedure, Alice,” I said, thinking about my dear fictional detective and what he would say. “They… they want to be sure they know where the toxin came from. And they don’t want anyone else to accidentally take some.”

“Tha… That’s horrible,” Alice covered her mouth with her hand and I nodded.

“But it would be worse if someone got hurt because the police didn’t do their job thoroughly,” I nodded encouragingly, hoping the girl would take the hint and go tell everyone in the back what was going on. Tell them to keep out of the way. Alice just nodded and stared vacantly at me, her mouth opening and closing like my cousin’s goldfish. She considered this option for a few moments before she spun on her heel and walked back to the kitchens.

“The information is going to be all over the House by tomorrow morning,” Rome said. I gaped at him, then felt my face grow red. Oops.

“Keeping everything quiet while still getting people to remain calm and answer your questions is a lot harder than I thought,” I muttered.

“You’ll figure it out,” Cassidy said quietly as I walked by. “You’re the most capable one here.”

“Stop trying to flatter me, Cassidy,” I grumbled. “You’re still in huge trouble.”

I marched out of the room and went to the front coat closet, where they stored the writers’ things — those that weren’t staying in a room for the night, that is. The others, naturally, followed. Quimby handed me my coat, his usually solemn expression even more so. “Detective Renfrew has asked that I meet him at the station tomorrow morning at ten.”

“We’ll be there,” I said.

“Miss Leclerc and I will be there,” Graustark corrected, taking his own coat from its hanger. Quimby looked shocked by the breach of protocol. Or the announcement of the halving of our society.

“I beg your pardon?” Cassidy spluttered.

“Five people showing up at the station would not go over well. You two should go talk to Thomas Rottery’s family,” Graustark ordered. Cassidy continued to splutter and this time it was Rome who went pale.

“Talk to the family?” I honestly don’t ever think I’ve heard Rome’s voice hit quite that pitch.

“Of course,” Graustark replied cooly, showing just the slightest hint of disdain. “The police will have already informed them of Rottery’s death. You will just be expressing sympathy from us at Scribe’s House. And if you happen to ask some discreet questions as to how Rottery spent his free time, whether or not he had any enemies, that sort of thing, well, the police can’t argue about that.”

Cassidy nodded and clapped Rome on the shoulder. “We’ll be there.”

“Hmm,” was all Graustark said. I sighed and shook my head, tightening the belt on my coat. We left the House together, unusually subdued. Rome peeled away first, likely heading to the closest pub for an early supper and a long night of libation. Cassidy went next, muttering a quiet farewell and slipping away.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” I told Graustark, debating whether I wanted to catch a cab back to my flat or walk there and clear my mind. The wind picked up, blowing a few leaves right into my legs.

“Are you sure you’re alright for dinner?”

“What?” I tried to remember when I had mentioned dinner in the last few hours. Right. My flat had no gas, which meant no cooking. “Oh, of course.”

“I can always change my reservation—”

“There’s no need, Howard,” I tried to muster up a smile. “I think I’ll have a quick bite to eat at the pub across the street from my flat. They serve a lovely pie and warm toddy. Then I have to get some writing done…”

“Death is a lot harder to deal with than most people expect,” Graustark said calmly. I stiffened.

“You read minds, now?” I snapped, harsher than I imagined. He just stood there. “What did Dr. Kamińsky mean when he said you hated this? Murder? Death? Is that why you left the police?”

“No,” Graustark shook his head. “My… my expertise in being a police coroner is in the area of poisons. When the police don’t have the expertise to determine cause of death due to a poisoning, they call on me.”

“Oh,” I blinked. Wanted to reach out a hand to him. Didn’t. “I’m sorry.”

“I left for a reason, but my business is still in death, so they expect me to be fine with coming back in.”

“Why did you leave?” I asked, perhaps too quietly.

“I will see you tomorrow morning, then, Marie.” Graustark pulled the collar of his coat up against the wind and stepped off the cobbled curb into the street, jogging between two automobiles and vanishing into the park across the way.

“Men,” I shook my head. “They like to be so mysterious. They’re fooling no one.”

At precisely 9:02 the next morning, I shuffled through the door to the police station, thoroughly wet. Not only was it raining outside — enough to drown a fish — but it was also windy. Too windy for an umbrella. And my coat was wool, which lasted fairly well in the weather but once it got wet, it took ages to dry. Apparently, a pipe had burst in the flat above mine, soaking my coat closet in a fine mist of damp. Then, the rain, and now, I looked like a bedraggled cat.

“You’re late,” Graustark said at my entrance. Then, he took a good look at me and widened his eyes in shock. “What happened?”

“Ask me in ten minutes,” I said, teeth chattering as I took off my coat. It dripped forlornly onto the floor as I hung it on a hook.

“Sergeant,” Graustark stood and went to the desk sergeant, who was staring at me in shock. “Can we get some tea, perhaps?”

“O-Of course, Doctor,” the poor lad said. He didn’t move. I wrung out my sweater as best I could and Graustark coughed pointedly. The sergeant jumped and rushed off to fetch some tea.

“Where’s Quimby?” I asked, wondering if the station had a working radiator nearby. Or if I should just go to the nearest pub with a roaring fire.

“He should be here any minute,” Graustark said. He kept looking at me like he wasn’t quite certain what to do. I just stood there, dripping. A moment later, the desk sergeant came running out with tea. He handed me the cup and I took it, hands shaking. I sipped at the drink and hissed appreciatively. Hot. Perfect.

“Good morning, Sir, Miss.” Quimby’s voice startled me out of a few drops of tea. They landed on my skin and sizzled nicely until my ambient temperature practically froze them. Quimby was standing just inside the door, shaking his coat out as much as possible. His wasn’t soaking all the way through, and once he removed his hat, there wasn’t a drop of water on him. I eyed him jealously.

“Ah, Mr. Quimby, there you are,” Detective Renfrew said, walking out of his office as though it were the most casual thing in the world to meet someone in the station. It was a moment before Renfrew caught sight of Graustark and myself. The detective nodded to Graustark and then coughed in shock at me. “My goodness! Miss Leclerc, what happened?”

“I took a drink from the Thames,” I grumbled. It was, perhaps, in poor taste, but that’s just the sort of mood I was in this morning.

“Sergeant, have we got any spare clothes in the Lost Items bin?” Renfrew asked his desk sergeant, never taking his eyes off of me. I finished my tea sullenly and handed the still-warm cup back with great reluctance. The sergeant ducked behind the desk and rummaged through a bin.

“Er… no,” he said, returning with a single sock.

“Very well. I believe I have an old set of working clothes,” Renfrew sighed. He gestured at me to follow and I did, squelching unhappily along. The detective gave me the old clothes and went to deal with Graustark and Quimby. I changed and tried to belt the trousers as tight as they would go. There was absolutely nothing I could do about the old jumper. And I still had to wear my shoes, given that the detective had nothing of the sort that would fit me. But, all in all, it worked well enough.

I trudged my way to the interview room, where Renfrew, Quimby and Graustark waited. They took one looked at me and fell into silence. Poor Quimby had his sensibilities so shocked that he was able to do nothing but stare. Renfrew seemed as though he was trying very hard to suppress laughter. Graustark, though, just looked baffled.

“You’ve seen me in trousers before,” I grumbled, sitting in the vacant chair.

“Not ill-fitting men’s trousers,” Graustark coughed. I glared.

“The pipe in the flat above me burst. My coat was already soaked by the time I got out to meet the rain.”

“You can discuss this later,” Renfrew said after he had regained his composure. “If you don’t mind, I have actual work to do.”

Graustark nodded imperiously and I tried not to huff like a spoilt child. It’s hard to focus on detecting, on discovering all the details surrounding someone’s death, when you’re caught up with your own life. But I wanted to be there. I wanted to help Rottery and Quimby and prove that I wasn’t just some worthless writer who made everything up as she went. Well, most everything. Basically, I was in a bad mood and felt it.

“Now, just for the record, Dr. Graustark, Miss Leclerc,  you are only here at Mr. Quimby’s request and your relationship to Scribe’s House, correct?” the detective pulled out a small stack of paper and unscrewed his pen.

“We are lending whatever assistance to the investigation that we can,” I agreed, tugging at the too-large neck of the jumper so it sat more comfortably. Graustark coughed.

“Mr. Quimby, how long had Thomas Rottery been working at Scribe’s House?” Renfrew asked.

“Five years, sir. He’s mostly a contractor we have on retainer. Takes on other clients, if things are slow and is available at odd hours of the night, should we require,” Quimby replied smoothly. Renfrew nodded, taking down the information.

The detective asked further questions, such as what Rottery’s general duties were — maintenance, the occasional joinery work, electrics and plumbing — and whether he got on particularly well or badly with any of the members. The questions went on for a considerable amount of time. In my books, I usually just stuck to whether or not my victim had any enemies, or if anything remarkable had happened recently in their lives. Renfrew wanted to know everything about Rottery. He asked things like what sort of tools he carried, whether he was paid directly or by cheque, what he worked on the most, whether he had ever used the House telephone to call his wife, family, or anyone else, whether he received holiday bonuses, brought his lunch or ate what was provided… on and on.

I was jotting down a few notes in my own notebook (thankfully saved from soaking by my leather bag), but I could hardly keep up with Renfrew. Graustark just sat there, keeping a mildly interested expression on his face.

By the time we finished, it was past one in the afternoon and everyone was looking worse for wear. Except possibly Renfrew, who looked like he had been having a fairly easy morning, for a detective.

“Detective,” I asked after we had risen and been given the usual information and farewells. “You don’t think Quimby is a suspect, do you?”

“That is not for me to say, Miss Leclerc,” Renfrew smiled at me in a mildly patronising manner. “I haven’t yet collected all the facts.”

“Will you keep us informed on the investigation?” I pressed. Graustark looked like he wanted to say something. I ignored him.

“You are not police. I allowed you to be here in support of Mr. Quimby because he worked closely with you. However, I am in no way obligated to allow you to take any part in the investigation.” Renfrew’s voice became cold.

“Detective,” Graustark said, somehow maintaining a perfect calm. “Have you spoken to Dr. Kamińsky regarding cause of death?”

Renfrew frowned, “I am fully aware of your qualifications, Dr. Graustark. I am also aware of Dr. Kamińsky’s request. I have no hand in the police coroner’s work, but that does not mean I must involve you in any other part of the investigation. Actually, if you do end up crossing my path and I fear that you are causing more trouble, then you will be written up.”

Graustark said nothing to that. He just opened the door for me and followed me out. I wanted to snarl something vicious at the detective. Somehow, I had a feeling that would have made things much worse, so I kept my tongue quiet.

“Good day, Mr. Quimby, Dr. Graustark, Miss Leclerc,” Detective Renfrew said as we marched past the desk sergeant. “If I have any more questions, then I will be sure to call.”

I nodded tersely and opened the door to leave. Only to be barrelled aside by a uniformed police man wearing a slicker and his pointed hat. He looked just as miserable as the two men he was escorting, both wet, dishevelled and thoroughly embarrassed.

“Rome, Cassidy!” I said in disbelief. “What are you doing here?”

“These two were harrassing the family of Thomas Rottery,” the uniform said, giving Rome an extra shove.

“We were not harassing the family,” Cassidy insisted. “We gained entry just before the police came and Rottery’s wife had us arrested. She was hysterical because she had just found out about her husband —”

“Because you told her,” the uniform growled.

“We were doing nothing wrong,” Cassidy sniffed. Rome just hunched his shoulders and glared at the floor. I glanced between them and Graustark.

“Well, well, it looks like we’re going to have a few problems,” Detective Renfrew said, putting his hands in his pocket. He was definitely smirking.

About half an hour later, I was sitting at a table in a pub, nursing a hot pie and a pint of ale. The table was closest to the fire, partly because I was still trying to dry my coat, partly because I was trying to drive away the chill. I was still wearing the clothes Detective Renfrew had loaned me, with the promise I would return them as soon as I could.

Rome and Cassidy sat across from me; Rome poking absently at his soup and Cassidy holding his pint like it was a lifeline.

“So,” I said, taking a bite of the pie. “Did you really get arrested?”

“No,” Cassidy tried to brush off the incident like it was a joke. “The officer brought us to the station, but only because we needed to be there. And he was rather cross with us.”

“The widow was rather cross,” Rome grumbled. “We arrived at her door and she demanded to know where Rottery was. Apparently, she’d been visiting a sick sister for the last week and he hadn’t been home when she got back. This morning.”

“That explains why she didn’t know about his death,” I nodded.

“The officer said that Renfrew had gone around to her house last night, but she wasn’t there,” Cassidy confirmed. I winced.

“I am sorry,” I said. “I never expected that she wouldn’t know… was it bad when you told her?”

“In all my novels,” Rome said, “I don’t think twice about writing the grieving family being hysterical. I mean, why wouldn’t they be? But this was just awful! I’ve never had a woman scream so loud at me.”

“I will be certain never to write that lightheartedly again,” Cassidy shuddered and took a long pull at his pint. “I always liked the thought of a solemn, emotionless widow. My hero could break her down and, well, you know. This? I never ever want to go near a woman again. Well, except you, Marie. I think you’re very rational.”

“I’m not certain that’s a compliment, but I will accept it all the same,” I said. I tugged at the collar of my borrowed jumper. “How much longer do you think Graustark will be? I want to get back to my flat and see if there’s anything dry I can wear before I have to figure out where I’m staying tonight.”

“You’ve had rotten luck with your flat,” Rome pointed out.

“It’s been terrible,” I agreed, stabbing my fork into the pie. “First the renovations on the lift, then the gas being out and now this… I thought that it was a good place when I first moved in.”

“Your flat is nice,” Cassidy said. He’s one of the few people from Scribe’s House who had actually been to my flat. I had held a cocktail party there to appease my publisher. She had brought Cassidy along. “It is in a very nice area, and I wouldn’t expect any problems from it.”

“Except for all the problems I’ve been having,” I said. “So, how long do you think Graustark will be?”

I was more than willing to complain about my flat, but I also wasn’t a fool. Rome and Cassidy were trying to change the subject. To get me to stop thinking about — or talking about — the murder. I was more stubborn than they were.

“Can we leave it alone for a little while?” Rome asked, glaring at his soup. “After this morning. And that scene at the station. I just want a quiet lunch.”

“You’ve had worse critiques from your publisher,” I waved my hand dismissively. “Surely you can handle the smug looks from a police detective.”

“Marie, we know you’re keen to get experience, but this isn’t, well, you know,” Cassidy hunched his shoulders. I said nothing, waiting. He looked up at me from under his brows, trying to look inconspicuous and innocent. “It’s not a game. It’s not part of your novel.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” I asked. “Don’t you think that I’m horrified a man has died? And before you say anything about me taking advantage of the situation, you both are doing the same thing. But we’re also helping. We want to make this right, or as right as we can. Do you really think that we could just lay this aside and go back to our daily lives? Our weekly meetings where we gripe about our publishers or try to figure out the best way to stage a body in the most dramatic fashion? I know the police are working on this. But I also know that I wouldn’t let either of your deaths go uninvestigated by me. Why should Rottery be any different, even if he was just an employee?”

I hadn’t meant to make a speech, but it just came out. Rome nodded encouragingly and Cassidy sat back in his chair. “Maybe you’re right,” Cassidy said slowly, his tone reminiscent of the drawl he had once practised on us. He had been trying to figure out what an American cowboy might sound like and had given up when we all could barely contain our laughter. To this day, though, it was his tie to the investigative spirit of his horse-riding cowboy-detective.

“Maybe?” I replied, managing a snarky grin.

“Didn’t you know?” Rome sat up straighter, a mischievous light in his eyes. “Marie is always right.”

“Except, apparently, about my flat,” I said. Perhaps we did all need a reprieve. There wasn’t much we could do until Graustark joined us, anyways. We had to know cause of death before we could really investigate. And we certainly couldn’t go talking to Rottery’s widow, now. That mess would have to be cleaned up at a later point. By someone with a bit more tact and finesse. Someone female. Me, to be short.

I certainly wasn’t going to do it dressed like a dog recovering from drowning.

“What are you going to do? Get a hotel until everything gets sorted out?” Rome asked.

I shrugged, “That would be nice, but not terribly practical. I would be there for an age.”

“You could always stay at Scribe’s House,” Cassidy said. “They have rooms for long-term stays…”

I shook my head, “I couldn’t. Not after… Rottery was up there, where everyone lives, for days. And no one noticed. I don’t think that’s a place where I want to stay. Not until we figure out what happened.”

“No one at the House killed him, surely,” Rome said. I shrugged. Silence descended on the group, broken only by the crackling fire.

“I’ll probably just go stay with my parents,” I said. “It’s not directly in the city, but I can borrow a car and get here easily enough. Do either of you have a car to drive me out there this evening?”

“Sorry,” Cassidy shrugged and shook his head. “I never could understand what you would want with your own car. I get around just grand on my own. With the occasional taxi, of course.”

“Of course,” Rome agreed. “I just don’t make enough money.”

“I can drive you.” We turned and found Graustark standing there, looking less put-together than I had ever seen him. His suit was slightly dishevelled and he looked drawn. “I keep a car at a garage nearby.”

“I forgot you live around here,” Rome said. What I believe he meant was ‘my goodness, what happened’.

“You look terrible,” Cassidy said.

These two have all the tact of a dead badger.

“Sit down, Howard,” I said. “Do you want something to eat? Drink?”

“Thank you, I’m not hungry,” Graustark slid into the seat between Cassidy and me, his back to the fire. He hunched his shoulders. “Before you start to grill me, I may as well tell you what I discovered… Thomas Rottery had ingested a poisonous plant, in the form of a cooked dessert of some sort. This plant is known as the Beech Apple and is extremely dangerous and can cause death if ingested.”

“Sorry, what?” I asked. “A Beech Apple? He ate a poison apple?”

“It’s not a true apple,” Graustark rubbed a thumb over the woodgrain on the table. “The tree, native to the tropical Americas, is called the Mancheel tree. It produces a fruit that looks similar to an apple. The sap of the tree and its fruit are extreme irritants and will kill a person.”

We took a moment to soak that in. Poison from a tree from the Americas. It was definitely murder. And well planned in advance. “How… how do you know about this tree?” Rome asked, tilting his glass to examine the last of the ale. He didn’t look up to meet Graustark’s gaze. To be fair, Graustark didn’t look up from the table to meet Rome’s gaze, either.

“During the war… I worked with a man who was told to see if we could find something to incapacitate the Germans,” Graustark started. “He had heard of this tree from a man who lived in Florida. The tests did not go well.”

We sat there in silence for a while longer and I gave up on the rest of my pie. “If you don’t mind,” I said, pushing the dish away, “could we stop by my flat before I go to my parents? I’d like to pick up a few things. And talk to my estate agent.”

“Of course,” Graustark replied. He pushed away from the table quick enough that the chair rattled as he moved. We left Rome and Cassidy sitting there, no promises about where we would meet tomorrow.

Graustark was silent as he drove me to my flat. I stopped inside and he waited, neither of us really up to social niceties at the moment. I returned a few minutes later with a valise and a thoroughly bad mood. I gave him directions to my parents’ estate and complained.

“It will take months before they get everything fixed. They’re talking about having to replace almost the whole building’s plumbing. And the gas is a city problem. I may have to move,” I grumbled. Most of my clothes were ruined. Thank goodness my books were in a part of the flat well away from any pipes.

“Did your estate agent recommend moving?” Graustark asked.

“No, of course not,” I sighed. “The flat was a good investment. And I haven’t got a good deal of capital saved up for the expense. No, I will be moving back to my parents’ for a good while, it seems.”

We drove in silence for a bit and left the craziness of the city behind. I turned to look at Graustark, whose hands on the wheel were white. “Are you alright?” I asked.

“I don’t know what you mean?” he replied, carefully calm.

“I’m not a fool,” I raised my brows. “I’m not going to judge you if you say no. It’s not a crime.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Alright then, that was the end of that conversation. I nodded to a turn in the road, “There. Just follow that road for a few minutes. Then we’ll be at my parents’ house.”

He must have noticed the dread in my voice. “Did you phone ahead? Do they have the space?”

I nodded my head to the large house and surrounding estate that appeared as we crested the hill. It was one of those old estates that had been modernised in a thoroughly ostentatious manner. The gardens were well-kempt and absurd and there was even a peacock striding along the gravel drive. “Trust me,” I said flatly. “They’ll have plenty of space.”

One good thing about my parents’ estate was that it shocked Graustark out of his fugue. He fairly gaped as we drove up to the front of the house. We had barely stopped when the butler came out and greeted me, opening the door with regal formality.

“Welcome back, Miss Marie,” he said, using the familiar name rather than my true last name, for which I was supremely grateful.

“Hallo, Gunther,” I said, kissing his cheek fondly. He had been a bright light in my years here. Unlike a good portion of everything else. “Is everyone in?”

“Yes, miss,” Gunther said, taking my valise before I had even pulled it out of the car. By some unseen signal, a driver came and took Graustark’s place behind the wheel, pulling the car away before I even extended the invitation to stay for supper. Oh, dear. “They’re in. And your cousin, Mr. Denning, and his sister are here as well. And a Mr. Talworth?”

“Oh, dear,” I repeated, out loud. I turned to Graustark. He was still gaping. “Well, you had better come in, Howard. I imagine supper can be extended to one more this evening?”

Gunther nodded in the affirmative and we started up the steps into the house. Graustark took my arm. “Um, Marie…?” he breathed in my ear. I sighed, ready to explain, but it was too late. We were already being ushered into the drawing room. The entire party was there, the noise startling. My parents, dressed in the impractical costumes of the wealthy, were sitting on the long couch, laughing over some joke that my cousin was telling, a drink in his hand. Gunther stepped in and everyone turned to greet us, their smiles frighteningly effusive.

“Marie!” My father rose and walked over to me, giving me a swift hug. I kissed his cheek.

“Hello, father. This is Dr. Howard Graustark,” I said, introducing Graustark before things became too awkward. “He writes novels, too.”

“Charmed,” my father said, pumping Graustark’s hand energetically. I went around introducing everyone and somehow we ended up with Graustark being poured a drink and me exchanging awkward greetings with Charlotte Denning, a woman who despised me and whom I also despised.

“Marie, darling,” she said, giving me those air kisses so popular in Paris. “What are you wearing?”

“The flat above mine burst a pipe,” I said. “I had to borrow some clothes off a friend.”

“A male friend?” Charlotte snickered. “My goodness, darling, I have some frocks upstairs which would suit so much better. Come, we’ll go get you dressed appropriately.”

I was dragged away and left Graustark standing near the piano, staring wide-eyed at the idiotic splendour around him. John Denning was edging closer, starting to ask questions about his books and what he was working on at the moment.

It was going to be a very, very long evening.

Charlotte went through my small case of clothes I had rescued from my flat, and promptly decided that none of them was worthy of dinner. I had to agree — my parents’ dinners were still known for being formal and absurd. None of my tailored mens’ coats would work. And the one frock I had saved was still damp.

Once I had handed off my laundry, Detective Renfrew’s clothes included, Charlotte sprawled on my bed and crossed her ankles. I shrugged into some green monstrosity that was too tight and too revealing. In other words, not comfortable at all.

“My dear Marie, you desperately need to get some new clothes. Isn’t your job paying you at all?” she plucked at a thread on the duvet.

“A writer’s uniform is comfort more than fashion, Charlotte,” I said. “I don’t attend many formal dinners.”

“Such a shame,” she sighed. “And with a background like yours, too.”

“Oh, for —” I was seconds away from strangling the woman when someone knocked on the door. My mother poked her head in, smiling brightly.

“Marie darling, so glad you came up. And brought a friend, too. We so rarely see you these days,” my mother simpered. Simpering was her one great talent. That and spending money like water.

“A pipe burst in my flat,” I explained again, thought I was fairly certain that she already knew this. “I’ll have to stay a while. Not during the days — I have things to do, but at night, certainly.”

“How wonderful! We’ll put together a party, even though Christmas is coming up. But it will be grand, none the less. Oh, and dear, I’ve put your friend in the Blue Room. He said he didn’t mean to intrude and he really should get back, but I convinced him. He can borrow some of John’s clothes for tonight. They’re about the same height.”

Before I could say a word, my mother was gone. Great. Just great.

I went down to dinner as quickly as possible, hoping I could head Graustark off before he got cornered by my various family members. Unfortunately, a women’s toilette takes slightly longer than a men’s. I reached the small parlour where cocktails were being served too late.

Graustark was standing with a drink in his hand like he had no idea what to do with it. He was also in some sort of conversation with John Denning and the Mr. Talworth — whom I suspected was Wallace Talworth, son of the MP for the district. My father had some sort of anti-political addiction and loved to surround himself with such people, if only to tell them off. I approached with trepidation.

“Miss Grange,” Talworth smiled annoyingly as I approached. “Come, have something to drink!”

Graustark, upon hearing the other half of my name, coughed. He took a sip of the cocktail and coughed even more, a horrified expression on his face. I was fairly certain things were only going to get worse.

“Would you tell Gunther that I’ll just have a gin and tonic?” I did my best to simper at Talworth. He nodded and strode off to find Gunther. I turned back to Graustark, trying not to scowl.

“Grange,” he said slowly. “As in Leclerc-Grange? The business magnate?”

“Robber baron, more like,” I said. “But, yes. My big, dark secret. You won’t tell the others, will you?”

“I don’t think they’d believe me if I did,” Graustark said. “You being part of the most…”

“Pick your favourite word,” I said flatly. “Rich, notorious, scandalous, absurd, cunning, cruel. My family has been all of those and more. Which is why I use only the partial name in my books. And live in town. By my own means.”

“It is a bit unusual to think about,” Graustark mused. “You just seem so normal.”

I beamed, just as Talworth returned. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Dinner proceeded just as the pre-dinner cocktails. Graustark kept looking around as though there was something completely fantastical about the place. Charlotte and John kept making remarks to Graustark, trying to goad him into revealing something about the work we did. Apparently writing novels couldn’t be so simple as putting words on the page, with time set aside for research and dealing with one’s publishers. Neither one of us enlightened them about the current issue. Talworth, having discovered my connection to his host, was far too polite for my tastes. I could fairly see the word ‘heiress’ in his eyes and made a point to ignore him.

Finally, everyone at the dinner table was busy talking with someone else, which left Graustark and me to discuss our business in peace.

“How do you think he acquired it?” I asked, poking halfheartedly at my pheasant in some sort of white sauce.

Graustark didn’t offend me by asking who he and it were. “I wouldn’t imagine that particular plant is terribly common, given its, ah, dangerous nature. And we are not in the Americas, either.”

“It certainly requires a knowledge of botany — or poison — and premeditation,” I agreed. “How would you even go about making inquires on the matter?”

“The police will make inquiries at the various ports. If it was ordered, then there will be a record. If it was smuggled in, then they’ll have to do work with some of the less than legal people in town.” Graustark frowned at the food and pushed it around on his plate. I completely agreed.

“So it’s unlikely that they’ll get anything out of that quarter,” I gave up on my pheasant and took a sip of the wine instead. On my other side, Charlotte was doing her best to engage Talworth in a conversation about fishing or some such. Both had obviously imbibed far too much alcohol. Charlotte was more than a little squiffy and kept giggling. I pushed the wine away, too.

“It would be better if they could,” Graustark said. “That would lend a certain amount of credibility to whatever evidence they find. But, no, it is unlikely.”

“I say we talk to his widow, again. We’ll provide the appropriate apologies for this morning’s intrusion and see if we can’t get a decent idea about Rottery’s life.”

“She might have some idea as to who gave Rottery the poison fruit,” Graustark said.

Charlotte turned and gaped, “Poison? My goodness, what horrid dinner conversation. What do you need to know about poison?”

“I do write murder mysteries,” I pointed out. Charlotte waved a hand dismissively.

“Well, yes, but there’s no need to talk about it over dinner,” she hiccoughed. Talworth looked at me, eyes shining from too much alcohol and the obvious designs on my wealth.

“I think it’s jolly grand, a woman writing mystery,” he said.

“As opposed to what?” I muttered, sipping from the glass of water Gunther had brought me.

“You could have been working as a secretary or some such,” Talworth said. I had a bad feeling about where this was heading. “But you decided to write instead. It’s almost a real job, but so much better. So much more interesting. And you get to spend your time relaxing. Maybe I should take it up.”

And, there we go. One of the many reasons why I stay away from my parents and the people they invite.

“Not a real job?” Graustark asked, putting on his most ‘highly-educated’ uppity attitude. “Do you suppose the books just appear on the page? Do you suppose that we just laze around and wave our hands and make the words magically appear?”

“No, of course not, I just—” Talworth struggled to coherence.

“It takes a good deal of work, and research,” Graustark continued. “We have to determine how long after a death a body remains pliable, or how long after that it remains rigid. We have to understand the best way to kill a person with a fountain pen, or whether they’re more or less likely to commit murder while drunk.”

Charlotte started to look a little green, “Really, must we—”

“This is not for the fainthearted. We get as much practical experience as possible. Why, just today, Marie and I were helping the police determine the cause of death for a corpse that had been fed poisoned apples. It requires a good deal of science and thought to determine such things from the intestinal matter of—” This time, Graustark was the one cut off, but he had made his point.

Charlotte pushed her chair back from the table with a scraping sound that drew the attention of the entire table. She pressed her mouth very tightly together and fled the dining room. Talworth gaped after her, then looked at me, eyes wide. I smoothed over the smirk resting on my features and shrugged, “She’d had too much to drink.”

My father let out a chortle and John looked embarrassed at his sister’s antics. Talworth said nothing and returned to his own drink, suddenly pale. Just then, Gunther walked into the room with the pudding.

“An apple crisp,” he announced grimly. Talworth fled as well and I couldn’t help but laugh.

The next morning was pretty much as bad as I could have expected. I had asked to be woken early, so I could get a car and go into town. What I didn’t realise was that the definition of early for people who have no concept of a job, or of life outside of their own pleasures was completely different than my own. I should have specified my father’s type of early. At least he worked.

Instead, I was woken at half past eight and had to rush to dress and get to town before nine. Breakfast was nothing more than a pipe dream. At least I had clean, dry clothes, if they were a bit bourgeoise for my taste. Still, I managed to pull up outside Scribe’s House at ten minutes past nine.

Graustark was already waiting. Rome and Cassidy were wiping the last crumbs off of their plates and my stomach growled. “You’re late,” Graustark rumbled. I started to explain and decided that, considering I hadn’t even had tea this morning, he could stuff it.

“Well, I’m here now,” I said. “Are we still going to see Mrs. Rottery?”

“What?” Rome shot out of the chair fast enough to topple over. He stared at us from the ground. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Not you,” Graustark said gently. “We are going to go and deliver our most profound apologies from the Scribe’s House. Unfortunately, I don’t think the two of you are going to be much help in that.”

“So, what, we’re just going to sit around again while we wait for the two of you to get everything done?” Cassidy asked, scowling. I frowned.

“We’re just going to talk to the widow,” I said. “Which you could do if you hadn’t caused problems yesterday. We’ll be back here directly afterwards and we can go from there. Alright?”

“There’s no need to snap at us,” Rome said, recovering his seat. I frowned some more. I hadn’t realised I was being snappy. Apparently, that’s what happens when I miss breakfast. I sighed.

“Look, I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been a trying couple of days.”

“We’ll talk to you later,” Cassidy fixed his gaze on the bottom of his tea cup in obvious dismissal. I looked at Graustark to back me up, but he was already heading to the door. I had no choice but to follow or be left behind.

I slipped into Graustark’s car and we went off on our not-so-merry way. After a few minutes of driving in silence, Graustark spoke, “You know they’re just feeling left out. They want to help as much as you do.”

“Huh? Oh, Rome and Cassidy you mean,” I said. “It’s nothing terribly worrying. We’ll tell them everything over lunch and we’ll go from there. Provided the widow even gives us useful information. Because if she doesn’t, then I think we’re going to be stuck.”

“Are you always this optimistic first thing in the morning?” Graustark asked. It took me a minute to realise that he was being sarcastic.

“Only when I haven’t had any breakfast,” I sniffed. Graustark just shook his head and we finished the drive in silence.

Thomas Rottery had lived in a part of the city that boasted Victorian era flats. They were on a nicely kempt street and even had a few small trees in the plots out front. I nodded, impressed, and we got out of the car. This was a place you saved up for, and where your children could grow up in relative peace. Graustark pulled the bell for Rottery and we were let in after hardly ten seconds of waiting.

Mrs. Rottery was standing in the doorway of the second-floor flat, scowling deeply. She was a small woman wrapped in the skirts and aprons of ten years past. Her hair was prematurely grey and she had deep lines around her mouth and eyes. “You’re not the police,” she accused.

“No, Madame,” Graustark touched the brim of his hat respectfully. “We are representatives of the Scribe’s House, where your husband worked —”

“and died,” Mrs. Rottery cut in. “You musn’t forget that.”

“Of course not,” Graustark’s voice turned slightly more posh and his expression slightly more grave. At the change, Mrs. Rottery straightened, responding to some deeply-ingrained instinct of all English people to take heed at such a voice. “We offer you our deepest condolences. May we come in?”

The woman sniffed for a moment, examining the both of us for any sign of a trick. Then, she slowly stepped back into her flat and let us in. The interior of the flat did not match the pleasant exterior of the building. The interior, much like Mrs. Rottery, looked as though it hadn’t been changed for a decade or more. The furniture was old and worn, holes showing through on the upholstery, the wood chipping away. There was laundry strung across the door to the kitchen and I was glad not to be able to look into that room.

Mrs. Rottery put her nose in the air and led us to a small sitting room. I perched gently on the edge of a chair and tried my best to look polite. I think borrowing some of Charlotte’s high-end clothes might have helped, because Mrs. Rottery certainly didn’t look me in the face; she just kept staring at the cut of the skirt and blouse.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked after we had all been seated. Graustark rose almost immediately.

“Why don’t I make the tea? Miss Leclerc will keep you company,” he said, then fled.

I reached out and took Mrs. Rottery’s hands in mine, knowing full well what was expected of me. “You have our deepest sympathies, Mrs. Rottery,” I said in my most comforting well-to-do voice. “Thomas, ah, Mr. Rottery was such a blessing to the House.”

“You mean he took care of all those things you writers don’t know how to do,” Mrs. Rottery sniffed. She blinked a few times and I examined her closely. I decided that she wasn’t about to break into tears, so I just nodded.

“We would have been hopeless without him,” I agreed. “I only wish I had known him better. Maybe this whole terrible business could have been prevented.”

Mrs. Rottery let out a disbelieving snort, “Had you known my husband better, you would have realised that there was nothing about this that could have been prevented. He was a… a skirt-chaser. He upset countless husbands and brothers and fathers. And if that wasn’t enough, he spent every penny we had at the races. And you see what I’m left with. Absolutely nothing.”

I gaped, fish-like, for a moment before recovering my composure. “Oh, I’m sure that things can’t be as bad as all that.”

“You writers really are just stuck in your own words,” Mrs. Rottery said with a twist of the mouth. “Do you want to know what I received in the post?”

Before I could answer, she rose and shuffled over to the mantle, snatching a letter from where it had been hidden behind a picture. She thrust the paper out at me and I took it, trying to be respectful and not betray my eagerness. I didn’t quite manage, however, to contain my shock.

You think you can get away with it because you’re in another country? Don’t think we don’t know how to get to you.

It was unsigned. I looked at the envelope and saw that it had been mistakenly sent by way of Angola, which was odd in of itself. Underneath the mark from Angola, there was a fainter one with three letters that made my heart sing: U.S. of A. The letter, whoever it was from, was American.

“When did you receive this?” I asked, doing my best to sound shocked.

“Yesterday evening. It came with the late post,” Mrs. Rottery growled. “The postman was astonished it got here at all, considering how badly the address was written.”

“I quite agree,” I said. “You should give this to the police.”

“And what business is it of theirs?” Mrs. Rottery held out her hand for the letter, but I held onto it under the pretence of reading it through again, examining the paper and the envelope.

“They informed the house that Mr. Rottery had been poisoned with a substance, ah, native to the Americas,” I said. Mrs. Rottery frowned and held out her hand with another shake.

“It’s no business of theirs,” she snarled. “I just want him buried and gone so I can move on with what’s left of my life.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” I said, folding the letter and putting it into my handbag. Mrs. Rottery paled. There were some things you couldn’t do, and demanding another woman’s handbag was one of them, no matter that she had just pocketed a letter addressed to your dead husband.

“Do you want milk or… ah,” Graustark poked his head into the sitting room and saw the widow’s hands clenched in definite fists, her expression caught somewhere between horror and fury. “I take it we have outstayed our welcome.”

“Indeed you have,” Mrs. Rottery snapped. “And I’ll even give you one more piece of information before you go. I didn’t kill my husband. I don’t know who did and I don’t want to know. I only know I wish I had gotten there first.”

With that cheering note, we fled the flat with only a few polite good days as a shield. After we were in the car, I handed the letter over to Graustark. He examined it minutely before nodding and returning it to me. “It seems as though whoever sent this may have been our poisoner.”

“Really? Because it would be rather difficult to get someone to eat a poisoned pie if you weren’t here. They may have sent the poison to the cook or whoever actually did the baking, but it seems a long way to go,” I said.

Graustark sighed, “Of course it couldn’t be that simple.”

“What did you find in the kitchen?” I asked. Graustark raised an eyebrow at me as he started the car. “Well, I assume you didn’t actually go in there to make tea. You would have sent me, if that were the case.”

“Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean I expect you to make the tea,” he replied wryly. Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “I assumed that she would be more comfortable talking with a woman. Apparently, I was wrong.”

“Thomas Rottery may have been a skirt chaser, but Mrs. Rottery certainly blames the women he went after just as much as she blames the races for drawing him in,” I agreed. “But what did you find in the kitchen?”

“Nothing,” Graustark grumbled. “Well, nothing of importance. If that woman has baked, it hasn’t been in the last few years. The flour had gone off.”

“So the letter is the only lead we have so far,” I said. “That and our maintenance man’s penchant for risk.”

“Indeed.”

“Well, we’d better go tell Rome and Cassidy and then deliver the letter to the police,” I said. “And can we please get some food. I’m starving.”

We made it back to the House in time for lunch, which was a blessing. I sat at the table and cheerfully ate everything that was put before me. I could tell Annie was still a bit distracted, but she didn’t interrupt my meal to say anything. Rome and Cassidy, on the other hand, did their best to convey their astonishment by staring at me as I scraped my plate clean and looked around for more.

“What?” I demanded.

“Well, we’ve never seen you eat so much in such a hurry,” Cassidy said, taking no pains at all to make his words sound any less offensive. I lifted my chin and snagged another roll from the basket.

“I haven’t eaten properly since yesterday lunch, so you’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling starving,” I sniffed. It was true, too. Dinner at my parents’ had been rich and opulent and completely impossible to stomach. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. And yesterday’s pub lunch felt very far away.

Graustark let out one of those long breaths that says he is above the situation. He picked up his mug and sipped at the beer. I had let him explain what we had learned at the widow’s house. He had shown them the letter, which both writers had scrutinised minutely. The paper was too rough to hold any finger prints and had been handled by countless others, so we didn’t deem any special precautions necessary.

“Angola,” Rome said, tapping his fork against his plate. I glared and he stopped. “Interesting that the letter got so waylaid.”

“It could just be that whoever wrote it had terrible handwriting,” Cassidy pointed out. I agreed with him. I had a cousin whose handwriting looked like something between Chinese and Arabic.

“Anyways, we have a motive,” I said.

“Do we?” Graustark challenged casually. I sighed, but kept it quiet. Did he have to be suck a killjoy?

“If he was after the wrong man’s daughter or sister, then sure,” Rome shrugged. Of all of us here, he would know. For someone who looked so scruffy, he did manage to have a new woman hanging off of his arm almost every month. The Black Thumb Society was rarely subjected to them, since the Scribe’s House was for writers. I did see them occasionally at publishing events, though, or restaurants.

“It could have been the gambling,” Cassidy said, no less determined to have his say. Graustark and I had gone and had all the fun, as far as Cassidy was concerned, so now was his turn. I didn’t mind, as long as he came to the right conclusions. “Maybe he got in with the wrong sort at the races. He could have gotten on the wrong side of some Americans down there. There are unsavoury sorts, if you look likely to lose a good deal of money.”

I leaned forwards on my elbows, “And how would you know that?”

Cassidy’s cheeks took on a slightly reddish tinge. “I had to, ah, do research for one of my books.”

“Your books consist almost entirely of cowboys and Wild West doctors. What would you need with research on horse racing?” Rome asked. Cassidy shrugged.

“They have horse races in the Wild West. And if they didn’t, none of my readers seem to care.”

“Enough,” Graustark shook his head. “We need to figure out what to do next. Someone needs to go take the letter to the police. Detective Renfrew will be rather annoyed if we don’t turn over evidence. We also need to relay the information of Mrs. Rottery’s interview.”

“If you can call it an interview,” I said. “We don’t have any specific women Rottery might have… chased. We need to figure out who he angered. Or if Mrs. Rottery was just making it up.”

“Would she do that?” Rome asked. I shrugged. Honestly, I was fantastic at writing stories and romance and mystery. I had no idea what actual people were inclined to do. This investigation was teaching me that much.

“Okay, how about this,” Cassidy leaned forwards. He pointed to Graustark and Rome. “You two go to the police station and talk with Detective Renfew. The man actually seems to respect you, Howard, and you might get more information out of him. Besides, you were the one to talk with Mrs. Rottery.”

“And what will you be doing?” Rome demanded.

“I’m going to take Marie down to the races,” Cassidy smirked. Rome opened and closed his jaw in shock. One could almost see him trying to come up with an excuse to be in on the action, as it were. I wasn’t going to complain. This put me right where I wanted to be.

“Fine,” Rome snapped and pushed away from the table. He stalked to the door of the dining hall before returning to glare sullenly at the floor near Graustark’s feet. “Are you coming?”

Graustark raised his eyebrows and finished the last of his beer before standing and going off to follow Rome. Cassidy leaned back in his chair, smiling smugly. “Finally. Don’t get me wrong, Rome is great, but you try being stuck with him for the last two days. Almost continually.”

I said nothing, just stood and strode to the door. I looked over my shoulder, “Aren’t you coming? The afternoon races will start in half-an-hour and it will take nearly twenty minutes to get there.”

Cassidy ran to catch up to me. “How do you know about the races?”

I heaved the sigh of the long suffering. “My parents.” I left it at that.

Since I had driven into town, we took my car to the races. I tried my best not to notice Cassidy drooling over the MG. He climbed almost reverently into the passenger seat and ran his hands over the leather. I ignored his pointed looks and whistles of appreciation. I was also silently thanking the fact that I hadn’t brought the Dusenberg. Things would have been much, much worse with that car.

Considering I was trying my best to get Cassidy out of the car and focused onto something else, we amde it to the race tracks in nearly fifteen minutes. I may have mashed the gears rather more than necessary and I was fairly certain I clipped a corner pillar, but we made it there in one piece.

We got out of the car and I slid my arm through Cassidy’s. It wouldn’t do for a single woman to be seen there without her significant other or her parents or close family. Cassidy would have to function as my significant other, and if he didn’t like it, well, tough.

“Okay, now what?” I asked after we had been ushered inside. I think the doorman recognised me, because his eyes had widened and he didn’t even bother reprimanding Cassidy for his crooked tie.

“Well, we have to find somewhere the sharks will be,” Cassidy said.

“I may have been to the races before, but that doesn’t mean I have any idea what that means,” I squeezed his arm in scolding.

“Right. Ah, we’re looking for the people who are happy to take your money for an exorbitant fee. Or Americans, too loose with their billfolds.”

I looked around for any of those and spotted neither on my first pass. Then, as I was turning to look again, I froze. Unfortunately, the woman had spotted me and was waving eagerly, dragging her husband along behind her.

“Marie, darling,” she said, leaning over to give me a kiss on either cheek. I forced my polite, friendly smile on my features. The woman — passing middle-age, plump, wearing an absurd hat and pearls the size of my thumb-nail — was a good friend of my mother’s. And, I had forgotten, fond of accompanying her husband to the races.

“How are you, Mrs. Warton?” I said more eagerly than I felt.

“What a shock to see you here! I didn’t know you were coming, today, or I would have made  Louis here take a bigger table for luncheon,” Mrs. Warton warbled.

“Oh, it was such a last minute thing,” I preened. Cassidy coughed quietly on my arm and I stiffened even more. “Mrs. Warton, this is Cassidy Jones… He and I are such good friends. He loves the races, too.”

There. Let her read whatever she wants into that insinuation. She did, happily, and embraced Cassidy eagerly. Her husband just watched the proceedings with the awareness of a dead fish. I didn’t entirely blame him.

“How perfectly lovely to meet you, Mr. Jones!” Mrs. Warton enthused. “You two must come and watch with us. There are some people I’m sure would be thrilled to meet you, Marie, Mr. Jones.”

Neither Cassidy nor I could come up with an excuse to refuse; not in the face of the storm that was Mrs. Warton. So we were whisked away to a private box, where five or six men in well-tailored suits were standing around with drinks in their hands. Mr. Warton seized on them with alacrity and we were left to be introduced by Mrs. Warton.

“Everyone, this is Miss Marie Leclerc-Grange and her good friend Mr. Cassidy Jones,” Mrs. Warton waved her hand at me. Cassidy coughed outright at that. I patted his shoulder rather harder than necessary and he recovered quickly enough. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one to take note at my name.

Three of the be-suited men excused themselves from conversation with Mr. Warton and wandered over to say hello. Two of them I recognised as the sons or cousins of some friend of my father’s or mother’s. I dismissed them with a polite smile and a nod. The third, though, took my hand with a firm shake.

“A real pleasure to meet you, Miss Leclerc-Grange. I’m Tom Howitts. Just got in last week from Boston,” he said, smiling at me and ignoring Cassidy completely. American. Well, how interesting.

“Please, just Marie Leclerc. I find the full name too much of a head-turner,” I dithered. I flicked my eyes at Cassidy. He had been handed a glass of whisky and was studying it firmly. I jabbed my elbow into his side as subtly as I could and he coughed again. “Mr. Howitts, this is Cassidy Jones.”

“Good to meet you,” Howitts said, his smile showing not a hint of the brittleness that his eyes did. “Hey, wait, Cassidy Jones… you write those Western detective novels, don’t you?”

“I do,” Cassidy said, his Yorkshire accent plain and clear.

“Well, I’ll be. Who’d a thought that the American author wasn’t really American at all!” Howitts laughed, the sound carrying louder than an English laugh would have done.

We were saved from anymore awkward conversation by the start of the race. We all crowded forwards to see the horses start off and I found myself pressed between Cassidy and Howitts. Really, could they be any more ridiculous?

“Do you know much about racing, Miss Leclerc?” Howitts half-shouted in my ear. The horses thundered off and I took note of a particularly handsome one with legs like trees.

“Not particularly,” I lied. Any child of my father was meant to know about horses and horse racing, though I couldn’t quite understand why. But I had learned. “Though Cassidy put a few pounds on, ah, number seven?”

I picked a horse that looked like a good sprinter, but probably didn’t have the endurance for the longer race. Howitts smirked at that, though he had the good grace to turn and pretend to watch the horses for a bit.

“Well, number seven sure looks like a good runner,” Howitts said carefully. I blinked. Cassidy nudged me and I nudged him back. We were both thinking the same thing. Could it have really been that easy? Shouldn’t we have had to go investigating around for a while before stumbling on this sort of good luck? I rarely gave my own characters this sort of good fortune.

“I always come down here after I get an advance,” Cassidy said, sounding jovial. He grinned, “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m hoping Marie will be my good luck charm, today.”

“I have some friends who would love to talk horses with you, Mr. Jones,” Howitts said as the horses passed us by again. “Especially someone who comes as frequently as you do.”

“What a great idea,” I said. Number seven dropped behind and the horses turned into their second-to-last corner. I cheered on number seven, as if I dared to believe she could win. The horse dropped behind again and thundered across the finish line in fifth place. I let my shoulders slump.

“Oh, no,” I said. “Well, isn’t that a shame.”

“Maybe the next race will go better,” Howitts said. We lingered near the wall while the others of Mrs. Warton’s party wandered off in search of more drinks.

“Cassidy, you should talk to Mr. Howitts friends,” I suggested. “They might have a few tips on horses.”

“Really?” Cassidy asked. He eyed me warily and I hoped that we weren’t going to get in too deep.

“They love talking horse flesh with anyone who will listen,” Howitts said. “I’ll go introduce you, if you like.”

I nodded and slipped my arm through Cassidy’s once more. Howitts blinked and set his jaw. Oh, dear. He was going to be one of those determined types. Maybe it would blind him to my real purpose. Money and a good name often did. Money more so than the name. I gestured for Howitts to lead the way and Cassidy and I marched off to go do some covert investigations.

Cassidy and I were led inside. We were greeted by opulence and splendour in the form of rich carpets, dark woods, glittering lights and people dressed in their best. Had we been at a dance, the only thing that would be different would be the dress. The men stood around with their drinks and their cigars, either bemoaning their losses or crowing over their successes. The women huddled together as well, gossipping about the other people in the room. Mrs. Warton waved happily to me and didn’t even wait for me to wave back before leaning over and whispering in her friend’s ear.

This was why I hated society events.

Howitts went to the bar and grabbed a whiskey for both himself and Cassidy. I was provided with sherry. I hate sherry.

“Rhodes! How are you? Let me introduce Cassidy Jones. He’s got an interest in the horses,” Howitts smoothly introduced to an oily looking man in a suit that didn’t quite fit right. Cassidy was given a sound handshake and the discussion went off in a direction that I had no desire to follow.

I was, naturally, soundly ignored by this Rhodes fellow. He took Cassidy off a distance, leaving me with Howitts with a wink. Figures.

“I’m sorry about him,” Howitts apologised blithely. “He has a mind for horses and gambling and not much else.”

“To each his own,” I said, sniffing at my sherry. I didn’t sip.

“So, how do you know Mr. Jones?” Howitts asked in a not-so-subtle ploy.

“He and I are something like colleagues,” I replied. “I write murder mysteries, as well.”

“Beautiful and talented,” Howitts grinned. I stifled the urge to roll my eyes. I hated the preening and flattery. This was why I published under only part of my name. And why I was going to have to scold Cassidy into obedience after this.

“I’m working on a story right now about poisoning,” I said, just as Howitts took a sip of his drink. He blinked uncomfortably before swallowing his mouthful of whisky. “It’s fascinating, really. There’s this poisonous tree, native to the Americas. Maybe you know of it? The beach apple?”

“Sorry, can’t say that I do,” Howitts said, shifting his weight. Either he didn’t really like talking about poison with a woman of my social standing or he knew something more. I was hoping for the latter. The former would be little more than a waste of my time.

“Well, if you come in contact with the sap, or you ingest the fruit, you could die,” I said, keeping a pleasant smile on my face. “I don’t know for certain, but it sounds quite painful.”

“I’m sure,” Howitts said. “Say, do you like dancing?”

“I prefer reading,” I said. “Research for my novels, you know.”

“Ahm, yes, of course,” Howitts frowned slightly. The charm of my money and name was wearing off. Even the most determined sort can be put off, if you work hard enough. I’d had many years of working to put potential suitors off. One eager American wasn’t going to change that.

I looked around, as though hoping to spot someone. “I had rather hoped to see someone here,” I said. “He works for Scribe’s House, where I do some collaborating, and mentioned he likes the races.”

“Nothing too serious, I hope,” Howitts joked, still smiling. My goodness, wouldn’t he take a hint?

“He does maintenance,” I explained. “You’d be amazed how bad a house of writers can be. Especially when we’re doing research. Mr. Rottery is a wizard at putting things right again.”

“Rottery?” Howitts asked. His voice tightened at the name and I seized on it eagerly.

“Yes, do you know him?” I simpered, stopping short of fluttering my eyelashes. It wouldn’t do to encourage the man.

“I can’t say that I do,” Howitts shrugged apologetically. “I think Rhodes may have done business with him, but I don’t get much involved with Rhodes and his business.”

“Well, it was just a passing thought,” I said. I looked around again, “Now where did Cassidy get off to? I have an afternoon appointment to discuss methods of autopsy and I really must be on time.”

“M-methods of autopsy?” Howitts spluttered, almost coughing up the last sip of his whisky. “You really do enjoy your research.”

“Well, it wouldn’t do to write an inaccurate account of these things. My readers can be quite demanding,” I raised one shoulder in an off-hand shrug. I looked around some more, obviously dismissing Howitts. Then, I spotted Cassidy. He was frowning deeply at Rhodes in a dark corner and looked as though he were about to say something quite rude.

I hurried over and interrupted their conversation before we could get ourselves kicked out of the racing club. “Cassidy, dear, we have that appointment with the coroner,” I said, flashing a polite smile at Rhodes.

The oily man looked a bit taken aback. “Now, we were just —”

“I’m sure that’s fine,” I said and tugged Cassidy away. We wove our way through the crowd. I waved goodbye to Mrs. Warton and we were out the door in a few moments. It wasn’t terribly hard to get in the car and then we were away. And, as far as I could make out, no one was following us.

“Well, what did you find out?” I asked after a few moments of Cassidy’s silence. It wasn’t really like him to be quiet, not when he had something to say. Considering Rhodes’ annoyance, I’d gather that Cassidy had a good deal to say.

“Were you ever going to tell me your real name?” Cassidy blurted. I sighed.

“For heaven’s sake, that’s what you’re caught up on?” I asked, jerking the car into a turn rather more forcibly than necessary. Cassidy jumped.

“Sorry, it’s just so… I mean, you’re one of the —”

“Before you finish that sentence, Cassidy dear, consider exactly what I can do to you,” I spoke through my teeth, in what could loosely be considered a smile. Cassidy swallowed audibly. “Now, what did Rhodes tell you?”

“Not much,” Cassidy muttered. “He wanted to talk about my gambling, but I mentioned I knew Rottery and Rhodes clammed up pretty quick. I gather there was a lot of money involved. I mean, a lot of money. More than Rottery would make in a year or so.”

“Golly,” I said. “Did he lose it? Or walk off with it?”

“Rhodes called him a cheat, so I’d wager Rottery walked off with the money. I don’t know if he won it, or what. We quickly got to the point of not-so-subtle threats. What about you?” Cassidy turned to look at me. He still had that bug-eyed look on his face, as though I had suddenly become a magical creature, or sprouted wings.

“Nothing much,” I shrugged, “That Howitts fellow obviously knew Rottery, but he didn’t seem to be holding a grudge against our victim. Mostly, he kept trying to press me into an outing or a mutual liking of something or other.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Cassidy said drily. I shot him a look.

“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you,” I sniffed. “Okay, presuming that Rottery was a cheat, and got away with a good deal of money, then that could be who killed him.”

“Or who ordered him killed. I don’t imagine that Rottery would take a baked apple tart from the person he had just cheated,” Cassidy pointed out. I frowned, nodding. I probably shouldn’t have been thinking quite so hard as I drove, because we nearly ran into a grocer’s car. I managed to swerve at the last moment and nobody was hurt. The car’s paint probably got a little more chipped, though.

It seemed I needed to practise my driving.

“The pastry does present a difficulty,” I agreed while Cassidy clutched wildly at the dashboard. “It’s an unlikely murder weapon. But someone had to have given it to him, and it had to be someone Rottery trusted, or he wouldn’t have eaten it. It’s also more likely a woman’s weapon, that.”

“Why do you say that?” Cassidy asked, sounding a bit breathless. I glanced at him — he seemed more panicked than usual.

“How many men do you know who bake pastries for their friends?” I asked. We pulled up to the Scribe’s House without any more mishap. Well, I thought so. Cassidy lunged from the car as though I had been a maniac.

“Bakers,” he gasped, staggering into an upright position.

“How many bakers do you know who make apple tarts or crisps or whatever with poison fruit?” I said. Cassidy shook his head and went to open the door with an unsteady hand. I strode in, ignoring his theatrics.

“Alice?” I called, removing my coat and gloves. “Alice?”

“Here, Miss,” Alice came scrambling out of the direction of the kitchens. She had a black smudge on her apron and her hair was sticking out in all directions.

“What happened?” I asked, alarmed.

“The, ah, ovens stopped working,” Alice said. “We can’t figure out how to get them started again.”

Of course. That would have been Rottery’s job.

“No matter,” I said. “Are Howard and Rome back, yet?”

“They just called for tea, Miss,” Alice said. She bit her lip and looked at her feet.

“Yes, Alice, what’s the matter?” I said, throwing my coat onto the coat rack. It slithered to the floor. Cassidy took the garment and hung it in its proper place. I definitely had some work ahead of me, if that’s how he was going to act.

“Well, Miss, there’s no biscuits for tea, on account of the ovens?” Alice said, scuffing her shoe on the carpet.

“I’m sure sandwiches will be quite alright. Or you can send for some biscuits from the shop down the road, if it really makes you feel better,” I said. “I’ll cover the extra expense.”

“Thank you, Miss,” Alice bobbed and dashed back to the kitchens. Cassidy continued to look at me as though I were a foreign animal.

“Okay, enough,” I turned on him. “Do I need to smack you? Or are you going to keep staring at me all day? Because it’s getting quite annoying. I am exactly the same person I was this morning. Still cranky, still snappish, still absolutely sure that you can’t kill someone with a sewing needle.”

“You can, too,” Cassidy retorted before he had a chance to think. This had been one of our more fervent arguments for the last three months or so. Cassidy and I had gone through every eventuality that we could think of and neither of us had given any ground.

Cassidy sighed and gave me a sheepish smile, “Alright. Fine. You’re still the same old Marie.”

“Old?” I lifted my chin in the air. “You really need to work on your — oh, my.”

We had gone into the Black Thumb’s sitting room. Graustark and Rome were both sitting in their respective chairs. Rome was glowering at the floor and Graustark was patiently, if angrily, rubbing a cleaning cloth over his shoes. That was nothing particularly new. The interesting part was that both of them looked as though they had gotten into a pub brawl. And lost.

“Well,” I said, stepping into the room so Cassidy could see the pair. “It looks as though you two had an interesting afternoon.”

“Well,” Rome scowled, staring at the fire, “we found out who Rottery had been, ah, chasing. Her husband didn’t appreciate our questions.”

“Indeed?” I smirked a bit and sank down into a chair. I tucked my legs beneath me and waited for the story to continue. Rome didn’t oblige. He sniffed and rubbed at his nose, earning a wince and a hiss of pain. Cassidy stifled laughter and sat down across from Rome. I looked at Graustark, who was doing his very best to glare his shoe to death.

“Howard, why don’t you put that cloth away and tell us what happened?” I asked in my most polite, feminine tone. He blinked, glared at the offending footwear a bit more, then nodded. Graustark threw the cleaning cloth to the table and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms.

“Very well,” he grumbled. “We went to talk with Detective Renfrew. He wasn’t terribly pleased by our efforts, by the way. And he soundly chewed us out for keeping the letter from him instead of taking it to the station as soon as it came into our possession.”

“He soundly chewed me out,” Rome corrected. “He can’t quite figure out what to do with you.”

“That is because I have worked with the police before and I know proper procedure,” Graustark returned without a moment’s hesitation. I was more inclined to believe that it had something to do with Graustark’s reputation and the fact that he had figured out cause of death. A murder investigation doesn’t get terribly far if you can’t figure out how the victim died, after all.

“Well, I’ll have to send him a bottle of wine with the clothes I borrowed,” I mused. “Maybe that would serve as a suitable apology.”

Graustark shook his head, “I doubt it. Renfrew plays it by the book and that’s that.”

“Oh, well, a girl can try,” I shrugged. “Continue.”

“After that, Howard managed to wheedle Renfrew into letting us have some inkling of what was going on with the police side of the investigation,” Rome said. “I don’t know how, but we got to have a look at the file as it stood, so far. Apparently, the police actually managed to do some digging. They discovered a pub where Rottery liked to go for his suppers. And occasionally stay overnight, if the owner was away for the night.”

“Ah,” Cassidy smirked, “the wife. I take it she was the barmaid?”

“Renfrew suggested that we go talk with the owner,” Graustark cut in, ignoring Cassidy completely. “He was going to go investigate the gambling lead. I informed him that you were already at the tracks and he was not well pleased with that.”

“Nothing illegal in going to the races,” I purred. “Besides, it wasn’t anything but some strongly worded civilised conversation, wasn’t it?”

“Indeed?” Graustark asked imperiously.

With the perfect timing all female staff seem to have, Alice pushed open the door and brought in the tea tray. I noticed that she had gone rather all out on the biscuits, but I wasn’t going to complain. She smiled and set out the cups and things. I rose to take over from her and the poor girl scampered out of the room faster than a rabbit. I think Graustark scared her.

“Continue,” I said, pouring the tea. “Renfrew was going to the tracks, so you went to the pub.”

“No, actually,” Rome’s scowl deepened. “First, Howard insisted that we take a look at the shipping records that had been dropped off at the station. He wanted to see if the stupid poison could have been brought into the country legally. Just in case. We spent two hours going over those papers.”

“More like an hour and a half,” Graustark corrected calmly. He took the tea I offered and examined the biscuits sceptically. “What happened here?” he said, picking up a forlorn chocolate-iced piece.

“The ovens seem to have died,” I said. “I told Alice to go pick some up from the shops. They can’t be that bad.”

Graustark obviously disagreed. He replaced the biscuit and retreated to his chair with his tea. Rome and Cassidy weren’t quite so discerning and happily ate what was offered. I nibbled on the corner of a shortbread and took a long sip of tea, waiting. Rome kept looking at Graustark, who pointedly ignored him.

Finally, Rome gave in, “Well, after the shipping manifests — which turned up nothing, by the way — we went to the pub. There weren’t a whole lot of people around, so it was pretty easy to get into a conversation with the barmaid. Yes, Marie, the owner’s wife.”

“I didn’t say anything,” I said, feeling a certain amount of smugness. I put the rest of the shortbread into my mouth to discourage any smart remarks, then let Rome get on with the story.

“She had a certain fondness for Rottery,” Rome continued, watching me more than casually. “Went into hysterics the moment she found out the man was dead.”

“So not like his wife, then,” Cassidy said. Rome threw the tail end of a biscuit at Cassidy. I sighed.

“This was different, alright? This wasn’t, well, shock. It was… I don’t know, grief. Sadness. All of those,” Rome said.

“I would have thought she was doing it for the attention,” Graustark said, tone disapproving. He sniffed and took a dignified sip of his tea. “If she had been truly sad, she wouldn’t have gone burying her head in the nearest male patron’s shoulder.”

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “You?” I asked incredulously, putting a hand over my mouth to hide some of the laughter. “Really?”

“You should have seen it,” Rome practically crowed. “Howard tried to wriggle out of it as best he possibly could. The woman held on tight, though.”

“I tried explaining the situation to her husband,” Graustark frowned, brushing at his sweater as if getting rid of the memory. By the expression on his face, I’d say it didn’t work well. “He, apparently, hated Rottery and had already had words with the man regarding his wife’s virtue. This was some months ago. He hadn’t seen Rottery since, but I gathered from the wife’s words that Rottery had come rather more recently.”

“That was the point when the owner started swinging,” Rome said ruefully. “Howard first. Well, no, the wife first. Then Howard for trying to defend her. Then me for trying to defend him. And then the rest of the people in the pub tried to help the owner. Apparently, they were all friends of the man. We left.”

“I honestly do not understand the point of pugilism,” Graustark said. He held out his empty tea cup hopefully and I took pity on the man. I handed him a full cup and he retreated behind it. I take it his pride was wounded as well as his face. A lovely purple bruise was starting to form there that did not at all match Graustark’s neat clothes. It was even more amusing knowing what had happened to cause it.

“It’s for when pub owners attack you for asking questions,” I said.

“Did you even find out of either of them could have killed Rottery?” Cassidy demanded.

“Well, the husband didn’t know one end of the kitchen from the other,” Rome considered with a small frown. “And while the wife could bake — somewhat — I doubt she would have wanted to kill Rottery.”

“She did seem overly fond of him,” Graustark agreed. “I would say that the pub is a dead end in this investigation.”

“Did you tell Renfrew?” I asked. Rome’s scowl reemerged and deepened. I smiled; the detective would have had great fun in chastising the two. I wished I had been there to see it. “At least our afternoon was slightly more successful.”

“Oh?” Graustark said, raising his brows with disdainful interest. I ignored him and ate another biscuit. Cassidy, though, was more than eager to share. He put the tea down on the floor so he could illustrate with his hands. Then, he just started talking. And no amount of interruption and annoyed noises from me would make him stop.

By the time he reached the end of his narrative, I was pushed as deep into my club chair as I could go. I hoped desperately that I wasn’t blushing. Or that Rome or Graustark weren’t staring at me. I was too scared to look up from the very interesting pattern on the tea cup.

There was a moment of silence after Cassidy stopped speaking. “Leclerc-Grange?” Rome spluttered. “Seriously?”

“Oh, for —” I started.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Rome asked, practically dropping his tea in his eagerness to hear my answer. I raised an eyebrow and said nothing. After a few awkward seconds, Rome sat back in his chair and swallowed nervously. “Ah. Right. Notoriety. A certain perspective. Got it. But, really, you didn’t tell anybody?”

“No,” I snapped. “Now drop it or I’m going to have to hit you.”

“You wouldn’t,” Rome said. “I mean, come on, Marie! How many people can say that they have a connection with your family? It could really boost my publicity and —”

No.” The voice wasn’t mine, but Graustark’s. He was staring at Rome with bald-faced disgust. “You would use her to boost your book sales? Is it any wonder that she wanted it kept a secret?”

Rome sank into his chair. “Sorry, Marie,” he muttered.

I shook my head and changed the topic, “So what do we know?”

Cassidy jumped in eagerly, a certain amount of chagrin on his face. “Rottery wasn’t killed because he was chasing other men’s wives.”

“Probably. Though, it could be that another woman got him into trouble. Perhaps he scorned her, or she learned he was married, and prepared the pastry,” I argued. “But it is more likely that Rottery was killed because of his gambling.”

“I am inclined to agree,” Graustark said. “Though the actual implementation of the murder does provide some difficulties.”

“That’s what I thought,” I grumbled, folding my arms and settling back into the chair. “A pastry isn’t your typical murder weapon. It’s unlikely that a man made it, and the only women we know of are the ones Rottery chased.”

“It is unlikely, but not impossible,” Rome muttered. “I went through a cooking course a while back for one of my books.”

“I forgot about that,” Cassidy grinned. “You wasted a whole case of bourbon on one of those ridiculous cakes.”

Ah, yes, the Christmas from three years before. Most of the staff and residents of the House were completely drunk before it even got properly dark.

“The point is,” Graustark cut in, sounding even more disapproving than before. I wasn’t surprised. He had been particularly amusing while drunk. “That killing Rottery by poisoning a pastry lends a certain amount of distance to the murder. It is not a typical weapon, and not a typical poison. A person would have to have an incredible knowledge of such matters to even consider it.”

“Have you come across any of those recently?” I asked. Rome shook his head, Cassidy fiddled with his thumbs and Graustark sipped at his tea. “I thought not.”

I leaned on the counter and the desk sergeant eyed me warily. “Can I help you, Miss?” he asked. As if he didn’t know who I was and why I was there.

I gestured to the brown package I had set on the counter, “I have something for Detective Renfrew. Do you mind terribly if I slip back there and talk to him?”

“How’s about I just give it to him for you,” the sergeant said, reaching out for the package. I casually put my hands over the paper and fixed him with my bright, feminine smile. “He’s busy,” the sergeant explained.

“Oh, well, I can wait,” I said. “I don’t have anywhere to be in a hurry.”

The poor sergeant wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, so he just frowned and said nothing. Smart man. I took my package and went to go sit in one of the chairs along the wall. This didn’t help the sergeant’s concentration much. He kept glancing at me nervously every few seconds and his paperwork suffered for it. I just smiled pleasantly and waited.

After about half-an-hour, Detective Renfrew stalked out of his office and up to the desk sergeant. “Have you got my forms for me?” he asked. The sergeant’s eyes widened and he coughed uncomfortably. Renfrew pinched the bridge of his nose. “Are you going to have them for me anytime soon?”

I decided it was high time I intervened, “Oh, don’t blame him, Detective. I’ve been distracting him.”

Renfrew’s head snapped up and he immediately broke out a scowl. “Miss Leclerc,” he said in a flat tone. “What are you doing here?”

I sauntered forwards, “I brought your clothes. Laundered and pressed. Thank you so much for helping me out with that. It was terribly kind.”

“It was my pleasure,” Renfrew gave the appropriate social response, but his face told me that he wasn’t at all pleased. I handed him the package and he stuffed it under his arm, undoubtedly wrinkling the clothes that Gunther had spent such time on. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have —”

“Actually,” I said, leaning on the counter again, “I do have something to talk to you about. Some information about the —”

Renfrew grunted and jerked his head, indicating to the sergeant that I should be let through. I smiled at the desk sergeant and slipped through the door, following Renfrew back to his office and making certain that my heels clicked loudly on the floor. It wasn’t always useful to be a woman. But it certainly did help set men on edge and right now, that was what I needed. I hoped.

Renfrew practically slammed the office door behind me, making the glass rattle in its frame. He threw the package of clothes on a chair and paced for a few feet. Then, he turned and glowered at me. “I wish you wouldn’t get involved. Any of you. You’ve been causing more trouble than you’re worth.”

“Well, I’m sure we’re sorry about that,” I said, “but I don’t see how it can be the case. After all, we did get Mrs. Rottery’s letter. And when I tell you what we found today —”

“Do you seem to realise that you’re dealing with people who had someone murdered?” Renfrew snarled, slamming his hands on his desk. I took a step back and fell into the chair where he had tossed his package. I fished it out and set it neatly on the corner of his desk, taking a moment to straighten the paper and make Renfrew uncomfortable. He sighed and sank into his own chair. “You are not the police, Miss Leclerc. The people we’re dealing with are dangerous criminals. If they thought that you were investigating them, or at all getting in their way, you would be the next to end up like Mr. Rottery.”

“We haven’t done anything dangerous,” I said slowly. “Only talked to Mr. Rottery’s widow on behalf of the Scribe’s House. And I went to the races with Cassidy, but that’s hardly dangerous, except to my social standing. Okay, Rome and Howard did end up getting into a pub brawl, but they made it out alright. We haven’t done anything dangerous, Detective.”

“Except poked your nose all over this investigation. If these people are smart enough to poison a man with an imported deadly fruit from America, then they are certainly smart enough to see three incompetent writers bumbling all over this.” Renfrew shook his head.

“Three?” I asked.

“I cannot count Howard amongst you, because he actually knows what he’s doing,” Renfrew admitted. “Actually, I’m surprised he let you come here alone. Or at all.”

I shrugged and brushed imaginary lint off my knee. “After today, everyone was tired. I had to drop off your clothes, so I thought I’d keep you up to date on what we had discovered. I have a car, see, and can get home on my own.”

“Meaning you didn’t tell him,” Renfrew nodded sagely. It was my turn to frown, though I hid it as best I could. “Very well. Tell me what you’ve learned. And then you will promise me that you’re not going to be poking your nose into this investigation any more than you already have. Got it?”

“You cannot stop me from asking questions,” I pointed out. “I can speak with whomever I please.”

“I can arrest your for obstructing a police investigation,” Renfrew showed me his teeth, rather like a feral dog. I pointedly looked away, studying the rest of his office. “Just tell me what you learned, Miss Leclerc.”

I did. It took me longer than I had anticipated, because Renfrew kept stopping me to ask questions, like how sure I was of someone’s name, what they looked like, where I knew these people before. I told him most of the truth, stopping short of revealing exactly, who I was in relation to these people. I made it seem like Howitts was interested in me for my feminine wiles, not my money. And I didn’t tell him how Howitts secured an introduction. The last thing I needed was Detective Renfrew talking with Mrs. Warton.

After the third repetition of, “You’re certain his name was Rhodes,” I leaned back and sighed in exasperation.

“Really, Detective,” I grumbled, “I have been accused of many things in my life — being a horrible cook, having absolutely no patience for small talk, being depraved because I write murders — but this is ridiculous. Yes, I am certain that his name was Rhodes. And yes, I’ve relayed to you exactly everything that Cassidy told me. My goodness.”

“I apologise, Miss Leclerc,” Renfrew said, spreading his hands, “but I was just hoping that you were mistaken.”

“Unlikely,” I replied.

“This is the sort of danger that I was telling you about,” Renfrew said, exasperated. “Rhodes is a well-known criminal. We’ve been trying to put him away for years, now, but nothing ever seems to touch him. He’s a gambler and a thug, but he’s also smart. Slippery.”

“Well, then lay the proper trap,” I said. “He may have been oily, but Rhodes was no more a threat than that fool Howitts. A bit overbearing, perhaps, but little more.”

“That’s because he was in public,” Renfrew growled. He rose and loomed over the desk and me. “You will promise me that you won’t go near Rhodes again. Stay out of this investigation. You’re just creating more trouble for yourself and for me. I can’t keep an eye on you and the potential murderers.”

I stood as well. I’m not very good at being cowed, and if Renfrew was trying to intimidate me into obedience, it wasn’t going to work. “And, as I have explained to you before, we have done nothing wrong. There was nothing dangerous in going to the races and talking with the man. If he’s as dangerous as you say, then I’ll be sure never to arrange a covert meeting with him at night… Do you think he was the one who murdered Rottery?”

Renfrew let out a long breath, then nodded. “I’d say so, yes. He has the brains, certainly, to come up with a plan like that. Though I imagine it was more a matter of asking one of his men to find an obscure poison that wouldn’t be traced back to him.”

“Well, then I’ll be sure to eat nothing I don’t know the source of,” I said. “If you’ll excuse me, Detective, I’m rather tired and I would like to get home before I miss dinner entirely.”

Renfrew let me go to the door without comment, though it obviously pained him. Before I could close him in his lonely box, he said again, sharper, “Please, don’t go messing around with him.”

“Very well,” I said. “I won’t. If it means that much to you. But you have to promise me something in return.”

“Alright,” Renfrew said warily, though victory was glinting in his eyes.

“You have to figure out a way to arrest this Rhodes character,” I said. “You have to arrest him and make certain there’s enough evidence that he goes to jail directly.”

“Be hanged, you mean,” Renfrew said. I straightened my shoulders and nodded.

“If that’s what it takes.”

“I will do my best,” Renfrew promised. I nodded and closed the door behind me, taking care not to rattle the glass. I hadn’t gotten what I came to get. I didn’t know what the Detective had learned about the races. But I did know who had killed Rottery. Or, at least led the effort. I had no doubt that Renfrew was right about this Rhodes character, but I did doubt his ability to get the man to justice.

“Good evening, Miss,” the desk sergeant said, pleased to have seen the back of me.

“Good evening,” I waved, doing my best to put on a friendly smile. I didn’t want to. I wanted to go after Rhodes and march him back to the station to confess. But I had given my word to the detective and that did mean something.

It meant that I would have to be more creative about how I went about capturing Rhodes.

I walked outside and pulled my coat tight. At least it wasn’t raining.

“Well, did you get everything you wanted?”

I jumped and spun, which is not something I recommend doing in heels, when you aren’t dancing. I wobbled, stumbled backwards and ended up flat on my bum, staring up at the rather shocked form of Graustark.

He winced and held out his hand. I ignored it pointedly and picked myself up off the ground, dusting my coat off. “You really shouldn’t sneak up on people,” I complained.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to. I just… sorry,” Graustark mumbled. He shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, pulling out my keys for the MG. “I thought you were going to go home. Get some ice on that eye.”

“I saw you pick up the pack of clothes,” Graustark said. “I figured you’d stop by the station and that things would get explosive if Detective Renfrew didn’t tell you anything.”

“What, you thought you’d come to my rescue?” I couldn’t help but chuckle. “So much for that.”

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Graustark protested again. “It’s just… I thought that the detective would have an easier time telling me about his findings than you.”

“That’s very kind,” I patted Graustark’s arm, “but we managed just fine.”

“Did you?” Graustark looked skeptical.

“Yes. And I’ll tell you all about it in the morning, after you go home and put some ice on that eye. I have to go schmooze my family and somehow get something edible for my supper,” I said. “Goodnight, Howard.”

“Goodnight, Marie,” Graustark grumbled before stalking off to go call a cab, or find his car, or however he planned on getting home. Knowing him, he was probably going to just walk. I shook my head and climbed in the car.

Maybe a good night’s sleep would give me an idea about what to do next.

Thankfully, I arrived home late enough that I could just call for a tray in my room instead of being subjected to all sorts of questioning over dinner. Gunther solemnly delivered the tray and promised not to tell anyone that I was home until much later. That way, I could get out of any after-dinner activities that my family might have planned.

That was as far as my luck went, though.

About ten minutes after I started in on the chicken and potatoes, the doorbell rang. Ours was one of those dreadful bells that rang loud enough for the whole house to hear. It was the privilege of the wealthy to be able to ignore the bell, though they heard it. I figured it was one of Charlotte’s friends, come for a nightcap. And, taking the privilege for what it was, wrapped my dressing gown tighter and ignored the bell.

Until Gunther came and knocked on my door.

“Yes?” I asked when he poked his head in, his serious features looking more serious than usual. “What’s wrong?”

“There is a Mr. Howitts and a Mr. Rhodes here for you, Miss,” Gunther said. “They claim to be returning a brooch that you dropped at the races this afternoon.”

“Ridiculous,” I said, but I set my book and my dinner aside. “Do they look as though they have any intention of leaving?”

“No, Miss. Your parents are still up, and your father was making noises of having a card game now that there are enough players,” Gunther sniffed disapprovingly. I felt inclined to do the same.

“Well, drat. Evening kit?” I asked.

“Indeed, Miss. Shall I tell them you’ll be down shortly?” Gunther asked.

“Give me ten minutes. No, five. And please, call Howard Graustark. Or the police, Detective Renfrew. Either one would be helpful,” I grumbled, getting up and stalking over to my wardrobe to see what sort of evening dresses Charlotte would have left there.

“What reason shall I give?” Gunther asked, something in his tone betraying a slight sense of scandal for the thought of phoning without a definitive reason. The man was a genuine antique, but I doubt my parents could have managed without him.

“Renfrew would need only hear Rhodes’ name,” I said. “But Graustark might take a little more convincing. Come up with something? Tell him… tell him I’ve been given possession of a rather mystifying, time sensitive clue.”

“Indeed, Miss,” Gunther said with a bow of his head. He left and I took two of my five minutes to stare at the clothes in my wardrobe. Why in the world would Howitts and Rhodes be here? My parents’ house was not difficult to find, and if they knew my name, then I wouldn’t be difficult to find by default. No, the question was what in the world could bring those two out here?

Renfrew’s warnings were starting to seem more than valid.

“I haven’t done anything,” I snapped to myself as I dressed in something blue and long. “I just asked questions. Innocent questions. There’s no reason to suspect anything. They have a whole lot of people who know I’m here. It will be fine.”

I did what I could with my hair, threw on a gaudy and expensive necklace and discovered that the one pair of shoes I had for evening wear was a deep, deep purple. Well, at least I didn’t have a reputation for being fashion forwards.

I made it down the stairs in six minutes, which was pretty good considering what it took to primp. My family had already moved from the dining room to the drawing room. I heard a jazzy tune playing on the radio and bubbly laughter that could only be coming from Charlotte and my mother.

I walked in, hoping that I wouldn’t need a drink to get through this.

“There you are, Marie!” my mother swung her arms in a sweeping gesture that splattered brandy on the wooden floors. She didn’t even notice. “You didn’t tell us you were going to have guests over.”

I smiled at the lack of admonishment in my mother’s voice. “I wasn’t aware that I was going to have guests over.”

“Ah, well, that’s partly my fault,” Howitts laughed, sloshing his own drink perilously close to the edge of the glass. “Rhodes found the brooch that you dropped, and since we were both going out tonight anyways, we figured we’d drop it by.”

“That’s very kind,” I said, looking around for the drinks service. Gunther or some intelligent maid had removed it to the far side of the room, where anyone wanting a drink would have to step more than a few paces away from the activity. They couldn’t actually remove the service without being told off — as I knew full well — but they could discourage the effort of getting a drink. I debated and decided against it.

“Here you are,” Howitts said, producing some enormous, hideous thing made of gilt and glitter. It looked like it might have been a butterfly in a previous life, but some enterprising artist had obviously gotten their hands on it and ruined the effect. I examined it closely for a moment, thinking that I wouldn’t inflict such things on any of my characters.

“Sorry, but it’s not mine,” I said, shrugging and moving a few steps closer to my mother. Any shelter in a storm. “I would have remembered something so… singular.”

“Really? I could have sworn it was yours,” Howitts said, looking not at all surprised by my announcement. I shrugged again. Rhodes looked around the room for a moment. He might have been mentally pricing out every piece of decor for the excitement shining in his eyes. It hadn’t occurred to me before that this might not have anything to do with my investigation. This visit might have simply been about my — or my parents’ — money.

I was a little insulted, frankly.

“So sorry to have you go through all that trouble,” I said. “But it’s not mine.”

“Definitely not,” Charlotte put in, smirking. “Marie would never be so daring. She’s much more the blend into the background sort.”

“She could hardly blend,” Howitts said, preening and smiling in what was likely meant to be a flattering way. My goodness, how could a girl possibly ignore such obvious charm?

I turned and went to get a drink.

“Oh, well, such a shame,” my father said, shaking his head. He, at least, looked marginally more in control of his head than my mother. “All that trouble and nothing to show for it.”

“It was worth the trip,” Howitts said with a nod. Charlotte hid a snicker behind her hand and exchanged a glance with her brother. I don’t think he understood quite what was going on.

“It’s always nice to have friends of Marie’s come by,” my mother purred. “We haven’t seen many for so long and then three people in two days. My goodness, what a shock it was!”

“I’m just busy with my writing, Mother,” I said, sitting in a vacant chair and holding the gin and tonic up as a shield.

“Even so, it’s good to see you with such good friends,” my mother insisted. Howitts shuffle-stepped closer to my chair while Rhodes sidled closer to my father. I didn’t hear everything that was said between them, but cards were certainly mentioned. My mother chatted happy banalities in Howitts direction and Charlotte spent much of her time smirking at me.

The bell rang and I jumped, nearly spilling my own drink. Curses, I had forgotten about Gunther’s telephone calls. I really hoped that Detective Renfrew wouldn’t show up and start flashing his badge around. That would make this whole situation much, much worse. I was far more relieved than I had any right to be when Graustark walked in the door, instead.

He was wearing full evening kit, too, and I winced. He had probably been going to some function at the theatre or an event with his publisher. And here I was, interrupting.

Gunther led Graustark in and spoke the necessary words of announcement. No one heard him, over my mother’s pleased cry. “Oh, look who’s back! It’s Greybark, isn’t it?”

“Graustark,” he corrected with a slight frown. I rose from my chair and wandered over.

“Thanks for coming,” I said, dragging the man over to the drinks service. We might be able to get a private word there. “I didn’t realise you were going out and, well…”

“All I was told was that you had some sort of time sensitive information,” Graustark said drily. “I gather that this had nothing to do with the investigation and more to do with protection for the evening?”

I blushed, which I desperately try to avoid. “No, actually. Those two men are the ones Cassidy and I met at the races. Howitts and Rhodes,” I nodded to each of them. “They showed up with some ridiculous story about returning a particularly hideous brooch of mine.”

“You don’t wear brooches,” Graustark said.

“Which is why I panicked,” I said, pouring far too much gin into Graustark’s gin and tonic. He took the alcohol from me and set it back on the service. I scowled at the cut glass so I wouldn’t have to see Graustark’s raised eyebrows. “Renfrew’s warning might have scared me more than I thought.”

“It’s not unreasonable to be frightened when two men you hardly know show up at your house following a discreet investigation,” Graustark said. My scowl deepened at his rationality.

“Well, the point’s moot anyways,” I mumbled, sipping at my own drink. I winced; this one had been too strong, too. “It appears that they’re only here to get closer to the money.”

“That seems rather a long-term plan of action,” Graustark said slowly, voice dripping with disbelief.

“My parents are very, very wealthy,” I pointed out. “And I inherit a great deal of that.”

“Indeed,” Graustark said. “But my point was more along the lines of why both Howitts and Rhodes came if they were after your money, in a matrimonial sort of way.”

I frowned, considered. “Well, curses. They’re here to goad my father into a card game.”

“I imagine that would be the more immediate quarry,” Graustark agreed. “Not that your idea was untenable.”

I replaced my gin and tonic with a small port and sipped it. Better. Graustark took a whiskey and soda, though I had never seen him drink something so strong. “What do I do, now?”

“It looks as though the game has already been decided,” Graustark noted as we wandered back over to the rest of the room. We could hardly stay there much longer without it seeming suspicious. Already Howitts was eyeing Graustark darkly. I couldn’t just announce to my father that he was about to play a game with two potential card sharks and murderers. That would ruin the evening and the investigation.

Graustark came up with his own solution. He strode up to my father and asked, point blank, “Do you have room for another player?”

Oh, yes. This was going to end well. Just delightfully.

Being my family, card games were done on a rather grander scale than otherwise. A whole room in the house was devoted to the games, with enough tables for five games at once. There was a sideboard with drinks and small nibbles for when the games went on early into the morning. There were plush chairs for observers who were inclined to fall asleep. Then, of course, there was the fact that the stakes of each game usually were a good deal higher than usual. I had known my father to lose a car and merely laugh about it. He had then gone on to win the car back, as well as a ruby necklace which my mother abhorred.

I had never much cared for cards and had only sat in one the games but rarely. Frankly, I thought it was a stupid sport, betting money on the luck of the draw. That night, I thought it was beyond stupid. I was fairly certain that bad things were going to happen.

The question was whether or not those bad things would involve me murdering something or making sure everyone else was murdered.

“Does anybody want anything to drink?” my father offered before we all sat down. Howitts and Rhodes accepted and Graustark held up his own glass as proof that he was already supplied. I considered it and decided that I would much rather have my full faculties, just in case. My father poured a rather generous amount of whiskey and I saw the two intruders eyeing the glass with calculation and hints of arrogance.

They were in for a surprise if they thought the alcohol was going to dull my father’s wits. He, unlike many, seemed to only get more cunning when he drank. It was why I never played chess with him after seven in the evening.

We all arranged the chairs around one of the larger tables. Charlotte and her brother had demurred, knowing that the stakes of the game were likely to rise far above their purse. My mother had stayed with them, not caring one bit about cards. That left me as the only observer.

Howitts pushed one of the plush chairs over to where he was sitting, “Would you care to be my luck, Miss Leclerc-Grange?”

“Only an American would be so presumptuous,” I said, doing my best to make it sound as though I was teasing. I wasn’t. “This is my father’s house, so I should sit by him.”

“I have enough of an advantage, Marie darling,” my father said, patting my hand. “Go sit with Mr. Howitts.”

I swallowed my frown and did as I was told, though I considered moving my chair to Graustark’s side just for spite. That wouldn’t help my case much, though. If Howitts saw Graustark as a potential enemy, things could go very badly. Not that they weren’t already poised in that direction. So I sat just behind Howitts’ right shoulder and watched the proceedings.

Rhodes was a silent player, who made no effort to join in the conversation. If a question was fielded in his direction, then he ignored it. If it were impossible to ignore, then he gave a monosyllabic answer. His attention was focused solely on the cards and the other players. His shoulders were hunched slightly and his expression was schooled and calm. A difficult read, if ever there was one.

Howitts ran to the opposite end of the spectrum. He made no effort to keep his expression calm; his emotions, though, were directed at the substance of the conversation. He talked up a storm, drawing my father and Graustark into a debate or an analysis of whatever subject suited his fancy. He laughed when someone made a joke, frowned when someone said something he disagreed with and did his best to nudge me into appreciating his eligibility. In essense, he made it seem as though he weren’t interested in the game at all. That made him as difficult to read as Rhodes.

Graustark lay somewhere between the two. He would speak, but only when something was addressed to him. His attention was focused on his own cards and the other players’ expressions. His face, though, wore its usual solemn visage, as though everything was serious and needed consideration. In that regard, he was much like my father. Graustark, though, didn’t wear a wolf’s grin.

I had no idea how these people kept track of the rules of the game. It was some form of poker, though I didn’t know what. The patterns of the cards were somewhat familiar, and I could tell by how Howitts organised his cards whether he had a decent hand or not.

In all of my book writing, I realised I had never had any of my characters play a game of cards that was central to the plot. I had inserted a few games to pass the time or indicate that someone was a gambler, but little more than that. And that meant I had done no research on how a game actually worked. My time watching cards from years ago was lost to the fog of memory and disinterest. So when I started to get a feeling for how things were going, it was rather astonishing.

All of the players were capable. More than capable, apparently. These were people who played for more than money, though that prize would be welcome. They played for pride.

I watched as they passed around the table, taking turns calling each other out or raising the stakes. The first few hands were meant for them to take each other’s measure. The stakes were fairly low, and each hand won or lost was almost casual, though you wouldn’t know it from their actions.

“So, Graustark is it?” Howitts asked as he cheerfully took another card. “Old friend of Miss Leclerc-Grange, are you?”

“You could say that,” Graustark answered with a touch more seriousness than the question merited. No need to make me sound like a pariah. I scanned Howitts’ cards and decided that they were average, but could be played depending on the rest of the players. I thought.

“She never mentioned you,” Howitts replied as he took a sip of his drink. “At least, not when we met earlier today at the races with, ah, what’s his name? Writer fellow.”

“Cassidy Jones,” Graustark supplied evenly, making Howitts lift his head in surprise. “Yes, we are all acquainted.”

“You must be some sort of writer or publisher, too, then,” the American said. He did something with his chips that looked like a bet. Rhodes matched it a split second later, leaving my father the next to consider.

“Oh, he’s a writer like Marie,” my father said, casually tossing his cards down in a draw or fold or whatever. “They’re all part of the same club.”

“It’s hardly a proper club, Father,” I said, keeping my eyes on the game. “Writers get together and talk. We have meals, guest speakers, retreats. It’s more of a… a haven of sorts.”

“Sounds like a club to me,” my father replied. “Still, it gets you out talking with people. You should have seen her when she was writing her first novel. Would hardly leave the house except to talk rambling walks that would last for hours. Writing or walking, that was all she did. It was a heck of a book, though.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure of reading her books,” Howitts said, throwing in more chips. Rhodes hesitated a fraction of a second longer than before, his eyes darting between Howitts and Graustark. Neither payed him any attention. “Though I did go and buy one after our meeting. I was just too intrigued. What do you write, Mr. Graustark?”

“Murder mysteries, much like Marie,” he replied, taking a final card. There was some pause while the cards were displayed and Rhodes declared the hand’s winner. Graustark nodded his deference and took his turn to deal.

“Your books and mine are hardly in the same class,” I said, watching the cards in Howitts’ hand. The pile of chips in the middle began to grow to rather large proportions. I didn’t know the value of each piece, but things were not looking good. There was a lot of money being played and the game had barely begun.

“Why’s that?” Howitts asked. “Surely you don’t think your books are bad?”

I tossed my head back in a scoff, “Of course not. I’m a good writer. But I know my limits. And I haven’t had the experience that Howard has. He used to work as a police coroner. He knows all about the procedure and the investigation. I write characters, stories and emotions.”

“A police coroner?” Howitts said, the slightest jump in his pulse showing at his neck. “Why’d you stop doing that and start writing?”

Graustark looked up from his cards to study Howitts, though his gaze flickered to me more than once. I did my best to pay attention to the game, but the conversation was becoming increasingly interesting to me. Maybe if we could back the two into a tight corner, Graustark and I would be able to get them arrested and away from my father and myself before any trouble. I doubted it, but it was worth a try.

“I found the politics to be distasteful,” was Graustark’s answer. I knew it wasn’t the real reason. Rome, Cassidy and myself had all tried to wheedle the reason out of Graustark at one point or another, and we had all received different, but equally vague replies. The pension wasn’t good enough. The medical practises had changed. Graustark wanted to work his own hours. No matter how many times we had asked, he always had another answer. Eventually, all three of us had stopped trying. The shadows that passed over Graustark’s eyes were always deeper after we asked.

“Politics will do that,” my father agreed. He raised the bet and I saw a glimpse of interest as Rhodes raised as well. The hand played out badly for my father, though Graustark pulled out before he lost too much. Rhodes was the winner again, a small smile of pleasure showing itself as he pulled his winnings towards him.

“Well done,” Howitts said, far more cheerfully than I would have expected. He had lost a considerable piece in the hand. “Rhodes here is a fantastic card player. I’ve only beat him a handful of times, but it never stops me from trying. It’s exhilarating when I can manage it.”

I clenched my fist tight enough to dig my nails into my palm. I knew what he was doing. Howitts was goading my father and Graustark into believing that Rhodes was able to be beaten, but only by the best. He was drawing them into a challenge that many would be hard pressed to turn down. I imagined the next hand would be lost by Rhodes, just to keep them interested. A card shark and his lure.

The conversation turned from Graustark’s writing career to the reason that Howitts came to England — looking for investment, apparently — then to my current novel, the races, even how my father’s business was going. The topics got no nearer the murder than I had managed earlier that afternoon. The game, though, became increasingly gripping.

Rhodes did lose a hand with fairly low stakes, to my father. Howitts pulled in the next one. Then, things began to start in earnest. I started understanding more of the patterns involved and saw that Howitts was consistently pulling decent hands. Every hand was one that would guarantee a win, unless someone had a very good hand. Rhodes, more often than not, managed to show a very good hand.

Until Graustark developed a small line between his brows. I knew that look. It was the one that told Rome and Cassidy to stop their bickering or they were going to be soundly ousted from the Black Thumb Society meeting. It was what kept people from getting too close in the street. It was what usually happened about three weeks before Graustark finished his novel, and almost every time that I challenged him to a game of chess only to lose spectacularly.

It was his look of pure concentration.

The game started to shift.

At first, it was fairly slow. Graustark won a hand. Then my father. Howitts scraped in a few chips, then my father again. After the clock struck midnight, though, Graustark started winning a considerable amount. Howitts started frowning more. His decent hands became more mixed. He didn’t win any hands and neither did Rhodes. My father managed a couple more before he bowed out, claiming tiredness.

He left us in complete silence, the players too intent on their game to notice his leaving. I waved him a goodnight and he slipped out, having lost no money that I could tell.

Graustark played a few hands more, steadily building on the pile of chips that lay before him. The clock struck one and he finally pushed back from the table. “I think I’ve had enough, gentlemen. Marie, are you going to stay or go?”

“I’m exhausted,” I said, rising.

“Now, I don’t suppose you’d take an IOU?” Howitts asked, jaw clenched despite his smile.

“I’m perfectly willing to take a cheque,” Graustark said with a nod. Howitts mumbled and wrote out a cheque. Rhodes scowled, but payed over his losings in cash. “Thank you, gentlemen,” Graustark said, calmly tucking away the winnings in his billfold. “It has been interesting.”

“Indeed,” Rhodes said, teeth bared.

“I hope the evening was a good one, despite you having to come out all this way,” I said, playing the hostess. Gunther appeared in the doorway to the game room as though he had been summoned. Rhodes and Howitts were steered quietly out the door and into the great hall.

“An evening in your company is always a good one,” Howitts said, kissing my hand. I let him, keeping my smile tired and polite. “I hope to see you again, soon.”

“Yes, well. Have a safe drive,” I said, ushering them to the door. A few more pleasantries and glares from Rhodes to Graustark and they clambered into their car. The engine sputtered a few times before purring to life and tearing down the drive. I wandered over to the stairs and sat.

“Oh, my,” I said, hand shaking slightly.

“There was nothing to worry about,” Graustark said, sitting on the step beside me.

“You were manipulating the cards,” I murmured.

“A trick I learned a long time ago, when I was working with a genius and a madman on a particularly frustrating case,” Graustark explained. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “We haven’t seen the last of them.”

“Not after you won that much money,” I agreed. Graustark let out a long breath and leaned back on his elbows. “Should we call Detective Renfrew?” I asked, “Tell him what happened?”

“The morning is soon enough,” Graustark replied. He turned to look at me and sighed again. “You wouldn’t happen to have a spare bedroom I could use for tonight? I don’t think driving back would be the best thing for me at this time of night.”

“Of course,” I said. I pulled myself up by the banister and turned to Gunther, who was already waiting like the ghost he was. “Can you find a room and some spare things for Mr. Graustark?”

“Of course, Miss,” Gunther said. He led Graustark up the stairs to one of the guest rooms. I followed behind, slipping into my own room before I collapsed. I didn’t know if it was exhaustion or stress that was making my legs tremble and my hand shake. I just knew that Graustark was right. We had definitely not seen the last of Rhodes and Howitts.

The investigation had gotten more than a little personal.

Morning stumbled around all too quickly for my tastes. I crawled out of bed once the light pierced my windows. I managed a quick wash and did my best to run a brush through my hair. After that, the only effort I was willing to go through was throwing on a pair of old, worn trousers, a sweater with holes in the elbows. I shuffled down to breakfast, still blinking blearily.

“Good morning, Miss Leclerc.”

I stared at the person greeting me for a moment before my brain started working properly. That woke me up with a jolt stronger than any cup of tea. “Detective Renfrew,” I said. He was sitting at the table, buttering a piece of toast while my mother looked on in curious interest. Well, this day could be going better.

I went to the side board, where toast, eggs, various meats and cheeses, and fruit were laid out. I put food onto my plate, only slightly aware of what it was I grabbed. I sat, and Gunther was already pouring out tea. “Thank you, Gunther. Did Mr. Graustark already —”

“What was that?” Graustark asked, shuffling into the dining room with about as much energy as I had displayed. He took one look at the expectant detective and his expression grew more serious. “I see.”

“I received a telephone call from, Gunther was it? From Gunther here. He said that Miss Leclerc-Grange and Mr. Graustark would want to be talking with me in the course of the morning. I came up early, since I was quite curious to know what could possibly be going on at the Leclerc-Grange household that I would need to be involved in.” Renfrew raised his cup to his lip and raised his eyebrows at me.

“Marie, this doesn’t have anything to do with one of your books, does it?” my mother asked. She tugged at the gold-and-diamond necklace that she wore and I did my best to focus my attention on my toast. The toast was far safer than the jungle I was about to enter into.

“It’s… research,” I said after no one else chimed in. Graustark was, apparently, equally cowed by the situation. Either that or he handled staying up late and drinking alcohol with a couple of potential murderers as well as I did. “We can go take a walk around the grounds just as soon as we’re done with breakfast.”

“Oh, don’t mind me,” my mother flapped her hand dismissively. “Just pretend I’m not even here.”

“But you are here,” I pointed out. “And you’re about the worst gossip. This is all a bit hush-hush. Just until my publisher gives me the go-ahead.”

“I received a note from your publisher just this morning,” my mother said. “It got forwarded from your flat and in all the mess, I haven’t had a chance to give it to you.”

“All the mess? I just came down, Mother. You didn’t read it, did you?” I asked. I wouldn’t put it past my mother to open my mail, just so she knew exactly what was going on and when. Thankfully, Gunther returned to the room with the various pieces of morning mail. None had yet been opened.

“Why would you say that, darling?” my mother reached out for the letters and flicked through them with disinterest. I let out a slow breath and opened my own mail. Graustark let out a low cough and exchanged a look with Renfrew. I narrowed my eyes.

“Great,” I muttered. I folded the letter and shoved it into my pocket. “I have to go to my publisher’s office after lunch today. It seems that the editor approved the manuscript and my publisher wants to discuss covers and the book release.”

“That was fast,” Graustark commented cooly, as if none of the activities of the night before had happened. Or, as if Detective Renfrew weren’t sitting in the chair next to him, scraping up the last of his eggs on a corner of bread. As if book business was all the business that mattered.

Thank goodness for some semblance of normalcy.

“Well, the last one did so well that I was told to get this one out as quickly as possible,” I said. “But it’s phrases like ‘book release party’ and ‘theme options’ that worry me.”

“Indeed,” Graustark said. “I’ve been so busy these past few days that I imagine I’ll soon be contacted for an update on my own manuscript.”

I scoffed and shook my head. “Your publishers think you’re gold, so I doubt there will be any problems. Did you hear back from your editor about that paragraph you were having troubles with?”

My nonsense drivel did the trick. My mother sighed in boredom and slithered out of her chair. “You have a good day, darling. I have to head into town. I’m meeting up with that dreadful woman, Mrs. Daimler? She runs the committee for my charity and I foolishly said we’d have lunch.”

“Good luck,” I said. My mother tossed her hair and left the dining room with a wave. After she left, the tension in the room increased. Silence was loud enough to make me hesitate to eat, for fear my fork and knife might scrape against the plate.

Graustark took a deep breath and spoke first, “Rhodes and Howitts were here last night.”

As one might expect, that statement went over stunningly well.

Renfrew swept his arms back as he recoiled, knocking over his cup and spilling a generous amount of coffee over the table. This was followed by a sound number of curses that brought Gunther to the table. The butler bent to cleaning up the spill and the broken porcelain with a cool expression and discreet silence. Renfrew muttered under his breath until Gunther had left.

Then, he turned and fixed me in his very fierce gaze. “What did you do?” he demanded.

“Why do you think I had anything to do with this?!” I protested. Okay, yes, Howitts and Rhodes had appeared at my house because of the promise of my family’s money, but I hadn’t invited them. Even I wasn’t that stupid.

I threw a look to Graustark, pleading his help. He dabbed the corner of his mouth with a napkin. “It wasn’t Marie’s fault, Detective,” he said. “At least, not entirely.”

“Oh, not entirely, eh?” Renfrew was spitting mad. “Maybe it would have helped to know that your friend here is lying about her identity. Leclerc indeed. Only part of the story!”

I sighed through my nose, making certain that Renfrew knew the extent of my exasperation. “Honestly, Detective. You’re basing your opinion of me on my family name. There is a good reason why I don’t go announcing that to the general populace. My books would hardly get the credit they’re due. And riding on my family’s coattails would be something like eating scandal for breakfast every morning. I prefer to avoid such things. Everything else I told you has been the truth. Including the information regarding Howitts and Rhodes.”

“Then why did they show up here?” Renfrew snapped.

I frowned at my fruit, “Poor planning when I went to the races. I met someone who knew me as part of the family.”

“Oh,” Renfrew said. He sounded mildly contrite, but not nearly enough for my satisfaction. I  was about to explain — and make certain that Renfrew knew I wasn’t pleased — when Graustark interrupted.

“She is telling the truth,” he said simply. I harumphed and crossed my arms. Graustark explained the situation with the two potential murderers and all that had happened the night before. He even produced the cheque that Howitts had written for Renfrew, in case a handwriting comparison could be made with the letter sent to Mrs. Rottery.

After everything was said, Renfrew stared at the table and looked thoroughly annoyed. He fixed a piercing look at both Graustark and myself. “My investigations were never this difficult. This is why we don’t encourage amateurs to get involved,” Renfrew said.

“Yes, well, next time a murder happens at Scribe’s House, we’ll be sure to completely ignore any possible information taht might help the police,” I replied. I didn’t bother to keep the snark out of my voice.

“What you mean,” Graustark said, looking worried enough that I looked away, “is that we won’t pursue any more independent investigations.”

“I always figured you knew what you were doing,” Renfrew pointed a finger at Graustark. The detective took a deep breath, stretching his suit to straining. “Now, though, I have a pair of dangerous men who are going to be after the both of you. One of whom is the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most notorious families in the country, no matter how much she might deny it. The other… well, both of you are going to need to stay behind closed doors for a few days.”

“Except for meeting with my publisher,” I said.

“No,” Renfrew growled.

“I can’t miss this meeting. My career depends on it,” I said. That might have been an exaggeration, but it was an important meeting. And my publisher, murderers aside, would skin me alive if I missed the meeting. She would probably be glad to do it with Detective Renfrew watching.

“Publishing meetings are important,” Graustark put in, as if that was going to help.

Renfrew considered. I saw his mind spinning. He frowned and looked at the decor in the room: expensive, high-quality, probably ludicrous for a normal person to consider. Then Renfrew looked at me. Worn out trousers. A sweater with holes in the elbows. He shifted his gaze to Graustark: put-together if perhaps a little tired.

“You can go to your publishing meeting on one condition,” Renfrew said, pointing accusingly at me. I raised my eyebrows. “You are going to be followed around by plain-clothes policemen. They will be keeping an eye on you at every step of the way. And he —” a jab at Graustark — “goes with you to your meeting.”

“You don’t trust me to go alone?” I said, putting all of my indignant female attitude into the question. Renfrew’s eyebrows lowered ominously.

“Not a whit,” he growled. “And at least Howard has some sense about how police business works. If anything happens, I want someone responsible there to sort things out.”

“Fine,” I said loftily. “In that case, I’ll go change. If I’m going to be followed around like some hopeless victim, I might as well look good while doing it.”

With that, I rose and sauntered out of the room, ignoring the two men who stared blatantly at me as I left. Traitors.

Detective Renfrew’s stifled gasp that turned into a cough as I returned to the dining room went a long ways towards smoothing over my irritation. He had, up until this morning, seen me in clothing I wore while writing — trousers and a shirt — bedraggled and in sodden clothes, wearing his own knockoffs, and bundled up in a coat. He had never yet seen me play the part of capable woman. Obviously, it worked.

The dress I wore was borrowed from Charlotte. It pinched a little in the shoulders and was slightly too short on me, but it was made of the finest deep blue velvet and went very nicely with the one pair of decent heels I owned. I paired it with a mink stole borrowed from my mother and had even bothered to put my hair up.

Graustark, annoying man that he is, simply sipped the last of his tea, “Aren’t you a little overdressed for a meeting with your publisher?”

“Not if you take me to lunch at the Waldorf,” I snarked back, lifting my chin and rubbing a hand over the stole. Graustark took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He replaced the tea cup in its saucer and pushed back from the table, rising. He was still taller than me, even in heels. How annoying.

“We’re going to have to stop at my flat so I can get changed,” Graustark pointed out. That stuck a pin in my ego and I deflated slowly. He had shown up at my house to help me out, no questions asked, last night. He had stayed up playing the card shark with two other card sharks who were also, in all likelihood, murderers. He had stayed over and been conscripted in going with me to my publishers, so I wouldn’t get attacked, kidnapped or killed by Howitts and Rhodes. And what was I doing? Complaining and demanding lunch.

“Of course, Howard,” I said, trying to put my apology into my words. He gave me a half smile. 

“I’ve made all the arrangements,” Renfrew said as we made our way to Graustark’s car. “There will be two policemen following you at every step. If anyone tries anything, we’ll have them.”

I froze, one foot poised to climb into the automobile. Graustark was already in the driver’s seat and gave me a confused look. I shook my head and climbed in, settling myself with a last look over my shoulder at Renfrew. I had always known the detective was intelligent, capable. I had not known that he was devious as well.

Graustark waited to speak until we were halfway to the city. “We can still call your publisher and reschedule, if you want.”

“Whyever would we do that?” I asked, sarcasm practically dripping from my tongue. “Detective Renfrew wouldn’t have anyone to act as bait, then.”

Graustark winced visibly. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, “I’m sorry, Marie. I never wanted this to be so… I asked if there weren’t another way.”

“I know,” I replied, softer this time. “I doubt he would even have considered it, if Howitts and Rhodes weren’t so capable at covering their tracks. Do we even know which one of them killed Rottery?”

“Rhodes is the most likely option,” Graustark said. “But there is still the problem of delivery method and acquisition of the poison.”

“That pie,” I muttered, then leaned my head back. “In my novels, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw my characters into a bait-and-snatch situation. It would add intrigue and a bit of a thrill for the readers…”

“It’s not nearly as thrilling when you’re the bait,” Graustark agreed. We pulled into a space directly across from his building. Graustark opened the door for me and we walked into his building looking like a couple of people who had stayed out late on the town. The dress I wore was perfectly acceptable as day-wear, but I felt all of the prickling discomfort that coming to someone else’s flat in the early morning, wearing evening wear, could bring. It must have been worse for Graustark; he was still in evening clothes and it was his building, to boot.

“Good morning, Mr. Graustark, sir,” the doorman said, tipping his hat. 

“Good morning, Yancey,” Graustark said, perfectly personably and not at all as though my presence were unusual. It occurred to me that I had never been in his flat, and as we waited in the lift, I felt even worse for putting him in this situation.

“I’m sorry about all of this, Howard,” I said. He looked at me over his shoulder while he opened the door.

“Why?” was his simple answer. “None of this was your fault.”

“It feels like it was,” I grumbled, following him into the flat. It was furnished with wooden pieces that held the comfort of many years. There were bookshelves piled high with books, much like the ones in my own flat. I saw at least two blankets strewn over club chairs. The coffee table before the larger couch held a typewriter and a pile of papers that looked scattered and tossed. 

I panicked for a moment. Had someone searched Graustark’s flat? No, he seemed perfectly relaxed. I realised that, despite all of his crisp suits and unflappable gentlemanly airs, he was actually a person who liked comfort over stark cleanliness. And, I discovered as I looked down at a touch on my ankle, he had a cat.

I picked up the striped creature — tiny, eyes too large for its head, bat-like ears that overpowered even the eyes — and cradled it against my stole. The cat purred and dug into my shoulder with its claws. “You have a cat,” I said, swallowing my flinch. 

“Ah, yes. Machiavelli. He appeared in the building about a year ago and I took him in to keep him from being destroyed,” Graustark said. “Feel free to look around. I won’t be a minute.”

He vanished into the back portions of the flat and I decided that this whole situation was beyond strange. I sat on the couch, released Machiavelli, and started going through the papers. 

Yes, yes, I know. But I’m a writer. And when writers see piles of papers, we just can’t help it. As it turned out, none of it was anything terribly sinister. There was a note Graustark had written to himself, reminding him that he had to go look up the train schedule from Exeter to Edinburgh. But most of it was typed out pages of his next book.

I read through one page — a mixture of typed and handwritten segments — before Graustark came to find me. He was wearing a three-piece suit that matched my dress in terms of formality, had combed his dark hair into some semblance of order, and was doing up the cufflink on his right wrist without even looking to see what he was doing.

(I had practised putting on cufflinks for one of my stories, about two years back. It took me months to get the knack down. Curse him.)

I expected Graustark to get angry at me for looking through his unfinished manuscript. He had never let anyone at Scribe’s House see the pieces until he was ready to send them off to his publisher. But all he did was walk over and glance at the page I held in my hand. “Oh, yes. That was a tricky scene. How to get my man into a party that was invitation-only, without relying on some fussy old baroness.”

“And?”

Graustark shook his head, “Inconclusive. I have to rework the whole thing.”

I nodded and set the paper down again. Machiavelli immediately attacked it and knocked the whole pile to the ground. Thank goodness the pages were numbered. 

“Do you think we should telephone Rome and Cassidy?” I asked. 

Graustark considered and raised his shoulders in a half-shrug. “I don’t know. Your publisher probably wouldn’t appreciate a parcel of writers hanging around her office. But we could certainly take them to lunch.”

I shook my head, “Renfrew would hate that. His whole plan would probably fall to pieces. But Rome and Cassidy have been in this from the beginning.”

“They’ve been in an investigation that was more of a lark than a serious situation,” Graustark pointed out, sitting on the couch next to me. The cat clawed its way onto his lap and Graustark flinched. “Ow.”

“I know,” I said. “Still. Cassidy was there when I met Howitts and Rhodes. And it wouldn’t be fair to them that we’re excluding them just as things are, well… I don’t know.”

“Neither of them would want to put you in any more danger,” Graustark said. “But they do have a right to decide for themselves. We did promise to solve Rottery’s murder.”

I grumbled and set about reorganising Graustark’s papers. He watched me for a moment, then, “How about I phone them while you’re in your meeting. I’ll explain the situation and they can decide whether or not to meet us for lunch.”

“I think that will work,” I muttered. I stood, doing my best to look unflustered and confident. “Alright, time to go meet with The Dragon.”

Graustark’s mouth fell open and he raised his eyebrows in complete shock.

I buried my face in my hands, “Don’t tell her that’s what I call her. Please.”

“I won’t,” he said, barely containing his laughter. I scowled.

“Marie, my dear,” the Dragon said as I entered her office. The Dragon’s name was Yve Martland. She was about sixty, with a pudgy person, rounded features that made her look childlike and brown eyes that were dubious enough to hide their cunning. She looked cute and harmless, but I and anyone who ever questioned her, knew better.

“Hello, Yve,” I said. We did the traditional kissing-of-the-cheek and she held me back to look at me.

“Well, it’s about time you started dressing the part of successful author,” she crooned, even running her fingers over my stole.

“It’s research,” I explained away. “I’ll be back to my normal duds as soon as I do my research.”

Though getting back into my flat might take longer.

“Oh, what a shame,” the Dragon purred. “Really, darling, you should at least try to make a bit more of an effort. No one wants to see a famous author walking around wearing worn out clothes.”

“No one expects to see a famous author at all,” I countered, following Yve and sitting in the leather lounge chair she kept exclusively for her authors. “We’re elusive creatures, after all.”

“Until you go to book releases,” she argued. I gave the point to her; book releases were the one place where you would actually expect to see an author. “Now, darling, let’s talk about covers for that book of yours.”

The meeting dragged on far longer than I would have liked. I grumbled silently at myself multiple times for putting off lunch until after the meeting. When Yve got talking about books, she could really get talking. This time, it was colours. As if I knew a thing about colours for a book cover.

“Blues and greys, darling,” Yve said, tossing the mock ups into a pile. “Really, I would think we could come up with something a little more daring. But I’ll send the information along. Now shoo, before I have to kick you out.”

“I’ll see you soon, Yve,” I said. She gave me a grin that was terrifying.

“Indeed. I have a pre-release party to plan,” the Dragon said. I tried to seem enthused about the prospect. I slipped out of her office and practically groaned, exhausted. And starving.

“Good meeting?” Graustark asked. He was perched in one of the waiting chairs, a magazine on his knee. I doubted very much he had been reading it, because it was a women’s fashion magazine. Any port in a storm, though? I walked over to him and debated collapsing in a chair. We were still too close to the Dragon’s den, though, so I just shuffled past Graustark to the door.

He followed, “You look like you’ve been told to rewrite your book.”

“If only it were something as simple as a rewrite,” I mumbled. Graustark took my arm and led me to the street like a tired puppy. I couldn’t bring myself to complain. “No, a rewrite I could do. I know how to write. It’s this, this, hands on approach that Yve started doing about six months back. She wanted me to approve a colour scheme for my book cover. What do I know about colours?!”

“My publisher handles all of that,” Graustark said. “I certainly wouldn’t know anything about designing a book cover.”

We turned into the hotel for luncheon and were met by Rome and Cassidy. Of course they would want to be there.

“What’s this about designing book covers?” Rome asked.

Both he and Cassidy wore more casual suits, Cassidy’s even having patches at the elbow. The waiter didn’t seem to notice, or he took one look at the frown on Graustark’s face and didn’t want to get involved, Either way, we were led to our table without argument and were seated. Drinks were ordered. As soon as we were left in peace, both Rome and Cassidy turned to us. Well, me.

“We hear you’ve been investigating without us,” Cassidy said. There was a small glint of accusation in his eyes. I chose to ignore it.

“Yes, because two people showing up at my parents’ house and practically slavering over my money is what I would call investigating,” I said, curling my lip. Cassidy coughed uncomfortably and sank into his seat a little.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he muttered. Rome was the next to throw the gauntlet.

“Why didn’t you call us last night?” he asked.

“Right. Having three people showing up at my house unexpectedly wouldn’t have been at all suspicious. I could get away with one, and it would be a little awkward if Detective Renfrew had shown up.”

The waiter reappeared with our drinks. We gave our orders and were granted another few minutes peace.

“Sorry, Marie,” Rome said, giving perhaps the most sincere apology I had ever heard from him. “It was just a bit of a shock when Howard called with the news.”

“Then you know exactly what this lunch is about?” I asked. Cassidy winced and sank further into his chair. I looked around and spotted neither Howitts nor Rhodes, nor anyone else close enough to the table to overhear. “I’m bait, here. Do you think I wanted things to turn out this way?”

“No, of course not,” Rome said. He let out a low, frustrated sound and ran his fingers through his hair. “Look, this whole investigation hasn’t turned out like we had thought at all.”

“No, it hasn’t,” I agreed. Cassidy reached out and gave my hand a comforting squeeze.

“We all thought that this would be a fairly simple matter. Maybe a husband with a grudge against Rottery,” Cassidy said. He shook his head. “Then it turns out the man was poisoned with some fruit that we’ve never heard of. And he skipped out on someone else’s money. A connected, dangerous someone. Now, with your background involved, things are just… complicated. I think I’m better served writing this sort of thing than experiencing it.”

“Too many emotions involved,” Rome agreed. He looked at his place setting and straightened a fork. “Writing about it is one thing. Experiencing it something else entirely.”

“At least we know who did it,” I said. I don’t think my cheerful facade worked, though, because all three pairs of eyes gave me a look. “Okay, fine. We know who did it, but we still don’t know how it was done.”

“At this point, our knowledge of ‘who did it’ is still supposition,” Graustark said, ever the rational one. I frowned at him and suppressed the urge to stick out my tongue.

“I know, I know,” I grumbled. “We still need evidence.”

Which was rather the point of us being here. Renfrew knew that he couldn’t get evidence on Rhodes and Howitts in regards to Rottery’s death. But the good detective could get evidence regarding other crimes. Enough to put them away. Of course, in order to gather evidence of other crimes, a crime had to have been committed. And I was a very pretty little piece of moneyed bait. I don’t know exactly what Renfrew was planning, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to, either.

“Look, I’m going to go powder my nose,” I said, sliding out of the chair and depositing my napkin in its place. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

I heard muttering between the three other writers as I walked away to clear my head a bit. Rome sounded like he wanted to go after me, but Graustark held him back. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, I slipped into the hotel lobby and was pointed in the direction of the loo.

I returned a few minutes later and really didn’t want to go back to the restaurant. I wanted to go back to my flat and start writing my next book. Anything to take me away from the notion that I was perfect for playing the victim. I understood Renfrew’s need to use me as bait. I even agreed with it. I didn’t like it, though.

“Miss Leclerc-Grange?” a voice broke me out of my thoughts. I spun and wished I knew some sort of martial arts so I wouldn’t have that awful feeling creeping up my spine. I was faced, not with the persistent Howitts, but with Rhodes. He was dressed for the venue and, had I not known better, I would have suspected this were nothing more than a chance meeting. With such circles as my name walked in, meeting people you knew wasn’t that uncommon.

This, though, was no chance meeting.

“Mr. Rhodes,” I said, forcing a smile. “What a surprise.”

“Indeed. I was just thinking about some luncheon. Would you care to join me?” he asked. Instead of turning towards the restaurant, though, he turned to the doors. My hesitation must have shown, because Rhodes broke out in a smile and slipped his arm through mine, “I have a standing reservation at a nice waterside restaurant. Please say you’ll come with me. It would make my day.”

“Actually, I’m meeting —”

“Really, Miss Leclerc-Grange,” Rhodes said through his smile, “it wasn’t a request.”

The words were said quietly enough that no one else in the lobby heard them. And I could have easily made a scene, but something pressed into my side. I looked down and nearly started giggling in surprise. A gun? Really? This wasn’t some sort of melodrama. I was a writer, not an actress!

But the gun was real enough. And the way that Rhodes led me out of the hotel, his head just slightly shorter than mine, his hand around my waist so the other hand could press the gun against my ribs, was practised and smooth.

I looked around for Renfrew’s promised plain clothes policemen. All I saw were a couple of socialites and a tired looking hotel clerk. Of course the policemen would be in the restaurant. That was where I was supposed to be.

Renfrew wanted evidence of a crime. Well, he had one. Of course, I actually had to survive this idiotic melodrama to present the evidence, but that was just semantics.

Turns out, semantics is rather important.

When Rhodes said that he was going to a waterside restaurant, he wasn’t lying. It was something between a restauranta and a pub and I could see the water from the window. Of course, I could also see the shipping yards with their massive pieces of metal that seemed to have no purpose but to keep people away. The water was brown and smoggy and if anyone was actually entertaining the idea of dining at this restaurant, then they would be hard pressed to find it.

At least I was getting fed.

“I don’t know who your chef is,” I said, twirling a forkful of pasta in cream sauce with all the grace my years of living alone as a writer had taught, “but they are a genius. This is marvellous.”

Rhodes was staring at me with undisguised confusion. I guess I wasn’t acting like the crying, snobby heiress hostage that he had expected. Honestly, though, crying wasn’t going to do me any good. Cassidy, Rome and Graustark likely had no idea where I was. Detective Renfrew’s information on Rhodes and Howitts hadn’t included this particular location in the list of known associations. I was going to have to get out of this one on my own. And I was hungry.

“Would you like some more wine?” Rhodes asked. He frowned at me when I accepted and looked even more bewildered when I hummed happily at my food. “I must admit, Miss Leclerc-Grange, you are a very unusual woman.”

“Is that meant to be a compliment?” I asked. “If so, I think you might need some practice.”

Rhodes drew his brows downwards, “It’s just that I would have expected you to be acting, ah, differently given your current circumstances.”

I put down the wine glass — rather a tasteless blend — and looked at him with all the sardonic skepticism I could muster. “You mean because I’ve been kidnapped and am currently being held here against my will?”

Rhodes didn’t even blink. “Yes,” he said frankly.

“Well,” I lifted a shoulder and took another sip of the tasteless wine. “Then you should have kidnapped someone else. Speaking of, I don’t know why you bothered to kidnap me in the first place. If you’ve sent a ransom note to my parents, then I’m afraid you will be waiting rather a long while for any payment.”

Rhodes tilted his head, “Are you saying your parents don’t love you? Or that the reports of their wealth have been exaggerated?”

I laughed, throwing back my head. “Neither, Mr. Rhodes. Only that my parents are more intelligent than you give them credit for. They will contact the police and leave every aspect of the investigation up to them. In fact, Mr. Graustark — you remember him, don’t you — used to work as a police coroner. I suspect he has a few contacts in Scotland Yard.”

“I see,” Rhodes said, his frown deepening. I placed my silverware on my empty plate and took another small sip of the wine. “In that case, Miss Leclerc-Grange —”

“Please, it’s just Leclerc. The whole thing is such a mouthful,” I waved my hand dismissively. Rhodes tightened his jaw but nodded.

“Very well, Miss Leclerc. If you are convinced that a note to your parents will do no good, then I would suggest we make a trip to your bank. The contents of your accounts as trade for your life?” Rhodes said, laying his hands out as though he were making a reasonable request. It also served to move his jacket enough to show the handle of his gun. I curled my lip to hide the tiny tremor that ran up my spine.

“There’s no need to threaten me,” I sniffed, sitting back in my chair and hiding my trembling hands in fur of my stole. “And, unfortunately, accessing the majority of my funds requires the presence of my solicitor as well as myself. It’s an arrangement drawn up by my father, who didn’t want me running off and getting married then skipping town with all my money and no goodbye. Just in case you were having thoughts about coercing me into a shotgun marriage with your friend Mr. Howitts. That is what they call it in America, isn’t it?”

Rhodes narrowed his eyes. “Miss Leclerc, you are proving to be quite frustrating. Since meeting you, I have been questioned by the police regarding the death of that man at your club, lost a good deal of money at cards and now have very few options regarding repayment.”

“The death of that man at my club?” I raised a single eyebrow. Maybe this situation wasn’t going to be a complete waste after all. Maybe I could salvage something out of it before being shot, drowned, or managing to escape only mildly injured. “You mean Thomas Rottery? The one who was poisoned with that bizarre fruit from America?”

Rhodes rolled his eyes, “Of course I should have known you were aware of that.”

“I write murders for a living, Mr. Rhodes. A murder investigation falls right into my lap. Of course I was aware of it.”

“And your coroner friend told you about the poison. He is too smitten with you for his own good,” Rhodes said.

“So,” I said, putting my arm on the table, “how did you get Rottery to eat the pie? I mean, surely he wouldn’t have done so if he had known it came from you.”

“He wasn’t supposed to eat it until after he had returned the money he cheated out of me,” Rhodes grumbled. “I still don’t know what he did with it.”

“Spent it, probably,” I answered with a half-shrug. “He was, according to his wife, quite notorious with women.”

Rhodes eyed me and shook his head. “The tart was made by Maurice. Whose cooking you so enjoyed.”

I felt my luncheon start to gurgle in my stomach. I licked my lips and swallowed, hoping that I hadn’t just been poisoned. Despite it being Rottery’s cause of death, the thought hadn’t really occurred to me. Why should it? Rhodes wanted me alive to get access to my money.

It was Rhodes’ turn to laugh, now. When he laughed, only half of his mouth moved into a smile. The other half remained perfectly stationary, making it look as though he was mocking me. He probably was. “Don’t worry, Miss Leclerc. We only had enough beach apple for the one tart. And you’re too important to poison at the moment in any case.”

Great. Yes, that made me feel so much better.

Rhodes scratched his thumbnail against the rough surface of the table, making little noises that grated on my ears. From the way he was watching me, he had no doubt that this was annoying me to no end. I sipped at the wine again and wondered if I could order something with a bit more pizzaz. Thank goodness I had eaten the whole plate of pasta, or the wine would be going straight to my head.

“Yes, you present quite the dilemma, Miss Leclerc,” Rhodes said. “You tell me that getting money out of you is going to be difficult, not because of your unwillingness to cooperate but because your fortune has been set up that way. And your parents are supposedly going to go to the police rather than cooperate with kidnappers. You tell me all of these things and they make quite logical sense, but I also know that you are smart enough to want to work your way out of this situation any way you can… am I wrong?”

I licked my suddenly-dry lips. “No,” I rasped. “You’re not wrong. But I didn’t —”

“Please, don’t try to argue with me,” Rhodes said, his mouth curving into a half smile. “I’m really not in the mood.”

I nodded and settled my hands back on the fur, its softness a distraction from the fear eating away at my thoughts.

“I could get you to marry Howitts,” Rhodes said with a nod, “but I doubt it would last very long. And if I kill you, I get no money out of you. And, in all likelihood, the police would come after me quite vehemently. Killing a maintenance worker at a writer’s club is quite a different story from killing a society darling.”

“I imagine we could work something out,” I said drily.

Rhodes inclined his head, “Yes, I imagine we can. The question is, though, what?”

Thankfully for me, Rhodes didn’t get an opportunity to mull over the options. The door to the restaurant opened and a bedraggled looking Howitts barged through the door. He took a look around the otherwise empty room and settled on me and Rhodes, sitting at the table as though we were having a very polite conversation in a not-so-polite restaurant. Well, except for the gun sitting in Rhodes’ waistband and the fact that my shoes had been taken, that is.

Howitts blanched, “It’s true. You really kidnapped her.”

Rhodes growled at the American. “How else were we going to get our money back soon enough to thwart the police? You certainly can’t go back to America, and I need to get out of England.”

That explained the sudden elevation in crime, I supposed. It didn’t make me feel any better.

Howitts’ face twisted, “You can’t be serious! I had a plan. I would have courted her. Stolen her checkbook. Jewels. Anything!”

“You do realise she’s sitting right here,” I said. Howitts went from pale to bright red. His mouth opened and closed a few times as he tried to come up with some sort of placating explanation. I waited, my eyebrows raised.

“Stop being such an idiot,” Rhodes snapped at last. Howitts sank into the chair next to his partner-in-crime. “What are you doing here, anyways? We both swore —”

“They’re practically tearing the city apart looking for her,” Howitts interrupted. He didn’t look at me, so I shifted until it was impossible that he couldn’t see me. Any sympathy I could get was worth the discomfort. “She was being followed by policemen. They’re furious. And those writer friends of hers? Apparently they know everybody who’s anybody.”

Rhodes snarled wordlessly. He slammed his hand onto the table and ignored the fact that my wine glass jumped and fell over. I set the glass upright, ignoring the small pool of alcohol. It was definitely not the best time to suggest something clever to Rhodes in order to instigate my release. He was moments away from breaking completely and I did not want to be the cause.

At least I have some sense of self-preservation.

Rhodes looked around, as though something in the restaurant would provide an answer. “Come on,” he hissed, rising and pulling the gun from his waistband. “We’ll take a boat.”

Howitts was too stunned to argue, so he just nodded. The gun flashed in my direction and I froze. Rhodes curled his lip into a sneer, “You’re still too valuable to kill, Miss Leclerc. So you get to come with us.”

Oh, goodie.

“Can I at least have my shoes?” I asked as we moved to the front of the restaurant. “With the way my day is going, I’d end up stepping on a rusty nail and leave a nice blood trail for the police to follow.”

Rhodes jabbed me with the gun and I stumbled forwards. And, of course, stubbed my toe. I yelped in pain and glared at my kidnapper. Rhodes curled his lip and adjusted his grip on the gun. I held my breath, hoping that my value was still high enough to, oh, you know, not get me killed. 

“Do try not to cause too much trouble, Miss Leclerc,” Rhodes hissed. I nodded and pointed to my feet.

“So, my shoes?” I asked, breaking out my best compliant tone.

Rhodes considered me for a moment and finally jerked his head at Howitts. “You’ll have to carry her.”

“What?” I squawked

“What?” Howitts asked, equally shocked at the request. 

“If she steps on a nail, she’ll leave a lovely blood trail for the police to follow. We can’t have that. And if we give her shoes, she’ll run. So if she steps on something and starts bleeding, carry her.” Rhodes was snarling at this point, baring his teeth like some fell dog. 

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Apparently my predicament could get more cliche. Rhodes was moments away from losing his mind and doing something very stupid. I didn’t want to be at the receiving end of that stupidity. So I tightened my furs around me and walked to the door of the restaurant. It was a whole lot harder to keep my chin up than I had anticipated. Stealing someone’s shoes was a bit humiliating. And fear was waving its ugly head again.

“Good,” Rhodes said. Howitts shot the man a confused look but said nothing. Instead, he walked just to my right, ready to catch me if something should go wrong. 

I hadn’t been thinking about purposely leaving a blood trail for the police. I had been thinking about running — no matter that I had worn heeled shoes, I figured I could make a good go of it. If we left, then there would be no evidence linking me to the restaurant. The police would be searching all over and I could be in France by that time.

So, I would have to do something about it.

Obviously.

The question was: what?

“I’m sorry,” Howitts breathed, putting his hand out to touch my back as I stepped over a particularly large crack in the ground. “I… I didn’t know this was going to happen. I figured that we could get the money another way. Just a harmless con, where no one got hurt.”

“How did that work out for you?” I returned, keeping my voice down. “A man was murdered and I’m looking at the same fate.”

Howitts shook his head, “No. We’ll figure something out. Maybe if you could figure out some way to contact your bank?”

“Not possible. I already explained to Rhodes that my money is pretty well protected. It would take multiple in-face meetings to get any sum more than a hundred pounds. Even if I wrote you a cheque, my bank would verify it before releasing the money,” I said. 

“Your family really must be paranoid about getting robbed,” Howitts said. He looked mildly impressed.

“No, actually, they were more worried about kidnapping,” I replied flatly. “My father has not made it to where he is by being a fool. And my mother may look like a giggling gossip, but she is as savvy as any politician.”

Howitts shrugged a shoulder. I stubbed my toe, again, on a piece of metal jutting out of the pier. Or whorf. Or dock. Whatever those waterfront place are called. I hadn’t written a novel set anywhere near docks and hadn’t done any research as to what the places were called. And even though it should have been the furthest thing from my mind, I couldn’t help wondering what the proper terminology was. As soon as I got out of this mess, I would do research.

In the meantime, my feet were rubbing against the rough ground and we were definitely heading for a boat. It was larger than I would have guessed, perhaps a fishing trawler that had been repurposed in some past life. Now, its hull was painted a horrid shade of green and it had black letters scrawled on the side that were nearly unreadable. Sea Shanty I think it was.

Perfect.

“You could marry me,” Howitts said, slowing his steps as we approached the boat. I glanced over my shoulder at Rhodes. He was still carrying the gun and, more terrifyingly, had lost the insane gleam in his eye. Now he looked perfectly calm and ready to follow through with the kidnapping-and-murder. As soon as they got the money out of me or my family, then I was gone.

“He wouldn’t let it stand,” I murmured. “My money would still be tied up. And, honestly. I’ve seen both of your faces. Who would say that I wouldn’t run to the police as soon as we were wed. Have the marriage annulled. You two would be charged with kidnapping and murder, as I heard the confession. No, I’m sorry. But you are either going to end up in prison or I am going to die.”

I gave Howitts a sad smile and he jerked back like I had hit him. His eyes wavered between Rhodes and I. He opened his mouth to say something. Then, we arrived at the boat. 

“Alright, Miss Leclerc,” Rhodes said, coming up behind me and jabbing his gun in my ribs. I was getting quite annoyed with the gun. I hated being poked at on a good day. This was not a good day. “Get in the boat.”

I peered over the edge of the boat and saw a whole lot of algae, a pile of rope and a collection of who knows what else that would probably rip a hole right through the sole of my feet. The engine of the boat was already running and, excepting one small line connecting it to the dock, it was ready to head to open water. Sure, there was a small amount of city lining the waterfront, but after that it was the sea. I was a decent swimmer, but I doubted very much that I could swim back to shore from the sea.

I turned and looked at Rhodes, “No way. Not without my shoes. I don’t know when that boat was last cleaned.”

Rhodes pinched the bridge of his nose with his spare hand, “You must be joking.”

“I’m not. Either give me back my shoes or you’re going to have to shoot me. I’m not getting on that boat without them. And then where will your cash cow be?” I tightened my grip on my furs and braced my feet. 

“Howitts, do something!” Rhodes snapped. The American raised his hands and shot me a sympathetic look.

“She’s cooperated so far,” he said with a slight frown. “Why don’t we just give her shoes back?”

“She’s been nothing but trouble,” Rhodes hissed. “Arguing with everything since I nabbed her. She has made getting our money so much more difficult. And you just want to make life easy for her?”

“It’s not her fault the money is tied up in legal rules and bankers,” Howitts defended. “Maybe we could just figure out where Rottery hid his money.”

“Oh, and you know where that is, do you?” Rhodes asked. He spread his arms wide and let out a low, dangerous laugh. “Look around, fool! That idiot could have hidden the money anywhere. We would need a bloodhound and Sherlock Holmes to suss it out. I, for one, don’t really have the time what with the police bearing down on us. But if you want to go ahead and do something stupid, be my guest.”

“Now look here,” Howitts said, bearing up to his full height and glowering at Rhodes. “It’s not my fault that things went sideways with Rottery. You’re the one who killed him before we could get the location out of him or his wife.”

Rhodes snarled and jabbed at Howitts with the gun. 

I didn’t waste another second of listening to their conversation. I pushed off my toes and started running, shoving Rhodes into Howitts as I went. The two men were tangled long enough for me to get a decent head start. I felt every rock and jagged piece of metal in my feet, but I managed to jump over any major obstacles. In a few seconds, my heart was pounding in my ears and I had run faster than I had in my entire life.

A shot rang out, zinging past me. I started darting from side to side, lengthening my stride as much as I could. A second later and I reached the line of buildings where the restaurant was situated. I ducked past the edge of the brick building and into the alley behind it. There was a wall at the end, but I jumped onto the rubbish bin and ignored the way my dress tore when I climbed over it.

I heard shouting behind me and another shot rang out just as I was dropping over the wall. I didn’t bother to look for my pursuers, just kept running. 

My luck held. The alley beyond the wall turned into a lane that led away from the water. I followed it, making sure to hug the buildings as much as I could. I heard shouts behind me and a couple more shots, but nothing actually touched me. Somewhere I had lost my furs and I couldn’t yet stop to think about where.

I just kept running.

Eventually, the lane widened onto a main thoroughfare. There were enough people around to notice a dishevelled, shoeless woman who was running for her life. I flagged down a passing lorry. The lorry screeched to a stop and the driver flung the door open.

“Miss?!” he asked, eyes wide. “Is everything alright?”

“Well, yes. Er, no. See, I’ve just escaped my kidnappers. Only they’re chasing after me and I think I should probably be taken to the police now.”

“Of course! Climb in,” the driver said. I ran around the other side of the lorry and clambered in. The driver jerked at the sight of me up close. “What happened to your feet?” he asked.

“Please, could you just drive?” I said. The pain was starting to catch up to me. I didn’t want to be anywhere near Rhodes and Howitts when my heart stopped racing and I actually gave in to the shock that was waiting just around the corner. 

I gave the lorry driver a wan smile as he mashed the gears and started driving. Then, I’m afraid I leaned back in the seat and started shaking. 

I was sitting still in a room of people rushing around. Someone had draped a coarse blanket over my shoulders, which I clutched closely. Someone else wearing a nurse’s uniform was holding my feet and pulling out bits of debris with a pair of tweezers. I vaguely remember refusing to go to a hospital until I had spoken to somebody. I don’t remember if it was Detective Renfrew or Graustark or my parents that I wanted to see.

Actually, no. It was probably not my parents.

“Marie?”

I looked up and focused on my eyes on the door. Graustark and Rome and Cassidy were all standing there, looking at me with various forms of shock and relief. They all looked dishevelled and a bit haggard. I wanted to protest; I hadn’t been gone that long. Then, I had no idea what time it really was.

“Do you know, I think I prefer writing kidnapping scenes to participating in them,” I said. Rome let out a choked laugh. Cassidy leaned against the wall  and slid to the floor. It took me a moment, but I realised that Cassidy was crying. “What’s wrong?” I asked, my tongue feeling thick.

Graustark actually managed to move past the door and the policemen ducking in and out. He pulled up a chair and sat next to me, watching the nurse at my feet for a moment. “What’s wrong?” Graustark asked, a twitching smile on his normally stoic features. “You scared the hell out of us, Marie.”

“Sorry,” I said, frowning. “I didn’t mean to.”

Graustark leaned back in his chair and shook his head, “Of course you didn’t mean to.”

The nurse lifted her head and put down her tweezers. “She’s in shock,” the woman said. She rubbed the bottom of my feet with some sort of warm, damp cloth. I wasn’t certain if the sensations running through me were pain or relief from pain. Either way, I stared at the nurse’s capable hands.

Graustark reached out and tentatively grabbed my own hand in his own. “Can you tell us what happened? We were looking all over for you until we received a call saying you had been found by a lorry driver?”

“Oh, that,” I said. The lorry driver’s face was oddly blank from my mind, though I remember that he had been nice and helpful. Graustark’s expression tightened a bit and he looked at the nurse. I realised that I had spoken my thoughts out loud and wondered at that. I had never had trouble distinguishing thought from voice before.

“She gave a full statement to the young constable over there,” the nurse said with a nod at a scrawny blonde man with hunched shoulders. “Then she sat down on this chair and went into shock. I’m surprised she managed to last so long, given what happened.”

“What can I do?” Graustark asked.

The nurse put down her cloth and wrapped my feet in thick, soft socks in stark hospital white. “Get her home so she can rest. And keep her off her feet as much as you can. They weren’t completely torn to pieces, but it will be some time before they are comfortable again.”

Graustark nodded. “I can do that. Come along, Marie,” he stood, still holding onto my hand. I blinked, trying to figure out what he meant. With a sigh, Graustark leaned forwards and bodily lifted me from my chair. I blinked in protest but I couldn’t seem to find the will to actively fight him.

“I have to tell Detective Renfrew what happened,” I muttered.

“Youu gave your statement. Any further questions can wait,” Graustark said. He carried me through the station. Rome and Cassidy followed him. I reached my hand out and smiled at my friends.

“Hi,” I said, swallowing a yawn. “C-can I talk with you tomorrow? I’m tired.”

“Of course,” Rome said, grasping my hand. “We’ll be by with tea and cakes.”

“I like cakes,” I murmured and fell asleep.

I woke with the afternoon sunlight streaming into my face. I knew it was afternoon sunlight because I was in my room at my parents’ house and the sunlight didn’t come directly in until afternoon. I groaned and rubbed my eyes, hoping to make the brightness go away. My mouth felt like sandpaper and my feet —

“Ow!” I hissed, jerking into a sitting position. Now that I was awake, it was almost impossible to ignore the fact that my feet were throbbing and itching. I tried to rub them through the thick hospital socks, but it wasn’t helping. I was about to tear the socks off when my door opened.

My mother pushed her way into my room, carrying a tea tray as though she had been doing it her whole life. She wore a ridiculous costume of bright orange silk and had done her hair in a coiffure. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, darling,” she hummed. “The socks are supposed to help.”

“Help?” I snarled. “My feet hurt.”

“Well, obviously. Now leave your feet alone and have some tea and toast. There’s a more substantial dinner downstairs after you bathe and dress. All your writer friends are here, too. Now,” my mother sat on the end of my bed, looking far too interested. “Tell me you gave those kidnappers of yours a good beating.”

“Mother!” I protested. I took a huge mouthful of the tea and nearly sighed as it soothed my sore throat. “I didn’t beat them, I escaped. They were trying to get me into a boat. I had to do something.”

“Yes, darling, I know that. I want to know you gave them what for,” she leaned forwards and patted my hand. “It would have been so unfortunate if you hadn’t escaped.”

I put down my tea, “Were you even a little worried?”

“Worried? No, not particularly. You’re a clever girl. You would have gotten out of it sooner or later,” my mother smiled. She went to my wardrobe and pulled out my most comfortable pair of trousers and a jumper. “Now, finish your tea and go have a bath. Try not to get your feet wet. Then come down and reassure your friends. Okay?”

With that, she danced out of my room. I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or offended. Then, that was always the way with her.

I did as I was told, being careful not to get my feet wet. I even took the time to put my hair in some semblance of order. Then, putting on an old pair of house slippers, I shuffled down the stairs. I’m fairly certain that I winced at every second step, but I made it down the stairs just in time for dinner.

“Marie! You’re awake!” Cassidy jumped up from the table and wrapped his arms around  my shoulders. I endured the hug for a few moments before waving him off.

“Have you been here all night?” I asked the three writers. Rome and Cassidy nodded. Graustark just raised an eyebrow.

“This is a large house,” Rome said, staring at the pieces of fine art scattered around the dining room. “And you have a butler?” he whispered this last comment, as Gunther was moving into the room with a plate of food for me.

I ignored Rome’s comments and turned instead to Cassidy and Graustark, “Did… did you find Rhodes and Howitts?”

Silence fell. Rome busied himself with buttering a roll and Cassidy hastily took a sip of a light wine. Graustark set down his own glass and let out a slow breath.

“No,” he said. “Renfrew led a raid on the restaurant and they arrested the cook. The one you said had made the pie which poisoned Rottery? We have only your testimony as evidence, but after a few hours in discussion with Renfrew, the man confessed. Fingered Rhodes as the mastermind.”

“But you didn’t find them,” I said. Suddenly my potatoes didn’t taste nearly as good. My stomach was gaping and empty, so I ate them anyways.

“No. The boat you said they were going to take was still there. And we had gotten border checks set up when we discovered you were… kidnapped. There’s a good chance that they’re still in the country.”

“Until they can get enough money to buy their way out,” I said. Graustark winced and Rome and Cassidy exchanged a glance with one another.

“Yes, that is going to be a problem. We have notified the banks, but there is only so much that can be done,” Graustark said. I focused my attention on my food. All of our best laid plans had been for nothing.

Sure, we caught the man who had actually delivered the poison to Rottery. But the people behind it? Gone to ground. They might not easily be able to leave the country, but there was a difference between that and actually having them in prison.

“What does Renfrew say?” I asked, pushing my chicken around with my fork.

“He is trying to figure out where they might have gone,” Rome said. He frowned and continued, “Also, none of us is to get involved at all or we will be facing charges.”

“Oh,” I said.

Cassidy nodded and hunched his shoulders. “I hate leaving those two out there. I mean, they kidnapped you. We were at the hotel to protect you and make sure that nothing went wrong. And then they walked out with you right under our noses.”

“And those of the police,” Graustark added.

“Yes, but… well, it’s just wrong!”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “They outsmarted us.”

No one had anything to say to that. Given that we were used to being the masterminds, that we were used to knowing everything that was going on in a mystery, it was a hard blow. Life wasn’t as neat and tidy as our novels. And even when our novels were messy, we knew what was going on. Now? Now we had no idea what was next, and what was more, we were told not to interfere.

I sipped at the wine, feeling slightly disgusted. Yesterday, at this time, I had been sipping wine in the presence of a murderer. Somehow, I didn’t think I was going to drink for a while yet. Not until Rhodes and Howitts were long gone or in police hands.

“What about Rottery’s money? That he managed to win off of Rhodes and Howitts?” I asked, desperate to do something.

“W-what?” Cassidy asked, sitting up straight.

“That’s what they really wanted, when they learned I couldn’t give them easy money,” I said. I pushed the wine away from me. “I didn’t know where Rottery had stashed the money. But maybe that’s how they’ll get their money to buy their way out of the country.”

“We… we didn’t know that Rottery had stashed the money,” Graustark said softly.

I shrugged, staring at my half-eaten food. “What else could he have done with it? He hadn’t spent it.”

Graustark pushed away from the table. “If you’ll excuse me, I must phone Renfrew. It looks like we’re starting the investigation again.”

I complained vocally about being left out of this second round of investigations. Rome and Cassidy and Graustark had all been allowed to help with Detective Renfrew’s investigation — because they would do so no matter what, he said — as long as they obeyed his instructions. I, on the other hand, was told to stay home and rest.

“You have to stay off your feet,” Rome pointed out as he slid his arms into his jacket. Gunther held out Graustark’s jacket. “The nurse said so herself.”

“I was told to take it easy for about a week. That does not mean I have to stay off my feet,” I protested. To prove a point, I stood there with my feet happily encased in an old pair of slippers. I tapped my foot impatiently. “You can’t just leave me out of the investigation!”

“We will telephone as soon as we have information,” Cassidy promised. I narrowed my eyes.

“I thought we agreed that you would stop by to deliver the information,” I growled. Cassidy winced and looked to Graustark for assistance.

“We cannot drive out here at every scrap of information,” Graustark said calmly. “And before you suggest it, no you cannot stay in the car.”

I huffed and folded my arms. “Then take me to Scribe’s House. It’s surely close enough to the police station for even you.”

Graustark frowned. Rome and Cassidy exchanged a glance and said nothing. Traitors. I narrowed my eyes and waited. Graustark looked at Gunther, “I suppose you wouldn’t care to weigh in?”

“I have never yet been foolish enough to argue with Miss Marie,” my loyal friend said. His expression was as reserved and serious as ever, his eyes giving nothing away. He, at least, was on my side. Graustark’s frown deepened.

“Fine,” he grumbled, hunching his shoulders. I grinned and took my coat from the waiting Gunther. “But if you even think of going out and investigating on your own…”

I sighed and followed Graustark to the waiting car. Rome and Cassidy followed, looking subdued, though it was probably a ruse. They had been thrilled when Renfrew agreed to let them help with this further investigation. We drove away from my parents’ house and into town, none of us saying anything.

Truth be told, I wasn’t terribly upset that I wasn’t allowed to go out and pursue leads. After being kidnapped, I wanted to go back to the safety of writing mysteries from my armchair. I liked the puzzle. I was absolutely thrilled that we had found out who had killed Thomas Rottery. I liked the way my blood pounded and my thoughts rushed as I was solving the mystery. The only problem came with actually interacting with people.

Talking with the widow? Beyond awkward.

The race tracks? Horrible.

Getting snatched out of a hotel because I was moneyed? Really, really annoying.

Still, I wouldn’t give up catching my kidnappers for anything. So I was going to be involved, even if I had to draw out the possible places where Rottery had stored his money on a map.

“That’s not the Scribe’s House,” I pointed out as we pulled to a stop. Graustark sighed and ran his palm over his hair.

“I’m well aware of that, Marie,” he practically growled. I looked at Rome and Cassidy. They shrugged. “The Scribe’s House doesn’t have a doorman. And I need someone to watch my cat. I’ve been away for too long.”

“Good afternoon, sir,” Yancey said, opening the door for Graustark.

“Hello, Yancey. Miss Leclerc will be watching Machiavelli for me, today. If someone uknown should attempt to see her…” Graustark trailed off. At least he had the foresight to look slightly uncomfortable.

I climbed out of the car, not waiting for Yancey to help me. My feet twinged a touch, but nothing more than a small ache. No, what made me scowl was, “You want me here so I can be supervised?”

“You don’t need supervision,” Graustark wisely said.

“It’s the rest of the world we’re worried about,” Rome put in. He cast me a guilty smile. “You’ll still get updates. And we don’t have to go back to your mansion every time we need to ask you something? Come on, Marie, it can’t be that bad.”

I sighed, “No. Of course not. It’s fine.”

All three of the other writers looked relieved. I walked to the front doors of the building, Yancey trailing behind me. “Just don’t be surprised if I take your cat when all this is done!” I called over my shoulder.

I was unsurprised to find Graustark’s flat just as it had been a few days before. Papers were strewn about, looking as though he had given up on trying to organise them. Machiavelli greeted me by attacking my slippers. I picked up the cat before he could do more damage to my feet. I carried the feline with me to the couch and collapsed on its cushions.

“Well, Machiavelli?” I said, tickling the cat behind his ears. “What am I supposed to do now?”

The cat, in typical cat fashion, ignored me and pounced on Graustark’s papers. I sighed and pushed the papers aside, hoping I wasn’t getting them out of order. If I was, then Graustark would just have to deal with it. I rummaged around until I found a pen under the papers and a blank sheet that didn’t belong to any pile.

I started writing a list of all the places Rottery could have been. Where he might have hidden the money, who he might have given the money to. I doubted very much that he would have entrusted such a large sum to the wife of that publican. I also doubted that his wife had any idea where he hid the money. If she had, she probably wouldn’t have stuck around long enough to talk to the police, let alone Graustark and myself.

I wondered if she had been informed that her husband’s killer had been found. Would Rome and Cassidy interview her? Would Renfrew?

I scrawled down what I knew about Rottery and stared at the resulting list. What rubbish. There was not one useful scrap of information on there. He was a maintenance man. He was in a loveless marriage with a woman who hated him for spending her money and for being interested in other women. He had been beaten and warned off those other women multiple times, by jealous husbands or brothers or whoever. I hadn’t known him well. I had only really heard of his personality through stories from Rome and the other incompetents at the Scribe’s House.

Machiavelli protested loudly as I jumped up and pushed him off my slippers. I tripped over my injured feet trying to get to the phone. I picked up the device and silently cursed. Where was I meant to call? The police station? The House? Those three writers had conveniently forgotten to tell me where they would be.

Even as I was trying to figure out where to phone, the device began ringing. I nearly dropped it before answering, “Hello?”

“Marie? Oh, good. Listen, I think we might know where Rottery hid the money,” Rome said, his voice crackling over the connection.

“Scribe’s House, I know,” I said, perhaps a shade too loud.

“What? How did you —”

“It doesn’t matter. Just get over here and pick me up so we can search the house,” I said, dropping the receiver on the cradle. Machiavelli looked up at me with mild interest. “I’m going to solve this murder,” I told the cat. “And then I’m going to take a holiday. A nice, quiet, uneventful holiday.”

I had scrambled down the stairs of Graustark’s building and was halfway out the door when the car appeared at the curb. Graustark looked somewhat annoyed, but rome and Cassidy were brimming with excitement. I chose to take my cues from them.

“Where in the House do you think he hid it?” Rome asked, stepping out of the car so I could slide into the back. I shook my head.

“I don’t know. I don’t even known how much money we’re talking about here,” I said. “I never did get a firm figure from Rhodes. Though, to risk kidnapping and murder charges, I would imagine that it was rather a lot.”

“Enough to make a man’s fortune,” Graustark said grimly. He gave a number and even I coughed in astonishment. “Rottery was, apparently, quite the cheat at cards. Good enough that he had been jailed for it nearly a decade ago.”

Cassidy nodded eagerly, “He got out and was carefully watched. Enough that the authorities checked up on him every few months or so. At least until last year. Then, supposedly, he began to frequent gambling clubs. Nothing grand, just enough to get back into the game. And then he caem upon Rhodes, who was throwing money around like there was no tomorrow. The rest is history.”

“How do you know about all of this?” I asked. I had a feeling that neither Rome nor Cassidy was involved with this influx of information. Not that they weren’t capable researchers, but their stories tended to be based more on ridiculous action rather than solidly built cases. Still, readers gobbled up their stories like cake, so that had to count for something.

Graustark, on the other hand, was meticulous about details. I had seen as much from his — now organised — notes. I had felt badly about clearing up the mess of papers for a few seconds. Some writers had their processes that couldn’t be messed with. Of course, now you could easily find everything. And Machiavelli no longer scattered spare sheets around the flat.

Anyways.

“You said you would phone when you found anything,” I frowned, glaring at the back of Graustark’s head.

“Detective Renfrew dug up that information,” Graustark explained. Cheeky. “It was lost in the shuffle of your kidnapping and some of the paperwork between departments, but it cae to light this morning. We were going to tell you this evening, had nothing of interest come forth.”

“Except something of interest did come forth and here we are, all running — driving — to Scribe’s House to go find a lost treasure,” Rome grinned at me. I sighed.

“Not to be a complete killjoy, but do we know whether or not Rhodes and Howitts are aware of this latest development? I would so hate to run into them at the House and have this turn into another hostage situation.” Even to me, my voice sounded dry and sarcastic. I frowned; I was usually sarcastic, but not often dry. My cheerfulness seemed to be gone. Maybe it was something to do with the thought of seeing Rhodes and Howitts again. Maybe it was Graustark’s grumpiness rubbing off on me. Or perhaps I just needed to take a nap. Either way, I was beginning to want this whole situation over with so I could get on with my normal life of writing and arguing over the best way to kill someone with my compatriots.

“We informed Detective Renfrew of our suspicions. He should be there already with a few men to search the premises,” Graustark said.

Rome winced. “The other writers aren’t going to be pleased.”

Cassidy nodded, though he seemed more amused by the matter. “Maybe they’ll finally get Shifton to come out of his room. It’s been what, a year since he left the House?”

“I don’t think he’s left the upstairs floor at all,” I agreed, trying to foce some levity into my voice. “I would say he hasn’t left his room, but he has to bathe at some point.”

“I think Shifton is the least of our worries at the moment,” Graustark grumbled. We had pulled up to the Scribe’s House and were now looking at a gaggle of very interested people. Some of them were writers. Some were staff. Some were onlookers with no more skin in this game than a squirrel. But, unfortunately, there were also a few slightly-shabby men with cameras around their necks. Reporters.

“Ah, they wouldn’t have any information about what’s happening, would they?” I asked. “That could get Rhodes and Howitts involved rather sooner than otherwise.”

“Actually, Marie,” Cassidy said, leaning forwards and blocking my view. “I think they’re here for you.

“What?!” I squawked. Cassidy wasn’t just blocking my view; he was also blocking the reporters view of me. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out that they were, indeed, interested in the four of us. More specifically, me. Because as soon as we tumbled out of the car, I heard my name being called by desperate people. My full name, mind.

“Miss Leclerc-Grange! Are you recovered from your kidnapping?” one particularly loud man asked, his moustache long enough to blow in the wind. Others took up the cry, stuffing cameras in my face and asking ridiculous questions. I rushed for the House, pushing past some of the other writers. Graustark, Rome and Cassidy boxed me in as best they could, protecting me from the brunt of the photographers and reproters.

I shoved inside with a sigh of relief, practically slamming the door behind me. “Well, that was unexpected.”

“Unexpected?” Graustark panted, peering out a window to see the growing crowd of people. “I should have expected it. After all of the fuss over your kidnapping —”

“Oh, don’t be such a worrywart,” I waved my hand in dismissal. “It’s happened a couple of times. My mother’s society parties can get quite raucous and, while the cameras haven’t ever been directly pointed at me, I have dealt with it before.”

“Do you think they’ll die down soon?” Detective Renfrew asked, coming out of one of the sitting rooms with a particularly impressive scowl on his face. He had dust all over his trousers, his hair was mussed and he did not look as though he had been having any success with the search. “It would be nice to get on with this search without their interference.”

“Give them a week and they usually move on to another target,” I said with a shrug. Renfrew scowled.

He turned to Graustark, “Do you have any idea where your maintenance man might have hidden this money? We need it to lure out our murderers.”

“Where have you searched already?”

“The air registers. Any loose floorboards. Some of the rooms upstairs — there’s a particularly difficult poet that doesn’t want us to search his room,” Renfrew shot a frustrated look in the direction of the ceiling. I could have explained that Shifton’s room was one of the more unlikely hiding spots in the House. I didn’t.

“Well, there are only so many spots for a cache that large,” Cassidy said. He surreptitiously peered behind one of the paintings, as though Rottery might have tacked it onto the back.

“When did he acquire the funds?” I asked, trying not to look too interested in Rome’s perusal of a small side-table. “If he did any work around the same time, then it might —”

“Miss Leclerc!” A woman in uniform came running to me and it took me a moment to identify Alice behind the layer of soot covering her cheeks. A flustered looking Quimby came dashing up behind her. Or, well, moving as quickly as someone of Quimby’s respectability would deign to move.

“Alice, I told you that we needn’t bother the —”

“Oh, Miss Leclerc, it’s the most terrible thing,” Alice grabbed my hand and wrang it nervously, completely ignoring Quimby. The poor man looked fit to burst at this, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.

“It’s alright, Alice, what’s wrong?” I asked, trying to be nice. Alice gave me a look of such gratitude that I half-expected her to bust into tears right there.

“Oh, it’s the most terrible thing! We were preparing luncheon for the members when the oven — the one that’s been on the fritz — started smoking something awful. Well, we tried to put out the fire, but there was a back draft and, well…” Alice looked desperately at Quimby, her brief moment of courage failing her.

The stoic keeper of Scribe’s House let out a long-suffering sigh. “I am afraid, Miss Leclerc, that we have found the money that you were looking for.”

“Oh?” I quirked an eyebrow.

“Indeed. Its ashes are now coating what remains of a set of nicely roasted Cornish hens,” Quimby said.

Detective Renfrew was the first to react to this. He choked and tried to get words to fall out of his mouth. All he managed was a squeak. Rome and Cassidy looked at each other and me with their mouths hanging open. Cassidy looked as though he was going to burst out laughing. Rome, at least, had the dignity to keep his laughter restrained to his eyes. Graustark, naturally, was the only one of us with enough calm to be able to say anything worthwhile.

“Have you at least put the oven out?” he asked.

Alice nearabouts fainted. Quimby righted the maid with a quick grasp of her arm and a twist that brought the colour to her cheeks. She nodded weakly. “We did, soon as we figured out what was happening. There’s not much left, though.”

“Thank you, Alice,” Graustark said, not unkindly. “Why don’t you go have a seat in the sitting room. Perhaps Quimby can get you a calming sherry?”

This question was obviously not a question. Quimby nodded briskly, then herded Alice off to take her calming dram. I leaned against the wall for support, not quite certain whether I was going to laugh or cry at this new development.

“Rottery must have stowed it in the back of the oven just before he died. I remember we had to send out Alice for biscuits the day we found him,” I said. “It… He probably expected that he would be called down to fix the oven and would have a better hiding place worked out by then.”

“And now, those idiots in the kitchen have burned our evidence,” Renfrew growled. Graustark took a deep breath.

“It is not their fault,” he said in a low voice. “They were only doing their jobs. Besides, even if we had found the money intact, we weren’t going to hand it over to Rhodes, were we?”

“No, but we were hoping that we could lure him out,” Renfrew said. “The borders have been sealed up quite tightly. There are not a lot of places for him to hide, but once hidden, it’s notoriously difficult to sniff out a rat.”

“Well, we could potentially still sniff him out, as you say,” I said, thinking furiously. Renfrew tightened his lips into a severe line.

“Do I even want to know what you’re thinking?” he asked.

“Relax, Detective,” I said, patting his shoulder comfortingly. “It will take no more effort on your part — or mine — than a simple conversation.”

“Marie?” Graustark asked, just as confused as the dear Detective. I shot him a look and marched over to the front door of Scribe’s House. “Marie!” Graustark lunged after me, realisation dawning. He was too slow. I threw the door open and looked at the nearest reporter that I could see.

“You,” I said, pointing my finger at him. The poor lad widened his eyes and pointed at his chest, obviously terrified. I nodded, crooking my finger. “Come inside.”

The lad brought along a photographer who looked like she had been plucked straight from a women’s magazine. I didn’t really care, though, who was reporting the story. As long as it got out.

Rome’s eyes widened and he practically salivated to take the photographer’s coat. She handed him her hat as well and walked into the parlour, her blonde hair perfectly in place. I raised my eyebrows as she passed and she winked. Oh, yes, Rome was in for trouble with that one.

Graustark followed closely behind the reporter and photographer, stopping to hiss in my ear, “Are you crazy? Do you know what this will do?”

“Yes, actually,” I said and swept into the parlour after him. I took my seat with as much casual entitlement as I could muster. After all, that was what people expected of a wealthy heiress playing the rebel as a writer. That bundle of walking cliche was one of the many reasons why I didn’t use my full name when I wrote.

“Miss Leclerc-Grange,” the reporter said, a slight touch of shock in his tone. He had already pulled out a pad of paper and a pencil, ready to take down any of my words or actions.

“First of all, Mr…”

“Mr. Newton,” the poor child said with an eager smile. “With the Chronicle. And this is Miss Charlston.”

“Really?” I reassessed the man and his photographer. This could work better than I had intended. “Well, Mr. Newton, please. It’s just Miss Leclerc. The full name is such a mouthful and I only use the partial for my books. You have read my books, haven’t you?”

“Oh, ah, yes! Of course,” Newton replied, smiling his most charming smile. Miss Charlston made a quiet sound in her throat which I took to be laughter. So, I had one reader in the room.

“Well, no matter,” I said, waving my hand in dismissal. “I suppose you’re here to talk about the treasure.”

At this, everyone’s eyes fell on me, wide with shock and confusion. Silence followed. Cassidy opened his mouth to ask me a question and was stopped by an elbow to his ribs from Rome. Graustark had the forethought to busy himself with the small tea service on the sideboard. The stoves were working, even if the oven was not.

“Treasure, Miss Leclerc?” Newton asked, his pencil hovering uncertainly over his notebook. “But I thought —”

“Of course, treasure,” I said with a smile, thereby ending any possible questions into my “traumatic” and “dreadful” kidnapping by two murderers. Not to mention that I had been the one to invite Newton and Miss Charlston into Scribe’s House to begin with. “Oh, it was just the most fascinating story.”

“Really?” I had captured Newton’s attention with that. Story. Reporters were always so interested in the story. Not that I could blame them.

“Indeed. Apparently, a dead man had hidden a large fortune somewhere in Scribe’s House,” I said, leaning forwards to make certain I had my audience’s attention. Rome took his tea from Graustark a little too eagerly; he was hiding his smile behind the tea. Cassidy just stared at me, slightly agape.

“A dead man? This wouldn’t be the dead man that was found here —”

“What made you think that?” I asked. Neither confirm nor deny, after all. Newton blushed and scribbled something down with his pencil. Miss Charlston accepted a cup of tea graciously. Her smile was perhaps a bit too wide, but she didn’t seem the sort to say anything about my tactics.

“Alright,” Newton continued. “Where did he hide the… how much was it?”

I told him and had the satisfaction of seeing the reporter’s eyes bug out just as mine had done. Miss Charlston let out a low whistle, “That’s quite a packet. And it was just hidden here?”

“I’ll ask the questions,” Mr. Newton sniffed, glaring slightly at his colleague. “Why was it hidden here?”

“A safe place? A stopover to somewhere else? We’re not quite sure,” I replied easily. “The police think it might be connected to an international theft, but it’s inconclusive.”

“What’ll happen with the money?” Newton asked, eyes twinkling eagerly.

I waved my hand dismissively, “Oh, it’ll go to the police. Detective Renfrew says — oh, dear, I shouldn’t have said it was his station that was involved.”

I ignored Miss Charlston’s snort of amusement and instead stared contritely at Newton. He assured me that the information wouldn’t be leaked — not by him. I answered a few more questions about this “treasure” and sent the reporter on his way. I managed to keep him from asking questions about my kidnapping until he was practically out the door. Then, the very helpful Miss Charlston grabbed his elbow and dragged him out. I closed the door behind the both of them, leaving the other reporters asking questions to air.

“What was that?” Graustark asked, hands stuffed into his pockets. He looked even more irrascible than usual.

“You needed bait for Rhodes and Howittes, didn’t you? Well, I just gave it to them. And it will be Renfrew with the target on his back, not me, this time,” I explained. I wandered back into the parlour where Rome and Cassidy were still standing about. Rome was grinning a bit ridiculously.

“That Miss Charlston was something, wasn’t she?” he asked me.

“Indeed. She saw through all of my clever guises,” I said, only marginally sarcastically. Actually, I had been impressed with the young photographer. She had taken her pictures discreetly and quietly and managed to tease Rome in the process. “Did you get her card?”

“Alas, no,” Rome said with a dramatic sigh. “You ushered her out of the room too swiftly for me.”

“Well, you’ll just have to hunt her down,” I said, sinking into one of the leather club chairs. Graustark took one look at my slippered feet and scowled.

“You should be resting,” he said stiffly.

“I am resting,” I pointed out. “My feet are off the ground.”

“Let me rephrase,” Graustark said. “You should be resting somewhere that isn’t in the middle of this whole situation.”

I huffed and leaned my head against the back of the chair. Hadn’t I just solved our problem of baiting Rhodes and Howitts? Hadn’t I helped with this investigation?“Howard, you’re being a killjoy. I’m not doing anything physically strenuous. And, if you don’t mind, I’d rather not go back to my parents’ house at the moment,” I said, doing my best to fix him with an annoyed stare without actually moving.

“You’re certainly not going to stay here,” Graustark said. “Not with Rhodes now knowing that a “treasure” of insurmountable fortune was found here. Every fortune hunter will be coming by to see if they can’t find more of this hidden treasure. After all, you didn’t specify that you knew it was the only fortune hidden here by our dead man.”

“Oh,” I said. “Oops.”

“Indeed,” Graustark said.

“Papers won’t come out until tomorrow,” Cassidy said hopefully.

“For something this big, they’ll rush to make the evening edition,” Rome said. He looked out the window, likely to see his newfound ladybird.

“Ah,” I winced. I sat up and looked at my fellow writers. “Alright, I admit that I didn’t quite think that part through. But surely Rhodes will know that there isn’t more treasure here. I noted the full amount to that reporter.”

“I’m sure Detective Renfrew will thank you kindly for such consideration,” Graustark said, tone practically dripping with sarcasm.

“Thank you for what consideration, exactly?” Detective Renfrew stepped into the room, removing his hat and looking directly at me. As if I were the cause of all of his problems. “Did I not understand that you were to be off your feet and resting today?”

“I am off my feet,” I protested, waving the appendages through the air.

“Mhmm,” Renfrew agreed. He shifted his attention to Graustark, as the likely one to give him a straight answer. “Should I ask what, exactly, happened here? I thought we were meant to be searching for the hidden money.”

Graustark rubbed the back of his neck, “Yes, about that…”

Renfrew raised a single eyebrow in an impressive questioning look. He looked between Rome and Cassidy and myself for a brief moment before sighing and sitting in one of the chairs. “Alright, what happened?”

Graustark explained. The ovens, the burning of the fortune, the fact that I had plucked a reporter off the street and given a story about this treasure. As I listened to the tale from Graustark’s lips, even I had to admit that it sounded a little bit absurd. Well, it could have been worse. I could have told the reporter the truth, which not only sounded absurd, it was absolutely real. Throughout the retelling, Renfrew kept looking at me. Telling me silently how all of this was my fault. Some of it was, but surely he couldn’t blame me for the entire situation.

Graustark finished his explanation and Renfrew tilted his head back to look at the ceiling. “You four are causing me no end of trouble,” he said. “But… it wasn’t a terrible idea.”

I perked up. “I told you I could be helpful,” I said. Renfrew frowned.

“You, Miss Leclerc, have been more trouble than even I could have imagined. When will you go back to merely writing your mysteries?”

“As soon as Rhodes and Howitts are caught, naturally,” I replied easily. “Oh, and once my flat situation is sorted out. My building is still in disrepair and trying to write at my parents’ house is like pulling teeth.”

Renfrew let out a long breath through his nose. “I can’t help with the living accommodations. But I do have news regarding Mr. Howitts.”

“Oh?” Rome said, finally moving away from the window.

“He was found dead in a hotel room,” Renfrew said. “There was a note. Looks like suicide.”

“Looks like?” Graustark asked, curling his lip in frustration.

“An empty bottle of sleeping tablets was found next to a bottle of whiskey, mostly empty. Only the fact that Howitts was suffocated rather belays the suicide theory,” Renfrew said.

“Rhodes,” Cassidy growled, clenching his fists at his sides.

“Very likely,” Renfrew nodded.

“Don’t worry, Marie,” Rome said, voice dark. “We’ll make sure he doesn’t get anywhere near you.”

“What?!” I asked, looking at him in astonishment. Rome didn’t answer. He, Cassidy and Graustark all had the same determined look on their faces. Detective Renfrew’s mouth twisted slightly in amusement.

“It looks like you have yourself a veritable army at your disposal, Miss Leclerc,” the detective said. I scoffed. What in the world would I do with an army? Well, I could think of a few things. But certainly not if they were going to be overbearing, protective writers with only one head of sense between them.

Actually, it was the sensible one that worried me the most.

I threw the suicide note back onto the table with a sound of disgust. “You don’t honestly believe that Howitts killed himself, do you?” I demanded. Detective Renfrew was standing off to one side, looking a bit confused as to how he got talked into letting me — us — look at the crime scene. The body had been removed, for which I was thankful, but there were still plenty of things to see.

“It doesn’t actually matter whether or not Howitts killed himself or Rhodes did,” Renfrew said. I looked at Graustark for confirmation of this ridiculous statement.

“It makes it neater for the report and trial, but we already have enough evidence against Rhodes to…” Graustark trailed off.

“Hang him,” Cassidy filled in, peering closely at the bedspread. It was standard hotel fair, and looked as though it hadn’t been slept in since the maid last made it. Yet Cassidy was looking at the stitching as though it held some important clue. Rome, on the other hand, was engrossed with the lavatory.

“Yes, I know that,” I said. “But it might help to know where Rhodes is. And if he killed Howitts, then we might have a clue as to the matter.”

“What, exactly, Miss Leclerc, makes you think that Howitts didn’t commit suicide?” Detective Renfrew asked. I shrugged and looked at the note again.

“Well, for one, his note. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I didn’t mean to. It’s about the shortest and least informative note I have ever heard of. Not to mention that a person would probably beg for forgiveness at the end of the note, not the middle,” I said.

“Perhaps Howitts wasn’t quite as logical as you,” Renfrew challenged. “After all, he was American an din some mental distress.”

I tilted my head in acquiescence. “Yes, I suppose. He was rather distressed by the whole situation with Rhodes kidnapping me at gunpoint. He seemed less remorseful about having a hand in killing Rottery.”

“I have seen people kill themselves for much, much less,” Renfrew said. I huffed and turned away from the desk where the note lay. Rome emerged from the lavatory, dangling an empty pill bottle in his hand.

“Is this meant to be what he used?” Rome asked Renfrew.

“Sleeping tablets,” the detective agreed. “Took about two dozen of them.”

“Really?” Rome looked at the bottle in surprise. “Because this bottle is brand new. There are only three missing from the full amount.”

Renfrew did stand at attention at that. “Huh,” he said, looking skeptical. “Maybe the coroner got it wrong.”

“See?” I said, drawing a finger of the wooden drawers of the desk. None of them were locked and, as far as I could tell, nothing had been disturbed. Not much help. “Having us here wasn’t a complete waste of time.”

“I feel like a nanny,” Renfrew countered. I swallowed the urge to stick my tongue out at the man. A hand fell on my shoulder and Graustark shook his head. Apparently, I hadn’t swallowed the urge all that well.

“Even if Howitts died by some means other than the sleeping tablets, there is nothing here to indicate where Rhodes might have gone,” Graustark said. The voice of reason spoke again. And, annoyingly, he was right.

“No,” I agreed. “The drawers don’t tell us anything. Howitts didn’t check in with any luggage — at least not according to the bellhop, who was hoping for a tip — and his wallet is still here. Actually, I don’t know why he’s here at all, really. If he intended to kill himself, there was no need to do it in a hotel room. He was staying in a small house near Church street.”

“What?” Detective Renfrew turned to look at me with wide eyes. “How did you know that?”

“There’s a letter in his wallet from a hat maker, addressed to Tom Howitts at Church street. I assumed your people had already determined where he was staying when I was taken,” I said. My words brought about silence. Renfrew looked furious, his face growing ever more red by the moment. Rome was still standing holding the bottle of sleeping tablets. Cassidy had sat on the bed, eyes wide. And Graustark, calm and solemn Graustark, had his jaw clenched and nostrils flaring.

“You did check on Howitts’ address, didn’t you?” Graustark asked, hsi words falling through the air like lead.

“As far as we knew, the man was staying at this hotel,” Renfrew said. “It was his listed address in the customs form. And when we came to check in on Howitts when, ah, Miss Leclerc had been taken, the hotel confirmed it. Howitts had been staying here for three weeks. He hadn’t been in since, though. We had the clerk notify us when Howitts returned. Which he did today.”

“Well, then you had better send someone around to Church street,” I said, handing over the dead man’s wallet to the detective. “Perhaps Rhodes knew that Howitts had a second address and is staying there. Or, perhaps Rhodes owns this second address.”

“It’s not listed as one of his properties,” Renfrew said, “but it is possible.”

“If it’s possible, then go do something about it,” Graustark growled, his jaw still clenched. Renfrew’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. The police detective didn’t say anything, though, just stepped to the telephone in the sitting room and left us in the bedroom. The four writers looked around at each other. Cassidy was the first to speak.

“I suppose we’d better get down to the car, then, hadn’t we?” he said.

Graustark grumbled, but he led the way.

Church Street was somewhere between the fashionable part of town and the respectable part of town. The houses along the street had tiny gardens out front and probably had larger ones in the back. There were wrought iron gates before each garden, but they were more decorative than anything. All in all, it was a pleasant, peaceful, friendly street. Except for the police cars pulled up outside Number 22. And the police officers milling about. And the very grim faced detective preparing to storm the house.

I think at this point that Renfrew had completely given up on any thought of relegating myself, Graustark, Cassidy and Rome to waiting back at Scribe’s House. We were part of this investigation whether he liked it or not. And given how well our interference had turned out for him, Renfrew wasn’t going to push the matter.

He did insist, however, that we stay outside. “Actually, Miss Leclerc, I would prefer it if you stayed in the car,” Renfrew said, looking at me askance.

“Don’t you dare say that because I’m a woman,” I jabbed a finger at the detective, which he avoided easily.

“Do I look that foolish? No, I need you to stay as far away from danger as possible. If news of you getting even a papercut on my watch gets out, I’ll be back to patrolling the streets. I already have the police commissioner breathing down my neck,” Renfrew grumbled. I heaved a dramatic sigh.

“That would be unfortunate, since you seem to be the only level-headed detective on the force,” I said. Renfrew narrowed his eyes at me. “Don’t worry, Detective. I shall remain out here, in the car, far away from any danger.”

“Right,” Renfrew said, frowning. “Why don’t I believe you?”

“If you are that worried about my honesty, then leave a constable,” I said. Renfrew’s frown deepened. In the end, he huffed and trudged off to go and deal with the raid on Number 22, Church Street.

“I’m surprised you gave up so easily,” Graustark said quietly, settling back into the car. “I would have thought you’d want to be in the thick of things.”

“Oh, assuredly,” I said. “I just don’t think anything is going to happen here. Surely Rhodes wouldn’t be that foolish. He seemed far more capable than that.”

“Except even the police didn’t know about this place,” Cassidy pointed out. I turned in my seat to glare at the other writer, who fixed me with an easy smile. “You had to find that letter in Howitts’ wallet before they knew about this place. And if Rhodes owns it under another name, or whatever, then why would he suspect that the police would be able to find him? He could lay low until the borders were safer and then be on his way.”

“What about the money?” Rome folded his arms. “After all that trouble we went through?”

“After all that trouble I went through, you mean,” I said. Rome shrugged.

“Still, I would have thought Rhodes might try to go after it,” he said. I sighed, watching the police storm the house. From the other side of the street, it didn’t look nearly as dramatic as I would have thought. The door was opened by a maid with a starched apron, who looked shocked to be pushed aside by a stream of men in blue. After a few seconds, they were all in the house and the door was closed firmly behind them. That was it.

“Maybe he would have,” I speculated. “When the evidence got transfered to police lock up? Or perhaps he would have robbed a bank. I’m sure that would have been easier than attempting another kidnapping, no matter how fortuitous.”

“All that matters,” Graustark said, wrapping his hands around the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white, “is that we find him and arrest him.”

“Indeed,” I said, peering out the window. “If we wish to do that, then we had better start driving.”

“What?” Graustark asked, turning to look at me in shock. I pointed to the man running down the street.

“Rhodes just ran out of Number 27,” I said. “I think the letter was misread.”

Graustark stared at Rhodes’ retreating form for all of two seconds before letting out a string of expletives that was quite out of character. He started the engine and mashed the car into gear. Then, with a distressing lurch, we were on our way to go run down a criminal and a murderer. All the while the police were searching the wrong house.

See? I knew it was better to stay in the car.

“No, turn that way!” Rome pointed fervently over Graustark’s shoulder. “There’s a short cut that takes you around to an alley on the other side.”

“And if he turns the other way?” Graustark growled, turning the wheel to follow Rhodes. The man looked behind him and stared at the car as we barrelled towards him. Then, he jinked across the street and ran into a series of steps that led to the street below.

Rome, Cassidy and myself all stared at the vanishing figure of Rhodes. Weren’t car chases supposed to be dramatic and satisfying? After all, we were faster and bigger! Only, there were far more escape routes for a person on foot than in a car.

Once again, the only person who appeared to be thinking clearly was Graustark. He slammed the brake and we all flew forwards as the car came to a lurching stop. Then, barely taking time to put the handbrake on, Graustark tore the door open and started running after Rhodes. A few seconds later and he, too, had vanished into the streets of the city.

“Well, that was unexpected,” I said. Cassidy nodded.

“Should we go after them?” Rome asked. I shrugged.

“One of you should. But we need to tell Detective Renfrew. Someone has to actually arrest the man,” I said, opening the door. We clambered out and, after a few glances between the two, Cassidy took off running after Graustark and Rhodes. Rome held out his arm to me.

“No, you can move faster than I can. After all, I’ve been told not to run on my feet,” I said, feeling a little grouchy about the matter. I wanted to run after the murderer. I wanted to be there when he was captured, wanted to see the look on his face when he realised that things weren’t going to work out for him. But I couldn’t.

“You should wait here,” Rome said. “Maybe Howard and Cassidy will come back.”

I nodded and watched as Rome loped off, not nearly as fast as the other two. I tried not to pout. After a few minutes of waiting, though, alternately pacing around the car and sitting when my feet grew sore, I moved on from pouting into worrying.

“Miss Leclerc!” Detective Renfrew jogged up to me, Rome a few steps behind. The detective held his hat and looked around me in alarm. “I thought you found Rhodes?”

“We did. Sort of. He ran out of a different house, and we drove after him. Then, he ducked off in there,” I gestured to the descending stairs, “and Howard ran after him. I sent Cassidy to follow, but I don’t know where they went.”

Renfrew cursed, looking around. “Can you drive this thing?” the man demanded, looking at Rome. Rome blanched.

“Well… I know the principles behind it, but —”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake! I can drive,” I huffed and ran around to the driver’s side. Rome and Renfrew climbed in and, after a few desperate attempts to get the car started again, we were off. I tried not to hurt my feet too badly, but honestly, Graustark’s clutch was a mess and I was wearing thinner slippers than I should have been. I think I only winced a few times, but neither Renfrew nor Rome noticed.

Or, if they did, then they deemed the situation too dire to worry. Which was perfectly fine by me.

“Turn there! Garden Close,” Renfrew gestured to the tiny street. I doubted the car would fit, but turned anyways. Graustark would just have to worry about his ruined paint job later. “Can you go any faster?” the detective demanded.

“Not if you would like to arrive in one piece,” I said, shifting down. Rome looked a little nauseous.

“Do you see them?” Rome asked, craning his head to peer out of the windows.

“No, but we’re almost at the causeway. The streets open up there and we could very well never find them,” Renfrew said gravely. I grit my teeth and refused to believe that was an option. Instead, I turned the car widely onto the causeway and looked around, hardly paying attention to the other people around.

“There, there!” Rome jabbed his finger to the left and I turned to look, practically wrenching the steering as I did so. Renfrew jerked the wheel the other direction and I pulled the car to a stop.

We all jumped out of the car, running for the crowd of people gathered at the edge of the causeway. There was some shouting and a few ladies were looking horrified into their gloves. Some street urchins cheered and a few men tried — not terribly well — to push their way through and break up the fight.

For it was most definitely a fight. By the time Renfrew had shouldered a path through the crowd so we could see, the fight had devolved. Graustark was on the ground, straddling Rhodes. The man held his hands up to protect his face, whimpering and shaking as Graustark raised his fist to strike him.

Rhodes looked a pathetic figure, completely helpless where he used to command at least intelligence and cunning if not strength. Graustark, on the other hand, had his teeth bared in a snarl and a split lip.

“Stop, man!” Renfrew said, ploughing in and pulling Graustark back. “You caught him!”

“He deserved it,” Graustark snarled, wiping away the blood on his chin with the back of his hand. He staggered back a few steps, getting close to one edge of the crowd of onlookers. They stepped back, a few ladies gasping in shock. Graustark blinked and retreated, looking a little confused by their reaction. He looked back down at Rhodes, now being dragged to his feet by Renfrew. Then, he turned and saw Rome and myself, standing there.

Graustark’s eyes widened and he seemed to realise, for the first time, what he had been doing. “No, I…”

I stepped forwards and, ignoring Graustark for a moment, glared at Rhodes. He looked at me in disgust, spitting blood onto the ground. I lifted my chin, “You deserved every blow.”

Then, I turned from the murderer and twined my arm through Graustark’s, pulling him away from the crowd of people and back towards the car. He sat on the seat, legs dangling in the open door, eyes fixed on the ground. “I’m… I’m sorry, Marie,” Graustark said.

“Whyever for?” I folded my arms. Rome slung an arm around my shoulder.

“Yes, why would you be sorry? You caught the bas… I, ah, mean the murderer,” Rome said, giving me a look.

“Now is certainly an odd moment to remember your social niceties, Rome,” I rolled my eyes. Instead, I turned back to Graustark. “Look, you caught him. This whole nightmare is over. No more murders, no more kidnappings, no more police stations. Well, except in books, that is. Right?”

Graustark lifted his eyes, “I… I shouldn’t have reacted as I did. I caught him. I didn’t need to beat him, too.”

“I’d have kicked him myself if he hadn’t already caused injury to my feet,” I grumbled. “You lost your temper. You’re sorry. Now, let’s move on. After all, we have to get Rhodes back to the police station and I don’t think I can handle driving your car at the moment. Your clutch is dreadful!”

Graustark looked at me as though I were crazy, which was probable at this point. In the end, his arguments were irrelevant, because Detective Renfrew walked up to the car, scowling deeply as he marched Rhodes forwards.

“I don’t suppose that anyone bothered to tell my constables where we were going?” he grumbled.

“No, I don’t believe we had the time,” I retorted, practically dripping sarcasm. “We were just going to drive you back to the station.”

“Actually, I was going to drive you back to the station,” Graustark said, standing and letting Renfrew put the murderer into the car. “These three were going to call a taxi and go back to Scribe’s House.”

“What?!” Cassidy protested. “We never agreed to that!”

I rolled my eyes, “Oh, hush. We’ll go back to the House and you can tell everyone there how you chased down a murderer to keep Howard from killing him.”

Cassidy frowned at me, as though he guessed that I wasn’t being serious. He huffed and shoved his hands into his pockets, scuffing his shoes on the ground. I looked firmly at the detective and nodded.

“I’ll be seeing you, Detective Renfrew,” I said, holding out my hand. His eyes widened and he wiped his hand on jacket of his suit before shaking mind. “I expect a full report.”

“I’m never going to be rid of you writers, am I?” he growled in return.

“Well, we’ll try hard not to actively seek you out, or bother with murders unless someone dies right in front of us,” I said. Then, waving Graustark off, Rome, Cassidy and I watched as the car pulled away towards the police station.

It was over. It was finally over.

“Come on,” I said, threading my arms through theirs so they wouldn’t see me hunch in exhaustion. “We have some storytelling to do.”

One week after everything had been resolved, the reporters were finally leaving Scribe’s House alone. Quimby had thrown out at least five different journalists pretending to be writers and poets. One had even been so bold as to try and join the Black Thumb Society during one of our more raucous discussions about knitting needles versus crocheting hooks as murder weapons. It hadn’t ended well for the reporter.

“My landlord has finally given me leave to go and search for living accommodations elsewhere,” I said, swinging my legs over the arm of one of the club chairs. “Apparently my building has got to be completely torn down and rebuilt.”

“I just assumed you’d stay at your parents’ manor,” Rome said. He scratched out something he had written and threw the paper onto a table. “Marie, isn’t there some way to convince Howard that writing up this murder wouldn’t be a bad thing? We’d change names and details and things, and no one would have to know it was real.”

Graustark grumbled from where he was seated by the fire, “I’m right here, you know. I can hear you.”

I rolled my eyes and waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t worry. I’ve already talked with my publisher about doing a collaborative volume between the four of us. We could call it Murder for Dessert, by the Black Thumb Society Writers.”

“I like the Black Thumb Writers thing,” Cassidy said as he sorted through his own manuscript. “But I think the title needs work.”

“Well, we can figure that out later,” I said. “The important part would be how we lay it out. Every chapter from a different perspective? Following one person and each person adds details?”

“How about we don’t write it at all,” Graustark muttered. He turned to look at me with a slight admonition in his gaze. “Writing about fictionalised murders is one thing, but this really happened. A person we knew is dead and here you are, suggesting that we profit from his death.”

I flinched and turned my head to stare up at the ceiling. “That wasn’t what I was suggesting at all,” I snapped. “I just think that it is a story that needs telling. To prove the reporters wrong, if nothing else. If it bothers you so much, we can give all the royalties to Mrs. Rottery.”

Graustark sighed, “I didn’t mean… it’s just…”

“I think you’d better stop now,” Rome said. “You’re only digging yourself into a hole.”

Graustark fell silent. For the next few minutes, the only sound was the shuffling of paper and the occasional scratch of a pen. I sat up in the chair and sighed, apparently loud enough to draw the attention of the other three.

“I’m starving,” I said. “And I really don’t want to go and deal with Mumsie dear and whatever interesting person she has over for supper.”

“I thought she had agreed not to host any large parties while you were staying there,” Cassidy snickered. I narrowed my eyes and lifted my chin.

“Correct. But that doesn’t stop her from inviting one or two people over. Usually men. Usually unmarried,” I grumbled. “Apparently I have become something of a sensation in her social circles. She has taken to wailing horribly in front of people at the thought of her ‘poor, dear daughter’ being kidnapped with no one around to protect her. It’s all quite ridiculous.”

Rome laughed openly at my plight and even Cassidy tried to hide his amusement behind a bundle of letters. I turned my attention to Graustark, silently daring him to make a snide comment. He just pushed away from the table and rose.

“Well, it is Wednesday,” he said. “And I have my usual table at Figaro’s, if you need an escape.”

I jumped up and grinned, “Perfect! Now my mother can’t complain to me anymore. The sooner I get out of that house, the better.”

Graustark sighed and we walked to the door, leaving Rome and Cassidy to their own meals. Quimby helped me into my coat and we went off to go have supper.

Figaro’s was just the perfect amount of good food and slightly uppity service. Being a regular, Graustark was afforded far more care than the casual diner. And I was, apparently, some sort of royalty for having arrived on Graustark’s arm. So, it was some two hours later that we emerged, shaking off the bowing smiles of the owner. I felt like an overinflated balloon and even Graustark suggested we take a walk, as the evening was relatively pleasant.

“I think spring is coming early this year,” Graustrak said, pointing to a dandylion that was poking through the cobbles on the street.

“I think the weather is toying with us,” I retorted. “It will be warm for a week and then plunge right back into winter until summer comes around.”

“You are quite optimistic, did you know that?” Graustark said. I gaped at him.

“Did you just tease me?” I asked, incredulous.

He, to my amazement, flushed slightly. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I didn’t mean… I only meant…”

“Stop. Howard, it’s fine. I’ve just never heard you tease me like that,” I said, patting his arm comfortingly. His flush deepened.

Luckily, we were saved from his further embarrassment by the fact that something fell right at our feet with a horrid, wet crunch. Something hot and sticky splattered on my face and hands and I jumped back, barely swallowing a scream. There, lying halfway on the pavement and halfway in the street, was the body of a well-dressed woman. She had a large knife sticking out of her back.

“Ah,” Graustark said, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiping his face from what I realised was blood. He handed the fabric to me and I hurriedly cleaned my own face. “I suppose we had better call Detective Renfrew, hadn’t we?”

“Well, I did say we would get involved if someone died right in front of me,” I tried to smile, but it was weak.

“Shall I stay here with the body or shall you?” Graustark asked, voice a little shaky. It made me feel better to hear that I wasn’t the only one a little shocked. I disentangled my arm from his and turned.

“I’ll go back to the restaurant,” I said and did just that. Figaro kindly let me use his telephone, eyes wide as he took in my red-spattered hands. The connection was rather bad, so I’m afraid that I was more or less yelling, “Hello, yes! Detective Renfrew? This is Marie Leclerc — no, this isn’t about the newspaper. Yes! No — there’s been another murder!”

 

The End.

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