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Authors: Ashley Gardner

Tags: #mystery, #murder mystery, #england, #historical, #cozy mystery, #london, #regency, #peninsular war, #captain lacey

A Regimental Murder

BOOK: A Regimental Murder
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A Regimental Murder

 

by Ashley Gardner

 

Book 2 of the Captain Lacey Regency Mysteries

 

 

A Regimental Murder

Copyright 2004 and 2011 by Jennifer Ashley (Ashley
Gardner)

All rights reserved.

 

Published 2011 by Jennifer Ashley (Ashley
Gardner)

www.gardnermysteries.com

 

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment
only. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner
whatsoever without written permission from the author. If you would
like to share this book with another person, please purchase an
additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the
hard work of this author.

This book is a work of fiction. The names,
characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's
imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be
construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead,
actual events, locales or organizations is entirely
coincidental.

 

 

* * * * *

Chapter One

 

London, 1816

A new bridge was rising to cross the Thames
just south and east of Covent Garden, a silent hulk of stone and
scaffolding slowly stretching its arches across the river. I walked
down to this unfinished bridge one sweltering July night through
darkness that belonged to pickpockets and game girls, from Grimpen
Lane to Russel Street through Covent Garden, its stalls shut up and
silent, along Southampton Street and the Strand to the pathways
that led to the bridge.

I walked to escape my dreams. I had dreamed
of a Spanish summer, one as hot as this, but with dry breezes from
rocky hillsides under a baking sun. The long days came back to me
and the steamy rains that muddied the roads and fell on my tent
like needles in the night. The warmth took me back to the days I
had been a cavalry captain, and to one particular night when it had
stormed and things had changed for me.

Now I was in London, Iberia far away. The
damp warmth of cobblestones caressed my feet, soft rain striking my
face and rolling in little rivulets down my nose. The hulk of the
bridge was silent, a dark presence not yet born.

That is not to say it was deserted. A street
theatre distracted passersby on the Strand and game girls stood at
the edges of the pavement. A threesome of burly men, arm in arm and
smelling of ale, pushed through singing a happy tune off-key. They
slithered and dodged among wheeled conveyances, never loosening
their hold on one another. Their merry song drifted into the
night.

A woman brushed past me, making for the
tunnel of darkness that led to the bridge. Droplets of rain
sparkled on her dark cloak, and I glimpsed beneath her hood a fine,
sculpted face and the glitter of jewels. She passed so close to me
that I saw the shape of each slender gloved finger that had held
her cloak, and the fine chain of gold that adorned her wrist.

She was a furtive shadow in the midst of the
city night, a lady where no lady should be. She was alone--no
footman or maid pattered after her, holding slipper box or lantern.
She was dressed for the opera or the theatre or a Mayfair ballroom,
and yet she hastened here, to the dark of the incomplete
bridge.

She interested me, this lady, pricking the
curiosity beneath my melancholia. She might, of course, be a high
flyer, an upper-class woman of dubious reputation, but I did not
think so. High flyers were even more prone than ladies of quality
to shutting themselves away in gaudy carriages and taking great
care of their clothes and slippers. Also, this woman did not carry
herself like a lady of doubtful morals, but like a lady who knew
she was out of place and strove to be every inch a lady even
so.

I turned, my curiosity and alarm aroused, and
followed her.

Darkness quickly closed on us, the soft rain
our only companion. She walked out onto an unfinished arch of the
bridge, slippers whispering on boards laid over stones.

I quickened my steps. The boards moved
beneath my feet, the hollow sound carrying to her. She looked back,
her face pale in the darkness. Her cloak swirled back to reveal a
dove gray gown, and her slender legs in white stockings flashed
against the night.

She reached the crest of the arch. The rain
thickened, a gust of wind blowing it like mist across the bridge.
When it cleared, a shadow detached itself from the dark arms of
scaffolding and moved toward her. The woman started, but did not
flee.

The person--man or woman, I could not tell
which--bent to her, speaking rapidly. The lady appeared to listen,
then she stepped back. "No," she said clearly. "I cannot."

The shadow leaned forward, hands moving in
persuasive gestures. She backed away, shaking her head.

Suddenly, she cried out, turned, started to
run. The assailant lunged at her, and I heard the ring of a
knife.

I ran forward. The assailant--male--looked
up, saw me coming. I was a large man, and I carried a walking
stick, within which was concealed a stout sword. Perhaps he knew
who I was, perhaps he'd seen me and my famous temper at work. In
any event, he flung the woman from him and fled.

She landed hard on the stones and boards, too
near the edge. I snatched at the assailant, but his knife flashed
in the rain, catching me across my palm. I grunted. He scuttled
away into the darkness, disappearing in a wash of rain.

I let him go. I balanced myself on the
slippery boards and made my way to her. To my left, empty air rose
from the roiling Thames, mist and hot rain and foul odors. One
misstep and I would plunge down into the waiting, noisome
river.

The woman lay facedown, her body half over
the edge. Her cloak tangled her so that she could not roll to
safety, and her hands worked fruitlessly to pull herself to the
firm stones.

I leaned down, seized her about her waist,
and hauled her back to the middle of the bridge. She cringed from
me, her hands strong as she pushed me away.

"Carefully," I said. "He is gone. You are
safe."

Her hood had fallen back. The jewels I'd
glimpsed were diamonds, a fine tiara of them. They sparkled against
her dark hair, which lay in snarls over her cloak.

"Who was he?" I asked in s gentle voice.

She looked about wildly, as though unsure of
who I meant. "I do not know. A--a beggar, I think."

One with a sharp knife. My hand stung and my
glove was ruined.

I helped her to her feet. She clung to me a
moment, her fright still too close.

Gradually, as the rain quieted into a soft
summer shower, she returned to herself again. Her hands uncurled
from my coat, and her panicked grip relaxed.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you for helping
me."

I said something polite, as though I had
merely opened a door for her at a soiree.

I led her off the bridge and out of the
darkness, back to the solid reality of the Strand. I kept a sharp
eye out for her assailant, but I saw no one. He had fled.

Our adventure had not gone without attention.
By the time we reached the Strand, a small crowd had gathered to
peer curiously at us. A group of ladies in tawdry finery looked the
woman over.

"Why'd she go out there, then?" one remarked
to the crowd in general.

"Tried to throw herself over," another
answered.

"Belly-full, I'd wager."

The second nodded. "Most like."

The woman appeared not to hear them, but she
moved closer to me, her hand tightening on my sleeve.

A spindly man in faded black fell in beside
us as we moved on. He grinned, showing crooked teeth and bathing me
with coffee-scented breath. "Excellent work, Captain. How brave you
are."

I knew him. The man's name was Billings, and
he was a journalist, one of those damned insolent breed who dressed
badly and followed the rich and prominent, hoping for a breath of
scandal. Billings hung about the theatres at Drury Lane and Covent
Garden, waiting for members of the haut ton to do something
indiscreet.

I toyed with the idea of beating him off, but
knew that such an action would only replay itself in the paragraphs
of whatever scurrilous story he chose to write.

The curious thing was, the lady seemed to
recognize him. She pressed her face into my sleeve, not in a
gesture of fear, but betraying a wish to hide.

His grin grew broader. He saluted me and
sauntered off, no doubt to pen an entirely false version of events
for the
Morning Herald
.

I led the lady along the Strand toward
Southampton Street. She was still shaking and shocked and needed to
get indoors.

"I want to take you home," I said. "You must
tell me where that is."

She shook her head vehemently. "No." Her
voice was little more than a scratch. "Not home. Not there."

"Where, then?"

But she would not give me an alternate
direction, no matter how much I plied her. I wondered where she had
left her conveyance, where her retinue of servants waited for her.
She offered nothing, only moved swiftly along beside me, head bent
so I could not see her face.

"You must tell me where your carriage is," I
tried again.

She shook her head, and continued to shake it
no matter how I pleaded with her. "All right, then," I said, at my
wit's end. "I will take you to a friend who will look after you.
Mrs. Brandon is quite respectable. She is the wife of a
colonel."

My lady stopped, pale lips parting in
surprise. Her eyes, deep blue I saw now that we stood in the light,
widened. "Mrs. Brandon?" Suddenly, she began to laugh. Her hands
balled into tight fists, and she pressed them into her stomach,
hysteria shaking her.

I tried to quiet her, but she laughed on,
until at last the broken laughs turned to sobs. "Not Mrs. Brandon,"
she gasped. "Oh, please, no, never that. I will go with you,
anywhere you want. Take me to hell if you like, but not home, and
not to Mrs. Brandon, for God's sake. That would never do."

*** *** ***

In the end, I took her to my rooms in Grimpen
Lane, a narrow cul-de-sac off Russel Street near Covent Garden
market.

The lane was hot with the summer night. My
hardworking neighbors were in their beds, though a few street girls
lingered in the shadows, and a gin-soaked young man lay flat on his
back not far from the bake shop. If the man did not manage to drag
himself away, the game girls would no doubt rob him blind, if they
hadn't already.

I stopped at a narrow door beside the bake
shop, unlocked and opened it. Stuffy air poured down at us. The
staircase inside had once been grand, and the remnants of an
idyllic mural could be seen in the moonlight--shepherds and
shepherdesses pursuing each other across a flat green landscape, a
curious mixture of innocence and lust.

"What is this place?" my lady asked in
whisper.

"Number 5, Grimpen Lane," I answered as I led
her upstairs and unlocked the door on the first landing. "In my
lighter moments, I call it home."

Behind the door lay my rooms, once the
drawing rooms of whatever wealthy family had lived here a century
ago. The flat above mine was quiet, which meant that Marianne
Simmons, my upstairs neighbor, was either on stage in Drury Lane or
tucked away somewhere with a gentleman. Mrs. Beltan, the landlady
who ran the bake shop below, lived streets away with her sister.
The house was empty and we were alone.

I ushered the woman inside. She remained
standing in the middle of the carpet, chafing her hands as I
stirred the embers that still glowed in my grate. The night was
warm, but the old walls held a chill that no amount of sun could
leach away. Once a tiny fire crackled in the coals, I opened the
windows, which I'd left closed to keep birds from seeking shelter
in my front room. The breeze that had sprung up at the river barely
reached Grimpen Lane, but the open window at least moved the
stagnant air.

By the fire's light, I saw that the woman was
likely in her late thirties, or fortyish as I was. She had a
classic beauty that the bloody scratches on her cheek could not
mar, a clean line of jaw, square cheekbones, arched brows over
full-lashed eyes. Faint lines feathered from her eyes and corners
of her mouth, not age, but weariness.

I took her wet cloak from her, then led her
to the wing chair near the fire and bade her sit. I stripped her
ruined slippers from her ice-cold feet then fetched a blanket from
my bed and tucked it around her. She sat through the proceedings
without interest.

I poured out a large measure of brandy from a
fine bottle my acquaintance Lucius Grenville had sent me and
brought it to her. The glass shook against her mouth, but I held it
steady and made her drink every drop. Then I brought her
another.

BOOK: A Regimental Murder
3.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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