My assailants deposited me before the fireplace with a flourish, but not before Billy took the opportunity to give my arm a savage squeeze with his ape-like hand and whisper, “Don’t try that again, ducks, or you’ll be sorry,” in my ear. Then he and his friend (of the cauliflower ear) deferentially touched the brims of their bowlers and bowed their way out of the room, closing the great oaken door behind them.
The shorter of the two men stepped forward. With his dark curly hair, his bright, inquisitive eyes and his hooked nose, he wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Saturday at Temple Emanuel or running a rag and bone shop in Whitechapel, only no self-respecting man of business would dare dye his locks such a sable hue or don the outfit the little man sported. I believe Beau Brummel would have hesitated a moment before choosing the striped trousers, canary yellow waistcoat, and the puce velvet jacket. It was Disraeli, of course, in the flesh, and if you think I was a bit disconcerted to find myself in the presence of Lord Beaconsfield, prime minister of Great Britain and its colonies, you’d be right. I’d had my hand kissed by minor aristocracy, but I’d never been this close to the seat of power before.
My first thought (isn’t it always?) is that my fame had preceded me, and I’d been brought here to give Dizzy a gallop. But men who moved in his circle seemed to have no problem finding ready partners among their own class, and while I knew Dizzy’s reputation as a connoisseur of women, his marriage was rumored to have been a happy one, and he’d been seriously cut up by his wife’s death a few years before. Still, the strain of managing an empire and jollying along that gloomy old bag Victoria might have gotten to the man. I was pondering how to break the news that I’d retired on my laurels when the second man caught my attention, swirling the drink in his hand so that the crystal glass glittered in the firelight. He was a rum-looking cove, with reddish gold hair, a severe mustache and amber eyes that held not a spark of warmth. His skin was unnaturally white and glowed like alabaster in the light from the fireplace.
The prime minister waved a hand at a heavy sideboard lined with bottles and glasses. “May I offer you some refreshment, Miss Black?”
Stranger things have happened to me than being offered a glass of whisky by the prime minister, but for the life of me, I can’t recall what they might have been. I muttered my thanks, accepted the proffered glass with what I hoped was a charming bow, and allowed myself to be shepherded into a soft leather chair.
“I trust your journey here was a pleasant one,” Dizzy said, as though I’d received an engraved invitation and been escorted here by the Royal Blues, instead of kidnapped off the street by two Neanderthals. I wondered if there was a polite way to express this thought, but Dizzy was continuing on, oblivious to (or ignoring) the irony of his statement.
“Allow me to introduce William Endicott. Mr. Endicott is here on behalf of Lord Derby, the foreign secretary.” Endicott was the rufus-haired gentleman. He turned a reptilian gaze upon me and blinked once, slowly.
“And of course, you have already met Mr. French of this office,” said Dizzy.
The dark stranger who had disposed of Archibald Latham’s body was at the sideboard, pouring a stiffish peg for himself. He didn’t bother to look round, which was just as well as I was in no mood to smile and say hello. By this time, I’d regained my usual sangfroid, reasoning that I wasn’t likely to be murdered in the office of the prime minister, and settled down to enjoy what promised to be an interesting evening. So I sipped my whisky demurely and waited for Dizzy to expound, which didn’t take long, of course, as he could no more be silent than an Irishman can be sober.
“I hardly know where to begin,” he said, and promptly launched into speech. “Two days ago, a representative of this government died rather precipitously, and somewhat unfortunately, at your, er, establishment. Also unfortunately, Sir Archibald Latham carried with him a case that held certain documents, containing rather sensitive information.”
“Vital information,” Endicott interposed. He’d screwed a cigarette into an ebony holder and was puffing away, the smoke dribbling out his nostrils. “Information of the greatest importance to this government.”
“As you are aware, Miss Black, the case has gone missing.” As if Dizzy weren’t sure I’d gotten his point, he added: “From your, er, establishment.”
The whisky was first-rate, but it was time to make known my position. “I didn’t take the case,” I said. “French was there when I searched Lotus House. He can tell you that I found nothing.”
“We know the case is not in your possession,” Endicott said. “We know where it is.”
“Well, then. Why don’t you just go and fetch it while I trundle back to Lotus House and attend to my business?”
“It’s a complicated matter, Miss Black.” Dizzy rose briskly and strode over to the fireplace, where he leaned against the mantle. “The case will soon be in the possession of Count Vladimir Maksimovich Yusopov, the head of military intelligence for Tsar Alexander II.”
“If the case belongs to Her Majesty’s government, why don’t you tell Count Yusopov to hand it over? If he doesn’t give it back, you can always boot him out of the country.”
Dizzy sighed. “Dear me. I wish it were that simple. But for any number of reasons, we cannot make a public issue of the matter. It must be handled with the utmost discretion.”
The faintest of lights had begun to dawn. “You mean, no one must know that the documents are missing.”
Endicott frowned into his glass. “Precisely.”
“Cause for embarrassment?” I asked. “Senior government official pops off in a whorehouse, losing state secrets to our bitter enemy along the way. Is that it?”
Dizzy looked unhappy. “You have summed up the situation quite succinctly. We cannot afford a public scandal; it would bring down the government.” Endicott shot him a quick glance. In the shifting, uncertain light from the fireplace, I could have sworn it was laced with malice. But from the corner of his eye, he caught me studying him, and his expression smoothed immediately into the seamless mask he’d been wearing since I arrived.
“You said this count fellow would have the case soon. Where is it now?”
French spoke for the first time. “In the possession of one Major Vasily Kristoforovich Ivanov, Count Yusopov’s most trusted agent. He is in London at the moment, awaiting Count Yusopov’s return from Paris, where he has been for the past week.”
“And how did this bloke Ivanov get his hands on the case?” I asked.
“Ivanov’s men have been shadowing various officials from the War Office for several months.”
“Including Bowser, I presume.”
Endicott and Dizzy looked puzzled.
French’s lip twitched slightly. “Sir Archibald Latham,” he explained.
Dizzy had been silent for all of a minute, which must have been a terrible strain. “One of the destinations to which he was followed was your, er, establishment. We assume that the agent must have waited for Latham to emerge from what I understand was his usual appointment at your, er, estab—”
“Lotus House,” I interjected, weary of this infernal dithering about my, er, establishment.
Endicott looked shocked that I’d interrupted the prime minister, but Dizzy didn’t falter and ploughed on. “Er, quite. We further assume that when Latham did not reappear at his customary time, the agent was alerted that something unusual had occurred. He must have entered your premises, discovered Latham’s body and purloined the case. We have sources within the Russian embassy who have notified us that the case has been delivered to Major Ivanov. Ivanov has deposited it into the embassy safe to await the return of Count Yusopov.”
“How do you know that Ivanov hasn’t already opened the case and inspected the contents?” I’d have wasted no time in doing so, and I assumed most of my fellow human beings would do the same, especially if they were Russian spies who’d just gotten their mitts on some secret papers.
“It would be more than his life is worth to look at those documents before Count Yusopov sees them. The count is the tsar’s cousin and enjoys a rather close relationship with him. His subordinate, Ivanov, would not dare usurp Yusopov’s right to deliver the information contained in those documents directly to the tsar.”
“If you have sources in the embassy,” I said, “why not have one of them recover the case for you?”
Dizzy sighed. “Alas, they are neither skilled enough nor in any position to do so without being compromised. We did, however, attempt to penetrate the security at the embassy last night. Unfortunately, our effort was detected and rebuffed, resulting in increased security measures that have made it impossible to make another attempt.”
Tough luck, old boy, I thought to myself, but what I said was, “I don’t quite see how this concerns me.”
“We must try a new approach, Miss Black. We find ourselves in the unique position of having to ask for your assistance.” Dizzy gave me a smile calculated to charm me out of my garters.
“How could I possibly be of service to you?” I asked.
Dizzy pursed his lips and looked at the ceiling. Endicott peered into his glass and scrupulously avoided my eyes. It didn’t take any Gypsy blood to predict my fortunes were about to change. French, predictably, looked cool as dammit.
I cocked an eyebrow at him. “Go ahead, French. What can a whore do to extricate the British government from this embarrassing scandal? And won’t there be an even bigger scandal when the story gets out that you had to ask a bint for help? Not very statesmanlike, that.”
“It won’t get out, India. Not from us, and certainly not from you,” said French.
“You seem rather confident of that fact. What’s to prevent me from selling my story to the papers?”
He smiled blandly. “You’ve a great deal invested in Lotus House. It would be a shame if you were to lose it.”
A whore learns early how to run a bluff. It comes in useful when you’re haggling over the price or the services, or when the bloke you’re with has turned nasty and you have to talk your way out of the situation. Which, come to think of it, was exactly what had just happened with French.
“Put me out of business,” I said, very coolly, “and I’ll pay a visit to every journalist between London and St. Petersburg.”
Dizzy had turned pale (no small feat, with that complexion) and was gnawing a fingernail. “Please don’t be so hasty, Miss Black. You’ve no idea what is at stake here.”
“Then why don’t you tell me?”
Endicott raised an eyebrow and uttered a contemptuous cough. “Really, I hardly think the prime minister need bother to explain affairs of state to the likes of you.”
“If the prime minister wants the assistance of the likes of me, he will.” I sauntered over to the sideboard and freshened my drink, taking care not to let the decanter of whisky rattle against the glass and betray my apprehension. Dizzy was a politician and a man of the world; he looked ready for a confidential chat among friends. French’s supercilious arrogance made my teeth ache, but I already knew he was a pragmatist and wouldn’t scruple at doing whatever needed to be done. But this Endicott fellow was a pompous little tick and didn’t bear crossing lightly.
French had taken little part in the discussion, and I’d been watching him out of the corner of my eye for the past few minutes. He seemed singularly disinterested in the conversation, his gaze roving the room but ignoring the occupants, turning his head this way and that, and finally (and most bizarrely), sniffing the air like a hound on the scent. He rose to his feet and began a rapid reconnaissance of the room, opening the door to the corridor, peering under desks and tables, and finally alighting in front of one of the large windows, draped in heavy curtains to keep out the winter chill.
Dizzy, Endicott and I had suspended our discourse and were watching him with curiosity, mixed with not a little concern on Dizzy’s face that a trusted operative might suddenly have lost his mind.
French slowly extracted his handkerchief from his pocket, shook it out in his right hand, and grasping the curtains with his left, rapidly inserted his right behind the curtain and drew it out again. It contained Vincent’s ear, which of course was still attached to his head, which still contained his mouth, from which a steady stream of curses now issued in that jackdaw voice of his.
“’Ere, let go o’ me,” he cried, writhing like an eel in French’s grasp. “Oi, that hurts.”
“As it should,” said French coldly. “No one invited you to this meeting.”
“Who is this guttersnipe?” Endicott demanded. “And how the devil did he get in here?”
Vincent took one look at French’s frigid expression and the viper-like gaze of Endicott and quickly decided that outraged indignation wasn’t going to cut much ice with those two. He gave me an appealing glance and said, “India, are ya alright? I saw them two brutes make orf wif ya and I followed ’em here.” He looked suspiciously at the prime minister. “These fellers ain’t ’urt ya, ’ave they?”
Dizzy looked shocked, at the lack of recognition or being suspected of such an outrage or because his accuser was a ragged tyke who smelled like an Arab slave ship. He recovered quickly, though (Dizzy’s never at loss for words, it seems), and raised a placating hand toward Vincent, who was still glaring at him.
“Not to worry, my young friend. Miss Black is our guest and has been enjoying an evening discussing the latest developments in current affairs with us.” He waved a hand at French. “Mr. French, you can release our visitor. I don’t believe he means any harm.”
French emancipated Vincent’s ear, and Vincent shot him a look that clearly indicated he’d forgotten about French’s largesse in the matter of Bowser’s wallet. Vincent rubbed his ear vigorously. “Ya nearly pulled my ear orf, you did,” he said accusingly.
“It would have served you right if I had,” said French, depositing his handkerchief in the dustbin.
“Where in blazes are Smith and Jones?” thundered Endicott. “How in blazes did this child slip past them?”