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Authors: P. N. Elrod

The Hanged Man

BOOK: The Hanged Man
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For Mickee

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Heather Fagan,

Dan Hollifield and Lindsey Burt-Hollifield.

High five!

 

PROLOGUE

In Which Vital History Concerning Her Majesty Is Revealed

When informed at the age of ten that she was likely to be queen of England, it was reported that Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent replied, “I will be good.”

What she actually said was, “I will
do
good.”

Sometime in 1835—it is a well-kept secret—the sixteen-year-old princess escaped her highly managed routine and spent two weeks walking incognito among commoners. The revelation of how ordinary folk lived and died made a profound impression on young “Drina.” She resolved to improve the lot of her people, especially that of women.

During this taste of freedom, she met the dashing Lord Arthur Godalming, who was in the right place at the right time to rescue her from street ruffians. It was love at first sight for both, and when she became queen two years later, iron-willed Victoria defied custom and changed law so she could marry a peer rather than a prince.

The love match of Victoria and the Lord Consort Arthur marked the beginning of a new era of enlightenment for England.

Her progressive policies, particularly the historic “Time of Women” Equal Franchise Act of 1859, which granted voting rights to women, changed the world.

The young monarch made her childhood declaration a reality.

Victoria's empire now circles the globe, but the brass and steam progress of the Industrial Revolution disturbed dark forces. Reason and science were in vigorous conflict against fear and superstition. The empress could not ignore the fact that something was supernaturally rotten in the state of England. In 1847 she called for the creation of a new department within the Ministry of Science.

This special branch, Her Majesty's Psychic Service, dedicated to investigating all matters supernatural, employs the psychical gifts of those who serve in it to protect and preserve the realm.

Here follows the story of one of her agents.

 

CHAPTER ONE

In Which Miss Pendlebury Is Called to Duty

L
ONDON,
E
NGLAND,

C
HRISTMAS
M
ORNING
1879

No commonplace death would require Alex's presence at such an ungodly hour; calls to the house of a Reader at two in the morning were never of a social nature. She girded her emotional barriers for the possibility of brutal murder and sent up a silent request that it would not involve a child. Those were the worst, though, of course, none were ever pleasant.

Someone rang the front entry bell just as she was about to put out her candle and attempt sleep. Mrs. Harris, the housekeeper, was away visiting relations for the holiday, taking along the page and the maid, so Alex herself slipped downstairs. She did not bother with slippers, throwing a blanket about her shoulders against the chill.

A man's looming form showed through the door's frosted glass panels. He was too tall to be Sergeant Greene, who must also be away visiting family. Everyone had a holiday except herself, the luckless fellow sent to fetch her, and death.

She used her candle to light the gas sconce, instantly brightening the foyer. Wary for problems, she slid open a discreet drawer in the foyer table where she kept a revolver.

Clutching the blanket to her throat, Alex threw the bolt with her free hand and opened the door to the freezing night.

“Miss Pendlebury,” said the tall man on her step. “You're needed.”

The stranger held out a folded paper and, after his initial glance, looked at some point above her head, politely not noticing her state of dishabille.

He did not mistake me for a housemaid,
she thought, sliding the drawer shut on the revolver.
Why is that?
Not from the blanket or what was visible of the nightdress under it. Then she remembered that no respectable servant would venture forth barefoot and without cap or dressing gown. Only the master or mistress of a house would do so. This was Baker Street, not Grosvenor Square, therefore the master or mistress of a house were not above answering their own—

She cut that thread of thought and took the paper. Scrawled in pencil was a Harley Street address and the name of the detective in charge of whatever investigation was presently taking place. Inspector Lennon, the toughest of a surly lot … he'd be in a fine temper getting called in at this hour. He'd want things wrapped up quick to have the coming day free for Christmas dinner with his family.

Alex had a surfeit of relatives herself, but no intention of dining with any of them. A cold supper, hot cocoa, a good book, and sweet solitude by a crackling fire suited her better. That, and not being called to Read a suspicious death.

She abruptly noticed it was sleeting, rice-size beads collecting on her caller's shoulders and hair. “Oh, you must be frozen. Come in, Lieutenant.” She stepped back to make room for him.

“Thank you, miss, don't mind if—” He got that look they always get. “Beg pardon, but how did you—?”

His regulation boots below his heavy ulster, hat tucked under one arm, and ramrod posture had given him away as a military man. She'd taken those in with her first glimpse, hardly aware of the process between observation and conclusion. While he could have been a sergeant, she added in his general manner, the cut of his hair, his carefully trimmed moustache and, of course, his accent, placing him as a scion of an upper-class house who had found a place in the Service. Whether he'd volunteered or had been transferred over as punishment for some infraction such as passing the port in the wrong direction at dinner, she did not know or care.

It would do no harm to add to her reputation; Alex preserved the mystery and made no reply.

“I shall return directly,” she said, pointing to a chair where he could wait.

“Yes, miss. They asked you to hurry, if you'll pardon my saying.”

“They always do, but the dead are a patient lot, I think.”

“Yes, miss,” he somberly agreed, this time not reacting to her knowledge that a death was involved. It was, after all, her trade.

She did not rush upstairs, but once there made a speedy toilet. Not knowing whether she'd be indoors or out, she prepared for the worst: long woolens under her winter knickerbockers, a wool waistcoat over a wool blouse. Her new cycling boots that went up to her knees took forever to button, but once done, she was ready for anything.

Alex descended the stairs smartly, pulling on gloves. Her driver rose, his mouth agape for an instant before he clamped it shut and assumed a studiously blank expression. She placed him as one of the vast number of males who still found females who chose to wear practical clothing to be an amusing (or even shocking) novelty.
Punch
printed many a cartoon in reaction to the transformations in fashion.

“Please, sir, we've had the vote for decades. Accustom yourself to fresher progresses”
was the caption of one showing Lord Nelson's statue swooning at the sight of two respectable ladies in trousers strolling Trafalgar Square. Alex bought several postcards of that one to share with a few female friends who would appreciate the humor.

The emancipation the Equal Franchise Act gave to women had been the law of the realm for twenty years, but some men still grumbled about it, predicting the downfall of the British Empire—if not the end of the world—depending on the depth of their prejudice. So far, neither had happened, but Alex knew many lived on in hope, if only to have the satisfaction of saying,
“Hah! Told you so!”

She took her cape-topped ulster from the hook by the door and allowed her visitor to help her on with it. When he offered he was simply showing common courtesy. Had he required similar assistance, she would have done the same. It would not have been easy; he was dashingly tall while she was little more than a few inches over five feet in her boots.

“Thank you, Lieutenant…?”

“Brook,” he said. “Attached to the Service by special order,” he added.

That covers a number of sins,
she thought.
And by whose order?

Alex transferred the revolver from the foyer table drawer to her coat pocket, which raised an eyebrow on her escort, but it, along with a notebook and other odds and ends, was part of her normal kit when on duty. Though not strictly required to carry one, all Readers who dealt with criminal cases had to learn the use of firearms. Many times she'd been called to parts of London as dark and dangerous as any jungle, and she liked having the solid weight of a Webley on her person.

She donned her fore-and-aft hunting cap, tying the earflaps under her chin, and wrapping a muffler about her throat. Whatever awaited tonight, she would not suffer unduly from the cold.

Brook held the door. She almost threw him a salute in passing to find out if he'd return it out of habit. That would be inappropriate humor, given the situation. Instead, she went out, then locked up.

Their conveyance was an ordinary hansom, not the unadorned closed carriage the Service favored. Her driver was much too finely turned out to pass as a London cabbie, though.

I will have to send word upstream about that
.

There was a fresh crop of New Year recruits to train, and none of the upper-class ones, including their hide-bound instructors, had the least idea how to blend into the vast background of commonplace London life. Brook was evidently one of them. A cabbie with an Eton accent? Quite ridiculous.

Alex climbed in, pretending to overlook the lieutenant's offered hand. Yes, definitely from some high stratum. His mother, or more likely his nanny, had taught him nice manners. Well and good. Alex appreciated nice manners. Had she been in a dress she would have accepted help, but the ease of movement her cycling costume allowed abrogated the need.

BOOK: The Hanged Man
4.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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