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Authors: L. J. Oliver

The Humbug Murders

BOOK: The Humbug Murders
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This book is dedicated to the memory of Scott Ciencin.

You were gone too soon my best, beloved one, my soulmate.

You taught me everything I know of unconditional love, writing, and never giving up on my dreams.

I will miss you every day for the rest of my life.

Denise Ciencin

For my dear friend and co-author, Scott Ciencin, who truly believed. And for Jane Wilson, an exceptional historian and even better mum.

Elizabeth Wilson

CHAPTER ONE

Monday, December 19th, 1833

Cheapside, London

Six Days to Christmas

FEZZIWIG WAS DEAD
to begin with. Had I known that, had I been among those first few to discover his bloodied corpse and seen the brutal, rage-fueled manner in which he'd been murdered, I would have been far more alarmed when he walked through the door to my office only a few hours after his demise. Instead, my focus was on the annoying drone of Christmas carolers battling the howling winds of winter, which was mercifully silenced as he shut the door. Brushing newly-fallen snow from his shoulders and hat, he caught sight of what I was doing and slinked into the shadows by my bookshelf as I addressed my would-be client.

It was early in the morning, the meager light of the sun not yet fully penetrating the foul London smog. Yet only a single small lump of coal added its glow to my office. Darkness is cheap, and I liked it.

“Mr. Greville, sir, the time is now. I need not remind you of the pressing nature of this investment: the project governors leave for York by the morning.” I indicated the leather chair once more, but Mr. Greville remained standing. “And as you know, I have little patience for anything other than
profit
.”

He grunted an unintelligible reply as he flicked through the papers of our agreement, squinting to see the inked words through the hazy light of dawn.

“Very well, I'll give you a moment to see that all is in order.” While Mr. Greville continued thumbing through the documents, I strode to Fezziwig, eased beside my former mentor.

“Let me look at you, boy,” Fezziwig said, in a voice dustier than I remembered. He straightened my lapels. “Smartly dressed, of course. Brass buttons, freshly polished. Good. A suitably handsome jawline and a full head of healthy, dark hair add to the necessary scintilla of authority. Subtle wrinkles in the crook of your eyes and high upon your forehead. No matter. They counter your youth with an air of gravitas and experience. Merry Christmas, Ebenezer!” His eyes darted round my office, from my client to me and to the dark corners. “Now then, where's the
girl
?”

What an odd thing to say. Fezziwig knew that there had been no one in my life since Belle broke our engagement five years earlier. True, I had made some half-hearted attempts at engaging in conversation with mindless young women at society parties. But since Belle had told me, with ice in her voice as glacial as her eyes, that my love for profit had smothered my love for her, my heart had withered. I slipped my hand in my pocket, where I kept a secret: a little locket, smooth and shiny. Safely hidden inside was a tiny cameo portrait of my Belle, with her perfect ringlets and starched lace collar. Between finger and thumb I stroked the metal. It gave me comfort. Perhaps Fezziwig thought one of his granddaughters was meeting him here.

“Merry Christmas indeed,” I replied with a cheerful smirk. “You'll be happy to know I've come around to your way of thinking on the season.”

The old man's eyes brightened. “Really? You no longer consider Christmas a humbug?”

“Absolutely not! 'Tis the season in which I may charge ninety percent interest on loans, and these poor fools are so desperate to put on a spread, they'll gladly pay it. God bless us, everyone.”

Sighing, Fezziwig nodded to my pale and trembling client. “Ebenezer, you have the same look as Ralph, my tabby, when he comes upon a rat sitting on an as yet unsprung trap.”

I raised an eyebrow. “This man has cost me time, energy, and hard-earned cash. There will be an accounting.”

Returning to my desk, I faced Greville and waited for him to speak. My unswerving gaze unsettled him; he made a strained effort to avoid eye contact.

Still, with a shaky voice, he mustered up enough courage to spit out, “I shall be candid.”

“Of course.”

“I am not sure about you, Ebenezer Scrooge.”

I sat down behind my desk. I've found it is almost impossible not to trust a man willing to sit down before his aggressor. “That remains entirely your prerogative.”

He was leaning on his cane, which, as had been pointed out by my paid investigator, was a few inches too short. He stood at an acute angle as he pounded a fist on my desk.

“These conditions! Steep, no? I am a grief-stricken man, Scrooge. You are aware that my mother died recently? I have no desire to see her inheritance defrauded through your exorbitant interest rates. I came to you in good faith, despite the fact that your practice has been operating a mere six months, because I was assured of your reputation as a cutthroat businessman. But I didn't expect mine to be the throat that suffers!”

He was willing me to falter, challenging me to succumb with his narrowed eyes and puffed-out chest. I looked to old man Fezziwig. There was an urgency in Fezziwig's eyes and stance that suggested the old man was here on pressing business.

I peered up at Mr. Greville and opened my hands solicitously. “I will be investing in rail with or without your stake; such is my confidence in the project. Naturally, the inclusion of your funds will render the return significantly more bountiful for both of us. So, considering my
callous
terms, as you put it, ask yourself this: would you rather own forty percent of the greatest endeavor of our century, or a hundred percent of nothing? No, don't concern yourself with the mathematics, I can see it is overwhelming you. The time is now, sir.”

Mr. Greville pulled his pocket watch out of his jacket's breast. He stared at it for a minute, then started rubbing the smooth side against his other hand as he hummed a song better suited to a church choir. Then he froze as he caught me looking at him. His face darkened.

“Look, Scrooge. You were the one who advertised for an investment partner, not me. I don't need to sign any terms I'm not happy with.”

“Indeed you do not, Mr. Greville.”

Though he stood as calm and solid as St. Paul's, I could see his fingers twitching. I let the potent silence hang between us like a gaping crevice demanding to be filled. Mr. Greville's fidgeting intensified, spreading to his feet with little spasms of energy.

Then it finally happened. He lunged for the pen. I smiled. The trap had at last been sprung.

“Ah, not so fast, Mr. Greville.”

My would-be client froze, jaw opening and closing like a gasping fish, one hand clutching a too-short cane and the other my fine pen. His eyes met mine and widened. The faintest shimmer of sweat on his forehead reflected the flames in my fireplace.

“Did
you
write to me in response to my advertisement for an investment partner? Claiming to be able to pledge the funds against the security of these?” I waved at the papers on my desk. “Certificates of your late mother's estate?”

“Don't be so damned impertinent, Scrooge! Why else would we be here?”

“I see. That's a
terrible
shame.” I pushed the papers away and folded my arms.

“What in the devil—”

“There is a young reporter chap I met recently. We'll call him Charles. He's damn near as greedy and grasping, as hard as flint as me. I had him follow you. Investigate you. According to him,
you
didn't write to me at all, did you? I am told that Mr. Greville is left-handed. But see here, all these unsightly ink smudges on your right cuff.” He gulped and glanced at my ivory pen, firmly clasped in his right fist. I stood up and walked to the coat rail, where I pulled his heavy wax coat from its hook. It still dripped horrible grey sludge onto my expensive carpet; sludge that had been pure white snow before it was trodden down by the boots of thousands of Londoners racing about in frantic anticipation of Christmas though the day was still a week away.

He took the coat without expression.

“You dragged snow and slush into my office. That is not very gentlemanly. And that is not your cane. It is too short. My investigator also caught you cavorting with some unseemly types of both sexes. Gambling, whoring, drinking, the holy trinity of vices, yes? And a trip or two to the opium dens for good measure. Surprising for a man of Greville's reputation and a short leap to unmasking you as an imposter.” I snorted. “That you were not even aware that the true deadline for the rail deal is Friday, four days from now, shows you're lazy, too. Can't be bothered to do your research. Well, I do not know who you are or where the real Mr. Greville is, but judging from the dark stain that looks very much like dried blood on your trouser leg, I judge that he is not in a fine condition.”

The imposter just stood there, his face ablaze despite the chill. The warbling of carolers in the distance did nothing to soothe his fury.

Without taking my eyes from him, I snatched a lump of coal from the brass shuttle by the fireplace and tossed it on the flames. I loathed the expenditure, but it was necessary to place my hand within inches of the poker without attracting his notice.

“My reporter friend has been paid for his silence. It is my duty as a citizen of London to inform the police of my suspicion of fraud, and who knows what else. Though, honestly, you strike me as a lazy and cowardly man, I don't see you as the type to commit murder. So I would return to wherever you have Mr. Greville bound and gagged and free him this instant. Then perhaps catching a ship to the colonies might be prudent. As you've probably heard, I don't appreciate being crossed and I forget nothing. In fact, I would say that if I do not receive a visit from the true Mr. Greville by lunchtime that I will happily set the wretched hounds of the legal system upon you.”

BOOK: The Humbug Murders
13.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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