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The Hanged Man
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The Hanged Man

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Author: P. N. Elrod
Publisher: Tor, 2015
Series: On Her Majesty's Psychic Service: Book 1

1. The Hanged Man

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Steampunk
Alternate History (Fantasy)
Psychic Abilities
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Synopsis

On a freezing Christmas Eve in 1879, a forensic psychic reader is summoned from her Baker Street lodgings to the scene of a questionable death. Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury (named after her godmother, the current Queen of England) is adamant that the death in question is a magically compromised murder and not a suicide, as the police had assumed, after the shocking revelation contained by the body in question, Alex must put her personal loss aside to uncover the deeper issues at stake, before more bodies turn up.

Turning to some choice allies--the handsome, prescient Lieutenant Brooks, the brilliant, enigmatic Lord Desmond, and her rapscallion cousin James--Alex will have to marshal all of her magical and mental acumen to save Queen and Country from a shadowy threat. Our singular heroine is caught up in this rousing gaslamp adventure of cloaked assassins, meddlesome family, and dark magic.


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

In Which Miss Pendlebury Is Called to Duty

LONDON, ENGLAND,

CHRISTMAS MORNING 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.

Brook put on his hat and touched the brim, and the cab rocked as he climbed up to the driver's seat.

She pulled shut the half doors that would protect her from some of the wet, and heartily wished for a more sheltering conveyance. Sleety wind stung her face as they trotted north along Baker Street, then cut right onto Marylebone Road, heading for the northern end of Harley Street.

London was usually clogged with all manner of vehicles, but not at this hour of night. Their trip was miserable, but brief. Brook pulled the horse up just short of the house. There was a hospital ambulance already waiting in front, and two men hunched in its lee, smoking cigarettes. They couldn't remove the body until she had a look at things.

Even in this weather, a few idlers hung about, hoping for a glimpse of something interesting or to earn or beg a copper. A constable kept them at a distance. Every window with a view of the street had one or more faces in it, taking in the show like theater attendees in private boxes.

How long has this been going on?

She preferred to arrive at the scene of a death as soon as possible, nearly always before the ambulance. Things were easier to Read when the residual emotions were uncontaminated by intrusive traffic or eroded by the passage of time. There were strict rules of preservation in place now, but not everyone followed them.

Investigations had a pattern: discover a body, notify a doctor or a constable depending on the circumstances. If there was anything suspicious about the death, clear the area and send for a detective from Scotland Yard and a Reader from Her Majesty's Psychic Service. Tonight, Miss Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury happened to be the closest.

Lieutenant Brook dropped down, one of his heels slipping on a patch of ice. He grabbed the hansom and kept his balance. This time she accepted his hand as she emerged.

"Have a care, miss," he advised kindly.

Would that be for the sidewalk, or for what waited inside the house?

She was familiar with the locale, often cycling along Harley Street, taking the air when the weather was temperate. The house was part of a row of impressive structures, each four stories tall with three dormers at the top, each made individual by the use of different colors of brick. They were wonderfully respectable and, despite high rents, much in demand by members of the medical establishment.

This one's wide door with frosted glass panes was very like her own. It was also noteworthy for being between two large bay windows, one for its own building, the second belonging to the neighboring house.

The lower facade of number 138 was of fine white stone with a faux Roman arch trimming the fanlight window. The metalwork screen on the fanlight, the elegant iron fence on either side, and the brass knob in the center of the door were all nearly identical to the front of her own house, but on a grander scale.

The keystone of the arch had a distinctive carved head, like a death mask, emerging from its surface. That was new. She'd have noticed such a thing on her last jaunt here some three weeks ago. Prior to that, the building had been vacant for about a fortnight. So the new tenant had been here less than a month and had money to spend on exterior decorations.

She wanted to ask who lived here, but that could wait. The Service was strict about investigative process and rightly so. They caught more criminals that way.

Inspector Lennon opened the door. Gaslight spilled out, catching on specks of sleet flying past. "Finally," he growled, looking her up and down. "Get inside and get on with it."

Despite tangible results that came from Readings, Lennon maintained a broad skepticism tinged with contempt for those with psychical talent, but followed official procedure to the letter. One could not lodge a complaint against that, however poor his manners.

"Good morning, Inspector," she said, mounting the three steps and entering, unruffled at being addressed like a lazy scullery girl.

"Nothing good about it, Miss Pendlebury, as you'll find out."

"Please, no information. Just tell me where." She removed her muffler and cap, stuffing them into her pockets, then took off her gloves.

"Upstairs, last room on the left."

Unbuttoning her ulster, she had a quick look around, unsettled by the similarity of the house's exterior to her own. The foyer was somewhat different, this one paneled in dark, shining wood, not bold, cheery wallpaper.

To her left was a sizable parlor with chairs and tables along the walls. The draperies on the bay windows were closed. The parlor obviously served as a waiting room. She could assume a doctor owned the premises, and that he might be a bachelor or widower. A framed print on the wall extolling the virtues of Dr. Kemp's Throat Elixir supported it. No lady of the house would have that up in even the public receiving areas. It was frightfully common.

"Where are the servants?" Alex asked.

"The whole lot's back in the kitchen." Lennon nodded toward a door under the stairs that must lead to that area. "We got them clear soon as may be."

She heard voices and clamor: someone sobbing, someone else clattering about with pots and pans, probably seeking solace in the familiarity of work.

"Inspector, would it be possible to have a cup of tea for me when I'm done?"

He grunted and looked at Brook, who had shadowed her inside. "My men are busy. You see to it."

The lieutenant might have wanted to watch her at work, but said, "Yes, sir," and went off. Imagine that: a member of the upper class fetching tea. The Service was a great leveler. To his credit, Brook gave no indication the task was beneath him. Sergeant Greene, born and raised in Whitechapel, would have balked, but only because he'd consider it woman's work.

Alex left her ulster on the banister and climbed the stairs with Lennon a few steps behind. He was a big man; they creaked under his boots. His hard gaze would be on the back of her neck, suspicious for any sign of weakness. She'd heard from others in her department that he took pleasure in intimidating them. He never said a word, letting a hard stare do the job of breaking their concentration. Complaints were lodged, but never went far. What could one say that would not sound like childish whining?

Ignoring his presence, Alex opened to the atmosphere of the house.

It was, surprisingly, buoyant.

Most doctors' offices had quite an awful mix of hope and despair, the latter being the natural result of patients getting bad news about their health. The darker, heavier feelings tended to be stronger, soaking into the walls like a case of damp. Those could be dispelled easily. Sometimes simply airing a room was sufficient. However rare sunshine was in English weather, especially in winter, there was always enough to scour most places of old emotions.

She reached the landing and focused on the left-hand door at the end of the hall.

Move slowly, test the way.

Sometimes there were nasty emotional jolts lingering near a death, the psychical equivalent of stepping on a nail. So far she picked up a general feeling of shocked disbelief, deep grief ... and horror.

She'd encountered those before, the normal residue left by those who found the body. People tended to have the same emotions when death paid a call. While she could not say that she was used to such, they no longer overwhelmed her. On her very first case she'd opened up too quickly and fallen over in a faint. The instructor had been prepared. Alex struggled awake to the burning sting of smelling salts in her nose and was sharply told to show greater care for herself. She got no more sympathy than a medical student fainting at their first anatomy lesson.

Of course, those students made a choice to become doctors or nurses. If unable and unwilling to handle the necessary requirements of their art, they could find another occupation. Alex had been born to this particular work. As with others possessing psychical talent, it ran in her family, and she had been blessed (or cursed) with a particularly strong ability. Her choices had been to learn to control it or go mad.

Perhaps I'm mad and no one's noticed yet.

She always thought that just before looking on a corpse. It was a tired observation, long bereft of its feeble humor, its very weariness a comforting affirmation that she was in her right senses.

She paused before the door, which was ajar. The gas was on within and strange shadows swung lazily on the hall floor. She pushed gently forward to see what cast them.

The taint of night soil hung heavily in the air, turning her stomach. In all the stories and books she read for pleasure, none of the writers ever made mention of this noisome aspect that attended the discovery of a corpse. Either they'd never dealt with death themselves, or deemed the subject indelicate.

Alex kept handkerchiefs in a jar of rosewater on her dressing table. Just before leaving on a call, she'd wring one out, tuck it into an oilcloth pouch, and tuck that into a pocket of her waistcoat. She retrieved the one she'd taken tonight, holding it to her nose, then pushed the door wide.

It was a room for a gentleman, furnished with a big bed and a reading chair by the window. There had been a fire in the grate; a few coals glowed but offered no warmth. A window was raised high, and the air was freezing.

Otherwise everything was normal, except for the man's corpse hanging from the gas chandelier in the center of the room. His back was to her, which made it easier. However they died, she avoided looking at their faces. After burnings and drownings, hangings were the worst. The last one, with its bulging black tongue, bloodshot eyes popped wide, and horrifically elongated neck would last her a lifetime.

Alex had no need to look, anyway.

Her job, God help her, was to feel.

A suicide? The chandelier must be singularly sturdy to hold such a weight. Then she noticed the rope was looped over the same large hook in the ceiling that held the light. The hook had been driven deeply into a support beam hidden by plaster, certainly strong enough to carry out an act of self-destruction like this.

The chief grotesquery was that the gas yet burned. The body, so near to the source of light, cast a deep shadow upon the floor and walls. The man's gray head was against one of the glass globes. While still alive he must surely have flinched from the heat. Why had he lighted the gas? Why not that candle on the bedside table?

While death occasionally possessed a macabre humor, it was never kindly, particularly with suicides who hanged themselves. The bowels and bladder had given way, which accounted for the bad smell. The rose scent in her handkerchief could not wholly overcome the reek, but it kept Alex from retching.

His bare feet dangled loose and vulnerable under the blue nightshirt. A draft created by the open door stirred its pale folds; otherwise the corpse was quite still. His slippers were next to the bed, which was rumpled from occupancy. Had he crept under the covers to stare at the ceiling until unrelenting hopelessness caused him to rise and end his torment?

While it was not outside possibility, there was a false note to the terrible scene before her. Several, in fact.

If he planned ahead enough to bring a rope, why bother going to bed? There was no need to mislead the servants; as master of the house he had only to shut the door and attend to his repugnant undertaking in private.

Why undress for bed? While she had encountered suicides who stripped naked to meet their Maker, most kept their clothes on. In one case, the lady put on her wedding dress and reclined prettily on a chaise lounge while a draught of laudanum took her into the next world.

Why choose such a long, painful death by strangulation? If he had been a doctor then there would be better choices in his medical bag. Laudanum, morphine, or heroin were painless and just as effective.

Well, the initial discovery was out of the way, time to get on with the rest of it, and there, perhaps, find answers.

Murder victims tended to be surprised, terrified, or enraged, leaving those feelings behind in the wake of an attack removing them from life. Those who passed due to accident often left nothing at all, if their death was sudden enough. She'd encountered that in the aftermath of a train wreck. A great number of the dead hadn't known what befell them and all that remained were their poor broken bodies. Most of the emotions she'd gotten had been from those whose work was to remove and attend the dead. It had run to ghoulish humor. Ugh.

Suicides, though, had weeks, months, even years of despair and anguish about them. It built up like silt in a river. It bogged them down, trapped them, tortured them until they finally succumbed willingly to end the pain.

But hanging was a singularly agonizing way to die. It always took longer than expected. The pain, shock, and helplessness usually left an imprint of emotion as harsh as any violent murder.

Alex opened herself a tiny bit more, bracing for the worst.

But nothing came.

Which was not normal.

She opened still more, eyes shut, and cast about like a hunting hound. There was the discordant rasping shock here in the doorway. That would be from the person or persons who had found the body.

A servant had found him, male, his valet or butler. The horror and sincere grief were profound, but not the same sort one got from a relation or a spouse. A calm fellow, he'd likely seen death before and recognized it readily enough. A relative might immediately take down the body in an attempt to revive it or to conceal the self-slaughter, but this one had been left as found. The man was clearly dead--nothing to do but alert the authorities.

As for the room's late occupant--odd--there was no trace of melancholy at all, which puzzled her. Why, then, had this man killed himself?

No emotional residue presented itself to answer. The only feelings here were of self-satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, anticipation--not at all what she'd expected.

If not suicide, then murder?

But she found no trace of that either, unless that satisfaction belonged to the perpetrator. Not likely, for the emotion was well attached to the general atmosphere of the room, imprinted there by its most habitual occupant.

The man had not killed himself, nor had he been awake to resist an attacker. He'd passed unaware. Considering the agony of such a death, that was just as well, but it was impossible that he could have slept through it. Had he been in a drunken stupor?

The attacker had left no sign of himself behind. Not one hint remained of anger, jealousy, love, hate, or any of the myriad emotions that drove one human to take the life of another.

That was impossible. There was always something; an action as intense as murder always left a stain. She'd never been at a scene of violence that did not have motivational emotions lingering about. They lay like shards of broken glass, and one could follow them to the source if it was a fresh enough trail.

But no such trail existed here. Had there been a psychic cleansing, then it would have removed the latent emotions of the dead occupant as well.

Opening her eyes, Alex shut down the inner mechanism of nature that others ironically called her "gift" and switched to her cultivated talent for observation.

A chest was at the foot of the bed, nearly under the chandelier hook. The dead man's right ankle brushed against the chest's side. Supposedly he stood on it, secured one end of the rope to the ceiling hook, then stepped off.

It would have been difficult to lift an unresisting body up high enough to slip a noose around its neck. Even to loop it first, then hoist the body up using the ceiling hook as a pulley would require a strong, strapping fellow. Two would have found it easier, but she could not think how one man could have erased his psychic spoor, much less two.

No shoe prints or scuffs were visible on the bare wood of the chest. A few swipes with a gloved hand would take care of that.

First things first: How had the killer gotten in and out?

The window was the likely point of entry. Perhaps the late tenant enjoyed fresh air; some hardy sorts left their windows wide open, even in this weather. She crossed the room. The latch was unengaged. He could have left it cracked and an intruder took advantage of it.

"What are you about?" demanded Lennon. He'd been quiet during her psychical scrutiny, which was now clearly over.

"Checking things," she said, peering at the sill. It was wet from sleet melting on the relatively warmer surface of it and the floor. Had there been footprints left by an intruder, they were lost now.

He grunted and joined her. If the stench bothered him, he gave no sign. "You think someone done for him?"

"Yes. Despite appearances, this is a murder."

"That what his ghost told you?"

"Inspector, you are well aware that I Read only the emotions left by the living, not the dead. What I found tells me that this poor man did not kill himself. He was somehow rendered insensible, then hung up like a Christmas goose at a butcher's."

"Who done for him, then?"

"I can't tell. There's no psychical trace of the killer."

"Meaning?"

"Whoever did this left no muddy footprints for a Reader to follow. He's psychically invisible, and that's impossible."

"Your whole Service is impossible, and yet here you are."

"Which is your good fortune, Inspector. This is something new; you'll have the credit for it."

"Keep your credit. You can't see him? Then how do you know anyone was here?"

She shook her head. Trying to explain the emptiness to him would be like describing light and color to a blind person.

"If you think someone topped him, show me real proof, Miss Pendlebury."

That might be a problem. There was no city soot on the outer sill to hold footprints either.

"My missus should clean this well," grumbled Lennon. "Someone could have got in and out this way, but he'd have been seen. Someone in the street would have noticed a ladder where it shouldn't be. There's idlers about. We questioned them, they didn't see anything."

"What about a misplaced mountaineer dangling from the roof like a great spider?" she asked. "People aren't likely to look up in this weather."

"There's that," he conceded. "Though anyone at a window across the way would notice. But at this hour and in this dark--"

"Otherwise the only entry and exit is the room's one door."

"Unless you think there's a secret passage behind the fireplace."

"I should be most surprised if there was." The layout of this house was similar enough to her own, and hers had no such feature.

"You're minded that it's a sneak-thief?"

"If not a thief, then a sneak with murderous intent and the intelligence to arrange this to be taken for a suicide. I suggest sending someone observant to examine the roof, otherwise this horrid deed may have been done by a member of the household or one letting in a murderous confederate."

Lennon's eyes narrowed and his jaw worked as he grunted agreement. He had not risen through the ranks at Scotland Yard by being a fool. While showing unflagging contempt for her psychical talent, he never discounted her observational skills.

Again, she cast about, searching every corner, every item in the room.

The table next to the bed held a water carafe and a glass on a little tray. Neither had apparently been used, but a clever killer would have tidied things.

Alex went to the bedside to examine the carafe. There were potent soporifics without color, though they were often detectable by taste or smell. If one wanted to render a person insensible, then a large amount would have to be dissolved in the carafe--and when would the killer have an opportunity to do that?

"You think there's something nasty in his water?" Lennon asked.

"It's too uncertain. How could he be sure his victim would even take a drink in the night? Or when?"

"Too true, but I'll collect it in evidence."

Someone had silently entered the room and--what? Injected the man with some substance? If so, then the sting of the needle had not wakened him. The medical examiner might find the puncture, giving lie to this being a suicide.

"What makes this murder, eh?" pressed Lennon.

Alex checked a drawer in the bedside table. Inside was a pocket watch and a Bible. She had to forsake the scented handkerchief, needing both hands. She took a deep breath, then picked up the watch and used the small key on its chain to wind it. A quarter turn and no more, so he'd wound it before retiring, read a bit of his Bible, then put out his candle, just as a thousand other men might do.

"What suicide troubles to wind his watch?" she asked.

"Force of habit," Lennon countered. "I've seen queerer stuff. What else?"

Her pent-up breath puffed out as she put the items back, and she did not get the handkerchief to her nose in time, catching a whiff of the stench--and something else.

She bent to sniff the man's pillow.

Sharp and astringent, no more than a whisper of it remained, and that was well masked by the stronger smell of night soil, and further diluted by the freezing air blowing in; this death might well be ruled a suicide but for that.

"Got you," she said, pointing and stepping back to make room for the inspector.

He shot her a suspicious glare, as though expecting a trick, then bent and breathed in.

He snorted, but not dismissively. "Now that is interesting. Let's have another opinion, just to be sure. Brook! Up here on the double!"

Brook must have been at the foot of the stairs. He charged up in quick response to Lennon's bellow, but stopped short in the doorway to stare at the corpse, and lost much of his color.

"In here, man," Lennon snapped. "That beggar's past harming aught."

Brook visibly braced himself, assuming the carefully blank expression again, and came forward.

"Put your beezer to that pillow and tell me what's there."

With puzzled reluctance, Brook did so, then straightened. "It's ... like a hospital?" he hazarded.

"Yes, something you might notice in a hospital," Lennon prompted.

"Not carbolic or vinegar.... Pungent stuff."

"You'd think so. Ever have surgery? Of course not. I have, and when you're facing a jolly fellow in a black coat with a knife in his hand you'll bless the stink of this poison. It'll turn your belly over after, but better than being awake when the cuttin' starts."

"Ether," Brook said. "Of course."

"Just so." The two of them looked at the body and back to the pillow. No need to explain to Brook; he'd clearly grasped that foul play had been involved.

Lennon said, "Once they clean him up, they'll find ether still trapped in his lungs. Anyone will be smelling that off him for days. When I come back from getting cut, my missus had the windows up, complaining how it filled the house just from my breathing."

Lennon's emotions were starting to contaminate the scene. He was excited, interested, and eager to press forward, having embraced Alex's conclusion as his own. Nothing left but to find the murderer so far as he was concerned. She was pleased with the validation but resisted the temptation to thank him for it.

He opened the drawer and fingered the deceased's pocket watch, showing its face to Brook. "Make a note of the time and that the smell of ether was detected on the pillow by the three of us. Then make an inventory of all the items in here, starting with this bauble. Mind you get everything down. I won't have some sticky-fingered servant claiming anything went missing while I was on duty."

Brook produced a notebook and a pencil and wrote as instructed.

"Did the butler find the body?" she asked.

"The valet," said Lennon. "He was doing the last rounds before turning in, making sure the windows were shut and the gas off, saw the light under the door, and looked in. Apparently it was unusual for his master to be up so late."

"A steady fellow?"

"Seems steady enough. What's that to do with anything?"

"You can thank him for keeping the room untouched. I should think he may have had some police training at some point."

"We'll stand him a drink at the nearest pub, then. Brook, make a sketch of the room while you're at it. Come along, ghost-catcher." Lennon went out.

"Sketch?" Brook echoed. "I'm no artist." He looked at Alex a little helplessly. "Do you draw, miss?"

"Not that sort of sketch," Alex said kindly. "He wants a map of the room, approximate dimensions, placement of furnishings, window, door, and the body."

"Oh. I can do that. Thank you, miss."

"Two copies, if you please. One for the Yard, another for the Service. As identical as possible."

Alex caught up with Lennon at the far end of the hall. He held a lantern and had a door open. Narrow stairs lay beyond. He bulled up, the lantern's pale light dancing drunkenly on the plain walls. She knew what would be next and cursed him. He'd take great enjoyment grumbling about the delay if she went to fetch her coat, and she refused to give him the satisfaction. She followed him to the servants' floor. To judge by the clothing left out, the females of the household had the whole of it, and it was quite nice. Only two to a room and at one end was the unheard-of luxury of a water closet. That must have cost a few pennies.

Lennon searched with no regard for the occupants' privacy until he found a bolted door that opened to the roof. Any other time of the year Alex would have delighted in such a lofty expedition, but not now.

She eased out in Lennon's wake, shrinking from the cold despite her woolens.

Ice coated everything and the wind cut like a fury.

Directly opposite was a low wall that divided this house from its neighbor. To the left was a flat space with lines strung between a braced pole and hooks piercing the main chimney. Such washing as was done on the premises would be hung here in the more clement months. Alex stepped carefully across to the low wall that overlooked the back. Below were the mews and an enclosed extension leading from them to the house, its windows lighted, probably the kitchen and quarters for the male servants. A constable paced back and forth in the small yard below.

She oriented toward Harley Street. The roof over the servants' rooms slanted up and blocked the view. Above its line, oppressive gray clouds reflected back what little glow the city possessed. The smoke from countless fires rose to combat the falling sleet, sinuous black and translucent silver writhing and twisting about each other in the sky like silk rags.

Footing was slippery. Lennon proceeded with much care toward the house's main chimney, which stood out from the lesser ones like a brick obelisk.

Alex tottered toward him and found it necessary to grab his arm to keep from falling. He glanced down at her with amusement and held the lantern so the light fell on one corner of the structure.

The chimney was black with years of soot from London's thick air. No need to clean something only the servants would see. The corners, though, had some interesting blemishes.

"Rope marks," said Alex, forgetting the cold for a moment. "There are fibers caught in the brickwork."

"I'll have a man collect 'em. Mind your feet." He made his way toward the low slanting roof, dragging her along, since she still had hold of his arm. He seemed unaware of her weight. He peered at the roof, which had a dusting of ice over its dark surface.

"Someone's been here, I think," she said.

"Let's be certain." He held the lantern out.

She took it, thinking he wanted his hands free for climbing.

"Your pardon, I'm sure," he said, grasping her around the waist and lifting.

Alex yelped.

"Never mind that, what d'ye see?"

Far too much. Until now she'd never minded heights. "The other side of the roof, the dormers coming out from it--" The street far, far below.

"Any tracks?"

She made herself hold the lantern steady. "Yes, someone's been here. No boot prints, but lots of smears in the soot between the dormers."

"Good enough." He shifted and set her down. She staggered a bit. "Steady now, you're just startin' to be useful. I couldn't have boosted Brook up like that."

"I'd have paid to see you try."

He snorted and took back the lantern. "It seems we are after a human spider. He tied a rope to the chimney, went up, over, and down to the window. That's a lot of effort even without ice. Why not break through a door during supper? With everyone in the kitchen no one would have heard. He could have hidden until the place was quiet, done the deed, then nipped downstairs and out to the street afterward when they were asleep."

"He may have been unwilling to wait all night. He might not have a familiarity with the routine of the house. He left the gas on in the master's room, too. Forgetful, or did he want the body to be found more quickly?"

"And how the blazes did he get up on the roof in the first place?"

She broke away to check the dividing wall of the neighboring house, gesturing for Lennon to bring the light. "More disturbance in the dirt. He climbed over here. When it's daylight you can send someone to backtrack farther."

"What, no mystical horripilations from beyond?"

"There's nothing to sense. He would not have lingered long enough to leave an emotional impression"--not that he'd left one in the death room--"and the sleet and wind would have the same effect on his psychic trace as a wave on sand. If it warms into rain you'll be hard pressed to follow even a physical trail. Perhaps you better not wait for the dawn and get someone up here now."

He looked over the wall, but the lantern light did not carry far. "You know, you'd make a first-rate detective if you packed up the spook business."

The compliment surprised her. "I'll keep that in mind, Inspector."

"I'm serious. Everything you found is to do with what's in the here and now, not spook land."

She did not correct him with the term favored by Spiritualists. He was in a relatively good mood, no need to spoil it.

Lennon paced off the distance between the chimney and the roof. "He'd need at least seventy feet of rope and a bit more, so there's some left to string up the toff. Brassy devil, doing circus acrobatics in this weather."

"It would be nothing to a mountaineer or a sailor," she pointed out, willing her teeth not to chatter.

"You suss out if any of the household has been to sea, climbed Ben Nevis, or had recent dealings with such a bloke."

"It could be a woman."

"Then she's a proper Amazon and not a little tweak like yourself. It would take real effort to pull that big boy from his sheets and haul him up, so unless you notice a Brunhilde struttin' about lifting horses for sport, my money's on some strapping lad for the dirty work."

The inspector had mixed his mythologies, but she had to agree with him. "Are we done?"

"What? You chilly? An' this such a balmy night."

* * *

Alex shivered on the upper landing as Lennon bawled for the morgue attendants. They hurried past, bringing the long straw basket that would carry the body.

One of them muttered something about bloody spook chasers just loud enough for Alex to hear. She was always on guard against comments from the uneducated and superstitious about her trade. Her internal defenses were up; their emotions would not leak past and pollute her own. They didn't understand, didn't want to, and never would.

Lennon ordered each to the bedroom to smell the pillow in situ. One claimed to have a cold, but the other confirmed the stink of ether.

"Good," said Lennon. "Remember that if you're called to give evidence. Brook, get his name and make a note."

That done, the four of them initialed the page as witnesses.

"Plain as pikestaff," said Lennon, summing up for the benefit of the morgue man who asked why he had to sniff some toff's bedding. "Person or persons unknown made entry and inflicted a dose of ether on the man as he slept. Some of it slopped on the pillow. They strung up the poor devil, neat as neat, expecting to draw a verdict of suicide at the inquest, which they won't get. Cut him clear and get him out."

With no desire to watch, Alex went downstairs, feeling sick and sad as she always did afterward. Only it wasn't afterward; more was yet to come, all part of the investigation. She would have no sleep tonight. Closing her eyes would only conjure images from the death room. Those would fade, given time and some meditative cleansing. Regrettably, given her trade, there would always be replacements.

The under-stairs door leading to the kitchen opened, and a slender man of middle years garbed in a robe and slippers stepped out. Taking him for the valet or butler--a person she preferred to avoid for the moment--she did not meet his eye. Her attention was instead fixed on a laden tea tray left on the foyer table.

She hurried to it, pouring a cup of the blessed brew with the same reverence another might accord a French brandy of noble lineage. Blessings on high, it was hot and strong, but not bitter. No need for milk, she drank it straight, glad of the heat.

"Please, miss, what's to happen?" asked the man behind her. His voice was hoarse and hushed from grief.

She shook her head in reply, not wanting to think about the hours to come when she would sit with each member of the household and Read their various feelings. That was invasive, exhausting, and uncomfortable to her, but necessary. Murderers were the most vulnerable when the shock--or guilt or triumph--was fresh. If any here was or had aided the killer, she would discover it, pointing to the most suspicious or discounting the innocent. It was almost impossible to lie to a trained Reader.

Alex had studied cases where the murderers showed and felt no remorse, even considered what they'd done to be a good job, though she'd yet to encounter one. This might be her first.

If so, then she would look for that which wasn't there, but ... later. Another cup of that wonderful tea, sweetened with an excess of sugar, would brace her up.

From the corner of her eye she was aware of the man's hesitant approach. "Miss, begging your pardon, but--" He stopped in his tracks. "Good heavens.... Lady Drina?"

She gave an involuntary start and nearly dropped the cup. She'd not heard that name in years. Years. Not since--

Alex rounded on him. Time slipped treacherously and dizzily backward as she matched his face to one in her memory. He was older, his thin hair showing gray, but the port wine birthmark on his right ear was unmistakable.

"Fingate?" she whispered in disbelief.

"Bless you for remembering, Lady Drina. It's myself, sure enough. How you've grown, if you'll pardon my saying." A crooked smile passed briefly over his drawn features.

"Whatever are you doing here?" she asked, and the question sounded foolish even as the words left her lips. She abruptly knew the answer, but her mind froze, absolutely froze.

"What I've always been doing, looking after--oh! Oh, no." His expression shifted to horrified dismay.

She stared up at the landing where the grunting morgue men were just beginning to descend with the heavily laden basket. It had no lid. A grimy sheet of stained canvas served as a cover, but it caught on something and began to peel away, revealing what was inside.

"They didn't tell you...?" Fingate whispered.

She blinked rapidly as ghastly realization flooded in. Step by step, the men lugged their burden closer to her, and she would see--

"Is it--? I ... I didn't know it was ... no one said..."

Fingate rushed forward, putting himself between, blocking her view. Against all rules of proper deportment that male servants must follow toward their female betters, he threw an arm around her shoulders and dragged her to the parlor. "There now, you've no need to see your poor father like that. In here--and for God's sake close your eyes."

Copyright © 2015 by P. N. Elrod


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