The front doorbell of Number 24 Albemarle Street pealed.
The chiming was immediately followed by a peremptory knock.
Penelope Adair, lady of the house, hugely pregnant and lying on the sofa in her garden parlor feeling like nothing so much as a beached whale, turned her head and peered through her spectacles at the clock on the mantelpiece.
She hadn’t dozed off—it truly was barely nine o’clock.
Only one sort of summons appeared at their door at such an unfashionably early hour.
“Damn!” With effort, she pushed herself up into a semi-sitting position and jammed a cushion behind her aching back. She squinted down at the mound distending her belly. “You realize what this means? Stokes needs our help with a case, but I have to remain here, because with you in there I can barely waddle much less investigate. The list of entertainments I’m giving up on your account is about to grow longer.”
Over the last two weeks, she’d taken to addressing her imminent offspring, deeming it appropriate for them to grow accustomed to her voice. Another week or so…assuming she survived; the burden was getting exceedingly…burdensome.
Straining her ears, she heard Mostyn, their majordomo, cross the tiles of the front hall. The front door opened; after a minute punctuated by the rumble of male voices, Penelope heard the door close.
The rumble of voices continued; two voices, both recognizable. Penelope’s husband, Barnaby Adair, third son of the Earl of Cothelstone and occasional consultant to the Metropolitan Police, had, it seemed, been equally quick in recognizing the import of the unexpected caller; he’d come out of the library in which, over the last week or so, he’d taken to lurking to intercept Mostyn and whatever message had been delivered.
Penelope leaned back against her supporting cushions. She was perfectly aware that, given the choice, Barnaby would much rather have lurked in the garden parlor, hovering within sight of her, but he’d wisely realized that that might be one protective step too far.
So he dallied in the library within easy reach—within hearing if she screamed.
Penelope sighed. “I wonder what sort of juicy case Stokes has for—” She broke off, then, jaw firming, went on, “For us.” She glanced at her belly. “Just because I’m stuck here incubating you, and even though my mind sometimes wanders ridiculously, that doesn’t mean that I can’t, if I wish, concentrate enough to analyze facts.”
The door opened. Barnaby walked in, a note in his hand. Meeting her gaze, he closed the door. Crossing the room, he drew one of the armchairs closer, then sat and leaned forward, his forearms on his thighs, so that his face was level with hers. He searched her eyes. “How are you feeling?”
She arched a brow. “An hour bigger and heavier than I felt over breakfast.”
He didn’t know what to say to that—what was safe to say to that.
She nodded at the note. “Stokes?”
Barnaby glanced at the short note. “Yes.” He felt torn. He and Stokes—Inspector Basil Stokes of Scotland Yard, now a good friend alongside whom Barnaby frequently worked—had hoped that over the last weeks of Penelope’s pregnancy the ton would take a brief holiday from crime, but, sadly, the ton hadn’t obliged. “Stokes has been called to a murder at Finsbury Court, Lord Finsbury’s house near Hampstead. A gentleman house guest was found bashed to death on a path near the house. Stokes writes that while he has yet to interview Lord Finsbury, from the reactions of the butler and the local constable it’s clear he’s going to need my assistance to be able to investigate.”
Looking up, Barnaby saw Penelope grimace, but he couldn’t tell if that was due to the baby or the situation.
It proved to be the latter. Rather grumpily, she admitted, “I know Stokes wouldn’t send for you, not at the moment, unless he genuinely needs your help.”
That was undeniably true; with Stokes’s wife, Griselda, also pregnant, albeit a few months less so than Penelope, Stokes was highly sympathetic to the emotional pressure Barnaby was experiencing.
He hesitated, then asked, “So should I go, or would you rather I remained here?”
“You should go.” Shifting restlessly, Penelope pulled a face at him. “I’m only annoyed because I can’t go with you—which leads to my one condition.”
Rising, he arched his brows. “Which is?”
“That when you come home, you tell me all—no censoring of the facts to spare my delicate sensibilities, which, I assure you, pregnancy hasn’t changed in the least. If anything I’m less delicate than I was before—being an almost-mother makes one rather bloody-minded over any sort of threat—so I want to know every last little detail.”
So she could analyze. And he would be the first to admit that with her highly logical brain, she was exceptionally good at fathoming criminals’ motives and intentions. It was what had first brought them together, and was one of the many things about her that continued to intrigue him.
Looking down at her face, he let his gaze drink in her delicate features, the aristocratically imperious tilt of her chin, and the dark depths of her deep brown eyes. Despite the drain of these latter weeks of pregnancy, the resolution and determination that were an integral part of her still shone clearly. She continued to fascinate him; she would always hold his heart.
He smiled, nodded. “Agreed.” Leaning down, he brushed his lips over hers, lingered for two heartbeats, savoring the instant, compulsive connection, then he drew back and met her eyes. “And in return, no trying to go for a walk alone. Be good while I’m gone.”
Penelope snorted. “Mama will be arriving within the hour—I won’t have any choice.”
As she’d intended, the reminder that her mother would be there to keep her company through the long, wearying day eased some of Barnaby’s lingering concern, yet still he hesitated, his gaze on her. Feigning a pout, she waved dismissively. “Go, go—before I change my mind.”
He laughed and turned to the door.
Settling back on her cushions, she called, “Just remember to take especial note of all the things I’ll want to know.”
Smiling, he glanced back and saluted her, then he left.
When the door closed behind him, Penelope sighed. After a moment, she glanced at her belly. “Told you. I’m missing out on investigating a murder…” She paused; gaze rising, she stared into space. Then, tilting her head, she patted her balloon-like belly. “But just analyzing the facts, having only them to work from, is undoubtedly a different sort of challenge.”
After a moment, she reached for the large hand-bell Mostyn had left on the side table and rang it. When he answered, she asked him to fetch her traveling writing desk.
She spent the next fifteen minutes penning a note to Griselda Stokes. Penelope and Griselda had met during the investigation that had brought Penelope and Barnaby, and Stokes and Griselda, together; the two women were now firm friends, long past the need to stand on any ceremony, much less observe the strictures of social class, something Penelope rarely felt bound by regardless. In her note, she included what little she knew of Stokes’s new case and that he had summoned Barnaby to assist him. She concluded with an invitation to Griselda and Stokes to join Penelope and Barnaby for dinner in Albemarle Street—although also pregnant, Griselda could still leave her house—so they could all share the latest findings and discuss what their husbands had thus far learned. Penelope ended her missive with the statement that she and Griselda being heavy with child didn’t mean that they couldn’t contribute.
Simply writing the words left her feeling more engaged.
After dispatching the letter via Mostyn, Penelope sat back and considered her mood—unexpectedly satisfied with her morning and excitedly expectant in looking forward to her evening, and, indeed, the days to come.
Murders were rarely solved in one day.
A sharp kick to her insides made her wince and refocus on her belly. Stroking one hand soothingly over the taut mound, she said, “You know, it’s really very much better out here. You could kick to your heart’s content. Feel free to join us at any time.”
As the child quieted, Penelope’s mind shifted to Stokes’s new case. “I must remember to ask Mama what she knows about Lord Finsbury.”
* * *
Surrounded by old, tall trees, the spaces between filled with thick bushes, Inspector Basil Stokes stood on a woodland path high on the shoulder of Haverstock Hill and looked down at the body of a man—a gentleman by his tailoring—that lay sprawled stomach-down on the grassy ground. The man’s head and shoulders were twisted about as if he’d been looking up and back, but, courtesy of the damage wrought by a heavy implement, little remained of his features. Without inflection, Stokes asked, “What do you think?”
Standing beside Stokes, Barnaby surveyed the body. “Well, he’s certainly dead.”
The man had been of a good height, perhaps a touch over six feet tall, built lean and well-muscled, with dark wavy hair, fashionably cut. His clothes had been tailored, but not in Savile Row, and his linens appeared to be of decent quality. In lieu of any clear features—none were discernible in what remained of the man’s face—his hands were the best indicator; studying the long fingers, the neatly manicured nails, Barnaby grimaced. “And you’re right—he was a gentleman.”
Barnaby had driven himself out of London in his curricle. Hampstead village, which lay at the far end of the path, was a coaching halt on the top of Haverstock Hill. Following Stokes’s directions, it had taken Barnaby less than an hour to reach the coaching inn where Stokes had sent a constable to meet him—to lead him up this bucolic woodland path to the murder scene.
Gaze rising from the corpse, Barnaby looked in the direction in which the man appeared to have been walking. “How far on is Finsbury Court?”
Stokes grunted. “About a hundred yards before you walk onto the side lawn, but with all these trees and bushes, that’s far enough away for no one there to have seen or heard anything.”
Registering the disgusted note in Stokes’s voice, Barnaby looked again at the body. Hiking up his trouser legs, he crouched to get a closer look at what was left of the man’s face. “So he, whoever he is, walks up from the village, heading for Finsbury Court…this path leads nowhere else?”
Stokes glanced at the young constable who was standing rather stiffly at ease to one side. “Duffet?”
“No, sir.” Duffet swallowed rather nervously. “It’s purely a short-cut between the village and the Court.”
Nodding, Barnaby continued, “So our victim walks up the path—and steps into a foot-trap.” Looking down the body to where the steel jaws of a trap had clamped unforgivingly around the man’s right ankle, Barnaby winced. Shifting, he looked more closely at the trap, which had been concealed in a natural dip in the ground, and confirmed that the contraption was well-anchored via the usual steel pegs. “I think we can assume that the trap immobilized him. That said, if he’d had time to come to grips with the pain, he would probably have been able to release himself—except that whoever set the trap was waiting, and as soon as our man was on the ground, they stepped in and bashed his skull in with…” Barnaby glanced up inquiringly.
The young constable had fine, gingery hair. Looking even paler than before, he held up a long-handled sledgehammer. “We found this slung into the bushes over there.” With his head, he indicated a thick clump several yards closer to the house.
Barnaby frowned. “Was it just flung there, or had there been some attempt made to hide it?”
“Just flung, sir. We—the butler and me—saw the handle sticking out when we came down the path. The butler, Riggs, said as he thinks it’s the hoop-hammer from the croquet shed. Apparently old Miss Finsbury—she’s his lordship’s sister—wanted a long-handled one so she could thump in the hoops without having to bend down.”
“I see.” Frowning, Barnaby rose. He glanced at Stokes. “In your note, you said the victim was a house guest. Do we know who he is?”
“A Mr. Peter Mitchell.” Stokes consulted his notebook. “And although he was a guest at the house party still underway at Finsbury Court, it seems he was shown the door three days ago.”
Barnaby met Stokes’s eyes. “Any notion as to why?”
“Apparently,” Stokes dryly returned, “we’ll need to address such inquiries to his lordship in person.”
Barnaby arched his brows but made no comment.
Stokes went on, “Mitchell left the house, bags and all, and was driven to the coaching inn—the same one you stopped at—late in the afternoon three days ago. Duffet asked, and the inn folk say Mitchell purchased a ticket and managed to squeeze onto the London coach that afternoon, and rattled off to town. No one at the house saw anything more of him until this morning, when the cook sent the scullery maid to fetch more eggs from a nearby farm, and the maid took the path and found him”—Stokes nodded at the body—“like this. Unsurprisingly, the maid went into hysterics, rushed back to the house, and alerted the staff. The butler sent for Duffet here, who came, saw, and sent word to the Yard.”
“So,” Barnaby said, “thus far only we three, and the butler and the scullery maid, have seen the body.”
“And the murderer,” Stokes grimly replied.
“Indeed.” Barnaby glanced at Duffet, then looked back at Stokes. “Any clue as to when it was done? From the relative dryness beneath the body versus the dampness on his back, I would assume it was sometime yesterday.”
Stokes nodded. “According to the butler, Mitchell had sent word two evenings ago that he would be returning to speak with Miss Finsbury yesterday afternoon. He was expected, but he never appeared. Duffet checked, and Mitchell did arrive on the coach that stopped at Hampstead yesterday afternoon.”
“So the murderer knew Mitchell was coming to the house and guessed he would be walking up this path. The murderer seized the chance and set the trap, and kept watch. When Mitchell stepped into the trap and went down, the murderer emerged from the bushes and repeatedly struck him until he was most assuredly dead. Then the murderer flung the hoop-hammer into the bushes and…” Frowning, Barnaby paused.
“Walked back to the house,” Stokes filled in. “That’s the most likely scenario. No one in the village saw any stranger around yesterday afternoon, arriving or leaving, other than Mitchell himself.”
Stokes paused, then went on, “But that’s not the end of the complications.”
When Barnaby looked his way, Stokes said, “On being shown the body, Duffet searched Mitchell’s pockets—and found a diamond necklace.”
Barnaby glanced at Duffet.
The young man’s face lit. “A fabulous thing, sir. It glittered like stars.”
“According to the butler, who, Duffet says, goggled as much as he did, the necklace belongs to Lord Finsbury.” Stokes read from his notebook. “It’s known as the Finsbury diamonds, is hugely valuable, and, in some circles at least, is well-known.”
Barnaby grimaced. “Old family jewelry, unless stolen, holds little interest for me, but if we need to know more, I know who to ask.”
“Cynster?” When Barnaby nodded, Stokes said, “It’s possible we might need to know more about the necklace, but at this point I can think of several more urgent questions.”
“But”—Barnaby glanced from Stokes to Duffet—“where are the diamonds now?”
“As mentioned,” Stokes grimly said, “the butler, Riggs, went into a tizzy at the sight of them, and he insisted they be immediately returned to his master. Duffet here, not understanding the usual procedures of a murder investigation, allowed himself to be swayed. He and Riggs took the diamonds back to Lord Finsbury.”
Eyes on Duffet, Barnaby asked, “How did Lord Finsbury react?”
Obviously regretting his unintentional lapse, Duffet hurried to assure him, “Exactly as one might expect, sir. He was stunned and shocked.”
“Apparently,” Stokes said, “Lord Finsbury had no idea the diamonds weren’t in the safe in his study.”
“He really was rattled, sir,” Duffet opined. “Went pale as a sheet. Then he took the diamonds and put them back in the safe—in a black velvet box, which he said was where he’d thought they’d been.”
Barnaby struggled to fit the puzzle piece of the diamonds into the picture of the murder forming in his mind. After several seconds, he met Stokes’s gaze. “That’s…a very confounding complication.”
“Indeed.” Stokes glanced at the body, then slid his notebook into his greatcoat pocket. “If you’ve seen all you need to see here, I suggest we go and speak with Lord Finsbury. The message I received, conveyed by the butler, was that his lordship is not best pleased to have the police about and he wants us out of his hair and off his property as soon as maybe.”
Starting up the path, pacing side by side, shoulder to shoulder with Stokes, with Duffet falling in behind, Barnaby grunted. “Lord Finsbury can want and even demand all he likes, but this is murder—violent murder—and the guilty party has to be identified and brought to account.”
Stokes’s lips curled in a cynical little smile. “Which is why you’re here.”
Barnaby humphed. As they walked toward the house, while one part of his mind was rehearsing the arguments with which to persuade Lord Finsbury of the unavoidable necessity of a detailed investigation, another part of his mind was busy juggling all the bits of evidence he’d already absorbed.
Reaching the end of the path, they stepped out of the screening trees and bushes onto a swath of lawn.
Barnaby and Stokes both halted, in wordless accord seizing the moment to study the house and glean all that the sight could tell them. A sprawling old manor with central parts dating from Tudor times, the building was larger than Barnaby had anticipated. A small forest of tall, ornate chimneys rose above the lead roof; it was the first week of December and smoke rose in thin columns from half a dozen terracotta pots. They were facing the southwest façade; the front entrance lay around the corner to their right, where the carriage drive emerged from the trees to end in a graveled forecourt. From where they stood they couldn’t see the front door.
Roughly half of the house had two stories with attics above, while the rest was comprised of ground-floor rooms somewhat haphazardly attached to the original structure.
Stokes stirred; having looked his fill, he was ready to move on.
Holding his ground, Barnaby murmured, “The price for my presence was a promise that I would tell Penelope all.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw Stokes’s lips quirk in a wolfish—teasing but understanding—grin. “Ah—I see.” Stokes settled again.
Barnaby consciously tried to see the house as Penelope—or, for that matter, Griselda—would; he and Stokes had learned that both ladies saw things neither he nor Stokes did. Or, rather, deduced relevance from details neither he nor Stokes even registered.
So he looked at the curtains, at how many rooms showed signs of occupation rather than being closed up. He noted the kempt-ness—the paintwork, how clean the windows were, the neatness of the flowerbeds. In the end, he simply tried to fix the picture in his mind.
Shifting, he glanced at Stokes. “I have no idea what we’ve missed, but I’m sure there’ll be something.”
Stokes grinned and they started walking across the lawn—a touch over-long—toward the front of the house.
When they rounded the corner and stepped onto the gravel of the forecourt, Barnaby halted again, taking another moment to fix an image of the front façade in his mind.
That done, he blinked, and his mind swung back to the body. To the question that kept niggling.
Stokes was patiently waiting. Meeting his eyes, Barnaby said, “If, unbeknown to Lord Finsbury, Mitchell had this fabulous necklace in his keeping, why was he bringing it back to Finsbury Court?”
Stokes held Barnaby’s gaze, then nodded and looked at the house. “Let’s go and find out.”
Side by side, greatcoats swinging, they headed for the front steps.