Excerpt: The Librarian of Crooked Lane
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London, Spring 1920
NOTE: The following excerpt has not been edited. It will contain errors that will be fixed in the final version.
The woman crouching under the desk near my feet expelled an unladylike snort of derision.
I stilled. I didn’t even dare urge her to keep quiet with a nudge of my boot for fear that Mr. Parmiter, the head librarian, would notice. At the sound of the snort, he’d turned back and scrutinized me yet again. He had a way of making me feel like a speck under a microscope. Moments ago, he’d pressed both palms on the desk, leaned in until his face was close to mine, and inspected me with all the precision of a detective searching for evidence at a crime scene.
Indeed, Mr. Parmiter’s initial scrutiny had come about because he did suspect me of a crime. The crime of wearing makeup. According to the library charter, which I’d never seen, female staff were forbidden from adding so much as a smudge of color to their cheeks. Although I was sure the rule never existed since I was the first female employee, I didn’t question him. I simply informed him I was not wearing makeup. He’d sniffed, as if trying to smell a lie, then turned away.
Until Daisy had gone and snorted like a bull at a red rag.
Mr. Parmiter scrutinized me again, but this time he stood a foot back from the desk. “Are you unwell, Miss Ashe?”
“No,” I said. “I was just clearing my throat.”
Those beady eyes of his narrowed further. He moistened his lips with a lizard-like flicker of his tongue, dampening the overhanging gray moustache. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he reached across the desk to touch my forehead, checking for a fever, but the fear of getting too close held him back. I couldn’t blame him for that. The devastation wreaked by the Spanish flu was very recent and we all worried it would return.
“You should go home if you feel unwell,” he said.
“I feel fine.”
He waved a hand at my face. “And remove that vile stuff. This is a respectable institution where gentlemen of learning come for quiet study. Attractive women are a distraction. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have employed someone like you, but needs must.” This last sentence he muttered as he walked off.
Thankfully Daisy didn’t emit another snort. She was probably too shocked and angry to speak. I was just as angry, but not shocked. In the two months since I’d taken the position of assistant librarian at the London Philosophical Society’s library, I’d been exposed to Mr. Parmiter’s misogynism on a regular basis. He blamed young women for just about every ill that had ever befallen him, or the world in general. I’m sure he could find a way to blame us for the war if he put his mind to it.
“It’s safe,” I whispered.
Daisy crawled out from the desk cavity and cast a disdainful look in the direction in which Mr. Parmiter had departed. She hadn’t seen him; it was the only exit from the reading nook. I was using the empty desk to inspect some old books for signs of disrepair. Tucked away on the first floor between the stacks, it was the perfect place for quiet research, or hiding from one’s manager while chatting to a friend who shouldn’t be in the library at all. Daisy was not a member of the London Philosophical Society. She wasn’t at all philosophical, not even after drinking too many cocktails. A drunk Daisy was a giggling Daisy, not terribly unlike a sober Daisy.
But she wasn’t giggling now as she perched herself on the edge of the desk and regarded me with a frown. “What did he mean when he said he wouldn’t have employed ‘someone like you, but needs must?’”
I balanced the book on pragmatism on both my hands then closed it with a satisfying thunk of its thick pages and heavy leather cover. The smell of old paper wafted up, causing Daisy to cover her nose. I breathed the scent deeply into my lungs. “There were no other suitable applicants for the position of assistant librarian,” I told her. “He had to resort to hiring a female.” I rolled my eyes and gave a wry laugh.
“Really? Even with all those returned soldiers looking for work?”
“There were other applicants, but according to Mr. Parmiter, none were suitable. There were three others, in fact, all returned from the war. One was blind in one eye, another was missing a leg, and the third had shattered nerves that saw him jump at any loud noise. Mr. Parmiter claimed he couldn’t employ them because they are a distressing reminder of the war and will put off the Society’s members.”
“He truly said that?”
“After everything those poor souls have been through, and now they have to endure the sneers of people like Priggy Parmiter. And to imply you’re only attractive when you’re wearing makeup! The nerve of him.” The heat with which she said it was on par with her defense of the returned soldiers. To Daisy, the two wrongs were equally abhorrent. “You’re pretty, Sylvia, and don’t let a dusty old bore like him tell you otherwise.”
I thanked her for the compliment, but to be quite honest, I was no beauty. Not like Daisy with her blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair cut into a wavy bob that framed her face. The style was very modern, but in the few short months I’d known her, I’d come to realize Daisy followed trends like winter follows autumn—inevitably. She never settled for very long before moving on to the next thing that caught her eye. Her desire to try new things was understandable. I didn’t blame her for shrugging off the heavy blanket that had shrouded us all after four years of war and another one and a half of the flu. Sometimes the bleakness had seemed as though it would never end. But despite their personal losses, some people were ready to move on. Daisy needed to move forward with her life.
I hadn’t quite reached that point yet.
“Speaking of dusty…” Daisy wrinkled her nose as she pushed away the book I’d been about to inspect for damage. One of the pages had come loose from the binding and the corners of several pages had been turned over to act as a bookmark. The thin layer of dust on it bothered Daisy more.
It had been on the desk for some time, waiting for a librarian to tend to it. Years ago, someone had collected all the books in the library that looked as though they might need to be sent away for repairs and piled them up on this desk in the remotest reading nook in the building. Then war had broken out, the assistant librarian had died on the battlefields of France, and no one had been employed in his stead until I started work in March. Filling a dead man’s shoes wasn’t easy, particularly when Mr. Parmiter made it clear my gender meant my work was inferior to my predecessor’s, but I enjoyed it when he wasn’t bothering me.
It was quiet. Few members came into the library and when they did, they preferred to speak to Mr. Parmiter rather than me. The job didn’t pay particularly well, but I could walk to work, saving myself the cost of transport. I also got to chat to Daisy, when she wasn’t in her flat painting—which seemed to be most afternoons—and when she wasn’t hiding from Mr. Parmiter who came upstairs to check on me from time to time.
Daisy watched me as I gently opened the book she’d pushed away. “If you must work in a library, why not work in a modern one with novels?”
“With all the returning soldiers resuming their previous employment, there are few jobs for women.”
She sighed. “It’s a pity you have to work at all, really.”
I looked up, frowning. She looked back at me with sympathy. “Don’t you have to?” I asked.
“Oh yes, but we artists don’t have a schedule like regular people. We work when the muse strikes. Besides, I was left a little money by my grandparents. It keeps me going.”
It was the first time she’d mentioned an inheritance. Daisy’s parents lived in Wiltshire and didn’t approve of their middle child moving to London. She had an older sister who’d lost her husband in the war and a younger brother who’d signed up upon turning eighteen in 1918. Thankfully he survived.
“I actually like working,” I said, and meant it.
Whether Daisy believed me or not, I never found out. She became distracted by a newspaper discarded on a small table beside the armchair. She flounced into the chair and began to read.
I sat too and made notes on the damage to the books, sorting them into different piles according to the type of repairs required. For the many pages with dog-eared corners, I smoothed out the creases with my thumb. It was easy and relaxing work. Although the topics didn’t particularly interest me, it was satisfying to know these books would one day be read and valued by the Society’s members thanks to my efforts today.
“He is the prime article,” Daisy murmured from the armchair. She folded the newspaper in half and turned it to show me what she’d been reading. I couldn’t make out much from this distance, however, just a dark-haired man standing on the deck of a yacht. “Handsome, rich, the heir to a title and a war hero. So many virtues in one man.”
“None of those are virtues, Daisy, except for perhaps being a war hero. He could be selfish and vain for all we know.”
“You’re so unromantic, Sylvia.”
I picked up the book on pragmatism and waved it at her. “Perhaps I’ve worked here too long.” I smiled but she took me seriously.
“I’m glad you finally agree.”
“I was referring to this title. I’ve only been here two months.”
“Long enough.” She glanced around, worried our conversation was being overheard. “If it weren’t for me, your days would drag.”
I laughed. Daisy’s unfailing self-confidence had won me over when we met. If I could bottle it, I would take a sip whenever I felt my own confidence waning.
She studied the newspaper article again. “I wonder if he’s married.”
“If not, he soon will be. A paragon like that won’t be single for long. The unmarried women of England won’t allow it.” One of the saddest outcomes of war is that it takes young men. Now that we were emerging from the fog, women my age were bemoaning the lack of eligible bachelors.
I was not among them. I was still shrouded by the fog. I’d not only lost my brother in the war, but my mother had succumbed to the flu pandemic that had struck down so many in the war’s aftermath. They’d been my only family. I’d also left behind friends when I moved to London. Not that I had many friends to lose. We’d moved too often to put down deep roots anywhere.
But I was determined to make a go of it in London. In the two and a half months since my arrival, I’d made a friend in Daisy and found gainful employment. It was a foundation I could build on and use to climb out of the fog, in time.
“What has the paragon done to warrant an article written about him?” I asked.
“He attempted to rescue a fisherman and his teenage son while out sailing off the coast of the Isle of Wight. Apparently he saw their boat capsize and didn’t hesitate to dive in and risk his life to save them. They were tangled up in their net under water and he had to cut it to free them. The son survived but the father didn’t.”
“The article says it was a miracle Mr. Glass didn’t drown too. It then goes on to list all the medals he won in the war. Good lord.”
I peered over her shoulder. “What is it?”
“He joined up at the start of the war and survived the entire four years on the front lines. He was there for every major battle, and he didn’t once get seriously injured.”
“Then he couldn’t have been in every major battle for the entire duration. Besides, the son of a baron would be given something safe to do well away from the enemy.”
“Not according to this. Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres, Amiens…he fought in them all. His parents must have been beside themselves with worry. It says here he is the only child of Lord and Lady Rycroft.”
I read over her shoulder. “’Mr. Gabriel Glass, son of Lord and Lady Rycroft. Lady Rycroft is the famed magician, India Glass, nee Steele.’”
“Where can a girl meet such a man?”
“The Isle of Wight, apparently.” I returned to the desk but instead of picking up a book, I stared out of the window. The view wasn’t interesting, just the dark gray buildings opposite and a thin layer of cloudy sky above the roofline. I hardly registered any of it. My mind was elsewhere. “Daisy, does the name India Glass mean anything to you?”
She shook her head. “No, but I’m not a magician nor someone who can afford to buy magical objects.”
“Does the article say anything else about her?”
“Just that she gave up practicing watchmaking magic to marry Lord Rycroft and has been an advisor to the government on magician policy. Why? Have you heard of her?”
“It rings a bell.” I just couldn’t remember why. The memory was there in my mind, just out of reach, buried in the fog.
I lay on my back on the narrow bed in the room I rented at the lodging house and stared at the water stain on the ceiling. I felt tired but pushed against it, wading through the fog as I searched for the name.
Where had I seen it? I knew I’d seen it, not heard it. That meant it had appeared in a letter or an article, but I rarely read the newspaper so it must be private correspondence. There was only one person who ever wrote to me. One person whose letters I’d kept.
I pushed the chair up against the wardrobe and stood on it, rising onto my toes to reach, cursing my short stature. Fortunately, the suitcase was light. I managed to grasp it without pulling the entire thing down on my head. It was a child’s suitcase made of tan leather, small enough for a young girl to drag around the country. And drag it I had. Frequent moves accounted for its battered state. I opened it on the bed and stared at the entire contents of my mother’s and brother’s lives.
I’d kept her favorite shawl, made of emerald green silk with Japanese motifs embroidered throughout, as well as a plain silver ring, two enamel hair combs and some old photographs of James and me as children. James’s belongings were just as meager. I’d not seen any point bringing his old clothes with me so sold them before leaving for London. I’d needed the money. I set aside his pocket watch, war medal, and notebook. I plucked out the two packets of letters, both tied with string. One packet was thick and contained dozens of letters written by my mother and me to James. He’d kept them all and they’d been returned to us after his death. The other packet contained letters he’d sent to us. I untied the string around this packet and lightly caressed the topmost envelope.
The sight of his neat handwriting brought a fierce ache to my chest.
I read each letter but didn’t find any reference to India Glass. Perhaps I’d misremembered or I’d seen the name elsewhere.
I retied the string and, with a heavy sigh, placed the letters back into the suitcase, wedged between the notebook and the back.
I removed the notebook and flipped it open. It had been with James a long time. The leather cover was scratched and faded from its original dark green. The pages were crinkled from being damp then drying out, making the whole book fatter than it would have been when new. My brother’s dirty fingerprints appeared on almost every page, and the once white paper was now brown from the mud of the Western Front. I’d read the notebook cover to cover after it was returned to us before storing it in the suitcase with his other belongings. With Mother becoming ill and dying, then contracting the flu myself, I’d forgotten about it and not looked at it since. Reading James’s words had been painful then, so soon after losing him. It was still painful now, but the initial sharp ache had dulled to a throb as I became lost in my search for the name.
I scanned the pages, not wanting to read every word. That would only make the ache in my chest swell. The pages were filled with James’s thoughts, some forming complete sentences, others merely fragments of ideas in the form of single words or a sketch. He’d been a good artist.
I found the name near the end. It was on a line of its own and didn’t form part of a sentence. It was just those two words, India Glass, which I’d thought meant glass from India when I first read it, perhaps referring to a vase or trinket. I’d not wondered why my brother would be making notes on glassware from a country he’d never been to, but back then, I’d been too grief stricken to think clearly about anything.
Knowing the words were in fact a name gave the notes above and below it new meaning. When I’d first read them, I’d been shocked to learn my brother thought he was a silversmith magician, simply because he liked silver things. Who didn’t like silver things? I was partial to jewelry set in silver, but preferred gold. I owned neither, unless I counted the silver band of my mother’s. Magic couldn’t possibly run in our blood. We were unremarkable. Mother had been a seamstress, James was a teacher, and I’d written articles for several local newspapers and journals before that dried up when the soldiers returned in large numbers. Female journalists were once again relegated to the sections on cookery, housekeeping and fashion, none being topics in which I could claim any expertise or flare. The Ashes weren’t craftspeople. We were just a family with dissimilar interests.
I fought back tears as I removed Mother’s ring from the suitcase and slipped it on my finger. It fit my middle one. It was simple, plain and thin, not a special item at all. I felt nothing as I touched it. Wasn’t I supposed to feel something if it had silver magic in it? Or did only other magicians feel magic?
I didn’t know how it worked. I couldn’t afford magician-made things, so I’d never bothered to learn about magic.
I returned to the notebook. According to James’s notes, he’d asked Mother about silver magic, and she’d told him he was mistaken and to not bring it up again.
Below the name India Glass he’d written the word “Answers” followed by a question mark. Answers to what? To the question of whether the Ashe family were a silver magic family?
I closed the book and returned it and the suitcase to the space above the wardrobe. Then I fell asleep and thought no more about India Glass, silver magic, or my brother until the following morning when I returned to the reading nook on the first floor of the library and spotted the newspaper Daisy had been reading.
“War hero saves boy in miraculous underwater rescue” the attention-grabbing title read.
The image of the brave rescuer stared back at the camera. Gabriel Glass looked a little annoyed by the attention, as if he wanted to shout at the journalists to leave him alone. As a former journalist, I’d been told to go away many times. I’d lacked the confidence to insist where my colleagues had persisted. It was probably why I was one of the first to lose my job when the journalists-turned-soldiers returned from the war.
I placed the newspaper in the desk drawer and worked until Daisy snuck into the library. When she flopped into the armchair with a dramatic sigh of boredom, I handed it to her.
She frowned. “Are you trying to tell me something?”
“I want to meet his mother, India Glass—Lady Rycroft.”
She sat up straight. “If you think the way to a man is through his mother, you know even less about men than I thought you did.”
I bristled. “I know as much about men as you, Daisy.”
She battled with a smile. “Dear, sweet Sylvia, have you exchanged more than a ‘good afternoon’ with a single man since arriving in London?” I opened my mouth to answer her, but she put up a finger to stop me. “Priggy Parmiter doesn’t count.”
I snatched the newspaper from her. “I’m not interested in meeting Gabriel Glass. I’m interested in his mother.”
“Lady Rycroft? Why?”
Footsteps on the staircase cut off my answer. “Blast. Hide, Daisy, quickly.”
She dove into the cavity under the desk, tucking her legs into her body. I stood behind the desk, blocking the view to the cavity as best as I could in case Mr. Parmiter decided to come around to my side.
I smiled and pretended to listen as the head librarian complained about a particular member who hadn’t returned a book that was now well overdue. I was actually thinking about my brother’s claim he might be a silver magician, and our mother’s denial. Although I agreed with my mother, I felt as though I owed it to James’s memory to find out once and for all. If he believed India Glass could provide answers then I would do everything I could to speak with her.
But first I had to find her.
After Mr. Parmiter departed and Daisy once again crawled out from beneath the desk, I told her about my brother’s notebook and his notion that we were silver magicians. She didn’t laugh or think him peculiar. She took it in her stride. I was beginning to think nothing fazed her.
She became enthused by the idea of finding Lady Rycroft and immediately put her mind to how we could engineer a meeting. Daisy was naturally excitable. The first time she snuck into the library she looked as though she’d stumbled upon a pot of money when she joined me in the stacks. But she’d simply correctly guessed the number of steps leading up to the society’s front door.
She sat in the armchair and stared down at the photograph of Gabriel Glass in the newspaper, her brow furrowed in concentration. “It may be easier to find Lady Rycroft through her son. After all, he probably attends society parties, dinners, that sort of thing.”
“Yes, but we don’t attend society parties and dinners. I’m a librarian and you’re an artist.” I almost added that she was an artist of no repute, but that was a little mean. Just because she barely made a living off her art didn’t mean she wasn’t very good. Many famous artists had been virtually unknown in their own lifetime. For all I knew, Daisy was the same. Since I was no art expert, I would refrain from voicing an opinion on her style, although secretly I’d vowed not to hang anything of hers in a prominent place. They weren’t to my taste.
Daisy continued to frown at the newspaper.
“Do you think it’s odd that James wrote India Glass in his notebook and not Lady Rycroft?” I asked. “It’s not like him to be disrespectful.”
“Perhaps he knew her personally.” Daisy gasped. “Perhaps they were having an affair!”
“That’s highly unlikely considering she must be at least fifty and he was only twenty-six when he died.”
“There’s nothing wrong with an older woman and a younger man.”
“No, but my brother was not in the habit of having affairs with married women.”
“Perhaps the husband is dead.”
“If he was, your war hero would be Lord Rycroft now, but he’s simply reported as Gabriel Glass.”
“Good point. Nothing gets past you, Sylvia. It must be your journalist’s keen eye for detail.” When I’d told her I’d been a journalist during the war, she’d thought it a most interesting career. She’d continued to scour the employment advertisements for journalism positions for me even after I’d given up and taken the job at the library. It wouldn’t surprise me if she continued to check even now.
“Anyway, where would James have met a baroness?” I continued.
“I don’t know where he met her, but I think I know where we can meet her.” She slipped off her Oxfords and curled her feet under her on the armchair. “I have a friend named Horatio. A wonderful artist. He’s exhibiting at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition this year and I believe the private viewing starts tomorrow.” She gave a pert little twitch of her shoulders and grinned at me in triumph.
I gave her a blank look. “I don’t understand the connection to Lady Rycroft. Does the exhibition have something to do with magic?”
“Lady Rycroft is a baroness, and the private viewing of the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition is a key event on the London social calendar. Lords and ladies will be in attendance.” She waved the newspaper at me. “If we get in, we can find her and ask her if she knew James.”
It would require diplomacy, but I’d manufactured introductions before in my work as a journalist. This time it was more important. It was personal. And I found I wanted to know more about James and his thoughts in his final weeks and months. It was a way of honoring him.
And a way of climbing out of the fog.
“Do you think your friend Horatio will agree to help us get into the private viewing?”
She smiled a secret smile. “Oh yes. He owes me a favor.” Her smile suddenly vanished as her gaze focused on something behind me. “Bloody hell.”
“I knew it!” Mr. Parmiter charged up to the desk, a finger pointed at me like a weapon. “I knew you were hiding someone up here.”
I stepped back. “I, I’m sorry, Mr. Parmiter. Daisy was just leaving. She only came to show me a newspaper article about…um…”
“Her brother’s friend.” Daisy flashed the newspaper at him. “Sylvia has been searching for him ever since the war ended. It’s why she came to London, but she hasn’t managed to find any sign of him. She’ll think she’s getting close then WHAM!” She smacked the newspaper down on the desk causing both Mr. Parmiter and me to jump in fright. “He disappears. Until now.” She pointed at the photograph of Gabriel Glass. “You wouldn’t deny her the opportunity to find out more about her poor departed brother’s friend, would you?”
Mr. Parmiter grasped the lapels of his jacket as if they were the edges of an academic gown and peered down his nose at her. “I am not denying her anything, young lady. Your discovery could have waited until she finished work.”
“Why should she wait a moment longer?”
He glared pointedly at her shoes, positioned by the chair. “Kindly get dressed and leave.”
Daisy straightened and threw her shoulders back, ready for battle. I intervened before she engaged and cost me my job.
“I’ll speak to you later,” I said quickly.
Her lips flattened, but she gave in. She slipped on her shoes, retied the laces, and marched off, casting a final glare over her shoulder at Mr. Parmiter.
Once she was gone, he turned to me. He regarded me like a strict school master, with a mixture of self-righteousness and authoritarianism. It was maddening but I couldn’t walk away like Daisy had. “Are you aware how fortunate you are to have a job here at all, Miss Ashe?”
“I run a tight ship. I don’t abide having my rules broken. They are there for a reason. First the makeup and now allowing your friend to wander about the library unsupervised.” He paused, perhaps waiting for me to utter some words of obeyance. I simply picked up a book that was missing its front cover and inspected it for further damage. I might not dare try to defend myself, but I could simply not speak. It was a silent protest, of sorts.
It didn’t deter him. “Our noble institution cannot be treated so cavalierly. It must be respected. The charter rules must be obeyed. If everyone disobeyed the rules, where would we be?”
I couldn’t stay silent any longer. “May I see the charter, please?”
He stretched his neck out of his collar and cleared his throat. “This is your final warning, Miss Ashe. Overstep again and I’ll have no choice but to dismiss you.” He strode off.
I watched him go then sat with a sigh. I should have insisted on seeing the so-called charter. I’d wager he couldn’t provide it.
“Chin up, old girl.”
I swallowed my gasp which only caused me to cough.
Daisy grinned at me. She must have hidden in the stacks instead of leaving. “I wanted to make sure you were all right before I go.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“I think he believed the story about your brother’s friend.” She indicated the newspaper. “I’ll speak to Horatio now. See you later, Sylvia. She tiptoed off, wiggling her fingers at me in a wave.
I smiled. The more I got to know her, the more I liked her.
I could curse Daisy. If I’d wanted to work in service, I would have applied for jobs as a maid when I came to London. Offering platters of food to well-heeled guests at the Royal Academy of Art’s private viewing had not been my plan for Saturday. I’d hoped to mingle with them, not be ignored by them. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected Daisy’s friend to just hand me an invitation to the exclusive event. I’d never blend in anyway. The ladies were dressed in the latest styles and dripped with jewels. They sparkled more than the chandeliers overhead. My best dress and Mother’s ring were too plain.
To add insult to injury, Daisy spent more time flirting with one of the waiters than working, while I did my best to do the job I was employed to do and still search for Lady Rycroft. I offered the pastries to a cluster of ladies and gentlemen positioned in front of the wall of landscapes. The framed paintings depicted bucolic scenes with country cottages, rolling green hills and grazing cattle. Some were quite beautiful. I could stare at them all day and imagine myself enjoying a picnic beneath a shady oak. There wasn’t a single reminder of the war in any of them.
The group ignored me and continued chatting about their estates and people they knew. They sounded as though they hadn’t seen one another in months. I ought not to feel slighted. I was dressed in black, designed to disappear into the background, and no one wanted hors d’oeuvres at this hour. Most would have just come from lunch.
At least I was in good company—the paintings and artists were ignored too. I spotted Horatio chatting to two other fellows he’d introduced me to earlier as friends who were also exhibiting. With hair meeting their collars instead of cut short, and wearing cravats rather than ties, they looked like fish out of water as they studied an oil painting. When a middle-aged woman dressed all in black joined them, they were all smiles. They seemed to know her, and even revere here. She must be an art lover and potential customer going by the way they fell over themselves to talk to her.
She touched Horatio’s chest with the flat of her hand, so perhaps she was a lover of artists as well as their work. It would seem older women and younger men weren’t such an unusual combination after all. I wondered if Daisy knew. She seemed quite keen on Horatio. Her eyes lit up when she spoke about him, and she was eager to include him in our search for Lady Rycroft.
I attempted to offload more pastries but had little luck. Nor did I have any luck finding Lady Rycroft, although it was too soon to give up. I’d begun my search in the main room, but there were many more galleries, each filled with invited guests. The one good thing about being ignored by them was that it meant I could move between groups and listen for Lady Rycroft’s name. I didn’t know what she looked like. Horatio hadn’t met her either, but he’d promised to let me know if he heard she was here. Unlike the service staff, the artists could mingle, and he had a greater opportunity to meet her than Daisy or me.
Daisy approached, a tray of oysters balanced on her hand. “He’s here,” she whispered.
“He who? We’re looking for Lady Rycroft, not a man.”
“Her son the paragon. I recognized him from his photograph in the newspaper.” Her lips curled into a smile. “He’s even better looking in real life.”
“I suppose we could ask him which one is his mother.” I glanced around at the ladies nearby, one of which was looking down her nose at us. “You’d better go,” I hissed at Daisy.
“Come with me to the basement where we can talk.”
“I can’t leave yet. I have to finish serving these.”
She walked off, bumping me hard in the shoulder. I lost my balance and the tray tumbled to the floor with a clatter, sending pastries scattering. Nearby conversations stopped. Everyone turned to look.
With my face flaming, I bent to gather up the pastries. The waiter who’d been flirting with Daisy in the basement earlier crouched next to me and helped. Daisy was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
“Are you all right?” he asked quietly.
“Yes. Thank you for helping. I appreciate it.”
“Is it that obvious?”
He flashed me a grin. It softened his strong features, turning him from a rather fierce looking man into a friendly one. He had brown skin and, when he stood up, I realized how tall he was. He towered over me. He was well-built too, with a frame that strained against the stiff, formal livery. The collar looked too tight for him to catch a proper breath but he continued to smile at me as if nothing bothered him.
The butler, Mr. Ludlow, appeared out of the crowd, his nostrils flaring like a raging bull’s. No smile would soften his fierce looks. “Get back to work,” he growled, his voice guttural. “You! New girl! Take those back to the kitchen and get some fresh ones.”
I shot a smile of thanks to the waiter who’d helped me and hurried away, wending my way through the crowd and exiting the main gallery into a smaller gallery with more oil paintings, then an even smaller room showcasing watercolors and miniatures. This led to the stairs down to the basement service area where the staff bustled to and from the kitchen, carrying platters of food and trays of champagne-filled glasses.
Daisy was waiting for me. “Don’t glare at me, Sylvia, I did you a favor. We need to talk.”
“It was embarrassing!”
“So? You’ll never see those people again. Anyway, you’re forgetting why we’re here. It’s to find Lady Rycroft, not serve snobs with nothing better to do than gossip when they should be admiring the art. I don’t think a single one of them cares about the paintings.”
I shoved the tray at her. She put it down on a side table. We were in the long corridor that led to the kitchen and other service rooms where staff assembled hors d’oeuvres on platters and ushered the waiters and waitresses off with a flap of their aprons. No one paid us any attention, but it wouldn’t be long before the butler came down the stairs. After the debacle upstairs, he might dismiss me altogether.
“Do you have a plan?” I asked Daisy.
“I do, as it happens. You should speak to Gabriel Glass. Ask him where to find his mother since she doesn’t appear to be here.”
“I can’t approach a stranger and ask him where his mother lives.”
“If you don’t, you’ll lose your only opportunity to find her. Do you want to find her or not?”
She nodded at the stairs leading back up to the galleries. “Then go. He was in the sculpture room, the one at the back not the central one. You’ll recognize him when you see him.” She handed me the tray and gave me a little shove toward the stairs.
“I can’t serve these. They fell on the floor.”
“No one will notice. Anyway, it’ll be amusing to see those snobs eating them.”
“They’re not eating at all.”
She clicked her tongue. “Typical. Now go or I’ll do it instead, except I’ll forget to ask him about his mother because I’ll be too busy flirting.”
I headed back up the stairs only to be accosted by the nostril-flaring butler, hand up to halt me like a traffic policeman. “Did you get fresh ones?”
“Of course.” I quickly side-stepped around him and hurried off, ignoring his hissed command for me to wait. As Daisy said, I wouldn’t see these people again after today and I was quite fed up with waitressing. I wanted to speak to Mr. Glass then get out as quickly as possible.
The exhibition was held across several rooms of Burlington House, the home of the Royal Academy of Arts. Before the invited attendees arrived, I’d been given a brief tour along with the other new staff, so I knew where to find the sculpture room at the back. Being small and the crowd thick, I had to occasionally ask guests to step out of my way. The disdainful looks I received for my impertinence was the most attention I’d received all day.
I looked all around the sculpture room, but Mr. Glass was not there. I moved through the adjoining rooms, no longer bothering to ask guests if they wanted an hors d’oeuvre. Finally, I found my quarry in the large room with the oil paintings where I’d made a spectacle of myself.
He was easy to spot, not merely because he was tall enough to be seen over the heads of the rest of the crowd, but also because a collection of young ladies hovered in his vicinity, no doubt drawn by his magnetism. He was undeniably handsome, but it was more than his height and good looks that drew the gazes of both men and women. He nodded as his companions talked, genuinely interested in what they had to say. He never interrupted, only answering when they appeared to ask for his opinion on a painting. His bearing was erect but not stiff, his gaze direct but without judgement. And his smile! It made everyone else smile in response.
He stood with Horatio and the other people I’d seen Horatio talking to earlier, two artist friends and the elegant woman dressed in black. The gaggle of young ladies did not intrude, but were clearly orbiting the small group in an attempt to catch Mr. Glass’s attention. Their attempts failed.
The woman in black took Mr. Glass’s arm and steered him to a gilt-framed seascape of an ocean liner powering through the silver-crested waves. The artists followed, and the young ladies edged along too, pretending to admire the same painting. The middle-aged woman claimed his entire attention as she indicated the steam billowing from the ship’s funnels, blending into the clouds until it was impossible to tell where steam ended and sky began.
Mr. Glass nodded along. I couldn’t tell if he was merely being polite or if he genuinely liked the painting. It seemed well done to me and I would happily hang it on my wall if I could afford it.
With so many people around him, I had no hope of speaking to Mr. Glass in private. I was considering how to proceed when Horatio signaled for me to approach with a jerk of his head.
Daisy’s friend was an intriguing fellow. When I’d first met him, I’d thought him to be in his early twenties like me. He was always dressed in his artist’s overalls, with a dash of paint on either his forehead or cheek, his slender frame in need of feeding. But now that I saw him dressed in a formal suit, his brown hair slicked back instead of sticking up as if he’d not combed it for days, I wondered if he was closer to thirty or even older. He wasn’t handsome. In fact, his sharp nose made him look somewhat mousy, but his big eyes saved him. That and his friendly nature. If he wanted to take a lover, he probably wouldn’t have much difficulty finding one. I just wasn’t entirely sure if the lovers would be men or women.
As I drew closer, Horatio stole Mr. Glass from the woman’s side and steered him towards me. It was done so quickly and deftly that she took a moment to realize. That moment was long enough for me to introduce myself.
The focus with which Mr. Glass had given the painting was now turned entirely onto me. Daisy was right. He was more handsome in person than in the photograph. It was difficult to pinpoint the reason why. His features were unremarkable when considered separately, but put together, he was perfectly arranged. The sculptures in the other galleries were bland in comparison and I doubted a portrait artist could capture the precise shade of green for his eyes. The woman dressed in black that he’d been talking to wore an emerald necklace that was almost the right color, but Mr. Glass’s eyes had flecks of a lighter shade in them that made his gaze compelling.
Everything about him was compelling. So much so that I froze. The more I realized I had only moments in which to speak to him before the glowering woman joined us, the more my mouth refused to work.
I was pathetic.
Thankfully Horatio saved me. “Forgive us for the ambush, Mr. Glass, but it’s important. Miss Ashe here needs to speak to your mother.”
“My mother?” Even his voice was lovely, dark and velvety like his hair. He waited for me to speak. When I didn’t, he arched his brows and a small smile tugged at his lips.
He found my awkwardness amusing. I found that rather infuriating. With my anger directed outward instead of in, I was able to finally find my voice.
“My brother thought our family might be silver magicians and seemed to believe Lady Rycroft could help him discover if we are or not.” It sounded somewhat foolish now that I voiced it to this stranger in the middle of a crowded room as his companions bore down on us.
Mr. Glass didn’t look at me as though he thought me foolish. He looked as though I’d piqued his curiosity. “Why does he think that?”
“I don’t know.”
“There must be a reason.” His voice held a hint of urgency.
I blinked, taken aback by his sudden steeliness. “I suppose so.”
He glanced over my shoulder and gave a slight shake of his head at whoever stood there. I turned to look, but only saw the tall waiter who’d assisted me earlier. I ought to leave before the butler noticed I’d accosted one of the guests and dismissed me on the spot.
“You should ask him,” Mr. Glass said.
It took me a moment to realize he meant my brother. “I can’t. He died in the war.”
Mr. Glass stilled. He regarded me with those eyes of his, full of sympathy and something deeper and darker. Something troubling. “I’m sorry.”
Horatio cleared his throat. “Sylvia, you should go.”
I followed his gaze to the butler storming toward us, parting the crowd like the prow of the ship in the painting, nostrils expanding like a bellows with every breath.
“I’m afraid you can’t speak to my mother,” Mr. Glass said to me.
“But I must!” It was fortunate that I was still holding the tray or I might have grabbed him with both hands. “Sir, please, I believe Lady Rycroft can help. My brother certainly thought so and he was very smart. He wouldn’t have written her name down if it wasn’t important. Sir, I need to understand where I come from.”
Mr. Glass grasped my arms, but it wasn’t his firm grip that stopped my prattling. It was the shock at my own words.
I need to understand where I come from.
I had never known my father. My mother never spoke about him. I knew from a very young age not to ask questions. I didn’t even know his first name. I thought I’d not wanted to know him, but now I realized I did. And so had my brother. Perhaps he had found a clue that indicated our father was a silver magician and that somehow India Glass, Lady Rycroft, could help locate him. She was, after all, a famous magician. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume she knew other magicians.
“Please let me speak to your mother, sir,” I whispered through trembling lips.
Mr. Glass regarded me with an intense gaze that made my heart quicken and my face heat. “I would but she’s gone.”
Oh no. “I’m so sorry.”
His brows drew together in a small frown before clearing. He gave me that smile again, the one that hinted at his amusement at my stupidity. “She’s gone to America. She and my father left yesterday.”
“Oh.” Gone only yesterday. I’d been so close. If only I’d learned about India Glass earlier. If only I’d been more interested in my brother’s notebook. If only, if only… “When will she return?”
It wasn’t until he let me go that I realized Mr. Glass had held onto me the entire time. His grip had been steadying and now I felt myself weaken. The tray was too heavy. I was going to drop it and make a fool of myself again, but this time it would be so much worse because the compelling Mr. Glass was watching.
“Excuse me, sir, I am sorry she’s bothering you,” said the butler, Mr. Ludlow, with a disapproving pinch of his lips.
“She’s no bother,” Mr. Glass said.
“Miss, if you would come with me.”
Mr. Ludlow couldn’t even remember my name. I might be employed on a temporary basis just for the day, but he could at least bother to learn my name. “Ashe,” I said automatically. “My name is Sylvia Ashe.”
The butler bristled. “I said, come with me.”
I looked from him to Horatio to Daisy, who’d joined us, her tray of hors d’oeuvres nowhere in sight. She arched her brows, asking me if I was all right. She looked worried.
“What’s going on here?” the woman wearing the black dress and emerald necklace asked. “Why are you not working, girl?” She sounded like Daisy when she aped the upper classes, pronouncing girl as ‘gel.’
“We were just having a conversation,” Mr. Glass said. “No harm done.”
“On the contrary! She shouldn’t be talking to you. The only word that girl should say is ‘pastry’ as she offers them around.” She indicated the platter in my hands. The thing hadn’t weighed much when I first picked it up, but now it seemed as heavy as a stack of books. “Ludlow!”
The butler drew in his chin, weaking it even further. “My apologies, Lady Stanhope. I’ll see that she’s escorted from the premises immediately.” He stepped aside and indicated I should walk ahead of him.
“This isn’t necessary,” Mr. Glass said. “Please allow Miss Ashe to continue to work. The blame is mine alone.”
It was gallant of him to say so, but it was too late. Neither Lady Stanhope nor Mr. Ludlow could back down now. Everyone was looking, including the other staff. Mr. Ludlow had to maintain his authority over them and Lady Stanhope wouldn’t want her friends to see her pandering to a servant.
“Now, Miss Ashe,” Mr. Ludlow ground out between unmoving lips.
Mr. Glass opened his mouth to protest again so I got in first. “It’s all right, I’m going.” I handed the platter to Daisy and walked off.
“Do try a pastry,” I heard Daisy say ever-so-sweetly. “They’re delicious.”
I glanced over my shoulder to see Lady Stanhope pluck a pastry off the platter, too stunned to refuse Daisy. She popped it in her mouth and Daisy snickered, spun on her heel, and followed me.
We returned to the basement to change out of the maids’ uniforms. I wanted to go directly to the exit, but Daisy wanted to be paid for working. She went in search of Mr. Ludlow.
“The wage wasn’t the point of the exercise,” I said, trying to keep up with her long strides.
“We ought to be compensated for our time.” She asked one of the cooks if she’d seen Mr. Ludlow but received a shrug in response and a smirk.
We received a lot of smirks and odd looks as we searched for the butler. It would seem our confrontation upstairs was fodder for gossip downstairs.
My heart skipped a beat. Mr. Ludlow may not be my regular employer and I may never see him again, but his bark still managed to shred my nerves. “What are you still doing here?”
Daisy marched up to him. “Looking for you. We’d like to be paid.”
“You’re lucky I don’t call the police on you. Get out.” He opened the door that led to a set of steps.
Daisy planted her hands on her hips. “Pay us or I’ll make an even bigger commotion.”
Mr. Ludlow’s lips went white from pursing.
Daisy grabbed my hand. “Come on, Sylvia. I think the main gallery had the most people, don’t you?” She dragged me off along the corridor.
“Wait! Very well, I’ll pay you for the hours you worked, not a penny more.” Mr. Ludlow disappeared into his office and returned with an envelope for each of us. “Now get out!”
I slunk toward the door. I just wanted to leave. For someone who loathed attention, the day had been exhausting. There is only so much public humiliation one can take.
Daisy checked the contents of her envelope before following me. At the door, she turned back to Mr. Ludlow, gestured rudely, then slammed the door behind her. “Bully,” she said as we climbed the stairs.
“He’s only doing his job, Daisy.”
“I blame that woman. If it weren’t for her carrying on like the Queen of Sheba, Mr. Ludlow would never have noticed you talking to Mr. Glass. She was rude, not to mention a dreadful snob. She got what she deserved, though. I hope she choked on a dirty pastry.”
She pushed open the door and we emerged onto the courtyard. It was still busy with ladies and gentlemen arriving for the exhibition while others departed after getting their fill of art and gossip.
“You spat in those pastries, didn’t you?” The deep voice startled a gasp out of me.
I pressed a hand to my rapidly beating heart. “Mr. Glass! Er, no, of course not! There was nothing wrong with the pastries. They were perfectly acceptable.”
“So, if Lady Stanhope thought they had an unusual flavor, it’s not your fault?” He was smiling again.
I found it unnerving. Was he trying to catch us out? Was he going to report to Mr. Ludlow that we’d served food that had fallen on the floor?
Daisy had no such qualms. She put out her hand which he shook. “Daisy Carmichael, at your service. This is my friend, Sylvia Ashe.”
“How do you do?” He shook my hand too then indicated we should walk with him across the courtyard. “Ordinarily I’d introduce myself, but you seem to already know me. May I ask how?”
He addressed the question to me, so I answered. “We read about you in the newspaper.”
He rolled his eyes to the sky. “That bloody article. I didn’t want any part of it, but before I knew what was happening the photographer was shoving his camera in my face and the journalist was noting down everything I said. Don’t believe what you read. He got a lot wrong. So how did that lead you here?”
“Daisy heard that the private viewing is one of the main events on the social calendar and that people like you and your mother are invited.”
“People like us?” He huffed a humorless laugh. I think I’d offended him. “My parents try to come every year. They’re great patrons of the arts. When my mother couldn’t make it this year, she asked me to attend in her stead.” I’d definitely offended him, going by his tone.
“Daisy’s friend Horatio is one of the exhibiting artists and he managed to secure us employment.”
Daisy sighed. “I needed the money too. Honestly, that Lady Stanhope is horrid. Is she a friend of yours?”
“No. We’d never met before today. She’s married to one of the Academy’s honorary members, Sir Richard Stanhope. She arranges the private viewing, extending invitations, making sure the artists show up, that sort of thing.”
“No wonder she wants everything to run smoothly,” I said. “She must put in a lot of effort.”
“That doesn’t give her a license to be rude to the staff,” Daisy said.
Mr. Glass agreed. “It does not.”
“You didn’t have to leave the exhibition in protest over the way she treated us,” I said.
“Oh.” Of course he hadn’t. I was a fool for thinking his departure had anything to do with that confrontation. He’d simply happened to leave the exhibition at the same time as us. This meeting was purely coincidental. The only reason it was so lengthy was because he hadn’t thought of a way to politely disengage.
We passed through the arched gateway onto Piccadilly where a motorcar pulled up and two well-dressed passengers stepped out. “How long will it be before Lady Rycroft returns to England?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Mr. Glass glanced along Piccadilly at the steady stream of automobiles and wagons being held up by a single horse-drawn cart. The honks of horns made no impact on either horse or driver. Mr. Glass raised a hand, signaling to one of the motorcars in the queue.
I indicated to Daisy that we should leave, but she wasn’t ready. “Mr. Glass, will you ask your mother to write to Sylvia? Her address is—”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Daisy,” I urged. “Leave Mr. Glass alone. It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter.”
“My mother doesn’t know any silver magicians,” Mr. Glass said.
Daisy frowned. “How can you possibly know that?”
“Miss Ashe, I suggest you try the Silversmiths’ Guild. They’ll know if your family were ever silversmiths, even if they can’t tell you definitively if they were magicians.”
It was a logical step, but not one that had occurred to either Daisy or me. We’d become fixated on India Glass. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
“You’re no bother.”
Daisy seemed intent on proving him wrong, however. “If it was as simple as calling on the guild, her brother wouldn’t have written down the name India Glass, would he?”
Mr. Glass smiled tightly. “I’m sorry I can’t be of help. If you’ll excuse me, my motor is here.”
A large black automobile suddenly moved out from behind the horse-drawn cart, cut in front of it, then veered toward us. It halted with a screech of tires.
Mr. Glass frowned at it. “Dodson, what the—”
A heavy-set men sprang out of the motocar and roughly grabbed Mr. Glass’s arms, twisting them behind his back. He tried to fight the man off, but he was a solid brute and had a firm hold. He wrestled Mr. Glass toward the open door of the car as the driver revved the engine.
It all happened so quickly that it took those of us in the vicinity a second or two to realize Mr. Glass was being kidnapped.
When the horror finally registered, I did the most obvious thing. I screamed.
Daisy screamed too. The piercing sound was like a slap to the face, jolting me into action. I kicked the kidnapper in the back of the knee.
His leg buckled. He did not let Mr. Glass go, but his grip must have loosened enough for Mr. Glass to free himself because all of a sudden, the tables were turned. Mr. Glass had the thug in a headlock.
“Let him go or I’ll shoot!” growled a man from inside the motorcar.
With a curse, Mr. Glass released the brute and watched helplessly as he dove into the back seat of the motorcar. With a roar of its engine, it sped away.
“Gabe!” The tall, dark waiter who’d been kind to me ran up to us, surprisingly fast considering he was built like a heavyweight pugilist. He grasped Mr. Glass’s shoulders and inspected him. “Thank God you’re all right.”
Mr. Glass sucked in deep breaths of air and nodded. “They got away.”
“There was a second man in the back seat. All I saw was the barrel of a gun pointed at me. I couldn’t see his face.” Mr. Glass glared in the direction of the motor, already gone from view. He drew in another deep breath which seemed to refill his emptied lungs. “I thought it was Dodson.”
Another large black motorcar stopped at the curb. It looked very similar to the kidnappers’ motor. Mr. Glass greeted his chauffeur.
“The kidnapper’s car wasn’t a Hudson,” the waiter pointed out.
Mr. Glass dragged a hand through his hair and sighed. He’d lost his hat during the scuffle. “And mine is. Thank you for stating the obvious, Alex.”
The waiter glared at Daisy and me. “I see you were distracted.”
But the waiter ignored him and powered on. “You’re not regular staff. Today was your first day.”
“Have you been spying on us?” When he didn’t respond, Daisy scoffed. “I should have known there was another motive for your kindness earlier. I mean, you obviously weren’t flirting with me. You’re absolutely dreadful at it. I’ve had less wooden conversations with a railway sleeper.”
Alex’s jaw firmed. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Daisy planted a hand on her hip. “We’re not answering that.”
Alex stepped closer until Mr. Glass put a hand to his arm. “Not answering makes you look suspicious, so I advise you to speak up,” Alex snarled.
“You think we’re suspicious!” She scoffed again. “If anyone is suspicious here, it’s you two. You seem to know one another very well considering one of you is a lord and the other a mere waiter.”
Alex blinked at her. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it as onlookers who’d not dared to intervene in the kidnapping approached now that it was safe. The women fussed over Mr. Glass while the men exchanged witness accounts. He ignored them all.
“Are you ladies all right?” he asked Daisy and me.
“Fine, thank you,” I said.
“Thank you for what you did. It was good of you to try to save me.”
“Try?” Daisy echoed. She was still irritated with the waiter named Alex. “Sylvia did more than try. If she hadn’t kicked that man, he would have succeeded in bundling you into the motor.”
Alex gave a derisive snort.
Mr. Glass shot him a glare, more severe than the last. Alex rubbed a hand across his mouth, somewhat chastised.
The exchange set me on edge. Alex seemed to think we had something to hide. Perhaps he even thought we were linked to the kidnappers. Mr. Glass was harder to read, but it was possible he was silencing his friend so as not to give away their suspicions.
My nerves were still on edge, my heart racing, and I had a sudden urge to get as far away from Mr. Glass as possible. Not only did he attract danger, but he either blamed me for distracting him with my questions about his mother, or he suspected me of being directly involved with the kidnappers. My saving him meant nothing.
I had saved him, hadn’t I?
I was no longer sure. It had all happened so fast. Perhaps my kick had connected after Mr. Glass managed to free himself. No wonder he thought me a silly fool for claiming his freedom was all because of me. It was likely I’d done nothing but give the kidnapper a bruise.
“You ought to report the incident,” said one of the gentlemen who’d rushed up after the danger had passed.
“There are never any constables nearby when you need one,” his wife said.
“You ought to be thanking my friend,” Daisy cut in, her voice rising over the top of them.
Mr. Glass hesitated then gave me a little bow. “Thank you, Miss Ashe.”
“Properly, not with a condescending tone.”
“That was proper,” Alex ground out.
Daisy straightened to her full height, which was considerably less than his. Mr. Glass was tall, but Alex was a giant. “I beg to differ,” she said, simply.
“Neither of you have answered my questions.” Alex turned to me, arms crossed over his massive chest. There was no evidence of the kind man who’d helped me pick up the fallen pastries. This man wanted answers, and he looked as though he’d do anything to get them. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
I suddenly felt very hot and a little faint. I glanced from him to Daisy to Mr. Glass. Then I turned on my heel and walked away.
“Miss Ashe!” Mr. Glass called out.
“Gabe, no.” That was Alex speaking. “Your motor is here. Get in. The only place you’re going now is home.”
Gabe? Daisy was right. These two knew each other well. She was right about Mr. Glass’s tone being condescending too, which only confirmed that I hadn’t helped free him. At least he didn’t try to stop us leaving, despite his suspicions that we were involved in the kidnapping.
Daisy fell into step alongside me. “That man is not at all what I hoped.”
“I blame his wealth, the title, and good looks, not to mention all the fuss made over him being a war hero and saving that boy from drowning. I’m not denying that he is a hero, but the praise has gone to his head. That’s the problem with men like Mr. Glass. They don’t have to strive for what they want because people just give them everything. I bet he’s never worked a day in his life, never had to struggle for anything, including recognition.”
“So, you no longer consider his many attributes to be virtues?”
“I do not.”
We walked on, only to turn when my name was called out again.
Mr. Glass hailed us from the front passenger seat of his motorcar. “Miss Ashe, please may I have a word?”
“Interrogate, more like,” Daisy said to me. “I don’t think so.”
Mr. Glass went to open the door, but Alex, sitting behind, clamped a hand on his shoulder. “No, Gabe. The kidnappers could still be in the vicinity.”
We didn’t wait to see what Mr. Glass did next. Daisy steered me down a lane then another and another until I was quite lost. London was still new to me, and this wasn’t a part I visited often. We were in the heart of the high-end shopping precinct, going by the boutique shops on both sides of the street. We passed the entrance to a luxury hotel where a doorman nodded a greeting, and a porter collected shopping bags from a waiting carriage. This wasn’t an area of the city where hawkers pushed rickety old carts filled with odds and ends, or shopkeepers stood out the front and shouted the daily special. The ladies were genteel, the gentlemen upright and proper. Some of the younger men wore officers’ uniforms.
Neither of us mentioned Mr. Glass again. Daisy had gone quiet, however, and a small furrow dented her brow.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I thought I’d have more presence of mind than to stand there and just scream.”
“Screaming is an excellent response to danger. It alerted those nearby.”
“Who would have thought that of the two of us, you were the one to act?”
It surprised me too, at first, but when I thought about it, it was understandable. Daisy had confidence in abundance, but it was of the verbal rather than physical kind. She was an artist at heart. Although she was poor, I could tell she was well brought up, educated, and most likely came from a loving household where her greatest fear was whether her younger brother would eat her helping of breakfast.
While I wouldn’t say my life was hard, it wasn’t as soft as hers had probably been. I’d also been taught to defend myself by my mother. From a young age, she’d shown me some moves to get out of a man’s grip if I were being attacked. Today was the first time I’d put that education into practice. My mother would have been proud of me. Proud and terrified although she would have found comfort in the knowledge that I was helping someone else and not the target myself. Not that I was entirely sure I had helped Mr. Glass.
“So what will you do now?” she asked.
“Call on the silversmith’s guild.”
“I’ll come with you. What will you ask them?”
“I have no idea.”
Silversmiths’ Hall, the headquarters of The Worshipful Company of Silversmiths, was not open on the weekends. We’d walked all the way from Piccadilly to the city center for nothing. We should have waited for the bus.
With a hand clamped to her navy felt hat to stop it falling off, Daisy tipped her head back and swore softly at the two rearing dragons carved in stone above the first-floor balcony door. “You would think a company wealthy enough to be housed in such a grand building as this would be able to afford a porter to answer questions on the weekend.”
I leaned against the high pedestal at the base of one of the enormous columns holding up the portico and sighed. “A porter may not be able to answer our questions. We need to check their archives for families named Ashe.”
The silver magic connection—if there was one—might not be to the Ashes. James may have suspected it was my mother’s family or another branch of the family tree. I didn’t know any of those names, including her maiden name. I was diving blindly into the research, and it could end up being an impossible task. That’s why I’d wanted to start with Lady Rycroft. If James had written her name down in his notebook, I was certain that meant he suspected she could provide us with a shortcut to answers.
Daisy hooked her arm through mine. “Come on. Let’s find a teashop then go home.”
“Do you mind if I skip the teashop? It’s been quite a day.”
“Very well. I want to start a new painting anyway. One of the oils inspired me. Did you notice it? The one with the steam ship. Not usually my sort of thing, but there was something so lovely about it. The way the artist captured the sunlight on the crests of the waves was pure genius, and the smoke spewing from the funnels… If I could paint half as good as him, I could die happy.”
“Don’t be so macabre, Daisy.”
She squeezed my arm. “Don’t fret, my sweet little friend. I’m not dying any time soon. You’re stuck with me now.”
I would have given her a smile in return, but I didn’t want her to see the tears filling my eyes. She’d think me pathetic. But I couldn’t help it. I’d somehow found myself a real friend without even trying. I’d not had a good friend in…well, perhaps ever. Moving every year or two as a child had made it difficult to maintain friendships. My mother and I had stayed put for the entire four years of war but had once again moved to a new city after my brother died. We’d both been too busy working in her final months to make friends there. I’d thought myself beyond the age when new friends were made anyway, but Daisy had proved me wrong. Having arrived in London a few months before me, she was also looking for female companionship. It seemed we’d both found each other when we least expected it but needed someone the most.
My room in the lodging house may not have a bathroom, kitchen or sitting room, but there was enough space for a small table, a chair, and shelves on which to store some books, personal items and cans of peaches for when I didn’t feel like joining the other lodgers in the basement dining room at mealtimes. I’d made myself a cup of tea and brought it up to my room and had just sat down to enjoy it when Daisy burst in without knocking.
“They’re coming,” she said, breathless.
“Mr. Glass and that friend of his, Alexander Bailey. We’ll pretend you’re not here. Hopefully that dragon of a matron can convince them you’re out.”
“She won’t lie for me.”
She glanced around the room. “You could hide.”
“Daisy, stop!” She was going too fast and left me far behind at the station. “How do you know Mr. Glass and Mr. Bailey are coming here? And how did you learn the waiter’s last name?”
“They came to my flat and asked me where to find you.”
“And you just told them?”
She chewed on her lower lip. “Sorry. I’m afraid I just gave in. They were all very official and somewhat authoritative. I blame Alex Bailey. Mr. Glass is nice, but his friend is quite rude. He demanded I tell them where you live.”
I squeezed the bridge of my nose and tried to make sense of her words. “Official?”
“I cycled here as fast as I could, taking the shortcut, but I’m afraid they’re not far behind me.”
Mrs. Whitten the matron arrived. “You have visitors, Miss Ashe. Two men.” Her disapproving scowl emphasized her thick features and double chins. “They’re in the main sitting room.”
Daisy clasped my hand between both of hers, attempting to hold me back. Her wide eyes implored me not to meet with them.
“Come along, Miss Ashe, I haven’t got all day.”
I didn’t see that I had any choice. Besides, it would give me an opportunity to tell them we were not in any way involved in the kidnapping. “We ought to set them straight, Daisy. They’re under the false impression that we are somehow to blame for that incident.”
Daisy sighed. “Lead on.”
We followed Mrs. Whitten along the corridor, past the sign on the wall reminding us to KEEP INNOCENCE, albeit in vain. Although male guests were not allowed up to the rooms, I knew some of the girls had found inventive ways of sneaking their suitors in.
Mrs. Whitten pushed open the door and I hesitated on the threshold. Mr. Glass stood near the fireplace with Mr. Bailey. They both loomed rather large and sported the same grim expressions as they stared into the clean grate. They looked up upon our entrance.
“Miss Ashe, thank you for joining us.” Mr. Glass extended his hand to me. “Allow me to introduce my friend, Mr. Bailey, properly.” He cleared his throat. “Hopefully we can wipe the slate clean and begin again.”
Mr. Bailey’s sheepish nod in greeting proved he was suitably chastised. That sheepishness was replaced with coolness as he regarded Daisy. She folded her arms and regarded him with an equally frosty look.
Being late Saturday afternoon, the lodgers who worked in offices or as teachers were not at work. A small group were enjoying cups of tea and the view that had just walked in on two sets of long legs. Some openly ogled Mr. Glass and Mr. Bailey, while others attempted subtlety by peering over the rims of their teacups.
The main sitting room was the larger of the two in the building. Just because it was larger didn’t mean it was more elegant. It was a utilitarian space, designed to fit the maximum number of tables, chairs and sofas. There was no space set aside for dancing near the piano, no cushions on the hard chairs or rugs on the floor, and not a shred of elegance in the heavy green brocade drapes.
“We’re sorry to bother you on a Saturday afternoon, but—” Mr. Glass broke off mid-sentence to smile at the matron. She’d settled herself on a chair within hearing distance. “Madam, may we have some privacy, please?”
She wasn’t used to having her authority questioned. She didn’t put up with it from the lodgers, evicting any girl who broke the rules, but coming from a man, and a gentleman at that, she looked uncertain how to proceed.
One of the girls snickered into her teacup.
“Miss Ashe is quite safe with us,” Mr. Glass went on, “but if you wish to find out more about me, take my card.”
She accepted it, turning it over in her hand and rubbing her thumb and finger over it as if she could tell the quality of the man by the quality of his card.
“His father is the Baron of Rycroft,” Mr. Bailey said.
Mr. Glass’s smile stiffened, and I got the feeling he was trying not to glare at his friend.
Mrs. Whitten finally rose. “Come along, girls. We’ll adjourn to the other sitting room.”
Mr. Glass waited for them to leave then offered Daisy and I chairs at one of the tables, as if he were hosting us in his own house. “First of all, I want to apologize for coming to your home unannounced.” He cleared his throat and glanced at Daisy but didn’t acknowledge that she’d raced ahead to warn me. “We returned to Burlington House and asked the painter who introduced us where to find you. He gave us Miss Carmichael’s address and she directed us here. Don’t get mad at her. I was insistent.”
Daisy turned to me. “Mr. Bailey gave me no choice. He said they’d arrest me if I refused!”
I gasped. “Arrest? Are you policemen?”
Mr. Glass reached into his inside jacket pocket and handed me a card. “Not quite, but we work for the police from time to time.”
I stared at the card. If he thought us involved with the kidnappers, we could be in awful trouble. A lump of dread formed in my chest. I ought to say something, but I found I couldn’t speak.
“We consult on cases where magic is involved or suspected,” Mr. Glass went on.
“I think the attempted kidnapping is related to the case we’re working on,” Mr. Bailey added.
“Is that what you think, Mr. Glass?” I asked.
Mr. Glass’s thumb began to tap on his thigh. “It’s the logical explanation.”
“It’s the only explanation,” Mr. Bailey told him.
“What is the case?” Daisy asked.
“We can’t discuss it with civilians.”
Mr. Glass was a little more civil. “We can’t reveal too much, but I can tell you we’re investigating the theft of a magical painting.” That explained why Mr. Bailey was working as a waiter at the exhibition.
“The artist is a paint magician?” I asked.
“I can see how the theft might be linked to your kidnapping if the thief is trying to stop your investigation.”
“That’s what I tried telling him,” Mr. Bailey said wryly.
My courage returned somewhat with every passing moment. Mr. Glass wouldn’t be so open with us if he suspected us. But I wanted to make sure. “And you think we had something to do with it?”
Daisy spoke before either man had the opportunity. “Why would Sylvia kick one of them if we are part of it?”
“To make it look like she’s innocent,” Mr. Bailey pointed out.
Mr. Glass held up his hand. “We haven’t formed an opinion one way or another. We’re just trying to clear up a few points.” He lowered his hand to his thigh where his thumb resumed tapping. It appeared to be a nervous habit. I wondered if he’d picked it up in the war. Some men came back with shredded nerves. Some were so bad they could no longer function in society, but others only exhibited mild symptoms like a facial tic or other involuntary physical habit. I tried not to stare.
“Can you describe the kidnappers, Miss Ashe?” he asked.
“A little. You saw him too?”
“I didn’t see the man inside the car. If I’d known he was in there, I would have taken a look, but…” He clicked his tongue, annoyed with himself. It was hardly his fault, however. It had happened so quickly and he’d been caught by surprise.
Mr. Bailey agreed. “You were distracted, Gabe.”
Mr. Glass shot a withering glare at his friend, and I suspected Mr. Bailey was still blaming me. I shouldn’t have continued to pester him about seeing his mother after his initial refusal.
I lowered my head. “I am sorry.”
“Sorry?” Mr. Glass sounded confused.
“I’m afraid I didn’t see the other man either.” I gave them a description of the thug, but Mr. Glass wrote none of it down. I hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know. “I wish I could be more help. Daisy?”
“I have nothing more to add,” she said, still glaring at Mr. Bailey.
Mr. Bailey returned it with a narrowed gaze of his own.
Mr. Glass sighed. “You’ve both been a great help. Thank you.” He stood. “If you remember anything, please contact me using the telephone number on my card.”
He and Mr. Bailey bade us goodbye then headed for the door. Mr. Bailey exited, but Mr. Glass turned back. “I wish to apologize for my tone earlier. I’m afraid I was a little brusque with you when you enquired about my mother.”
“It’s all right. I can see you’re protective of her.”
“It’s not that.”
“It is,” Mr. Bailey cut in.
“Very well, it is, in part. My mother doesn’t like the attention that comes with being known as the Mother of Magic, or whatever it is the newspapers have dubbed her this year. She prefers a quiet life and has little to do with magicians or policy making these days. The grandiose things you’ve heard about her are probably not true.”
“I haven’t heard anything about her. That’s the point. My brother wrote her name in his notebook, suggesting she might be able to give answers about whether he’s a silver magician or not. I have no idea how she could answer that. It’s me who should apologize to you. You were right to direct me to the Silversmith’s Guild. If there is silver magic in our family, they will be listed in the guild’s archives.”
“Only if they were from London.” He arched his brows.
I shrugged. I had no idea where the Ashes were from originally. “The guild is closed over the weekend. I’ll return during my lunch hour on Monday and ask their archivist if he can find out anything about the Ashe name.”
“Don’t forget your mother’s maiden name and your grandmothers’.”
“Go back as far as you can,” Mr. Bailey added.
“She knows that,” Daisy snapped.
That was the problem. I knew nothing about my grandmothers. I’d never met my grandparents and my mother never mentioned them. Or, rather, she refused to tell James and me anything about them. We were scolded for asking.
“What I can tell you is that silver magic is rare,” Mr. Glass said. “If the guild knows of a silver magician, they’re probably related to you.”
“I highly doubt there’s magic in my family. I feel nothing when I touch silver things.” I fingered my mother’s ring which I’d kept on my finger. “I should feel something, shouldn’t I?”
He nodded. “It’s possible you didn’t inherit the magic and your brother did. If one parent is artless and the other a magician, there’s a fifty percent chance the children will be artless. Which parent or grandparent did your brother suspect of being a silver magician?”
I looked down at the ring. “I don’t know. My mother never mentioned magic and I never met my father.” I looked away, unable to meet his gaze. What must he think of me, a fatherless child of indeterminate lineage? The shame I’d felt growing up came back to haunt me. Children can be cruel. When they learned that James and I didn’t know anything about our father, they’d teased us mercilessly.
It was another reason I had so few friends.
“Where do you work?” Mr. Glass suddenly asked.
“In the London Philosophical Society’s library. Why?”
“In case I need to speak to you again. I’d rather not face Mrs. Whitten’s wrath a second time.” He touched the brim of his cap and headed out with Mr. Bailey on his heels.
I stared down at his card, cradled in the palm of my hand. It gave no address, and only included a telephone number. I tucked it into my skirt pocket and tried to think of a detail about the kidnappers I may have forgotten to tell him. But no matter how hard I tried, I could think of no reason to telephone him.
“I don’t like that man,” Daisy said.
“The big one. How dare he suspect us of aiding the kidnappers when your interference is the only thing that saved Mr. Glass?”
“He’s just worried about his friend. Besides, he has a right to be suspicious. After all, we worked for one day at the exhibition, we were dreadful at our jobs, and were there when the attempted kidnapping took place.”
She grunted. “I still don’t like him. He flirted with me before the kidnapping attempt. Clearly he thought us suspicious from the moment he met us, and without evidence too. That’s a violation of my rights.”
I smiled. “Not quite, but I do see your point. How dare a man flirt with you without evidence of your guilt?” It was meant as a joke, to point out that he was probably flirting with her because he wanted to get to know her better, but she was oblivious.
“Precisely. I’m glad you see it my way, Sylv.”
On Monday morning I found myself sneaking glances at the newspaper article about Mr. Glass instead of working. The day before, I’d wanted to discuss his visit with Daisy again, but she was busy painting. When the muse caught her, it held on fast and didn’t let go. Her responses to my questions were mere grunts, or simply made no sense. When I asked whether she thought Mr. Glass was a magician, she said, “Hmmm.” Given no further response, I decided that was an agreement. After all, his mother was supposed to be very powerful and she’d probably wanted her children to be magicians too so had married one to make sure.
I leaned a hip against the desk and scoured the article once more for mention of him being a magician.
“Reading about me again, Miss Ashe?”
“Mr. Glass!” I dropped the newspaper on the desk, but it was too late. He’d seen me. He must think me an obsessive admirer. Ugh. Yet another humiliation to add to the list. “I was just, ah, reading the advertisement beside it.”
He picked up the newspaper and read. “’La-Mar Reducing Soap. No dieting or exercise. Acts like magic in reducing double chin…’” He glanced at my chin. His mouth didn’t move but those green eyes danced with humor. “’…abdomen, ungainly ankles, unbecoming wrists, arms and shoulders, large—” He cleared his throat and returned the newspaper to the desk. “If you really were reading the ad, may I point out that you don’t need this soap.”
My face flamed. There was nothing for it but to brazen it out. I snatched up the newspaper and threw it in the rubbish bin. “No, you may not.”
He laughed softly. “You may have been reading the article, not the ad, but you’d have no reason to deny that, would you? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with reading it a second time. Or is it the third?”
It was more than that, but I wasn’t going to admit it. The man was more self-absorbed than I’d realized. Daisy’s first impression of him was perhaps the most accurate, after all. The abundance of good fortune had turned him into an egotist.
“Are you a member of the Society, Mr. Glass?” I asked.
“No. Should I join up?” He glanced around, taking in the desk with the pile of old books, and the shelving stacks that rose on either side of us, and the comfortable leather armchair. “I’m not much of a philosopher but perhaps I can reflect on life while you work. It’s very quiet.”
He made it sound like a curiosity, or even a criticism. “It’s a library. It’s supposed to be quiet. And there’s nothing wrong with being left in peace with only one’s thoughts for company.”
“Depends on the thoughts,” he said darkly. Before I could respond, he added, “I wanted to apologize for the way Alex and I spoke to you and Miss Carmichael on Saturday. We made you feel like suspects, and that wasn’t fair.” It wasn’t confirmation that he’d removed us from his list of suspects. We were still on it. We were probably at the top.
I arched my brows, waiting for him to confirm or deny it.
He studied the cover of one of the books on the desk, fingering the frayed cloth edge somewhat absently. Why the hesitation? “I came to tell you something that occurred to me just this morning.”
“I think you may be from a family of silver magicians, after all.”
“Why do you think that?” I asked on a rush of breath.
“Your name is Sylvia.”
My hopes had lifted, but now sank again. I nodded but did not tell him I’d already considered the connection. Indeed, it was so devious that it was hardly worth mentioning at all. He couldn’t possibly have come here just to tell me that. I waited for more, but none came.
“Is something the matter, Miss Ashe?”
“No,” I said heavily. “You should go.”
“Should I not have come to your place of work? There was no one downstairs so I decided to try my luck up here. Should I have signed in?”
“You didn’t see Mr. Parmiter?”
He shook his head and shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. But it mattered to Mr. Parmiter.
“Thank you for coming all this way to tell me my name, Mr. Glass.” I winced. I hadn’t meant to be sarcastic. Not out loud, anyway. “I appreciate it. But please don’t trouble yourself with my little problem anymore. You must be terribly busy and—” I cut myself off and silently groaned as Mr. Parmiter emerged from behind the nearest stack. I hated that it hid anyone coming up the stairs from view. If I was preoccupied, like now, I didn’t hear their footsteps.
“Sir?” Mr. Parmiter barked. “Are you a member here?”
Mr. Glass extended his hand. “Gabriel Glass, at your service. I was just here to—”
“Are you a member?”
Mr. Glass lowered his hand. “No. I’m here to speak to Miss Ashe about—”
“Then kindly leave.” Mr. Parmiter indicated the way to the staircase. “The library is for the use of members only.”
Mr. Glass’s jaw firmed. “You misunderstand. I work for Scotland Yard.” He produced a card and handed it to Mr. Parmiter.
Mr. Parmiter held it at arm’s length and peered down his nose as he read. “Is Miss Ashe in trouble?”
“She witnessed a crime, and I came to ask her some follow up questions.”
“You should have spoken to me first and asked permission. Non-members are not allowed.”
“Surely you can make an exception for the police.”
“Your card says you are a consultant for Scotland Yard, not an actual policeman.”
I wanted to crawl into the cavity under the desk and hide there. Mr. Parmiter had always been nice to the society’s members, so I thought he just disliked women in general, or Daisy and me in particular. But his rudeness to Mr. Glass proved he loathed anyone associated with me, no matter how loose that association.
Mr. Glass held up his hands in surrender. “I hope I haven’t caused Miss Ashe any trouble. It was unwittingly done. If someone had been on the desk downstairs, I would have checked first before going in search of her.”
Since Mr. Parmiter was supposed to be on the desk, he took the comment as a slight on his work ethic. “If you’ve quite finished,” he bit off.
Mr. Glass touched the brim of his cap. “Good day, Miss Ashe, and thank you again for your assistance with my investigation.” He apologized to Mr. Parmiter for keeping me from my work then left.
Mr. Parmiter watched him go then swung around to face me. “You can see out the rest of the day, but don’t bother to come in tomorrow.”
My jaw dropped. I stared at him. “You’re dismissing me because of a visit that I had no control over? That’s not fair!”
“It’s not just him. There’s that silly girl who regularly sneaks in, as well as the makeup.”
“I don’t wear makeup!”
He sniffed. “Your paramour was the last straw. A Scotland Yard consultant indeed.”
“He is!” I snatched the card from his hand and waved it in front of his face.
“Anyone can get fake cards made up. That man does not work for the police. He’s too young to be a consultant. Either you’ve been duped or you’re trying to fool me.”
It took me a moment to gather my wits and find the words to express myself. But when I did find them, I grabbed my bag and rounded the desk. I might be shorter than Mr. Parmiter, but I liked to think he reeled back because of the fierce look on my face, not the fact that I stepped so close to him that we were almost toe to toe. “You should be ashamed of yourself for the way you treat people, but I doubt you have the depth of character to feel shame for your behavior.”
He thrust out his chin, making it a good target if I were inclined to punch him. “You won’t be getting a reference from me, Miss Ashe.”
“I don’t care.” I tucked my bag under my arm and walked off. I couldn’t bear to look at him any longer.
“Where are you going? You have to finish the day!”
“Deduct it from my wages.”
I resisted the urge to give him a rude gesture as Daisy would do, but I did utter a string of expletives under my breath as I stormed out of the building. The man waiting at the front desk with a book made sounds of disgust through his overgrown moustache.
I exited the society building, crossed the road, and did not look back.
Storming out may have felt cathartic, and it got my point across perfectly, but now I had no reference from my most recent employer. I spent the rest of the week answering advertisements, speaking to agencies, and attending interviews. I applied for anything that looked remotely suitable. There was only one advertised position for a junior journalist, and I didn’t even get an interview for it. When I enquired at the newspaper office, I was told dozens of men had progressed to the interview stage.
Now that the war was over and returned soldiers flooded the employment market, it would be almost impossible to find a job traditionally done by men, so I gave up and applied for jobs usually done by women. The result was the same. They didn’t want me either.
“It’s so disheartening,” I said to Daisy and Horatio when I entered Daisy’s flat on Friday evening.
Horatio took my coat and hung it on the stand near the door. He planted a kiss on my cheek. “You sound like you need a drink. Daisy’s mixing cocktails.”
“Martinis,” Daisy said from the sideboard.
I sat on the sofa. “Sounds exotic.”
Horatio sat beside me. “What work have you applied for?”
“Everything! Telephone operator, shop girl, secretary…”
“Charwoman?” Daisy asked.
“Not yet, but I may have to.”
Horatio pulled a face. “You’re too pretty and clever for manual work.”
“I’ll work in a factory if I have to. I need the money.”
“That explains the old coat you’ve been wearing. Let me guess, it’s your only one?”
I put a hand to my lips in mock horror. “You mean people have more than one coat in their wardrobe?”
“Shocking, I know.” He nudged me with his shoulder. “How skint are you?”
“If I don’t find work next week, I won’t be able to pay for my room at the lodging house.”
Daisy handed me a cocktail in a coupe glass and another to Horatio. “Is that such a bad thing? That place is a prison for single women and that Mrs. Witless is the warden.”
“Mrs. Whitten, and she’s not that bad. She has a great responsibility keeping all of us safe.”
Daisy grunted as she sat in the brown leather armchair, tucking her legs under her. The chair did not match any of the other furniture. Indeed, none of the furniture matched. The sofa on which Horatio and I sat was an ancient Georgian thing covered in tattered silk that had probably once been gold but was now faded. Daisy tried to hide the stains with throws and cushions that smelled faintly of turpentine. Or perhaps that was Horatio. A thick-legged dining table was being used as a desk for her sketches, as was another smaller table beside the sofa. All the furniture had been pushed to one side of the open space to make way for her easels and canvases as well as the sideboard. The entire flat was devoid of knickknacks, except for a small bronze sculpture of a basset hound taking pride of place on a side table. The lack of clutter allowed more room for paintings, sketches and her bicycle, the latter hidden by the door when it was open. The eclectic ensemble of décor and furniture worked. Rather like Daisy herself.
Her studio flat was much larger than the space allocated to me in the lodging house, and I admit to being envious. The old building had been renovated and turned into flats, and the attic removed altogether to increase the height of the ceilings in the top-floor rooms. The newly created flats benefited from vaulted ceilings and plenty of light, perfect for an artist. Daisy accessed the bedroom on the mezzanine level via a rickety ladder that looked as though it would be difficult to navigate after a few cocktails. The lower level of the flat was one large open area that combined art studio, sitting room, dining room and kitchenette into one. She even had a bathroom all to herself. There was no queueing for the bath for her, no cold showers if she left it too late, and no being shouted at through the door to hurry up. The rent must be quickly eating through her grandparents’ inheritance. If she didn’t sell some paintings soon, she might find herself joining me in the lodging house.
“You should see the signs posted up all over the lodging house walls, Horatio,” Daisy said. “‘Keep innocence’, ‘Protect Your Virtue.’”
“Do the signs work?” he asked.
“No,” both Daisy and I said at the same time.
He smiled into his cocktail glass. “Thank you for the hint.”
I laughed softly. From what I’d learned of Horatio, he was an incorrigible flirt with a love of life, women, and probably men too. Since losing my position at the library, I’d spent every afternoon after job hunting with Daisy, and sometimes Horatio, lamenting my ill luck. They were good listeners, supportive, but not very helpful when it came to finding me new employment. I started to wonder if either of them had worked in their life. Horatio was a successful artist and managed to earn enough from his paintings to make a living, while Daisy eked out an existence somehow.
She tilted her head to the side. “You don’t need another lover, Horatio. You have Lucy.”
“Lacy.” Horatio shrugged. “She’s all right, but she’s just not inspiring me anymore.”
“You’re bored of her already? Honestly. You’re as fickle as a butterfly in a spring garden.”
“And just as lovely too.”
I laughed and Daisy rolled her eyes.
Horatio snapped his fingers. “Sylvia! You can do it!”
I’d been about to sip my cocktail, but his sudden outburst made me spill a little down my blouse. “I may be desperate, but I won’t be your lover.”
“Not my lover, my muse.”
Daisy leaned over and offered me a handkerchief. “Isn’t it the same thing with you?”
Daisy and I arched our brows at him.
“Very well, all the time. But you can be different, Syliva. All you have to do is sit for me and look ethereal. I promise not to touch you. Unless you want me to, of course.”
“Would I be fully clothed?”
He chuckled but it quickly faded. “Oh, you were serious. The position of my muse requires you to be naked. But I promise I won’t see your body as a man does. I’ll view you through an artist’s lens.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I think I’ll continue looking for other work.” I sipped my cocktail. “This is fresh. What is it?”
“A martini,” Daisy said. “Gin, vermouth and orange bitters. It’s popular in America. Well, it was before Prohibition.”
“Poor sods.” Horatio downed his cocktail in one gulp and held his glass out for Daisy to refill. “I need another. I don’t take rejection well.”
Daisy uncurled herself from the armchair and took the glass.
Horatio turned to me, a hand to his heart. “Despite the blow you’ve dealt me, I’m going to help you. I know where you might find temporary work.”
I sat up straighter. “Where?”
“The Royal Academy.”
My heart sank. “This would be for the same exhibition where I made a fool of myself, the butler dismissed me, and the patroness admonished me for daring to speak to a guest?”
“Lady Stanhope isn’t a patron; her husband is an honorary member. She’s just a rude cow who likes to feel important. Anyway, she won’t be there and nor will the butler. The private viewing is over and now that it’s the public’s turn, Lady Stanhope makes herself scarce. She prefers not to associate with the rabble. Ludlow is also superfluous. He’s semi-retired and only worked during the private viewing, at Lady Stanhope’s request. Most of the extra staff who were employed for last week have already left. Those who are still there will probably want to pat you on the back. Your exit has become legendary.”
Daisy perked up. “It was rather fun, wasn’t it, Sylvia?”
“Not really,” I said with a shake of my head and a smile. It was better to laugh off humiliation than stew in it. Besides, I’d had enough of stewing. I wanted to forge ahead and forget. What did it matter what Mr. Glass thought of me? I’d never see him again.
“The job won’t be in the kitchen or serving this time,” Horatio went on. “Starting on Monday evening, they’re rotating some of the paintings. Some will be removed altogether and returned to the owners or the artists and others will be moved to different rooms based on feedback from the private viewing. The work all happens after hours. I heard the exhibition manager’s assistant is unwell. I’m sure you could fill in until he gets back, Sylvia. Why not try your luck on Monday afternoon?”
It was the best offer I’d had all week. It was the only offer. “I will. Thank you, Horatio. You’re a gem.”
Daisy handed Horatio a glass and he saluted me with it. “And if you change your mind, I’m still willing to take you on as my model.”
He looked pleased, despite my sarcastic tone.
“You bounce back from rejection quickly,” I said.
“There is just too much to be happy about to be down for long.”
Daisy leaned forward and clinked her glass with his. “Here’s to new opportunities, new friends, and a new decade. I have a feeling it will be a thousand times better than the last one.”
Horatio sighed theatrically. “Dear God, I hope so.”
As did I.
“Speaking of new friends, have you seen that handsome Glass fellow since Monday?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t expect to see him again.”
“Are you quite sure about that?” He winked at Daisy.
She blinked back. “Why would Sylvia see him? She lost her job because of him!”
I pressed my lips together to stop myself telling her his visit was merely the icing on the cake for Mr. Parmiter. The flour, eggs and butter were mostly her.
Horatio turned to me and pulled a face that Daisy couldn’t see. “Let me know if you do see him again. I’ll give you some hints on how to flirt with men like him.”
“She won’t be flirting with him and stop encouraging her, Horatio.”
“Flirting can be a great way to obtain information.”
Daisy sank in the chair. “I know,” she muttered. “His friend knows it too, blast him.”
“All I’m suggesting is that if Sylvia wants to find out if he still suspects you two of being involved in the kidnapping, she ought to be…friendly.” He pushed himself up from the sofa and put out his hand to Daisy. “Now show me your latest masterpiece, Darling.”
She drew in a breath. “Really? You want to see it? Marvelous!” She sprang off the chair and, grinning, asked us both to follow her.
I could throttle Horatio, but he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about looking at her pieces. It only proved even further that I knew nothing about art. Her paintings were not to my taste at all. Even so, I managed to nod and smile at the appropriate times, and I was rewarded with her genuine happiness in return. Perhaps Horatio was only humoring her, but I was glad he did if this was the result.
Next time I saw Horatio, I would kiss him. When I arrived at Burlington House late on Monday afternoon, I found the exhibition manager’s office in turmoil. His assistant was still sick, and the work was piling up. It was easy to convince Mr. Bolton that I was capable of performing his duties. I informed him that I’d been a journalist for a number of years then a librarian here in London most recently.
“Your references?” he said without looking up from his paperwork.
I placed the ones I had in front of him. He quickly scanned them. Indeed, he did it so fast that he mustn’t have noticed the one from the library was missing altogether and that none of them were recent.
He pulled a wooden box out of his top desk drawer and selected a rubber stamp from among several neatly arranged inside, as well as an ink pad. He stamped my references with the word ACCEPTED then stood and buttoned up his jacket. “You’ll do.” He indicated I should walk out of the office ahead of him. “Hang up your coat and take this clipboard.”
Mr. Bolton was like a military commander with his barked orders and brisk assessment. After he asked me to wait in the corridor and nipped back into his office to retrieve a short stick, the resemblance to a military officer was even more pronounced. He thrust it under his arm and marched on.
We spent the next two hours going from one gallery to the next, checking off the artwork against his list. He used the stick as a pointer, both at the art on the wall and at me when he wanted me to note something down. At the end of two hours, the six-man packing team arrived.
Mr. Bolton clicked his fingers at me. “The list, Miss Ashe.”
I handed him the clipboard, but he handed it straight back. “Remove the main copy and keep it. You’ll be needing it shortly.”
I unclipped the top copy and returned the clipboard to him.
He passed it to one of the packers. “The paintings on the front page require removal. There are thirteen.”
“Unlucky number,” one of the packers muttered.
Mr. Bolton pointed his stick at the fellow. “You! You’re new. What’s your name?”
The packer rested an arm on the upright trolley’s handles. “Tommy Allan, sir.”
“There’s no place for silly superstitions in this institution, Mr. Allan.”
Mr. Allen ran his tongue around his top teeth and made a sucking sound. The heavy-lidded stare he gave Mr. Bolton was made more sinister thanks to the scar stretching from the corner of his mouth to his ear. Both of his ears were covered by his hair. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ear near the scar had been damaged or was missing altogether. Scars like his were not unusual on former servicemen.
The head packer split his men into two groups, one group of four and the other with two.
Mr. Bolton assigned me to oversee the moving crew. “Make sure they put the right pieces in the right places according to your list. I will oversee the packing team.”
The group of four turned out to be the moving team. One of them was Mr. Allan. He was the first to move off, only to be called back by Mr. Bolton.
The exhibition manager ran through a list of dos and don’ts for both teams, most of it boiling down to not touching the paint. Going by the bored expressions of all the men, I suspected the lecture was unnecessary. Most had done this before.
When he finally finished, Mr. Bolton clicked the heels of his shoes together and pointed to the adjoining gallery with his stick. “Onward packing team!”
Two of the men followed him. Since my team was starting in the main gallery, we stayed put.
Mr. Allan spat on the tiled floor. “Thought I was done with toffs like him giving me instructions for a job I can do better than them.”
One of the other packers glanced at me. “Better clean that up, Tommy.”
Tommy Allan sneered at me before walking off. “Cleaning’s a woman’s job.”
I bit down on my retort and walked off too, leaving the gob of spit untouched. Mr. Allan was not the sort of man I wanted to have a confrontation with, particularly on my first day. I would give him the opportunity to clean it up in his own time. It was going to be a long evening.
We worked for four hours, by which time my crew were growing restless. It was late and we’d not stopped. Well, most of us hadn’t. Mr. Allan had taken a ten-minute break to smoke a cigarette. I watched with growing irritation as the ash dropped onto the floor as he made his way around the room, perusing the paintings. When he finished, he dropped the butt near his foot and ground it with his heel.
When he stopped work again after four hours, I decided it was time for them all to have a break. I went in search of Mr. Bolton and found him with the packing crew in one of the smaller galleries. His two-man team held a painting between them as they carried it to a crate. Mr. Bolton stood to one side, reading a scrap of paper.
I approached. “Do you mind if we stop for a short while? The men are thirsty and tired.”
He tucked the paper into his jacket pocket and checked the watch hanging from the gold chain at his waistcoat. “Very well. It is late. You two!” He pointed his stick at his men. “Finish up with that one for tonight. We’ll resume again tomorrow evening.”
I caught up to the two packers but had to wait as they maneuvered the large painting through the door. It gave me an opportunity to admire it. It depicted a country village street scene with horse-drawn carts, carriages and two pedestrians. It was pretty, but otherwise unremarkable. Even so, I couldn’t stop staring at it. It intrigued me.
The men turned it around to place it into the upright crate. Something in the corner at the back caught my eye. The canvas was torn. No, not torn. It had simply come away and folded over.
But how could that be? The canvas had looked undamaged from the front. It was stretched taut, just as a painter’s canvas ought to be. There were no gaps, tears or folds. Was there a second canvas behind the village scene painting? I edged closer and reached out a hand to touch it.
“Miss Ashe?” Mr. Bolton barked. “What are you doing?”
I snatched my hand back to my chest and looked up upon hearing a snicker. Mr. Allan leaned against the doorframe between the two galleries, smoking.
Mr. Bolton marched up to me. “Go and see to your men, Miss Ashe. You! Mr. Allan! Don’t just stand there!”
Mr. Allan blew out a puff of smoke from the corner of his mouth then dropped the cigarette butt on the floor. His lips twisted into a sly smile directed at me.
I steeled myself. “Please pick that up, Mr. Allan, and the other one too.”
“Didn’t you hear me before? Cleaning’s woman’s work.”
“The cleaners aren’t here.”
He merely shrugged and turned away. “Then do it yourself.”
He rounded on me, his eyes flashing. “But what? It ain’t your job to clean up? That’s only because you took a man’s job.” He stabbed a finger at the floor. “You should be on your knees, wiping up, and a man who fought for his country should be walking around here with a list and pencil. Instead, good men have to beg on street corners, their faces covered so as not to frighten the harpies who took their work.” He’d lowered his voice so that only I could hear. It loaned a menacing edge to his words.
“Is something the matter?” Mr. Bolton called out.
Mr. Allan sucked air through his teeth, shot a glare at the exhibition manager, and walked off.
Mr. Bolton swallowed hard. “Please pick up the cigarette butts before you go, Miss Ashe.” He marched into the next gallery, stick wedged under his arm.
The two men from the packing team asked me to step aside. They carried the narrow crate between them, the painting of the village safely stored inside. They settled it on the trolley and one man wheeled it off.
“Where is that going?” I asked the other.
“To the storeroom until the artist comes to collect it. If it wasn’t sold, it will be returned to him. Apparently, it ain’t good enough to stay up. Not when there are others that need a turn. Not like that beauty.” He nodded at the wall at the end of the large gallery where the painting of the steam engine powering through the ocean now hung. My crew had moved the seascape to pride of place as instructed by Mr. Bolton. Based on feedback from the private viewing, it was deemed worthy to be one of the first paintings to be seen as people entered the main gallery.
I agreed with the packer. It was a beauty and deserved prime spot.
I didn’t mention the extra canvas behind the village painting to Mr. Bolton. He might be one of Mr. Glass’s suspects and I didn’t want to ruin the investigation. Indeed, Mr. Glass might even be aware of the hidden canvas. Leaving it in place might be part of his plan to catch the thieves.
Even so, I decided to telephone him first thing in the morning. He wasn’t at home, however. With only one telephone in the lodging house, I couldn’t be sure I’d be notified if he returned my call, so I asked when he would be back. There was a muffled sound on the other end then a different voice came on the line.
“Who’re you and what do you want?” the woman barked in a thick American accent.
“It’s a simple question!”
I held the receiver away from my ear so as not to be deafened next time she spoke. “My name is Sylvia Ashe and I have some information for Mr. Glass about the investigation he’s working on.”
“Gabe mentioned you. You can come over. The address is sixteen Park Street, Mayfair. Come now.”
“Will he be home by—”
The line went dead. I stared at the receiver then hung it up. It would seem I was going to see where Mr. Glass lived, in Mayfair no less.
It was a pleasant morning, so I dispensed with my coat and wore my best outfit of black pleated skirt and matching jacket with a white blouse. A black cloche hat adorned with ribbon, the only new purchase I’d made since arriving in London, completed the outfit. All that black meant that by the time I walked to Mayfair, I was hot. It might be time to invest in some new, more modern clothes in more cheerful colors. I needed to find work to pay for them first.
Park Street was one of those London streets that only the wealthy could afford to live on. Number sixteen was one in a row of handsome red and cream brick townhouses with a set of steps parallel to the pavement leading down to the service area basement. I bypassed those steps and headed up the ones that led to the front door.
My knock was answered by an ancient butler who led me through to the drawing room. He instructed me to wait then disappeared before I could ask if Mr. Glass had returned. I took a turn around the large room. It was everything I expected in a Mayfair drawing room, complete with a lovely clock encased in a glass dome on the mantelpiece, gilt-framed paintings, and expensive looking furniture. The décor was somewhat dated but it suited the grand old townhouse, and it wasn’t cluttered like many houses decorated by women of Lady Rycroft’s age. The only other drawing room of a large townhouse I’d seen had been packed with occasional tables, their surfaces covered with knickknacks, photographs, and a stuffed bird or two.
This drawing room was perfect, without a cushion out of place. I didn’t dare sit down. If it wasn’t for the cluster of framed family photographs on one of the tables, the room would have suffered from being too formal, but the photos made it homely.
I bent to study them and smiled at a picture of Gabe, aged about ten. He stood between two adults who must be his parents. I could see where he got his good looks from.
I straightened as a man sauntered into the room. He stopped and studied me so I studied him back, albeit with a tentative smile. He was an odd looking fellow, his age difficult to determine. He could be in his early thirties or all the way up to fifty or so. He was short and wiry, with sharp cheekbones and light brown hair that was arranged rather messily.
“Well, it’s about time.” The voice belonged to the person I’d spoken to on the telephone, and a woman at that, not a man. It was an easy mistake to make, dressed as she was in trousers, white shirt, and waistcoat. The sleeves on the shirt were rolled to her elbows and she wore no tie. When she came closer, I could see that her long brown hair was streaked with slivers of gray. She wore it tied up at the back of her head.
“About time?” I echoed.
“I thought you’d get here ages ago. You live in Bloomsbury, don’t you? It doesn’t take thirty minutes to get here from Bloomsbury.”
“It does if you walk.”
“Walk? Why’d you want to do that?”
“It’s a nice day and you said Mr. Glass wasn’t back when we spoke earlier on the telephone. I thought I’d give him time to get here.”
She grunted. “Sit down. You can tell me what you want to tell him. I’ll pass it on.”
I sat on the sofa. She sat on the chair opposite with her legs apart and her elbows out. Although her habits and manner were masculine, she was small and fine-boned. The odd combination was intriguing.
“Quit staring. A woman dressed in trousers ain’t a strange sight these days. The war saw to that.”
I looked down at my hands in my lap. “Sorry.”
“Go on then.”
“Tell me what you wanted to tell Gabe.”
I glanced at the door, but no one was there. We were quite alone. I wished the butler hadn’t left. This woman unnerved me. “I have some information about the case he’s working on.”
“So you said over the telephone.” She signaled for me to continue with a flick of her wrist. “You can tell it to me and I’ll tell Gabe.”
“I’d rather tell him in person. Is he expected home soon?”
She crossed one leg over the other and jiggled her foot up and down. “You can trust me, Miss Ashe. I live here.”
Was she a servant, playing at being hostess while the master was out? Aside from family, who else would live in Lord and Lady Rycroft’s townhouse?
Whoever she was, I wasn’t going to tell her anything without Mr. Glass’s approval. She didn’t look like she was going to back down either. We sat in a silence that grew weightier by the moment, she glaring daggers at me from across the room as I tried not to be further irritated by that jiggling foot.
I only hoped I wouldn’t regret my silence, and that she wasn’t someone close to Mr. Glass.
Thank goodness the butler entered carrying a tray with teacups and teapot. He was as welcome as a cool breeze at the end of a hot summer’s day.
“I never asked for tea, Bristow,” the woman snapped.
“Miss Ashe might like it,” he said. “She looked flushed.”
“She won’t be staying.”
“Even so, providing tea is what a hostess does.”
The woman bristled. “I ain’t an idiot and I’ve been in this country long enough to know the rules. I also know that when someone ain’t staying long, there’s no need to offer tea.”
The butler picked up the teapot. “I’ll pour, shall I?”
Mr. Glass walked in and stopped suddenly upon seeing me. Mr. Bailey, following behind, almost walked into him.
“Miss Ashe!” Mr. Glass said. “This is a surprise.”
I rose and shook his hand before sitting again. “I telephoned earlier and was told to come here. I have some information that you might find useful for your case.”
“You were told to come here?” He turned to the woman, brows arched. She had not risen upon his entry, whereas the butler had straightened. She wasn’t a servant then. “I see you’ve met Willie.”
“Actually, we haven’t been properly introduced.”
He released an exasperated breath.
Mr. Bailey chuckled as he sat. “You’re not in the Wild West anymore, Willie.”
She gave him a withering look. “I was just about to do it.” She jutted her chin out at me. “I’m Willie Johnson. Call me Willie.”
“A pleasure to meet you.”
“Don’t speak too soon,” Mr. Bailey muttered. He looked as though he was enjoying himself.
“Thank you, Bristow, that will be all.” Mr. Glass poured the tea and handed a cup to me. “Willie is my father’s cousin.”
I stared at him and then her.
“I know. None of us can believe it either.” He passed a cup and saucer to Willie. The withering look deepened as she took it.
“I want to apologize for her,” he went on.
“It’s quite all right,” I said.
“She’s got the manners of an alley cat and is even worse at the moment. She’s trying to give up smoking. It’s made her irritable.”
“Alley cat!” Willie grunted. “More like a tiger.”
“I would have said insect,” Mr. Bailey chimed in. He was still smiling as he saluted Willie with his teacup.
She scowled back. “I gave up to support you, Gabe.”
“I’m also trying to give up smoking,” Mr. Glass told me. “It was my mother’s request just before she left for America. She doesn’t mind the occasional cigar smoked in the evening, but she disliked my cigarette habit.”
Most of the men had returned from the war as cigarette smokers. I’d heard someone say the government issued them to the soldiers to suppress their appetites because there was a food shortage at the Front. Whatever the reason, there were more people, not just men, smoking now than there used to be before the war.
“It’s a big sacrifice on my part,” Willie went on. “You only started during the war, Gabe. I’ve been smoking since I was six. That’s a few years more.”
“Quite a few,” Mr. Bailey said.
“Quit it, Alex, or I swear I’ll cut off your little toe when you’re asleep.”
Mr. Bailey grinned but wisely remained silent.
Mr. Glass looked to the ceiling and muttered something under his breath. “I’m very sorry, Miss Ashe. They’re not usually like this.”
Both Mr. Bailey and Willie looked unconvinced by this statement.
I sipped my tea to bide my time and gather my wits. This meeting wasn’t going as I expected, and I wasn’t yet sure what to make of it. I knew the upper classes could be eccentric, but that eccentricity didn’t quite explain the dynamic between these three. Even Mr. Glass was confounding all the opinions I’d formed since reading the article about him. Perhaps I should have been warned that he wasn’t going to conform to those opinions when I learned he worked for the police. It was hardly the sort of occupation the wealthy heir to a barony would take on.
Willie placed her cup on the saucer with a loud clatter that I suspected was for my benefit. “You going to tell us this valuable information or just sit there?”
I looked to Mr. Glass and he nodded. “You can speak in front of her. She won’t say a word to anyone.”
She puffed out her chest. “I’ve worked many cases with Gabe’s parents back when they helped the police, and I was married to a Scotland Yard detective until he up and died on me.” Her words may have sounded as though she felt betrayed by his death, but her eyes turned sad. She tried to hide her sorrow by lowering her gaze.
“I’ve been employed temporarily at the Royal Academy of Arts in the evenings, to assist with the moving and packing of some of the paintings.” At the surprised looks of both Mr. Glass and Mr. Bailey, I couldn’t help smiling. “Yes, they re-employed me after that debacle, but only because my new manager isn’t aware what happened last time I worked there. It’s an entirely different team. I started last night. As one of the paintings was being carried off, I noticed something behind the canvas. It appeared to be a second canvas. It was stretched across the frame like the one in front, but a corner had come loose.”
Mr. Glass had lowered his teacup as I spoke, and he now sat forward. “Did you tell anyone?”
“No. I thought it best to inform only you in case one of the employees is a suspect.”
He frowned. “So…what?”
“Is one of the staff a suspect?”
“He can’t tell you that,” Mr. Bailey cut in.
“Do you think it has something to do with your art theft?” I asked.
Willie’s gaze narrowed. “You ask a lot of questions for a librarian.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to stop myself telling her I used to be a journalist. I got the feeling from the way Mr. Glass had described his experience with the reporter who wrote about his rescue of the drowning lad that he didn’t like them. I didn’t want him to think negatively of me.
“Librarians can’t be inquisitive?” Mr. Glass shot back. To me, he said, “I do think that, yes. We hadn’t been able to locate the stolen painting. Can you describe the painting it was behind?”
“It was a street scene of a country village.” I described the buildings, colors and what the people in the painting wore. “It was pretty but didn’t particularly stand out which I suspect is why it was being taken down.”
“Did anyone else notice the hidden canvas?”
“I don’t think so, but I can’t be certain.”
“Who else was there?”
“The exhibition manager, Mr. Bolton, and six packers.” I rattled off their names and Mr. Bailey wrote them down in a small notebook. I watched Mr. Glass closely. Either the names meant nothing to him, or he was good at hiding his thoughts. “None look like the thug who tried to kidnap you,” I added.
“Kidnap!” Willie exploded. “Gabe? What’s she talking about?”
Oh no. I’d put my foot in it.
“Calm down, Willie,” Mr. Glass said. “There was a small scuffle outside Burlington House. Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
“I knew I should have gone with you that day. Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
“Because I knew you’d overreact.”
“I ain’t overreacting!”
Mr. Glass arched his brows at her.
She pointed a finger at him. “Your parents asked me to take care of you while they were gone. How can I do that if you don’t let me come with you when you investigate?”
“Ordinarily I would,” he said calmly, with more patience than most would employ. “But you weren’t invited to the exhibition opening and you would have looked out of place amongst the wait staff.”
She crossed her arms. “I would not.”
Mr. Bailey rolled his eyes. “You would have attracted more attention to yourself than Miss Ashe’s friend did.”
I ought to be offended on Daisy’s behalf, but I found I couldn’t be. She had made a spectacle of herself, and of me.
“Besides,” Mr. Glass went on. “I’m perfectly capable of looking after myself, which you well know.”
“Tell me what happened,” Willie went on. “What did the kidnappers look like? How’d it play out?”
“Can we discuss this later?”
She glanced at me. “Fine. But I’m going to stick to you like a fly on a hog’s ass from now on.”
Mr. Bailey groaned, but Mr. Glass simply seemed resigned to the idea.
Despite his request to leave the discussion until later, Willie wasn’t giving up yet. “I don’t reckon the kidnapping’s related to the art theft. If the thief got wind of your investigation, there’s a dozen other ways to stop you or distract you. By trying to kidnap you, they’re only drawing attention to themselves.”
I agreed, and it was the point I’d been going to make when I brought it up. “Why not just kill him?”
All three turned to me.
I cleared my throat and gently put my teacup in the saucer and returned them to the table. “I’ve taken up enough of your time.”
Mr. Glass glanced at the glass domed clock as he rose. “Shouldn’t you be at the library now?”
“I no longer work there.”
“Did you leave of your own accord or were you dismissed?”
“Various reasons, all of which boil down to Mr. Parmiter not liking me.”
“Did he dismiss you because of my visit?”
I led the way out of the drawing room so that he couldn’t see my face as I lied. But I didn’t get the chance to speak. The butler’s booming voice echoed around the tiled entrance hall.
“No, you cannot!” He slammed the door in someone’s face. For an elderly man who looked like a sneeze would see him lose his balance, he was rather fierce.
“I just want a quick word!” shouted the person on the other side.
“Bristow?” Mr. Glass strode up to the butler. “Who is it?”
“It’s that journalist again, sir.”
Mr. Glass clapped him on the shoulder. “Thank you. I’ll handle it.”
Willie pushed past them “Let me.” She jerked the door open and squared up to the man standing on the porch. “Get going or I’ll shoot!”
The man stumbled backward, turned, and raced down the stairs.
She closed the door and dusted her hands. “He won’t be back in a hurry.”
Mr. Bailey opened the door again and stood on the porch, hands on hips. He frowned into the distance.
“You can’t threaten to shoot people, Willie,” Mr. Glass said.
“I wasn’t pointing my gun at him, was I? It ain’t a real threat unless you’re holding a weapon in your hand. India doesn’t let me carry it in the house.” She puckered her lips in thought then smiled slyly. “But she ain’t here no more.”
“I’m also forbidding you from carrying it in the house. It should be locked away in the gun cabinet.”
“It is,” she said with a glare for Bristow as he opened his mouth to speak. He shut it again and melted into the shadows at the back of the entrance hall near the stairs.
Mr. Bailey re-entered the house and closed the door. “He’s not going to give up that easily. Journalists never do.”
I clutched my handbag to my chest.
Mr. Glass gave me a flat smile. “Apologies, Miss Ashe. We’re used to it, but confrontations like that must be unsettling for you.”
Willie shook her head. “That one’s persistent. Don’t know why. It wasn’t even that big a story.”
Mr. Bailey agreed. “What else can he possibly want to know? You saved the lad and his father drowned. That’s it.” His dark gaze drilled into Mr. Glass. “Isn’t it?”
Mr. Glass drew in a deep breath and smiled at me. “You shouldn’t walk home alone. That journalist might be lurking around the corner and could accost you if he realizes you were just here.”
“Why would he do that?”
“He’ll think you have answers.”
“Answers about what?”
Willie clicked her tongue. “That pig ain’t the only one who’s nosy.”
I clutched my bag tighter. “Sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”
“You’re not prying,” Mr. Glass said quickly. “After witnessing that, it’s only natural you have questions. You must be rattled. Let me drive you home.”
“No!” Willie cried. “Dodson can take her.”
“No one needs to take me,” I said. “I can walk. I won’t speak to that journalist, or any others.”
“Even so, I’d feel better if I knew you avoided him altogether,” Mr. Glass said. “They can be very persistent.” He sounded like he’d had run-ins with journalists before. “Bristow, have Dodson bring around the Prince Henry.”
“No!” Willie said again. “You shouldn’t take her.”
Mr. Glass shrugged. “Why not?”
“Because of the attempted kidnapping,” Mr. Bailey said.
Mr. Glass nodded at Bristow and the butler disappeared through a door that must lead to the service stairs. “I’m not worried about another kidnapping and nor should anyone else be. There have been no attempts since that time outside Burlington House over a week ago.”
Willie still looked annoyed, and I was beginning to feel somewhat guilty. If something happened to Mr. Glass because of me, would his cousin come to the lodging house brandishing her gun? Would his friend, Mr. Bailey, blame me?
“I think I’ll walk.” I edged past them to the door. “It’s a pleasant day, and I have errands to make. Goodbye and thank you for the tea.” I let myself out and hurried down the steps, eager to get far away from the madhouse as quickly as possible.
I went to Daisy’s flat, intending to spend the afternoon with her, but she’d been struck by her muse and conversation was out of the question. I blamed Horatio. Ever since he’d complimented her pieces on Friday evening, her efforts had become frenzied. There were sketches and half-finished canvases strewn all around the flat, as well as splashes of paint on the floor and on Daisy herself. I washed the dishes, which mainly consisted of cocktail glasses, and made her a sandwich. I made sure she’d taken a few bites and drunk a glass of water before I let myself out.
I mixed with some of the other lodgers in the sitting room at home, intending to while away the rest of the afternoon playing Bridge before getting ready for my second evening of work at the Academy. But the arrival of Mr. Glass scuttled those plans.
“They let you out,” I said, only half-joking.
“I had to use all of my persuasive efforts, but yes they did.”
“They’re worried about you.”
He sighed. “Especially Willie. She has taken her promise to my parents to look after me very seriously. What she doesn’t know is, they told me to look after her, and they told Cyclops to look after us all.”
“Cyclops? As in the one-eyed giant of Greek mythology?”
“The one and only. He’s Alex’s father and a good friend to my parents.”
Mrs. Whitten strode into the entrance hall where we were talking and stood with her hands clasped in front of her, all her double chins squashed into her neck in disapproval.
Mr. Glass smiled and doffed his cap. “I was about to leave.” He waited for her to move off before he leaned toward me. “I’ve just come from Burlington House and want to give you an update on the investigation.”
“Oh! That would be marvelous, but are you allowed?”
“I still can’t divulge much, but I want you to know what came of your efforts last night.”
Mrs. Whitten cleared her throat. She hadn’t left, after all.
“May I take you for a brief drive, Miss Ashe?” Mr. Glass asked. “We can talk in the car.”
It seemed like the best way to have a private discussion. I fetched my coat and hat and joined Mr. Glass outside. He stood beside a different car than the one his driver had picked him up in the day of the kidnapping. This one was a Vauxhall Prince Henry painted in clotted cream with a burgundy leather interior. The brass knobs and dials shone in the sunlight. With the top down, it looked very flash.
“You have two motors?” I asked as I climbed into the passenger seat.
“The other is my parents’ car. It’s usually kept at our country home with them. This one’s mine although it’s getting old now. I had Dodson drive me in theirs to Burlington House because I knew parking would be difficult. I prefer to drive myself, so usually take this one.” He cranked the engine then climbed into the driver’s seat. “Do you want to wear goggles? I usually don’t bother in London. We won’t be able to go fast in the traffic.”
I declined the goggles too. Gabe pulled a lever on the steering wheel, and another attached to the outside of the vehicle near the windscreen, and we set off into traffic. With the grumbling engine and wind whipping past my ears, we couldn’t hold a conversation. Perhaps we should have walked instead. The ride was rather thrilling, however. I’d been in motorized buses and cabs but being driven in a luxurious private vehicle was a different experience. I felt like a child being shown a new toy.
Mr. Glass must think me terribly unsophisticated. I didn’t dare glance at him, and hid my smile behind my arm, raised in order to clamp a hand on my hat to stop it blowing away. I could see why he wore a driving cap and not a hat; it would have blown off.
We only drove for about ten minutes, heading south past the museum then through the West End theater district. Just past Leicester Square, Gabe pulled to the curb and turned off the engine. We were in an unremarkable retail area with many pedestrians walking past. Some stopped to admire the motorcar.
Gabe took no notice of them. He settled an arm on the back of the seat between us. “Next time you’ll need different headwear. Something tighter or with a scarf that ties under your chin.”
“Miss Ashe, I wanted to thank you properly for the information about the hidden painting.”
“Did you find it? Has it led to an arrest?”
“Sadly, no on both counts. I found the painting, the one with the village scene you described, but there was nothing behind it. It did look as though it had been tampered with, so that confirms your theory. At least now, thanks to you, I know for certain that someone from the exhibition is involved in hiding the stolen artwork. It narrows the list of suspects considerably.”
“What will you do next?”
I waited for more, but none came. “I’m returning to work there tonight. Do you want me to look around? I can probably access some records or keep an eye on your suspects.”
“I can manage.” He tapped his thumb on the leather upholstery and frowned. “Perhaps you shouldn’t return. Someone might suspect that you saw the stolen painting. I don’t want to put you in danger.”
“No one saw. Besides, I have to show up. I need that job.”
“Ah yes, the library fiasco. That leads me to my reason for bringing you here.” He indicated a covered entry between two identical shops, both painted in black and fronted with bay windows. The gap between them was no larger than a doorway and if he hadn’t pointed it out, I would have taken no notice of it. Carved into the lintel above the entry was the name of the street beyond.
I squinted but couldn’t see much through the entry to the street. “I don’t understand.”
“I felt terrible for costing you the job at the Philosophical Society’s library.”
“That wasn’t your fault.”
“It was partially my fault, so I got you an interview at another library.”
I stared at him.
His smile widened. “It’s down there, in Crooked Lane. The librarian is expecting you. His name is Professor Nash although he’s no longer a professor. He retired some years ago.”
“You know him well?”
“The library is…special to my family. It houses a collection of books about magic. Professor Nash spent years traveling all over the world to source books, manuscripts, letters, and all manner of documents that mention magic. There’s nothing like his collection in the world. He’s retired from travel now and just works in there, alone. It’s time he got some help. That’s what you’ll do.”
“If he employs me,” I added. “Wouldn’t he rather employ a magician?”
“He’s not a magician himself, so he wouldn’t have any qualms hiring an artless. Besides, at least one of the main financial backers is artless.”
He was holding something back, and I could take a guess at what. “Does Professor Nash want an assistant, Mr. Glass, or are you foisting me upon him?”
He gave me a wry look. “Am I that easy to read?”
“I think you ought to drive me home. I don’t want to upset the apple cart.”
“You won’t be. Nash is a good fellow, although somewhat eccentric. He has worked alone in that library for too long and is getting on in years. He needs an assistant, and I happen to think you’d be perfect for the job.”
“Because you have experience, you’re sharp-eyed and clever. You’re also not currently working. Not to mention that Nash is rather hopeless and wouldn’t get around to placing an advertisement. I’d have to do it. So, you’re saving me time if you accept.”
“I haven’t been offered the position yet.”
He got out and came around to my side. He opened the door and held out his hand to me. “Please, Miss Ashe, will you just speak to him? I feel awful for costing you the position at the Society.”
I hesitated then took his hand. “Very well. It sounds intriguing and I’m not one to turn down a golden opportunity.”
“Do you mind if you make your own way home? I have a suspect I need to follow.”
I eyed the dark entryway again but still couldn’t see through to the other side. Very little daylight must be getting through. “You’re not sending me into a magical cave, are you?”
He grinned. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll just buy a loaf of bread and leave crumbs so I can find my way out again.”
“It won’t work. There are too many birds in the city. What if I promise to send in a search party if you haven’t returned to the lodging house by nightfall?”
“That makes me feel much better.”
I waved him off from the pavement then headed through the entrance to Crooked Lane beyond. It was like stepping into another time. The buildings looked late seventeenth century to me. They were painted black, with bay windows bulging into the cobblestone lane. There was no pavement or vehicles—there was simply no room. If I stretched my arms wide, I could almost touch the bay windows on either side.
There was no one about. I expected to see pedestrians passing through, but I soon realized the short lane was a dead end. It should have been named a court. It also wasn’t crooked. Perhaps once, centuries ago, it had been open at both ends and acted as a throughway between the busier streets that bookended it. Progress and development had seen it ironed straight and shortened.
My footsteps echoed, bouncing off the brick walls that rose three levels high on either side. It was difficult to tell if the buildings were occupied or empty. Some on the ground level had a business name painted on the window, while others were unmarked, their curtains closed. Those that could be clearly identified were the sort that didn’t rely on passing foot traffic for custom. The library was wedged between a solicitor’s office and theater manager’s office in a narrow building only one window wide. The sign above the window said THE GLASS LIBRARY.
This library wasn’t simply meaningful to Gabe’s family. It had been named after them. That was quite a connection indeed.
I pushed open the door, only to pause on the threshold and draw the familiar smell of old books into my lungs. It took me back to another library in another city, one I hadn’t thought of in years. My days studying in that library had been some of my happiest. That too had been a private library, the collection owned by an elderly couple who delighted in having a girl reading their books after school.
The small front office contained a leather-inlaid desk that was mostly bare except for some writing implements, a black and brass candlestick telephone, and an open ledger. The light from a brass lamp angled onto the neatly ruled blank page. A coat and hat hung from the stand between the desk and a winding staircase. I gave these things only a cursory glance. My attention was almost wholly occupied by the room beyond.
The small office opened up to the library proper. At the far end, directly ahead, was a large fireplace, above which hung an enormous clock with brass numbers and hands. It must have been custom made to take pride of place above the stone mantelpiece.
As with the office, I gave the clock only a fleeting glance. The bookshelves interested me more. They were stuffed with books of all sizes, stretching to the high ceiling. I took a step toward the room, then another and another, and before I knew it, I was passing through the two black marble columns guarding the entryway. I’d joked with Gabe about disappearing into a magical cave, but it was no longer a joke. Whether it was the clock, which I assumed contained Lady Rycroft’s magic, or whether it was the nature of the collection, I was awed by the sight.
I stood beneath the central chandelier, its dozens of lights blazing, showing off the shine on the polished wooden shelves and ladders, and the delicate floral motif in the ceiling plasterwork. I ought to feel small in this room, dwarfed as I was by the shelves, but I didn’t. I felt comforted. Books were so familiar to me and reminded me of happy times. Before I learned to read, my mother or brother would read me to sleep. As I grew older, I devoured stories like other children devoured sweets. I loved to explore and have adventures from the safety of my bed. When I felt anxious, I curled up with a book and read. When I felt overwhelmed by grief, I read to stave off the loneliness. I was not alone when I had a book. Despite our numerous moves, I made sure that some cherished volumes came with me. It was only natural that this room made me feel a sense of belonging.
I only hoped the librarian would employ me because the longer I stood there, the more I knew I wanted to work in the Glass Library.
“You must be Miss Ashe,” said a reedy voice behind me.
I turned and was surprised to see a familiar face.
Professor Nash resembled an old book. A little bit crumpled and worn out with a bent spine, but I was intrigued enough by the cover to find out more. He welcomed me with a smile and a sweep of his fine-boned hand, inviting me to sit in a reading nook I hadn’t noticed before.
Tucked away at the back, the only light came from a low-hanging chandelier and a floor lamp beside the chocolate-colored leather sofa. A freestanding bookcase housed a small gilt clock, an urn that looked as though it hadn’t yet been cleaned after its discovery at an archaeology dig, a bronze statue of a horse and other knickknacks, as well as books, naturally. Three more books were stacked on a sofa table beside a portable writing desk and silver candlesticks, and a disused copper coal scuttle had been reinvented as a magazine holder. It was the perfect space for quiet reading, even more so than the reading nook at the Philosophical Society library. There was even a lap blanket for chilly days folded neatly over the arm of the sofa.
I took a seat at one end of the sofa and Professor Nash occupied the other end. He seemed unconcerned that no one manned the front desk.
After introductions, I couldn’t hold it back any further. The curiosity was eating at me. “Have we met before? You look familiar.”
He adjusted his spectacles to peer at me closely. “You’re not familiar to me, but Gabe said you used to work at the London Philosophical Society library. I’m a member there and have been to the library a few times.”
“That must be it. I was probably tucked away behind one of the bookshelves.”
“Mr. Parmiter didn’t mention he had an assistant.”
It was better to get it over with now. It would be less painful to broach the topic of my dismissal before I let my hopes rise. “Did Mr. Glass explain why I left my previous employment.”
“Not really. He told me he is to blame because he called on you there and Mr. Parmiter is a curmudgeon. His word, not mine.” He smiled, making his eyes twinkle behind the spectacles. “I think he feels guilty.”
“He does, and I’m concerned he’s using his influence here to force you to interview me for the role of assistant. I do hope that’s not the case. I don’t want to be a bother.”
“You’re no bother at all. The truth is, I’m looking to slow down a little. It’s time I got an assistant.” He clasped his hands together in his lap. With his stooped back, he looked as though he’d folded over like an envelope. “I might as well employ a friend of Mr. Glass’s.”
“Oh, we’re not friends. I hardly know him.”
“He clearly thinks you’d be good for the role, and I trust his judgment.”
“You know him well?”
“Well enough. When he was a child, his parents would bring him to the railway station to meet me after I returned from one of my travels. He couldn’t wait to find out what treasures we’d brought back. He liked the artefacts best and was always a little disappointed when our hoard was merely a few old books.” He chuckled. “He was an inquisitive lad, but an active one. He preferred being out of doors to reading.”
“I was the opposite.”
His smile widened. “Me too. Tell me a little about yourself, Miss Ashe. Gabe says you’re new to London. Where are you from?”
“I lived in Birmingham before coming to London.”
“You don’t have an accent.”
“I was only there for a year and a half. My mother and I moved there after the war. We moved a lot over the years.”
He was polite enough not to ask why, but I could see he was curious. If he’d asked me to explain the frequent relocations, I would have told him the truth—I didn’t know why my mother insisted we never stay in one place very long.
“Aside from the Philosophical Society library, what experience do you have?”
“That’s the only librarian position I’ve held.”
“What work did you do in Birmingham?” He might look like the quintessential mild mannered professorial type, but there was a shrewdness behind those spectacles. He’d sensed I was avoiding telling him more.
I suspected he would sense a lie too so I didn’t attempt one. “Please don’t tell Mr. Glass this, but I was a journalist during the war.”
“Ah. I see. I heard about his run-ins with reporters after he returned home after Armistice. They all wanted to interview the hero, the baron’s son who’d survived four years of brutal fighting against all odds. I understood their curiosity, but it must have been annoying for him to be hounded like that. Anyway, I believe they gave up after a few months.”
“Until recently. The story of him saving a boy from drowning has sparked interest again.”
He leaned forward conspiratorially. “I see no reason to tell him about your prior profession. It will be our secret.”
“If you employ me, that is.”
He frowned. “Why wouldn’t I employ you?”
“I, uh… I don’t know.”
“Well then, that’s settled.”
He put out his hand. “Welcome to the Glass Library, Miss Ashe. Can you begin tomorrow?”
“Yes!” I shook his hand enthusiastically. Perhaps a little too enthusiastically. He wiggled his fingers when I let go.
As we walked to the front door, I admired some of the books on the shelves as we passed. Some were quite old, going by the wooden covers and visible spine stitching. Professor Nash noticed my lingering gaze and my slowing pace.
“You like them?” he asked.
I brushed my hand along the spines. “You have a remarkable collection. Mr. Glass said you found these all yourself.”
“Yes, along with a friend.” He sighed. “We traveled together for a number of years, buying up everything we could find in all corners of the world. Some books we saved from being destroyed and others are now available to all when before they were kept hidden. There are some cultures where magic is forbidden, you see. Magicians can’t practice their craft for fear of punishment. Possessing just one of these books could lead to execution. When war loomed on the horizon, I chose to return home. Oscar continued on alone and met his end in the Arabian Desert. We had some grand adventures, he and I.” His gaze lost focus for a moment, before sharpening again. “We have books about magic, alchemy and witchcraft, as well as an entire section on superstition. Ours is the largest collection of Asian works outside that continent. We even have some very old books printed on bamboo sheets.”
“Remarkable. Can you read them?”
“Many, but by no means all. Some are written in ancient languages, long forgotten or difficult to translate. Some are written in code that I’ve yet to crack.”
“It’s wonderful that you named the library after Lord and Lady Rycroft. They must be honored.”
He blinked at me. “Oh no. I mean, yes, she’s honored, but the library isn’t named after both of them. It’s just for Mrs. Glass. India. She’s the library’s patron and inspiration. Lord Rycroft has provided much of our funding, of course, but he’d be the first to tell you the library isn’t name after him. He’s artless,” he added, as if that explained it.
It was my turn to blink owlishly at him. “Oh? I thought he must be a powerful magician too, like his wife.”
“Goodness, no.” He chuckled.
“And their son, Mr. Glass? Is he a magician too?”
“Artless, like his father.” He sighed heavily, as if this were a great disappointment to him. I wondered who else was disappointed by Mr. Glass’s artlessness. I wondered if he was.
We shook hands at the door and I left, my step lighter than when I entered. As I exited Crooked Lane, I glanced over my shoulder, but the murky afternoon light made it difficult to discern the individual buildings and I couldn’t quite work out from here which one was the library. What a charming little street. Perhaps charmed was a better word. The sun had dipped low. Time had slipped by without me realizing it. I needed to hurry home and change for work. I had to finish the job I started at the Royal Academy of Arts.
It wasn’t until I was halfway home that I realized I hadn’t asked Professor Nash about my wage or working conditions. Not that it mattered. Anything was better than what I had now.
To my surprise, Horatio was waiting for me in the lodging house sitting room. Two lodgers crowded close to him on the sofa, giggling at his story, only to spring apart when I entered. I suspected it wasn’t my arrival that made them nervous, but Mrs. Whitten’s, hot on my heels.
“You have far too many male guests, Miss Ashe,” she said snippily. “A policeman is one thing, but an artist is quite another! Will he be here long?”
I assured her he wouldn’t be then turned to Horatio. He leapt up and embraced me, kissing both my cheeks. It wasn’t a wise thing to do in Mrs. Whitten’s presence. She looked as though she’d explode with indignation. All of her chins shook violently.
Horatio took her hand between both of his. “Dear lady, don’t fret.”
She eyed him with suspicion. She wasn’t going to succumb to a man’s charms.
“Believe me, Sylvia is of no interest to me. She’s far too insipid.”
I ought to be offended, but at that moment, I didn’t care. I had to get ready for work. “Is something the matter, Horatio?”
“Yes! Well, no, not really.” He frowned. “You seem agitated. Is it because I said I have no interest in you? Dear sweet little thing. Don’t be upset. You’re somebody’s type, just not mine.”
“Miss Ashe!” Mrs. Whitten barked.
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Horatio, please. I have to go to work soon.”
“Ah, yes! The Academy! The manager took you on?”
“I’m helping the packing team. Tonight is the last night.”
“Oh? The assistant is well enough to return?”
“No, I’m giving notice. I’m starting a new job tomorrow and working days and nights is too much. Hopefully Mr. Bolton’s regular assistant can return, but if not, I’m sure he can find someone else. The work is very easy.”
“A new job! How wonderful. If one likes that sort of thing, of course.” He pulled a face and, despite the situation, I laughed.
He eyed Mrs. Whitten over my shoulder then hooked his arm through mine. “Come with me into the corridor.”
The two lodgers didn’t follow us, but Mrs. Whitten did. Thankfully she kept going. She mustn’t think Horatio a threat to my virtue out here where lodgers came and went at regular intervals.
Horatio and I stopped beside a small painting leaning against the wall. “This is for you.” Instead of showing me, he picked it up and led the way up the stairs. “Quickly,” he hissed. “Before she sees.”
I unlocked the door to my room, and he bundled me inside.
“That was close,” he said.
“I wouldn’t count your chickens, Horatio. She knows everything that goes on in this building. She probably knows you’re in here.” I pointed to the canvas. “Is it one of yours?”
He turned it around. The unframed canvas was of Tower Bridge in the evening, partially shrouded by mist and rain. It was gloomy and I half expected to see a sinister figure lurking in the shadows if I looked closer. “It is. I see you like it. I painted it when I was gripped by melancholy.”
“It’s yours.” He set it down on the floor, leaning it against the bed.
Horatio had a piece in this year’s Royal Academy of Arts summer exhibition. Thanks to that exposure, he could expect his work to sell for quite a lot of money. I wasn’t an expert, but I suspected even a small, gloomy piece like this one would do well. “Thank you, that’s very generous of you. But why are you giving it to me?”
“Because I like you.”
“Even though I’m not your type?”
He flashed me a grin. “As a friend, you’re everybody’s type. You’re as sweet and warm as a pot of hot chocolate.”
I laughed. “Please don’t give up painting to try your hand at writing. Now, if you don’t mind, I really do need to get ready for work.”
He turned around. “I won’t look.”
In case he did, I turned around too. I changed my blouse and threw on a different jacket but kept the same skirt. I tied the jacket’s sash at my waist and checked my hair in the mirror. It was a little messy but would have to do. There was no time to rearrange it.
I opened the door and peered out, looking for Mrs. Whitten. “All clear.”
Horatio handed me my coat and hat. “If I see her, I propose we make a run for it.”
“That’s easy for you to say. I live here.”
“Then move. This place is awful anyway.” He wrinkled his nose. “The light is dreadful and there are too many old books.”
“Those are my books.”
He mouthed an apology before ushering me out the door.
Burlington House was peaceful at night. With the crowds gone and the doors locked, only the movements of the packing crew could be heard. The men kept their voices hushed, as if in deference to the cathedral-like galleries. My team knew what they were doing which gave me the opportunity to wander around and admire the paintings.
A set of heavy footsteps approached from behind. I didn’t look around. It wasn’t necessary. I’d come to know each man’s gait and the weight of his tread.
“It’s all right for some,” sneered Mr. Allan, the packer with the scarred face. “The rest of us are slaving away while you swan about doing nothing.”
I finally turned around. “I’m happy to help. Tell me what you’d like me to do.”
He struck a match and lit the cigarette dangling from his lips. “You’d only get in the way.” He tossed the match on the floor near my feet and sucked on the cigarette.
I bit my tongue to stop myself pointing out that he couldn’t have it both ways. Letting him rile me would only inflame the situation. Arguing was precisely what he wanted, and I wouldn’t let him win.
I picked up the matchstick and tucked it into the pocket of his dust jacket then walked away to search for Mr. Bolton and his crew. I wanted to tell him this would be my last night.
He was not in the adjoining gallery, however. Whispered voices came from the next gallery over. They sounded harsh, spoken in anger, and as I drew closer, I realized one was a woman’s.
“Mr. Bolton?” I entered the gallery but stopped short.
Lady Stanhope and Mr. Ludlow, the butler who’d dismissed me from the waitressing job, looked just as surprised to see me as I was to see them.
I turned and fled.
They recovered from their shock and pursued me. Mr. Ludlow caught my arm just as I was about to re-enter the gallery where my team was rehanging a painting. “What are you doing here?” he growled.
“I, I’m working for Mr. Bolton. He employed me to—”
“I fired you! Get out!”
I wrenched free. “If you’ll just speak to Mr. Bolton—”
“I’ll speak to him, all right. He clearly isn’t aware of the sort of person he employed.”
Lady Stanhope trotted up on her heeled shoes and looked me up and down. From her confused frown, I suspected she couldn’t recollect our first meeting where she’d tried to stop me speaking to Gabe. I wasn’t important enough to remember. “Ludlow? Who is this girl?”
“A waitress I dismissed for confronting the guests during the private viewing.”
I bristled. “We were having a conversation not a confrontation.”
Lady Stanhope’s face pinched as if my words tasted bitter. “You were not employed to have conversations. The guests don’t want to be bothered by the staff.” She shot Ludlow a frosty glare. “I knew having waiters this year would be a mistake. We should have left the food in the refreshment room like previous years.
The butler’s nostrils flared in and out with every snorting breath. I wasn’t sure if his anger was still directed at me or had been transferred to Lady Stanhope. He’d certainly sounded annoyed with her earlier if his harshly whispered tone was anything to go by. That she’d let him speak to her like that at all was something I needed to think about at another time.
Right now, I was worried about being dismissed on the spot. Mr. Bolton strode into the gallery. He pointed his stick at Mr. Allan and the other men who’d stopped to watch the exchange. “This isn’t a theater show! Get back to work.”
Mr. Allan’s top lip curled up into his scar. The effect was a sinister sneer that sent a chill through me. He was enjoying my plight.
“Lady Stanhope?” Mr. Bolton gentled his tone. “What a pleasant surprise this is. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I had some last-minute arrangements to discuss with Mr. Ludlow.”
Mr. Bolton frowned. “Arrangements for what?”
She circled her hands around Mr. Bolton’s arm and sidled closer. She bent her head to his and blinked up at him through her lashes. “We were just reconciling some costs. It’s all finished now, and we both wanted to have another look at the paintings before we left for the evening.” She steered him away. “Which is your favorite?”
I watched them go with a sinking heart. It sank further when Mr. Ludlow stepped into my view. He looked as though he couldn’t wait to throw me out again.
“Collect your things and leave this instant,” he snapped.
I gathered all my confidence and willed my voice to sound steady. “You can’t force me to go. I work for Mr. Bolton now.”
To my utter relief, Mr. Bolton returned. He’d overheard me. Granted, I’d spoken loudly enough that he would have heard me from the next room. “What is going on here?”
The butler drew himself up to his full height then proceeded to look down his nose at both of us. The exhibition manager’s lips pursed. “This girl was employed as a waitress. I had to dismiss her for rudeness.”
“She has been nothing but polite to me and the men.”
Mr. Ludlow’s nostrils expanded. “Nevertheless, she cannot be re-employed.”
“Nevertheless, if anyone is being rude to me, it’s you, Ludlow. If I wish to re-employ her, that is my prerogative.” His vehement defense surprised me. I hardly knew him and I’d not expected it. He must not like Mr. Ludlow.
Mr. Ludlow’s jaw firmed. “But—”
“Ludlow!” Lady Stanhope snapped. “There’s no point him hiring anyone else now. She’ll have to do.”
It wasn’t much of a defense, but it worked. With a click of his tongue, Mr. Ludlow strode off, heading for the exit. Lady Stanhope shook her head at his back. “Carry on, Mr. Bolton.” She left too, her strides less purposeful and her back stiff.
“’Carry on,’” Mr. Bolton echoed. “She has a nerve ordering anyone but Ludlow the Lug about. She has no authority over me.”
“Ludlow the Lug has a good ring to it.”
He didn’t seem to be listening to me, however, as he watched Lady Stanhope retreat.
“I wonder what they were doing here. I don’t believe the story about reconciling expenses, do you, Miss Ashe? The private viewing ended days ago and expenses for the event should have been tallied before it began.” He thrust his stick under his arm and marched off without waiting for my response.
I checked in with my men to see what progress they’d made, only to find Mr. Allan had gone missing. When he didn’t return after ten minutes, I went looking for him. He wasn’t in any of the galleries. The stairs were roped off, but Mr. Allan wasn’t the sort to abide by rules.
I was about to slip under the rope when I heard a sneeze in the distance. It hadn’t come from upstairs. I followed the sound to another set of stairs that led down.
I descended into the basement, but not the part where the kitchen was located. It was the wrong end of Burlington House. I peered into one of the rooms off the corridor. Aside from broken crates, brooms, and other maintenance equipment, some dust covers protected large objects. Underneath could be furniture or artwork.
I was about to leave when I noticed one of the covers had slipped off, revealing a life-sized classical statue of a naked man, missing its head. I entered the room and picked up the cloth to throw it back over.
With the cloth obscuring my view, the only warning I had was the sound of two footsteps before someone slammed into me, knocking me off my feet.
I fell onto my rear end, hitting a stack of crates on my way down, causing them to topple over. The cover and a cloud of dust enveloped me.
Then the door slammed shut.
By the time I untangled myself from the cover, the man was long gone. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered, however. I threw the cover over the statue, turning away as dust billowed from the cloth. I managed to suppress my cough but not my sneeze.
A moment’s panic quickened my heart as I tried the door handle and it wouldn’t turn. It was simply stuck, however, and a little bit of elbow grease was all that was needed.
I was about to leave when I noticed another dust cover in the corner of the room had slipped off the flat crates stacked vertically against the far wall. It had fallen onto a pile of more dust covers that were carelessly discarded along with dozens of cigarette butts. The entire room needed a good clean.
I grabbed a corner of the cover to haul it back over when I noticed one of the crates was labeled Village High Street. It must contain the painting of the village scene, behind which the thief had most likely hidden the stolen painting. Mr. Glass would have lifted this cover a few hours ago to look for the canvas.
I closed the door behind me and headed back up the stairs. My team had almost finished for the evening. Mr. Allan had returned and avoided eye contact with me for the remainder of the night. I would have confronted him over his visit to the storeroom, but decided I preferred the peace and quiet. Confrontations set my nerves on edge.
I checked my list and marked several items as completed then went in search of Mr. Bolton. His team was also packing up. Mr. Bolton dismissed them all for the night then escorted me back to his office.
“I want to thank you again for hiring me, sir,” I said as he handed me an envelope containing my pay. “But I’m afraid I have to give my notice, effective immediately. I’ve found permanent employment elsewhere and I can’t cope with a job during the day and this one in the evenings.”
He extended his hand to me. “Congratulations on the new position.” He didn’t seem terribly concerned at being left in the lurch, although that could simply be me misinterpreting his no-nonsense manner.
“I’m sorry if my sudden departure leaves you in a bind. I do hope your regular assistant will get well soon.”
“I’m sure he will. Goodbye, Miss Ashe.”
I shook his hand. “Goodbye, Mr. Bolton.” I gathered my bag and coat and left.
Outside, I cursed my ill luck. It was raining and I hadn’t brought an umbrella.
I was about to brave the wet weather and hurry down the steps to the courtyard when I heard a noise that sounded like shuffling feet to my left. I squinted into the shadows of Burlington House’s wide portico, but it was too dark to see anything.
I continued on my way, not daring to investigate what, or who, made the noise. The courtyard was empty. The packers had left and Mr. Bolton was still inside. I walked as quickly as I could to Piccadilly where the streetlights provided better light and there were still a lot of vehicles driving past. I found a cab and headed home. It wasn’t until the cab door closed and we were on our way that I finally felt as though I was no longer being watched.
The more I thought about it, the more the exchange with Lady Stanhope and Mr. Ludlow bothered me. Their explanation for their presence at Burlington House didn’t ring true. Like Mr. Bolton, I was suspicious of their story about reconciling expenses. My suspicions only grew as I recalled their conversation in the adjoining gallery. While I’d not overheard any actual words, there was no doubting the heated tone, nor the fact that most of the anger came from Mr. Ludlow, and it was directed at Lady Stanhope. A butler shouldn’t speak that way to his employer.
I telephoned Mr. Glass in the morning and told him my suspicions. He thanked me then asked if I could meet him to discuss it further.
“I can’t. I’m starting work at the Glass Library today.”
“Nash will give you a lunch break.”
I was about to protest that I might work through lunch to make a good impression on my first day, but he hung up after saying a hasty goodbye.
I walked to Crooked Lane, drawing in a deep breath as I passed through the covered walkway. The air smelled fresh after the overnight rain, thanks to the lack of motorized traffic. The buildings and narrow entrance kept the fumes and noise out.
Professor Nash looked up upon my arrival and smiled. “Welcome to your first day, Miss Ashe. Come in, come in.” He stood and buttoned up his jacket. “You may hang your coat there and leave your bag…” He looked around the floor and, not finding a suitable nook, opened the large bottom drawer of the desk. He pushed aside its contents to make space. “In here will do. There is a key if you’d like to lock it for safekeeping. It’s here somewhere…” He eyed the surface of the desk then rummaged through the top drawer.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “There’s nothing valuable in it.” I deposited my bag in the bottom drawer and hung up my coat on the stand near the stairs.
“We’ll begin with a tour. There’s not much to see in the front office and you’ve already seen all there is to see in the ground floor collection. That’s where I keep the most popular books, the general primers on magic, histories, that sort of thing. The least valuable, shall we say, although some are still quite rare and all have a scholarly value, if not a high monetary one. Onward and upward!”
He led the way up the winding staircase to the first floor. At the top of the stairs, I stopped and gasped. The room was even more spectacular than the ground floor. The ceiling was higher and even more ornate with the same leaf motif as downstairs repeated but painted in vibrant springtime colors with golden accents. A narrow mezzanine clung to the walls above our heads. Accessed by a spiral staircase, it was only wide enough for one person to browse the bookshelves, or two to squeeze awkwardly past one another. An arched window spanning the full height of the room was cut in half by the mezzanine. The window overlooked Crooked Lane, allowing plenty of light to pour through. The good lighting made it the perfect spot for reading, both at floor level and on the mezzanine which jutted out just enough at the window to fit an armchair. The reading nook on the floor level was larger than the one downstairs. Aside from another chocolate brown leather sofa, there were two matching armchairs and side tables. A desk faced the window, its surface bare except for a globe at one edge and some writing implements in a brass stand.
Professor Nash drew my attention to the bookshelves, some of which had glass doors. “On this floor, we keep the more valuable books and papers.” I failed to see how a few panes of glass would stop a determined thief, even when they were locked. “Some of these items are very old, others are newer but rare. And as you can see, we have some magical objects up here too.”
“Oh? Which ones have magic in them?”
“The glass doors. The magic in them should stop them breaking easily. Same with the mirror.” He nodded at the large mirror hanging above the fireplace. “That bronze statue, the globe over there on the desk, the plaster ceiling, and most of the furniture.”
“Remarkable,” I said on a breath. “Does the clock above the fireplace downstairs contain magic?”
“It does. India—Lady Rycroft—put her magic into it. She made it especially for the library.”
I felt foolish for asking my next question, considering I’d just accepted a position in a library dedicated to magic, but I had to. Besides, Professor Nash would find out sooner or later that I knew very little about the topic. “Forgive me, but I’m not quite sure what Lady Rycroft’s magic does. I assume it makes timepieces run perfectly, but is that all?”
His face lit up. My naïve question had the opposite effect than I’d expected. Instead of thinking me a fool, he was enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge. “It’s not all, no. She can also extend the magic of another magician.” At my blank look, he went on. “Most magicians only know one spell; a spell based on what is desired most from that object. So, for glass, you would want it not to break. For wood, you don’t want it to burn. For iron, you want strength. For a map, you want to find a location, and for a precious metal or gem, you want more.”
“Yes. More of the same. That’s why those are very rare. Gold magic has died out, for instance.”
He frowned. “I believe that has died out too.”
“What about art, like paintings? What does their spell do?”
“That’s a good question. I’m not sure.” He pushed his spectacles up his nose. “The problem with the spells is that their magic doesn’t last forever. It fades. The length of time the magic lasts is dependent on the strength of the magician. It can last mere hours if made by a weak magician, or as long as decades. I’ve come across some magical objects where the magic is still in it centuries later. Many classical buildings from antiquity have survived for this very reason—they used stonemason magicians.” He put up a finger to emphasize his next point, although it required little emphasis. His bright-eyed expression was compelling enough. “India knows a spell that can extend magic. Not just her magic, mind, but magic put into an object by other magicians.”
I could see how that would be related to her watchmaking magic. Both spells were related to time. “Is that why she’s considered so important to the modern history of magic?”
“Not really, no. She rarely uses that spell. She’s remarkable for a number of reasons, all of which stem back to her lineage. In her family tree, several magical lineages converge and through the wonder of genetics, she has inherited great power. For one thing, she doesn’t need to speak a spell. She can just think it. But most rare of all, she can create new spells.”
“That does sound useful.”
He gave me a grim smile and I suspected there was a story behind her spell creation. “She doesn’t use her magic much anymore. She decided some time ago that the possibilities are too dangerous if new spells fell into the wrong hands. Her greatest achievement is her advocacy for magicians, both in this country, and around the world.”
I knew they were persecuted as witches in the Middle Ages and then more recently the craft guilds wouldn’t give them licenses to trade, but I hadn’t been aware of Lady Rycroft’s role in ending that persecution.
“India went into bat for magicians,” Professor Nash added. “The guilds finally agreed to allow magicians to live openly and to trade freely, as long their goods were sold as luxury items which incur a luxury goods tax. It was the only way to have harmony between the artless and magicians. It was quite nasty there for some time. Quite nasty indeed.”
“Mr. Glass says you’re not a magician.”
“That’s correct. I’m descended from iron magicians, but I didn’t inherit it.”
I studied the objects he’d pointed out as being magician-made. The glass and mirror were just plain panes, but the turned wooden legs of the desk and table were intricate, as was the plaster ceiling. “I’ve learned something today. I thought a magician’s power lay only in making objects they manufacture more beautiful.”
“A magician doesn’t need to use a spell to make a beautiful thing. Magical items are naturally more beautiful, more appealing, than the same item without magic. A spell isn’t needed to achieve that beauty, however. It’s just a happy outcome of a magician-made object, even one that doesn’t have a spell spoken into it. Even if a magician doesn’t know they are a magician, in fact. Think of it like a talent that magicians have and the artless do not.”
“A magician can have a talent without realizing it?”
“Precisely! It’s not until the carpenter magician whittles his first stick that he finds he has an affinity for woodwork. You asked about an artist’s spell before, and I answered that I wasn’t sure what their spell would do. The mere fact a piece of art has been painted by a magician already makes it more appealing than one painted by a regular artist, so I can’t think how adding a spell would enhance its beauty. Make the colors more vibrant perhaps? Make it more lifelike?” He shrugged.
I touched the silver ring on my finger. It was plain, with no engraving. I didn’t want to put a sharp tool to it to try my hand at the artform in case I destroyed the ring. I felt no particular affinity for it either. But perhaps my brother had. Perhaps that was why he suspected he was a silver magician.
“There’s one final part to my tour.” Professor Nash indicated I should follow him with a crook of his finger. We headed down the aisle between two shelving stacks to the end. The wall was occupied by more shelves neatly packed with books.
Professor Nash pointed to one covered in red leather on the middle shelf. It didn’t look old, but the top of the spine was a little worn. What an odd place for wear and tear to appear first. I tilted my head to read the black lettering on the spine but didn’t get the opportunity. Professor Nash pulled the book off the shelf, but only halfway. Something behind the book clicked. With a secret little smile, he pushed on the bookshelves.
A section gave way and swung open.
I drew in a sharp breath. “Now you’re just teasing me. A hidden passage inside a library? Have you been reading my childhood diary and discovered all my favorite things?”
He chuckled. “I can tell you and I will get along famously.” He reached in and switched on a light.
Beyond was an empty room the size of a cupboard with another door at the back. “This is the vestibule. That door there leads to my rooms.”
“You mean you live in here?”
He nodded. “Go in. Take a look.”
“Are you sure?”
He smiled. “Quite sure.”
I passed through the vestibule and pushed open the other door, revealing a small flat beyond. In some ways, it reminded me of Daisy’s flat with a mezzanine level for the bedroom, although Professor Nash accessed it via a spiral staircase rather than a ladder. It wasn’t as light as hers, but it wasn’t dark either. High windows let in enough light for us to see. It was smaller than her flat, but looked comfortable if somewhat masculine, furnished much the same as the reading nooks in the library.
“You may use the kitchen or bathroom facilities up here whenever you need to,” Professor Nash said.
“But this is your home.”
“Never mind that. I’m a neat person.” He pointed to a trap door in the ceiling of the mezzanine bedroom. “There’s an attic full of books and other documents that require cataloguing in there. Once you’ve settled in, you can get started on them.”
We returned downstairs and he went through some policies and procedures. The library was open to anyone. It didn’t operate on a membership basis like most libraries. None of the books could be checked out, however. Anyone was welcome to stay and read in one of the nooks, but everything belonging to the library had to stay in the library.
“As much as we want to keep the collection free for anyone, it does present a problem when it comes to borrowing,” he told me. “We can’t rely on borrowers to be honest about their address, and not everyone carries identification with them. We found that out the hard way many years ago when some people simply never returned the books. I spent a lot of time finding them, so I don’t want them to go missing. We changed our policy after that.”
“I look forward to hearing about your adventures,” I said.
“I’m afraid I’m not the greatest storyteller. My traveling companion was better.”
“Oscar, was it?”
“He could tell a fine tale. He was a journalist, like you. He gave it up to travel with me almost thirty years ago. Speaking of Oscar.” He scanned the bookshelves behind the desk and plucked out a book with a bright orange cover. “This is a copy of his first book.” He handed it to me. “It’ll give you a good introduction to magic.”
The title read THE BOOK OF MAGIC: THE FACTS, MYTHS, HISTORIES AND RITES OF SORCERY IN ENGLAND AND AROUND THE WORLD AS WRITTEN BY A MODERN MAGICIAN. The author’s name was Oscar Barratt.
“What type of magician was he?”
“Ink. A rather pointless magic, as he put it, but he could make it float prettily in the air.”
“Thank you. I’ll start tonight.”
We continued to work throughout the morning as Professor Nash showed me what jobs he would require me to do. There weren’t many. The library was set up to run efficiently, and without members or borrowers, an entire component of librarianship was eliminated.
I was in the middle of reshelving some books on the first floor when I turned around and got the fright of my life. Mr. Glass stood at the end of the aisle, one broad shoulder leaning against the bookshelf, his arms and ankles crossed. The pose was relaxed but his gaze was sharp and filled with amusement. The man had a habit of finding my embarrassing moments funny.
“Sorry,” he said. “I thought you would hear my footsteps.”
“I was lost in thought.” I shelved the final book and walked towards him.
He stepped aside but didn’t move away altogether. “Ready for lunch?”
I had to turn side-on and edge past him. Even so, I still brushed up against him. He didn’t seem fazed, but my face heated. That only made him smile again.
I quickly put some distance between us and turned away, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. “I’ll check with Professor Nash first.”
Professor Nash was quite all right with me taking lunch. I suggested an hour, but he said to take as long as I needed. I got the impression Mr. Glass had already checked with him before coming upstairs to find me. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. I supposed it depended on whether he’d used his influence to coerce the professor or not. From their friendly exchange, it was difficult to tell.
“Busy morning?” Mr. Glass asked as we walked side by side along Crooked Lane.
“Not really. There were no patrons.”
“I hope you won’t find it too dull.”
“If there’s nothing to do, I can always read. Not that I’ll do that, of course. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of work to keep me occupied.” I bit my lip. I’d needed to remember he was the son of the library’s patron. Admitting to him that I would read while I should be working was a poor career move.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell Nash. I’m quite sure that’s how he spends most of his day anyway.”
“Why did he hire me if there’s not enough work for two?”
He simply shrugged. “What do you make of the library?”
“It’s wonderful,” I said on a breath. “So many books, and the reading nook looks so cozy. Professor Nash seems nice. He’s very enthusiastic about magic.”
“More enthusiastic than most magicians.”
We walked westward and I had a horrible feeling he was going to take me somewhere flash like the Ritz. Not even my best outfit was suitable for lunch somewhere so exclusive. We changed direction, however, and found ourselves in the streets behind Leicester Square. He stopped at a restaurant named Le Café De Paris on the corner with chairs and tables arranged out the front.
He pushed open the door and I breathed a sigh of relief. I would fit in here. The patrons were dressed casually, and the tables were covered with plain white tablecloths. Large mirrors made the interior look bigger than it was, and the modern paintings gave it an artistic flair. Several diners sat alone, hunched over books or sketching on pads, coffee cups and ashtrays at hand. Others sat in small groups engaged in intense conversation. A friendly waiter led us to a spare table by the window.
Mr. Glass ordered a bottle of red wine and asked for the menus. Thankfully the dishes were ones I recognized and not in French. We both ordered roast beef.
“It’s not quite the same as a genuine French café, but I give the owners points for trying,” Mr. Glass said.
“It’s probably not a wise business decision to offer frogs legs and snails to English diners.”
“Neither dish tastes as awful as they sound, by the way.”
“You’ve tried them?”
“During the war. I was in Paris for a few weeks in ’18.”
“I thought you spent all of the war on the front lines.”
His eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “You’ve done your research.” He glanced at the man seated at the next table as he ground a cigarette butt into the ashtray. Mr. Glass’s thumb began to tap on the table surface. “As the war came to an end, I was needed in Paris.”
“You were an officer, weren’t you?”
“Captain.” The tapping increased its rhythm. “Do you mind if we talk about something else?”
“Of course. Sorry.” I could kick myself. What former soldier wanted to discuss the war with a woman he hardly knew? I searched for another topic. “The art in here is…interesting.”
He studied the painting on the wall opposite. “Is that one body with two heads or two people?”
“Those are people? I thought it was just a collection of geometric shapes.”
He flashed a grin. It was utterly disarming. “It’s fortunate neither of us wants a career as an art critic.”
“My brief stint at the Royal Academy proved that point to me,” I said. “Although none of the paintings in the exhibition looked anything like these.”
“The Academy isn’t known for being at the forefront of the artistic movement. Speaking of the exhibition, tell me more about the meeting between Lady Stanhope and Ludlow.”
I repeated what I’d told him over the phone that morning. “It may mean nothing,” I finished. “But I thought it worth mentioning.”
“It’s definitely suspicious.” He raised his glass to me. “Thank you for bringing it to my attention, Sylvia. May I call you Sylvia?”
“Call me Gabe.”
“Are you sure?” I blurted out.
My face heated again, but I had nothing to hide behind. He didn’t smile or seem to find amusement in my embarrassment this time, but I still felt like a fool. Fortunately, the waiter brought our food, drawing Gabe’s attention away from me.
“Which gallery were they in when you overheard their heated conversation?” Gabe asked as he cut into his beef.
“The main one.”
“Were they near a particular piece of art?”
I finished chewing as I thought back to when I’d stumbled upon them. “Do you recall the seascape with the steamship?”
He’d been about to eat a morsel of beef but lowered his fork. “I do.”
“They were near that. We moved it the night before to a more prominent position since it was so popular. Is that a clue?”
He didn’t answer immediately but continued to eat. I suspected he wouldn’t answer me, citing the excuse that he wasn’t allowed to talk about the case with a civilian.
But he proved me wrong. “It may be important, but I’m not yet sure. There’s still so much we don’t know about this case.”
Since he was in a talkative mood, I might as well try my luck and ask more questions. “What do you know?”
This time he didn’t hesitate. “That it’s likely someone at the gallery is involved in the theft.” He picked up his wine glass and sipped, watching me over the rim. “I should probably start at the beginning.”
I stayed silent, not wanting to shatter his trust in me.
“Scotland Yard employ me only on cases that involve magic or magicians. I was called in for this case when the owner of the stolen painting claimed it was done by a magician artist. At least, that’s what the owner claimed.”
“You don’t think it’s magical?”
“I have no opinion one way or another. The painter is long dead so he can’t be questioned. He lived a century ago, in a less enlightened time when magicians were persecuted. Paint magicians never revealed their talent out of fear they’d be ostracized by the Royal Academy. That’s the closest thing to a guild artists’ have. The stolen work was done by a little-known artist named Jean-Baptiste Delaroche. He wasn’t very prolific. This painting is one of only three in England.”
“If no one knows whether the painter was a magician, why did the owner buy it?”
“She bought it for a low price from a dealer she claims had no idea about fine art. She suspected it was magician-made, so when she took it home, she invited a sculptor magician to verify it for her. She never got a second opinion.”
“Why a sculptor magician, not a painter?”
“She said he was an acquaintance and she trusted him. He sensed the magic in the Delaroche and gave his professional assurance to her.”
“Is he under suspicion for the theft?”
“He is on my suspect list but I’m yet to connect him to the black market for art, which is where the painting most likely is destined.”
“When was it stolen?”
“Two days before the exhibition opened for private viewings. It was on loan from the owner for the duration of the exhibition and had just arrived. Some time that afternoon or night, it disappeared. Only the frame remained.”
“It must have been placed behind the village painting until such time it could be squirreled out of Burlington House.”
“Precisely. You’d make a good detective, Sylvia.”
“Unfortunately, my nose will have to remain buried in books rather than other people’s business since the police don’t employ women.”
We ate in silence for a few minutes as I tried to make sense of the case. “The thief has to be someone with access to Burlington House after hours.”
“Not necessarily. People came and went all afternoon. Deliverymen, the exhibition manager and his assistant, even some artists who delivered their work personally.”
“The packing team?”
“And them. In theory, any of the staff employed that day, including Ludlow.”
“And Lady Stanhope? I assume she was there going over last-minute details with Ludlow.”
He nodded. “As a friend of the painting’s owner, she also knew it was magical—assuming she believed her friend’s claim, that is.”
“You think the seascape is also magical, don’t you?”
He finished his meal then sat back. “It seems likely. According to the experts, it’s technically perfect. To me, it’s simply a beautiful piece. Other Philistines seem to agree.”
I smiled. “Including this Philistine. Can you have an independent magician verify it?”
“I didn’t want to draw attention to it, but now I’m worried it’s too late. The exhibition manager has moved it to a new, more prominent location, and two of my suspects were seen having a heated discussion near it.” He dipped his head in a bow. “Thanks to you, I wouldn’t have known.”
“Perhaps a guard can be employed to watch it.”
He refilled our wine glasses and picked his up. “You were there during the first private viewing. Did you notice anyone paying it particular attention?”
“I wasn’t employed to notice anything except the hors d’oeuvres on my tray, as Mr. Ludlow delighted in reminding me before he fired me.”
One side of his mouth kicked up in a small smile. “I doubt that stopped an inquisitive person such as yourself.”
“I did see a few painters nearby who seemed to be discussing it. Then Lady Stanhope joined them. She was friendly towards them and they seemed to like her.”
“They can’t afford not to like her, at least to her face. Their livelihoods depend on her patronage. She’s a great art lover.”
And artist lover, I suspected, going by the way she flirted with Horatio that day. “What do you make of her?”
“I’d never met her before that day.”
“I thought she moved in the same circles as your parents.”
He chuckled. “Do you think everyone with a title are friends?”
“No, of course not.”
He looked at me as though he knew I was lying.
I cleared my throat. “I think I know where we can find out more about her.” At his arched brows, I added, “From the way she was touching Horatio, I think they’re more than mere acquaintances.”
“Let’s ask him, shall we?”
“The sooner the better, before the thief tries to steal the seascape.” He paid what we owed and headed for the door.
I grabbed my bag and hurried after him. “But I have to return to work.”
“I’ll have a word with Nash. I’m sure he won’t mind.” He smiled as he opened the door for me.
I warred with myself on the walk back to Crooked Lane. It was my first day at the library. Should I take time off, even for something as important as the case? I decided to ask Professor Nash if it was all right and change my plan if he seemed reluctant.
“Wait out here,” I said to Gabe when we arrived at the library. “I don’t want you influencing his decision.”
Professor Nash didn’t flicker an eyelash when I told him Gabe wanted me to help with his investigation. Indeed, he seemed unsurprised by the request.
“The work will still be here when you return,” he said cheerfully.
“I’ll make up any time lost by staying back late the rest of the week.”
“That won’t be necessary. Gabe is paying your wage so if he finds another purpose for you, then so be it. The work here will get done eventually.”
I blinked slowly at him. “I assumed I was being paid by the library. I know Lord and Lady Rycroft are patrons, but aren’t there others? And isn’t there a board or committee that oversees things like employment and wages?”
“No, you don’t understand. Gabe is paying your wage. Not his parents or the other patrons. And the committee are hopeless. They wouldn’t have made the decision to employ an assistant in one day. Good lord, no. It would have taken them weeks. Gabe informed me that your predicament was urgent and you needed to be employed immediately. He’s paying your wage until such time as the committee gets around to meeting and discussing the role of assistant.”
I must have had a stupid look on my face because Professor Nash leaned forward and squinted at me.
“Is everything all right, Miss Ashe? Did you eat an eel pie from the street seller on the corner? They’re notoriously awful. No, of course you didn’t. Gabe would have taken you somewhere nice.”
I stared back at him, still trying to digest what he’d told me and what it meant. Gabe was paying the wage of a woman he hardly knew out of his own pocket, for an assistant’s position that hadn’t existed before today and, to be quite honest, wasn’t needed. Why?
And what did he expect in return?
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