London’s Theatre District, Early 19th Century
She stopped mid-step, lost in a tunnel of mist.
Other than water dripping slowly into a street puddle from an overhanging roof, there was no other echo. The sound she imagined had been her own heels clicking. Yet she strained to listen another half minute, shivering in the fog. Tonight’s fog was not a wall of comforting white wool surrounding her and muffling nearby noises; this fog swirled as if ghosts darted through it, stirring up white wisps into the eddy of dirty grey.
She could see the wet cobblestones beneath her feet but could barely see five feet ahead. I cannot believe I missed the lane, she thought, dreading the idea of turning around and finding her way back to the theatre door she’d exited not ten minutes earlier.
The others she’d celebrated with after tonight’s performance would be gone by now. Most of the actors lingered to compare and savor those lines that earned a laugh from the audience. Perhaps an inspired improvisation to reuse the next night they took the stage. Others, such as Bartholomew, would inevitably slump into doldrums to berate themselves, to rehash every nuance, to dissect each misstep.
She shuddered at the word dissect. It was well-known the Resurrection Men no longer confined themselves to the graveyards. The medical schools were short of cadavers to study, and few would question the disappearance of a transient in London’s theatre district. Friends whispered in the dark about hospitals with secret cemeteries full of experiment leftovers: partial limbs with crude saw cuts, macabre marionettes with iron-pinned joints, and skulls drilled full of holes for peeping into the mysteries of the human brain.
She began hastily retracing her steps, knowing the theatre doors would be chained shut. She had watched Mikhail make his rounds, shooing the others ahead of her and out the back door. A halo of dirty yellow ahead marked a lantern. Choosing not to walk through its circle of light, the only performer visible on a macabre stage, she skirted the brightest area.
She should have taken Mikhail’s offer to escort her home, even knowing he would expect to share her bed. She smirked. She could easily have plied the man with enough drink to put him to sleep and protect her from his unwelcome advances.
There: that tapping sound again, out of step with her own.
She couldn’t run if she could not see. Her breathing became shallower, as if her face smothered in dense pillow batting. She was too loud. She tried to control the short gasps as she hurried forward.
She almost reached the corner of the theatre when the crash at her right made her scream. Something touched her ankle and she cried out, high-stepping to avoid a grasp, looking down to see a black-and-white cat dart by. Hopefully it had been the cat’s fur and not its rat prey that had brushed her leg so closely.
Still shaking, she came upon the stones of the building she sought. The high windows reflected a black opaqueness. She drew into the circle of light illuminating the side exit and pulled on the handle of the door. It confirmed what she expected: a theatre locked and silent. Her disappointment was nevertheless tangible in the thick fog. Releasing the breath she’d been holding, she turned to retrace her steps. This time she crept closer to the walls so she would not miss the turn she sought.
Just as the invisible wetness of the fog began condensing into fat drops of rain she stumbled upon the narrow alley opening. One more turn and she breathed a soft sound of relief as she turned into her own lane. But the sigh was cut short by a beefy arm folding itself around her neck, yanking her backward, choking her until her breath was as still as the fog.
London, Three Weeks Later
Morgan Bateman pulled a worn, leather-bound notebook from his breast pocket as he spoke.
“Do you have any idea what age Priscilla would be, Mr. Furthingale?” Hazel-green eyes focused with an intelligent mix of sympathy and seriousness.
The older gentleman seated in the chair facing him brought a handkerchief to his eyes. The young, dark-haired investigator gave his potential client a moment of privacy, studiously looking down at his jacket pocket as he withdrew a pencil. He flipped the notebook open to a blank page, then looked up.
“I don’t know.” Lionel Furthingale’s eyes were red-rimmed. It accentuated the faded blue of his rheumy irises.
Morgan leaned forward and scratched a few notes in his book. “All right. We do not know how old your granddaughter would be at this time, but perhaps we can ascertain a range. You mentioned in your letter to me that Priscilla’s mother had also disappeared. When was this?”
Furthingale stared straight through Morgan as he remembered. “Twenty-five years ago,” he said in a reedy voice, then cleared his throat. “It was winter. I can still see her small footprints in the snow outside her bedroom terrace doors. Footprints made by flat, satin slippers, they told me.” He ran a large hand through thinning white hair, as he looked helplessly at the young man. “Winter, and she wasn’t even wearing boots.”
“Was it ruled a kidnapping?” Morgan tugged at his collar. The library was warmer than a conservatory, and almost as muggy.
Furthingale nodded once.
“And how old was she—” He glanced at his notes briefly. “—Florence, at the time of the kidnapping?”
Furthingale answered immediately. “Fifteen. Florence had just had her birthday the month prior, in November. I promised her we would go skating on the ice the very next morning. She was so looking forward to it, she always did. Such a sunny child, even in the winter. That was twenty-five years ago, but I remember it as clearly as if it were this morning.” To the unspoken question, he added, “I never saw her again. Or heard from her. Naturally, I assumed all these years that she was dead.”
“So, without any knowledge of your daughter Florence’s whereabouts for the last twenty-five years, or even of her existence, how did you first learn you had a granddaughter?”
“This has been a difficult year, Mr. Bateman.” Furthingale rose from his seat with a wobble, then shuffled slightly to turn away. “I find myself thirsty for a bit of Scotch whisky. Will you join me?”
“I’d enjoy that, thank you.” Morgan used to refuse to drink with potential clients, resolving to give the impression of a sober, professional man of business despite his young age. With experience, he learned it to be an off-putting gesture. Clients desired a confidant who would empathize with them, not hold himself aloof. To appear judgmental of a client’s early morning drinking habits would lose him a case before he’d been hired.
He thanked Furthingale for the tumbler of whisky he was handed. When the gentleman was again seated and raised his own glass to take a drink, Morgan appeared to sip appreciatively, barely allowing the liquid to pass his lips as the fumes rose up his nostrils.
“My only sibling, Cordelia, passed away this year. Not long ago. She’d always been of delicate health. A frail, slender woman, so I did not think anything amiss when her cough worsened. Her sudden death was a horrible blow. Cordelia was my only living relative. Or so I thought,” he amended quickly. “As you may imagine, the thought of going to my sister’s home, forced to sort out her personal possessions, was quite painful for me, thus I kept delaying it. I felt . . . I felt at the end of my life, wondering what it all meant. I was the last of the Furthingales, with no family. And with none of my close associates still alive.” He looked at his gnarled hands. “I was never one who makes friends easily, but it hadn’t bothered me until the few gentlemen I was closest to began failing in health and I stood at their gravesites, one by one. I had no one dear to me except my sister. She did not live far away.” Furthingale shrugged. “I suppose her physical nearness was a comfort in itself, for I did not seek her out even though she was as alone as I. It no longer became my habit to socialize, with my acquaintances gone, so I did not care that I became somewhat of a recluse. How regrettable: we ignore our relatives until it is too late. When I lost Cordelia, I fell victim to severely depressed spirits. It took me a number of weeks before I would address the settlement of her estate.”
Morgan waited patiently for the answer to his original question regarding Furthingale’s discovery of his granddaughter’s existence. He had also learned over the years that clients answered questions at their own pace. Some snapped the answers like a vicious animal trap. Others craved a confessional, had a weight that needed sharing to lift it from their conscience. And some, such as Lionel Furthingale, spoke circuitously, almost ignoring him until they’d had their full say.
Each person had a way of weaving the story that led to Morgan’s often intrusive involvement in their lives.
“I finally went through each room in her home, sorting out her possessions. I gave most of her furniture to the agent to auction. I avoided her bedroom until the last. Her clothes were boxed up tidily by her personal maid, whom I never met. Else I would have instructed the maid to either keep them or burn them or disperse them as she saw fit. I opened a few boxes while the agent looked on, and I immediately closed them, seeing nothing but women’s finery. I certainly had no intention of sorting through a lady’s wardrobe. What became of them I care not. Lots of feminine furniture, of course, but most of her personal bureaus had already been emptied. There were a few trinkets, nothing appearing to be of value. The last—”
“Excuse me for interrupting. Was Cordelia poor?”
A flush of anger crossed Furthingale’s cheeks, but faded just as quickly. “Do you suppose I would allow my only living relative—a sister—to live in poverty, as long as I held this home and my own fortune?”
“No, of course not. I apologize.” Tapping his pencil on the open page, Morgan said, “It is just that I wondered why there were only a few trinkets. Most women accumulate fine jewelry, if not heirlooms, and it seemed unusual you should find only a few trinkets. It had been many weeks, you mentioned, before you handled her personal affairs. Was her maid trustworthy?”
Furthingale paused, quirked his head just a bit to the side, perusing the carpet beneath their feet. “Ah. I see your point. I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective. Well,” he said, looking up and meeting Morgan’s gaze, “if your suspicion is founded, it is no longer here nor there as I should have no way of knowing the name of her maid or where the woman has flown to. Cordelia left no inventories, as I have punctiliously inspected every trace of paper left in that house, I assure you.”
Morgan nodded. “Thank you, please continue. You were going through the house, finishing with her private rooms . . . ”
“The last item was a burnished cigar box—most likely her late husband’s; he’s been gone many years—containing letters and papers. I decided to keep it for myself and to use it as such, to remind me of both of them. It sat on my bureau, the contents intact.” Furthingale took a large swallow of whisky, as if to fortify himself for his next revelation. “I wonder if you can imagine my shock when I finally sifted through her correspondence a few days ago and discovered a letter bearing my daughter Florence’s signature. It was not the scrawl of a child, either. It was of delicate penmanship.” He closed his eyes with a brief shudder. “I experienced the fingers of a ghost tapping along my spine.”
“Was the letter dated?”
He opened his eyes and answered immediately. “No.”
“Do you have the letter with you?”
“Again, no.” Furthingale’s eyes were cold with anger. “I burned it. I was furious with Cordelia for not telling me, for never showing it to me.” He clenched his glass, his hand shaking slightly.
“What was the gist of the letter your daughter Florence wrote to her aunt Cordelia?”
“She wrote to say thank you for the reference my sister had provided. And to tell her aunt that she and her daughter Priscilla—Priscilla would be my granddaughter—were fine. I was speechless when I read that one life-changing line, my heart pounding so fast I might have died myself. A granddaughter! Can you imagine? And I do not know whether this Priscilla is now a toddler or a schoolgirl.” Furthingale’s voice was husky, tightly holding back a cry. “I tore through the remainder of the stack, looking for more correspondence from my daughter to her aunt. At the very bottom of the papers I found the second note, written on the back of an old playbill, scribbled in a different hand, not the delicate cursive of my daughter’s first letter. This second note was also undated, unsigned. And before you ask, it went up in satisfying cinders with the first. Briefly, it notified my sister of the fact her niece Florence had died, and that the writer had been asked to contact Cordelia upon the anticipated occasion.”
Morgan debated following this sad statement with his next question, but knew he would be remiss if he did not. “I am sorry to hear this. But did you happen to see the name of the theatre on the playbill? Or anything to trace the name of the play or the actors?”
As he anticipated, Lionel gave him a withering look.
“I can assure you that was the least of my curiosity.”
Morgan nodded, not making eye contact as he wrote in his notebook. “Is there anything else you remember from this note?” His gaze returned to Furthingale as he asked, “Anything about the child?”
“No. The writer did not even bother to mention Priscilla’s whereabouts or welfare. One would think Florence’s daughter might never have existed. Or perhaps she died in her infancy.” He took another large swallow, emptying the remainder of his glass. “But I tell you, sir, I must believe she exists, for it is my urgent purpose in the time remaining to me to find and protect her, if she is alone. And this is why I contacted you.” He set the glass down decisively. “I assure you money is no object, for it is useless to me at this stage of my life if I cannot find my granddaughter Priscilla and share it with her.”
Using his cane, Lionel Furthingale staggered to his feet and stood unsteadily, saying nothing more but looking at the other man expectantly.
Morgan took that as his signal to leave. He looked at his notes, could think of no further questions. He closed the leather book and rose, moving forward to shake the elderly gentleman’s hand.
“Will you take the case, Mr. Bateman?” Furthingale’s bushy eyebrows framed desperate eyes as he grasped Morgan’s hand.
His nod mirroring the handshake, Morgan promised, “I shall provide you with timely statuses, Mr. Furthingale. We’ll do our best to find Miss Priscilla.”