LONDON, SIX DAYS LATER
"Are you aware," the voice whispered into Sophie Champion's ear, "that your mustache is slipping?"
Sophie was having a very bad week. Her cook had quit, twice. Her beekeeper was hearing voices, in particular that of the queen bee suggesting that they run away together. She had been compelled to suffer through two balls to model Octavia's newest gown designs, which had led to three new marriage proposals. Her godfather, Lord Grosgrain, had been killed in a mysterious riding accident. Her upper lip was numb and her nose itched from the false mustache she had been forced to wear for two days in her desperate attempt to infiltrate the Unicorn -- London's most exclusive, and exclusively male, gaming establishment -- in the hope of tracking down the one man who possessed any information about the real cause of her godfather's death. Her attempts to look inconspicuous while she waited for that man had cost her a small fortune at the dice tables. And now, unless she misunderstood the tone of his comment, the individual next to her was threatening to undo all her efforts and turn her in as an impostor.
Sophie raised the dice cup to her lips, appeared to whisper a good-luck prayer to the ivory cubes, and let them fly across the table. Without waiting for the dice master to announce that she had lost, she tossed a silver coin onto the table, turned to the man who had addressed her, made a short bow, and spoke in her best Spanish accent. "Don Alfonso del Forest al Carmen, gentleman of Seville, thanks you for your interest in his mustachios, señor, and begs you not to trouble yourself about them further."
The man acknowledged her bow with a tilt of his head. "Very nicely done," he said, smiling slightly. "Pretending to whisper to the dice so you could fix your mustache, I mean. The accent, however, is atrocious." As he spoke, the man carelessly threw the dice across the table, gathered his winnings, and motioned her to follow him into a less populated corner of the chamber.
Sophie was furious. Not only was she not in the habit of following men around, but she had practiced her accent for hours and thought it quite good. When they arrived at their corner, she pulled herself up to her full height -- which, she noticed with surprise and then annoyance, did not even bring her eyes level with those of her adversary -- and addressed him. "Don Alfonso del Carmen al Forest -- "
" -- al Forest del Carmen," the man corrected helpfully.
" -- will not stand here and listen to your insults, señor." Sophie bent her head back and glared at the man ferociously.
The man met her glare with calm silver-blue eyes. He studied her for a moment before he spoke, and when he did his voice was low, calm, and slightly menacing. "Perhaps Don Alfonso will listen to a message from his friend Richard Tottle?"
She was good, he thought as he watched her quickly suppress her surprise. He would have to ask her whether it was Cordova or Von Krummen who had trained her as soon as he had her well locked away.
Sophie's heart had begun to pound. This was exactly what she had been waiting for. She was so excited she almost forgot that she was furious, or that she was supposed to have an accent. "A message from Richard Tottle? What is it?"
Damn good, the man reiterated, and damn dangerous. "He wants to meet with you again."
"Again?" she repeated with only a whisper of a Spanish accent.
"Yes. Again. Right now."
Her tone, even through the accent, was different when she asked, "What does Señor Tottle want to see me about?"
"I am just the errand boy, Don Alfonso," the man said, pronouncing the name with only the vaguest hint of irony. "Most likely whatever you discussed before."
"Then I am afraid I cannot accompany you. Our conversation, señor, is over." Sophie began to turn from him, but was stopped by the man's hand on her elbow.
"I am afraid it isn't. At least as long as you do not want me to announce that Don Alfonso is a woman." There was no menace now in the man's tone or his eyes, but the words held their own threat. As Sophie was acutely aware, under the newest laws impersonating a man was a treasonable offense, carrying the punishment of hanging. The man let his first suggestion sink in, then leaned closer to whisper, "Or that he plays with loaded dice."
For an instant, Sophie's composure ebbed completely away, and her eyes grew enormous. How the devil did he know about the dice? She had been sure that no one would suspect anything. After all, what kind of idiot would play with dice that had been altered to allow her to lose every time rather than win?
"I have to say, the dice were rather ingenious," the man commended her. "They are probably the only thing that kept you from being seen for a woman from the beginning, because no one pays close attention to those who lose, only those who win. Nobody would bother to suspect a loser."
Exactly. That had been Sophie's exact surmise. And it had worked splendidly during the two days she had been loitering around the Unicorn, waiting for Richard Tottle to appear, worked without a flaw until...
"Until you came along," she said aloud without realizing it. She looked up at her companion in the dim light, seeing him for the first time. He was undoubtedly the tallest man in the room, but despite his height he was not lanky. Instead, she noticed as she lowered her eyes from his face, his body was beautifully proportioned, from his broad shoulders, all the way down to the remarkable curve of his --
Satan's knockers, what was she thinking? Sophie Champion did not spend time ogling men, particularly not infuriating men who lied and used threats to coerce her to go with them. Nor men who criticized her Spanish accent. Nor men in general. Nor any man, ever. The paste Octavia had used to adhere the mustache had been making Sophie feel woozy for the past two days, but she had not previously realized that it was interfering with her thinking as well. It was, however, the only reasonable explanation for her unusual and unacceptable flightiness.
With that resolved, she addressed the man in as pronounced a Spanish accent as she could produce. "Señor, I have assessed my options -- "
"Yes, I noticed you assessing," the man interrupted, laying extreme emphasis on the final word.
" -- and have decided to accept your invitation to meet with Richard Tottle again."
The man only nodded his acknowledgment, and steered Sophie down the stairs to a wide mahogany door at their base. He watched with interest as his companion hesitated on the threshold, then put her fingers on the handle, took a deep breath, and passed through.
At first Sophie thought it was the effect of the deep breath, a sort of mustache-paste-induced hallucination, but then she saw it was real. Very real. And very dead.
Sophie had no eyes for the sumptuous decoration of the Unicorn's smoking chamber, the dark red brocade walls or the beautiful gold carpet that covered the floor. She did not notice the wall of tobacco-filled ebony boxes or the smoke that hung in the air. Only much later did she remember the sugared almond crushed into the carpet. At that first moment she saw simply the body of the man sprawled across one of the couches and the dark hole where gunpowder had scorched the satin fabric of his doublet.
"That is Richard Tottle," she said, and the man could not be sure whether it was a statement or a question.
"Yes. Or rather, was. He is dead." He observed her closely as she approached the corpse, then asked, "When you were here before, did Tottle give you anything?"
I did not see him before, Sophie almost said, but caught herself just in time, recollecting simultaneously her Spanish accent. "I cannot say, señor. I have never been in this room before." She was momentarily flustered, and became more so as the man said nothing and merely stood looking at her. Not only did Sophie Champion not ogle men, she did not permit them to ogle her. "What?" she demanded finally. "Don Alfonso al Foren del Carmest is not in the habit of being stared at."
"I am trying to decide which you are worse at. Lying. Or impersonating a Spaniard." He circled around her slowly, letting his eyes scour her, then faced her with their chests less than a hand's width apart. "I know you were here tonight. I know you met with Richard Tottle. I entered this room as soon as I saw you leave, and I found Tottle dead. The obvious assumption, Don Alfonso, is that you murdered him, but I am willing to forgo that if you can give me an adequate explanation. To begin, what did you take from Richard Tottle?"
Sophie was having a hard time marshalling her thoughts. It was becoming more and more clear that the mustache paste was dangerous stuff, because she could not remember either her fake name or her real one. All of which would have been unacceptable under any circumstances, but in the presence of the dangerous man in front of her, it was completely unthinkable.
He was playing with her, but she could play back. Let him ask all the questions he wanted, hundreds of them even. She was under no obligation to answer them, or at least, not helpfully. In fact, given his presumptuous behavior, it might almost be her duty to aggravate him. She had settled this definitively when he resumed his interrogation.
"Don Alfonso. I am waiting for your response."
Sophie cleared her throat, inhaled through her mouth -- hoping to mitigate the effects of the paste -- and said, "Suppose you are correct. Suppose I was in this room, tonight, with Señor Tottle."
The man examined her. "And? Did you take anything from him?"
"Nothing," Sophie replied in a fishily innocent tone.
"Where was he sitting?"
She gave a slight smile. "I cannot say."
"What did you and he discuss?"
The man tilted his head back and regarded her through slitlike eyes. "Was he alive?"
"I cannot say."
"You will have to do better than 'nothing' and 'I cannot say' if you want to stay out of jail, Don Alfonso." As he spoke, the man moved away from her and toward the corpse.
She had clearly annoyed him, but Sophie did not feel any real joy at the victory. Her eyes kept returning to the body on the divan, the literal dead end of her investigation. Her godfather, Lord Grosgrain, had been on his way to Richard Tottle's the morning he died, carrying in his doublet a bill of credit for twelve hundred pounds and on his face more obvious signs of worry than Sophie could ever remember seeing. There had been something strange about the meeting, something that upset Lord Grosgrain terribly, something Sophie thought might be connected to his death, or at least might give a reason for it. Richard Tottle had been her only hope for information about what really lay behind her godfather's accident -- which she was convinced was no accident at all -- and with him gone she felt completely lost. Even more lost than she had felt that morning four days earlier when she saw her godfather's dead body being carried into the stable yard.
Lord Grosgrain had been both more and less than a simple godfather to her. He had been her whole family for more than ten years; but he had also been her responsibility. Not only had his death removed the only person she had ever entirely trusted, but she also deemed that it was, somehow, her fault. She should have stopped him, should have asked him more questions the morning of their last meeting, should have wondered more at his recent behavior. She felt at once desperately, achingly alone and horribly to blame.
She did not allow herself to wonder whether it was the echoing hollowness inside her or a rational quest for truth that drove her to question his death, because each time she wondered, she found herself biting her lip and swallowing back tears, as she was now. She was simply determined to find out what had caused his horse, a completely reliable and untemperamental animal, to lose its footing on London's best thoroughfare and hurl her godfather headlong to his death. Now, with Richard Tottle dead as well, she had nothing to go on.
Except the fact that the annoying man in front of her, whose muscles showed through his leggings each time he moved, had used threats of exposure to force her into the smoking room with the corpse, apparently to interrogate her.
But Sophie Champion would not allow herself to be threatened. "Now it is my turn to ask questions," she announced in a voice that challenged him to deny it. "Why did you insist on bringing me down here? What did you hope to learn? Who do you work for? Why do you keep asking what Richard Tottle gave me?"
It was one of the man's professional axioms that you could learn more from the questions that a subject asked than from those they answered, and with this slippery specimen that was doubly true. She was not in the least disturbed by his threats -- they seemed simply to make her mad -- nor did she seem frightened. Indeed, it was only when he had ceased speaking that she showed any weakness at all, and then it had vanished almost as soon as it had come. Clearly getting her to give up the piece of parchment that he suspected she had removed from Richard Tottle's dead body was going to require unusually devious scare tactics. He was about to test her, to find out whether she would be more susceptible to force or cunning, when one of her battery of questions cut into his thoughts and gave him the answer.
"I cannot say," the man replied smoothly to her interrogation.
Pompous caterpillar, Sophie thought to herself, her irritation intensifying as the suggestion of a smile flashed across his lips. Sophie had made a fortune by trusting her instincts, and they now told her that there was more to that almost-smile than the mere pleasure of throwing her unhelpful responses back at her, something far more ominous and sinister. They also told her that she should leave as quickly as possible.
But she could not go and let this arrogant beetle of a man think he had intimidated her. The prospect of appearing to be bullied overrode all of Sophie's instincts. "I am not afraid of you," she told the man, standing with her legs apart and her hand on the hilt of the dagger at her waist.
The smile suggested itself again. She was reacting beautifully. "It is not I you have to be afraid of, Don Alfonso. I told you, I am just the errand boy."
"Who do you work for?"
The man shrugged. "I cannot say."
Sophie's irritation turned to anger. She had neither the time nor the energy to stand around trading evasive answers with a tick. The game they were playing was pointless, her mustache was itchier than ever, her godfather was dead, and between her grief and her investigation she had not had a chance to either eat or sleep for three days. She was torn by conflicting desires, to challenge the man in front of her to a duel, or to go home and eat a hundred of her cook's candied-orange cakes dribbled with honey.
But then she saw that flicker of a smile, and the choice was clear. Puffing herself up in her best Don Alfonso style, she announced, "I am a very busy man, and I am unaccustomed to chatter with mere messengers. You have smeared the name of Don Alfonso Al Corest del Farmen with your accusation of murder, and I demand satisfaction. Either explain yourself, or prepare to fight."
The man shook his head. "Both engaging offers, particularly the challenge to duel, but I fear I shall have to decline. Frankly, Don Alfonso, you are much too wily for me. The way you flit from one identity to the other, one accent to the other...I dare not trust myself on the field against such an opponent. Indeed," the man went on, watching the play of anger over her face, "I rather find myself at a disadvantage here. I believe the time has come for me to take my leave. And while we are speaking of it, I should warn you that I am about to alert the authorities to Richard Tottle's plight."
"Is that a threat? Do you threaten to turn me in?"
The man shook his head. "On the contrary. I tell you so you may leave. I should not like you to confess anything to the authorities before you have confessed it to me."
"And if I decide to stay and cooperate with the constables?"
"Then I am afraid the next time I see you shall be on the gallows. Really, Don Alfonso, I should choose to talk to me rather than the authorities if I were in your shoes. Nice shoes, by the way," the man added casually. "Brooker?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Are they by Brooker? Did he make them? The shoes?"
"Yes," she said through clenched teeth. Sophie was furious now. Brooker was the most famous and selective of the shoemakers in London, but that scarcely seemed relevant in the context of their conversation. Because the shoe-obsessed man had just effectively told her that she had two choices: to speak to the authorities and hang within a few days, or to do what he said, to put herself in his power and, she thought bitterly, hang within a few weeks. Then, in a flash, she saw an option he had not named. "I am afraid, señor, that Don Alfonso is leaving England for good tonight."
"Don Alfonso may be," the man said with a negligent shrug, "but I doubt that whoever bought those boots from Brooker is. All I need to do is ask him where the red velvet Spanish-style riding boots reside, and I will know where to find you."
He watched her eyes fill with angry astonishment at his ruse, but he was impressed by the steadiness of her voice. "If I were in your shoes, señor," she pronounced carefully, "I would hardly trust in my responses. I can assure you that Brooker did not make these boots."
The smile flickered again. The man was really enjoying himself now. "I believe I mentioned that you are a wretched liar." He had moved toward the door as he spoke, and he turned to face her. "This has been a most interesting evening, Don Alfonso, and I can only console myself for the loss of your company with the knowledge that we shall meet again soon. I look forward to that pleasure." He bowed low and stepped across the threshold.
"Pleasure," Sophie repeated after him, pronouncing the word as if it might grow scales on her tongue. She could not remember having spent a less pleasant quarter of an hour in many, many years. If she had her way, she would never set eyes on that arrogant, horrible, shallow, annoying, conniving, tricky, handsome, dimpled, asset-rich, upsetting, lousy louse ever again.
As soon as she had the thought, she knew she was wrong. Indeed, she saw that she was reacting exactly as he had hoped she would. His plan had obviously been to annoy and antagonize her so efficiently that she would tell him anything and then let him wander off unhampered, with her fate in his hands. And she had fallen for it entirely, even giving up the name of her shoemaker. As she thought about this, thought about how docilely she had walked into his trap, her anger at him was transmuted into cold, hard rage against herself. She had behaved like an idiot. No, she was an idiot.
What made it worse was that she did not know into whose hands she had actually fallen. The man was just the messenger, he had said, and she needed to learn for whom he was working. His questions suggested that he believed she knew something or, rather, that she had taken something from Richard Tottle. Something important. Probably important enough to require that he report to his employer right away. Before she had even finished the thought, she was closing the door of the smoking chamber behind her and making for the servants' door of the Unicorn.
She had only been lingering in the shadows in front of the club for a minute when she saw the louse come out and turn right. Never having pursued a man on foot through London before, Sophie was too preoccupied with following unobtrusively to notice the old beggar woman camped inside the doorway of the building opposite the Unicorn, or the curtain in the club's second-floor window flutter slightly as she and the man went past. The thunderclouds that had blanketed the city earlier in the day were gone now, and a bright moon shone, making it easy for Sophie to keep the man in view but hard for her to stay in the shadows.
It became even harder after they had turned out of Hanging Sword Court and on to Fleet Street, because the entire road was thronged with people, most of them barely clad and very sociable women. Sophie was astonished by their careless comfort and confidence in their bodies, but astonishment turned into something much less clear when she saw the louse approach one of them, a blonde, whisper a few words to her, and then disappear through a doorway with his arm entwined in hers. Suddenly concerned that the meeting might be taking place within those doors, Sophie crossed the street and entered.
It looked like a tavern, but instead of food, each table was topped by a completely naked woman, extended to her full length here, sitting cross-legged there, all of them joking with and teasing the male patrons who surrounded them. As Sophie watched, a plump brunette brought her lips to the ear of a well-dressed young man, allowing her breasts to brush his chin as she whispered something to him. Her skills as an orator must have been quite overwhelming, for the man was so moved that he lifted her from the table and accompanied her up a ramshackle set of stairs, apparently wishing to pursue the subject in more private quarters. Sophie then watched as another woman stood atop a table, slowly rotating her hips in front of an increasingly large group of spectators, using a long string of pearls to do something that she indicated loudly was very pleasurable. Before the climax of the performance, however, Sophie saw the man from the Unicorn descending the stairs. When he reached the bottom, he turned and blew a kiss up toward a voluptuous blonde standing naked at the top and then made directly for the door.
Sophie pressed herself into the crowd around the pearl woman until he had passed, then fled back into the night, relieved to see her target continuing straight down Fleet Street. The experiences in the tavern had left Sophie addled, and it required all her concentration to keep her mind on the man she was following. She forced herself to study his movements, watching for a sign that he would veer left here, or a flicker that he would look over his shoulder, until she discovered to her horror that she had unwittingly amassed a catalog of the comparative differences between him BW -- Before the Woman -- and after (including walk: jauntier; whistling: louder; loathsomeness: greater).
She had just added, swaggering: increased, when he turned abruptly into a narrow passage and ducked through a door. Proceeding as silently as she could, she followed him through the door and found herself standing in a small paved court. Directly in front of her, there was another door, slightly ajar.
Sophie swallowed hard and hoped her racing heart did not sound as loud outside her body as it did inside. She crept across the court and pushed the door open with one hand, keeping her other on the hilt of her rapier. She waited, listening intently. Nothing.
When what felt like two years had passed in unbroken silence, she ducked under the low lintel and into a pastry kitchen. Remembering the food she had not eaten in days and the orange cakes she had been dreaming of, her stomach did an imitation of a sawmill. There was only one other door in the kitchen, and Sophie proceeded through it, stopping at intervals to listen and to give her stomach severe warnings about talking out of turn.
After weaving through two more kitchens, three pantries, and a labyrinth of twisty hallways, Sophie finally arrived in an immense entrance hall. The wood paneling glowed in the moonlight that streamed through the tall windows of the façade, filling the hall with an ethereal radiance and making the broad staircase at its center appear to float. From somewhere deep in the house came the ticking of a clock, and in its somber regularity Sophie could have sworn she heard the words "Take heed. Go back. Take heed."
If she had not heard the voices above her at the same time, Sophie might have taken the clock's very good advice. Instead, she ascended the staircase and alighted in front of an inlaid door. It was not entirely closed, and from within she could hear faint sounds of conversation.
One of the voices she recognized instantly as belonging to her quarry. The other, a sort of angry rasp, was new to her, and its words created a cold knot in her stomach.
"Get the girl," it growled harshly. "I want the girl."
"I tried," the familiar voice replied. "I did all I could."
She heard the other voice mimic comically, "I tried. I did all I could," then snort and command again, "Get the girl."
The familiar voice sounded annoyed. "There is nothing we can do tonight. We will just have to wait."
It was the perfect time, Sophie decided. She would catch them off guard, take them by surprise. Drawing an enormous breath, she pushed open the door --
And froze in her tracks.
"Ah, Don Alfonso. We have been expecting you," the familiar voice told her while the other cackled in delight.
Horrified, Sophie looked from the smiling face of the man to the piercing gaze of his companion, and understood for the first time what she should have known hours earlier.
She had been playing a game. Her opponent was cunning and ruthless. The stake was her life.
And there was no end to her losing streak in sight.
Copyright © 2000 by Michele Jaffe