The Rule Of Thumb
A Gaslight Story
London , England
“What shall we do tonight, Lina?” Rhiannon Moore asked, peeking into the study to find her partner, Lady Evangeline St. Claire, seated behind the desk. “Are you in the mood to see a revue? Or a concert? What about The Gondoliers at the Savoy Theatre? The new light opera by Mssrs. Gilbert and Sullivan…surely you know it. The show opened two months ago and we haven't gone to see it yet. We could have a late supper at Simpson's afterwards.”
“My dear, much as I would enjoy attending the theatre with you, I am expecting a client soon,” Lina replied with a smile meant to take out the sting, “and can make no plans, for my time may not be my own.”
Walking into the room, Rhiannon sat down on the settee, arranging the folds of her amber satin dress so the full skirts would not crease. Somewhat disappointed—it was Valentine's Day after all, and she had hoped to celebrate by attending a performance by her favourite composers, but Lina seemed oblivious to the date—she resigned herself and asked, “Who is it, this client of yours?”
“A doctor named Horatio Mawdsley. Shall I read you the note?” Without waiting for Rhiannon's agreement, Lina unfolded a sheet of foolscap. “He writes the usual salutations, then here is the crux: ‘A most enigmatic and tragic event has occurred for which I have no explanation, but for which I may bear some responsibility. If you would be kind enough to allow me to call upon you in your capacity as an inquiry agent this afternoon at two o'clock, I should be most grateful.' What do you think of that , my dear?”
The butler, Jackson, entered the study a few minutes later. “A gentleman to see you, milady,” he intoned in his usual melancholy way, holding out a silver tray with a calling card on it. Lina accepted the card, placing it in the pen tray after a cursory examination.
“The doctor is a trifle early. Pray show him in,” she said, rising and coming around the desk to join Rhiannon by the fireplace.
Dr. Horatio Mawdsley was a respectable looking gentleman in late middle age, his thinning hair slicked back with macassar oil to form a shiny dark cap on his skull. A clipped brush of a moustache bristled over his upper lip, but otherwise he was clean shaven. His success in his profession was proved by his well-tailored morning coat, the thick gold watch chain looped across his silk waistcoat, the freshly polished boots shining like black glass, and the silver swan-shaped head of his walking cane.
Coming into the study, he went at once to Lina. “I hope, Lady St. Claire, you will forgive the impertinence of introducing myself,” he said, taking her hand.
“Of course, doctor, of course. Please sit down. Will you take tea? Brandy? Whisky?” Lina indicated he should take a seat opposite the settee.
“I daresay a strong whiskey-and-soda would be most welcome,” he replied, lowering himself into the indicated armchair, and propping his cane against the chair's side. “The last few days have been most trying, milady… most trying.”
“So I gathered from your note.” Lina waved at Jackson to provided the requested refreshment, then focused her sharp, emerald green gaze on Mawdsley. “Your note provided no details, and I am eager to learn how I may be of assistance to you.” She sat next to Rhiannon on the settee.
His complexion turned ruddy. “To be perfectly frank,” he said, “you are not my first choice, but you were recommended to me by Mr. Sherrinford Pike—”
“I beg your pardon?” Lina interrupted, an eyebrow arching in disbelief.
“You do know the gentleman?”
Lina grimaced. “I am acquainted with him, and Mr. Pike is no gentleman, I assure you. However, that is neither here nor there, doctor. Continue, if you please.”
Rhiannon raised a hand to hide her grin. Sherrinford Pike—also an inquiry agent—and Lina were old friends as well as old adversaries. The two of them often fought with the same dogged determination as rival siblings in a nursery, but injure one, and the other would swiftly come to the defence. In a continuation of their constant game of one-upmanship, it seemed Pike had deemed the doctor's case of insufficient interest, and passed him on to Lina as if he assumed she would be grateful for any crumb from his table. To her credit, Lina did not take out her irritation with Pike's underhanded insult on her client.
Taking the notebook and mechanical pencil from her gown's pocket, Rhiannon settled in to take notes as Dr. Mawdsley began his story.
“Without false modesty, I may say that I am a highly accomplished surgeon, well regarded by peers and patients, and my practice is quite successful. Well, a week ago,” he said, the lines in his brow deepening as he frowned, “a woman visited my surgery in Harley Street . Mrs Winthrop of New York City , New York , an American, and wealthy, too, to judge by her clothes and jewels, though vulgarly ostentatious as the nouveau riche tend to be.
“At any rate, you must understand, Lady St. Claire, that I am used to… shall we say, whimsical requests made by ladies who have, for one reason or another, got it into their heads that they have a medical condition requiring treatment when they are actually healthy. For example, one of my patients is a duchess who was convinced she had swallowed a button, it had lodged in her throat, and she would die if it was not surgically removed. Other doctors had examined her, found no foreign object, and sent her home. Frantic, Her Grace consulted me. I applied chloroform, bid my dresser cut a button from his shirt's cuff, and presented the duchess with the ‘evidence' when she woke. The result? A satisfied patient.”
“I see. Most ingenious of you, sir.”
“Thank you, milady. You may find it difficult to comprehend, but Her Grace's complaint is not the most unusual case I have encountered in my practice.”
Lina nodded. “Obviously, Mrs. Winthrop presented something new to your experience, or you would not be here now.”
“You have struck in the gold.” Mawdsley fell silent as Jackson walked into the study, his butler's tray containing a whisky-and-soda. The doctor took the glass, and after downing a couple of swallows, he went on, “I shall tell you exactly as it happened:
“Once admitted to my surgery, Mrs. Winthrop removed her left glove, showing me her hand. A perfectly ordinary hand, slender and well formed as its mistress, presenting no deformity, defect, disease or injury that could be detected by a cursory examination. Upon my asking why she had come, she told me—even now I can scarcely credit it—she told me she wished to have her left thumb amputated at the first joint.”
Shocked, Rhiannon glanced up from her notes, wondering if she had heard him aright.
“Did Mrs. Winthrop reveal the reason behind this extraordinary request?” Lina asked.
“I pressed her, of course. To amputate a perfectly sound digit belonging to an otherwise healthy woman is unthinkable, a violation of my oath as a physician. But Mrs. Winthrop insisted she would tell me nothing further, only that she wished the amputation performed by a skilled surgeon, and my reputation made me the perfect candidate.”
“How did she seem to you? What was her manner?”
“Let us not mince words. You ask if she was mad.” He shook his head. “I am no alienist, but Mrs. Winthrop appeared lucid and quite sane, milady, save for her request. In vain did I remonstrate with her, pointing out the risk of sepsis, the inconvenience and necessary loss of function due to the amputation of an important joint, but she remained cool and calm, insisting the operation be performed without delay. Why, she offered me five thousand pounds, and when I continued to refuse, ten thousand pounds!”
Rhiannon saw Lina stiffen, her handsome features seeming to sharpen with interest, and knew the doctor had revealed something important.
Oblivious, Mawdsley drained his glass, patting his moustache dry with a pristine white handkerchief. “In fact, she offered me any sum up to fifty thousand pounds, which I declined. Matters took a turn for the disturbing when I told Mrs. Winthrop to leave, as I had other patients waiting, their complaints legitimate. Before she walked out, she asked me a most peculiar question: if her thumb became mangled in an accident of some kind, would I consent to dress the wound. Her expression at the time… resolute, one might say. A steely determination more suited to a soldier than a wealthy socialite.
“As you may imagine, I had a terrible foreboding. God knows what the woman was thinking, but I wanted to persuade her to take no action which she might later regret. Making another attempt, I tried to learn why she desired the operation, but she did not so much as hint at her reason, repeating stubbornly that the top half of her thumb must go.”
“I take it you did not relent and perform the operation.”
“Of course not!” Mawdsley cried in affront. After a moment, he cleared his throat, still looking thunderous but his high colour beginning to recede. “Beg pardon, milady. As I said, I would never, under any circumstances, consider undertaking such an unnecessary procedure.”
Lina leaned back against the settee cushions. “I meant no offence. The statement was made for the sake of clarification, nothing more.”
“Naturally, naturally, it is forgotten.” A brief pause, and he added, “To continue, I showed Mrs. Winthrop out of my surgery, and thought the matter closed. At best, I hoped common sense might prevail, and she would change her mind. At worst… well, I am not unaware of unscrupulous doctors who prefer to think of their pocketbooks rather than the good of their patients, but I cannot be the medical profession's policeman.”
“Then three days ago, my dresser ran into the surgery, telling me a lady had been injured, and fainted in the street, and must be seen at once. When the unfortunate woman was brought in, I recognized Mrs. Winthrop, a bloodstained bandage around her left hand.
“Removing the bandage, I saw the first joint of the thumb was gone. From the scorched flesh and the little shattered stump of bone protruding, I surmised she had used a pistol to shoot off the thumb at the first joint. There was nothing I could do at that point but administer an anaesthetic, debride the stump, and dress the wound to my best ability. When Mrs. Winthrop regained consciousness, she appeared pleased by my efforts, paid me too generously, and despite my reservations, allowed me to call her a cab. But then—” He broke off, pressing his lips together.
Lina allowed him to sit quietly for a full half-minute before venturing, “What happened, doctor? Did Mrs. Winthrop tell you how the injury took place?”
He lifted the glass to his mouth, realized he had finished the whiskey-and-soda, and put the empty glass down on a table at his elbow. “She told me it was an accident with a loaded pistol, but I did not believe her. Nonetheless, the wound being dressed, my responsibility to my patient discharged, I sent her to her hotel, and thought no more about it until I saw the woman's photograph in a newspaper yesterday.”
“In what connection?”
“A body discovered in a room at the Hotel Imperial in Piccadilly.”
Now Lina sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees, gazing at him with complete concentration. “Tell me everything. The smallest detail may be crucial,” she said.
“The newspaper article—I believe it was the Daily Telegraph —said the body of a murdered woman had been found in a room at the hotel. The room had been taken in the name of Mr. and Mrs. DeLancey Winthrop, but witnesses said both the Winthrops boarded a steamer yesterday morning bound for New York . Yet I recognized the photograph in an instant!” He struck his knee with his fist in emphasis. “It is her, milady… I am sure of it. The mystery is inexplicable. How can a woman be both dead and alive at the same time? I ask myself again and again, and always the answer eludes me.”
“Have you contacted the police?”
“That is why I wished to consult a professional, a man—pardon me, a person—experienced in criminal matters, able to advise me on the correct course of action. I am unsure if I ought to get further involved in the affair, and I do not wish to become a laughingstock if I should, by some evil chance, be mistaken in my identification.”
In Rhiannon's opinion, Mawdsley had a duty to tell the police what he knew, but she supposed an imminent Harley Street surgeon had to have a care not to expose himself to ridicule, which might harm his practice.
Lina suddenly rose from the settee, shaking out her charcoal grey velvet skirts. “My advice is to go to the Metropolitan Police without a moment's delay,” she said briskly. When Mawdsley stared at her, dumbfounded, she added, “If you will excuse me and Miss Moore, we shall make ourselves ready, and accompany you there forthwith.”
Not giving the man a chance to respond, Lina jerked her chin at Rhiannon, who hastily closed the notebook and followed her out of the study to the foyer. Dispatching Jackson to instruct the ladies maid, Solange, to fetch their hats and jackets, and also to bring her that morning's edition of the Daily Telegraph , Lina turned to Rhiannon, saying, “There are only a few reasons why a healthy woman would wish to have her thumb amputated.”
Recognizing the gleam in Lina's eyes, the way she seemed to quiver with eagerness, like a hound that scents its prey, Rhiannon asked, “What are these reasons?”
Lina ticked off the points on her fingers. “First, she is mad, but Dr. Mawdsley assures us Mrs. Winthrop was no lunatic. Second, Mrs. Winthrop is a serious criminal, and feared identification due to some unique feature of her thumb. However, the doctor said there were no obvious deformities or defects. Third, an insurance fraud, if the Winthrop woman was a piano player or other musician who relied upon her hands, but a performer famous enough to afford such insurance must necessarily be recognized. And there is a fourth possibility…” Her voice trailed off, and she stared into the distance for a long moment.
Hearing footsteps on the stairs, Rhiannon waited until Solange appeared, and she had donned her fur-trimmed jacket, and pinned on a straw hat with an upturned brim before asking, “Well? What's the last possibility, love?”
“Thank you, Solange,.” Lina said to the maid, slipping into her own jacket—charcoal velvet to match her dress—and pinning a hat trimmed with feathers to her glossy black hair. To Rhiannon, she continued, “I believe it is best to wait, but rest assured, my dear, the case will be solved this day, one way or the other. Wickedness is afoot, and while we are too late to prevent a tragedy, we will ensure the villains do not profit from their villainy. Ah, here is Jackson with the newspaper as well as the doctor. We can now depart.”
Mawdsley appeared to have gotten over his surprise at Lina's lightning-quick decision, though his curiosity remained apparent during the trip in his private carriage to the Metropolitan Police headquarters on the Victoria Embankment, overlooking the Thames . Lina spent the time reading the article about the murdered woman in the Daily Telegraph while the doctor glanced from her to Rhiannon, unuttered questions in his eyes. For her part, Rhiannon tried to give him reassuring smiles, but her attempts to distract him by making mall talk about the weather were not successful.
At the police headquarters—an imposing red-and-white brick Gothic building known as New Scotland Yard—Lina spent several minutes trying to ascertain which inspector had charge of the case. She was eventually directed to an Inspector Charles Jaffrey, tall and thin, sallow faced, his silvery-blonde hair cropped close to his head en brosse , making his magnificently bushy sideburns all the more impressive. Scowling, stiff with disapproval, he gave Lina the barest courtesy until she mentioned, “Dr. Mawdsley, who has come to make an identification of the victim found in the Hotel Imperial.”
“Is that so?” Turning a jaundiced eye on the doctor, standing several feet away and looking uncomfortable, Jaffrey continued, “All right, but if I find you've only come on a lark, as rich people sometimes do, for they find it amusing to gawk at the corpses of the less fortunate, I'll have no trouble looking every one of you up for wasting my time, is that clear?”
He stomped off, leaving Lina, Rhiannon and Mawdsley to follow him downstairs.
In the windowless morgue, Rhiannon shivered at the chill, only partly due to the temperature. Despite the newness of the building, damp had already left its mark in a bloom of dark greenish mould where the white floor and wall tiles abutted. Several wooden tables held sheet-covered bodies. The smell of decomposition was strong, as was the throat-clenching odour of carbolic acid.
Fumbling in her reticule for a vinaigrette, she forced herself to join the rest of the group at a table near the front of the room.
At Jaffrey's nod, an assistant turned back the stained cloth to reveal the victim from head to shoulders. Rhiannon's breath caught in pity. Mrs. Winthrop, or whoever she was, had been a pretty woman, but the violence of her death left its marks: the deep, almost black oval bruises on her throat where the murderer's fingers had dug into the flesh; the grotesquely bloated and mottled face, a horror mask surrounded by limp brown curls.
“Is this your patient, doctor?” Jaffrey asked impatiently.
After a painstaking examination of the features, Mawdsley glanced up and shrugged. “I cannot say with any degree of certainty unless I am permitted to examine the left hand.” At Jaffrey's pointed look of exasperation, he straightened his spine, adding, “I performed an operation on the patient just a few days ago.”
The inspector gave a tight nod. The morgue assistant arranged the sheet so that the victim's left arm lay outside while the rest of her body remained decently covered. At the first sight of the bandaged hand, Mawdsley let out a soft gasp. As indistinct as the sound was, nonetheless Jaffrey noticed. “Well?” he asked. “What is it? Do you recognize her or not?”
Mawdsley pursed his lips. “I do not appreciate your tone, sir,” he said to Jaffrey, his voice taking on a frosty note. To Lina, he went on, “Milady, this is not Frederick 's work.”
“ Frederick ?” she and Jaffrey replied together. The inspector glared, but Lina appeared immune to his disapproval, keeping her focus on the doctor.
“My dresser, Frederick Newbury, is highly skilled at bandaging, else I would not have taken him into my practice,” Mawdsley muttered. “Look at the way this dressing has been applied around the wound, tied off with a square knot of all things… very sloppy work, certainly not up to Frederick 's standard or mine. This work was done by a rank amateur.” He reached for the victim's hand, only to freeze when Jaffrey gripped his wrist.
“Have a care,” he warned. “Interfering in a murder investigation is a serious offence.”
“ Inspector Jaffrey,” Lina put in after a moment, breaking the tense silence, “the doctor must perform a visual examination of the wound under the bandage in order to make an identification. I assure you, we have no other motive for being here.”
“We'll see,” Jaffrey growled, but he released Mawdsley's wrist.
Working quickly but carefully, the doctor unwrapped the bandages. Rhiannon averted her eyes, not keen on seeing a fresh amputation, but Mawdsley's loud grunt dragged her gaze back to the victim's hand—slender and well formed, as the doctor had told her and Lina, the nails manicured, no calluses… in short, a hand belonging to a woman who had sufficient means to avoid hard labour and household work. Due to rigor mortis, the fingers curled stiffly into the palm, but the first thumb joint was gone, only a smooth shiny silver scar sealing the end of the stump. She understood the implication at once. The victim may or may not be the real Mrs. DeLancey Winthrop, but with such an old healed amputation wound, she was not the woman Dr. Mawdsley had operated on.
“This cannot be my patient,” Mawdsley said, confirming Rhiannon's thoughts. He looked relieved. “The wound is years old, and I operated on the patient mere days ago.”
“So who's this, then?” Jaffrey asked.
“I do not know. My patient called herself Mrs. Winthrop, representing to be a wealthy woman from New York City . The facial resemblance is uncanny, but the thumb… well, the evidence speaks for itself. I am sorry to have wasted your time, Inspector.”
Jaffrey's mouth tightened. “Very well, Dr. Mawdsley, thank you for your—”
“Wait!” Lina interrupted. “Do you not find the doctor's discovery significant?”
“What discovery? This isn't his patient, is it?”
“No, it is not… and yet, it is.”
“Don't talk in riddles, your ladyship!” Jaffrey said loudly, rounding on her. “I've a murder to solve, and I'll not tolerate being mocked”
Lina did not flinch. “I do not mock you. If you permit, I will help you solve this murder, for I am near certain I know why the deed was done, which will in turn lead us to the identify of the murderer, who will no doubt inform us as to the victim's identity.”
“Maybe you ought to explain yourself.”
“I shall be glad to do so once I have spoken to the bellboy at the Hotel Imperial. Guests often overlook bellboys, who loiter and look and listen, and generally know a great deal of the goings-on. If not the bellboy, a chambermaid.”
Jaffrey crossed his arms over his chest. “How sure are you?”
“What do you mean?” Lina replied coolly.
“What I mean is this: we go to the hotel, you put the bellboy to the question, and if you can't tell me who and why, I'll arrest you.” He gave her a thin smile. “How's that, eh? And I have friends at the newspapers who'd love to publish such a scandal… a duchess' daughter clapped in gaol for nosing around police business! Ha!”
Amused, Rhiannon knew Lina's answer before the woman gave it.
“I accept your condition,” Lina said, raising her chin in a gesture of defiance.
Mawdsley harrumphed, taking up his cane from where he had left it leaning against the table leg. “I intend upon returning to my surgery. Should you have reason to call upon me, I will, of course, do my utmost to help.” He took his leave with a haste that left Rhiannon convinced he wanted nothing further to do with the case.
The doctor gone, taking his carriage with him, Lina insisted on summoning a ‘growler,' a four-wheeled carriage for hire which would fit three people better than a smaller hansom cab. Jaffrey made no protest, even lending a gentlemanly hand to help the ladies inside. Once underway to Piccadilly, he sat in smug silence, a superior expression on his face.
At the Hotel Imperial, the manager, a tall handsome gentleman, greeted Jaffrey's appearance with undisguised irritation, his professional smile slipping. “Inspector, has there not been enough disruption today?” he asked, hurrying across the lobby to intercept them. “Our guests do not appreciate policemen —” he uttered the word in a harsh whisper, “—tramping through the premises, asking impertinent questions!”
“Good afternoon, Mr. Williamson. This lady here,” Jaffrey replied, impolitely jerking his thumb at Lina, “wants to speak to your bellboy about the murder.”
Rhiannon recognized the moment that Williamson, taking in Lina's unconventional aesthetic dress, decided since she was not important or wealthy enough to be fashionable, she was not, therefore, not worth troubling over. His oily manner dissipated, and he sniffed in disdain. “ You want to speak to James?” he asked, sneering. “Why, pray tell?”
“Because I believe he may have seen or overheard something important.” Lina held firm in the face of Williamson's scoffing. “Is that the child?” She pointed towards a uniformed bellboy lounging near the front desk.
“Yes, that is James Honeycutt,” the manager replied dismissively, still sneering. “Now, Inspector Jaffrey, I must insist upon your discretion…”
Rhiannon did not hear the rest of Williamson's diatribe as she hastened to follow after Lina, who strode off towards the bellboy. By the time Rhiannon reached the front desk, her taller partner and James Honeycutt were walking away, slipping out the front door, past the doorman, and into a narrow alley. Rhiannon caught up as Lina was speaking.
“…have noticed Mrs. Winthrop's left hand this morning?” she asked.
James shook his head, but Lina persisted.
“Are you certain? Think carefully.”
“Naw, didn't see her hand, milady,” he finally mumbled. “She had one o' them things, you know, what ladies carry in the cold… s'called a muff, I think.”
“Good lad.” Lina beamed at him. “Now, did the Winthrops entertain any visitors during their stay at the hotel?”
“Gimme a fag,” he demanded sullenly, shrugging his bony shoulders.
Without protest, Lina pulled the jade-and-silver case from her reticule, extracted a Egyptian cigarette, and also provided a match. Rhiannon wondered at the woman's calm. For her own part, she would rather have boxed the rude boy's ears.
Puffing contentedly, James blew out a plume of smoke, and regarded Lina with new respect. “I didn't see no visitors, right, but I seen something queer. Queer, I tell you.” He made a theatrical grimace. “I seen sommat.”
“Can you describe what you saw?”
James looked up at Lina suspiciously. “I dunno… mebbe I ought to stay mum.”
Lina handed him a shilling, which disappeared into his pocket as if by magic, then she leaned down so they were face to face. “Tell me everything you know, James Honeycutt,” she said in what Rhiannon recognized as her most serious tone, “and I will add four more shillings to that one. But if I find out you have lied, or worse, omitted any part of your tale, I will have you dismissed from your employment without character. Do we have an understanding?”
“And you will also inform me how much Mr. Winthrop paid you for your silence,” Lina continued in an off-hand way that nevertheless impressed James, who stared at her wide-eyed, the cigarette poised halfway to his open mouth.
“Bloody hell! How'd you know the American paid me off?” he blurted.
“I did not, but your reaction has confirmed my theory. Pray continue, James.” Lina did not smile, but Rhiannon noticed the woman's mouth quirked slightly.
Glancing at Lina sidelong, still clearly astonished, he slouched against the brick wall, taking several puffs of his cigarette before speaking. “I seen her,” he muttered, so softly Rhiannon strained to hear him. “Looked just like her, but it weren't her, I swear, ‘cause I seen the other lady go upstairs with her husband, didn't I? Not ten minutes later, in comes this other lady by the side door, but it couldn't have been her.”
Rhiannon found the boy's narrative virtually incomprehensible, but Lina gave him an encouraging nod, asking,. “What did the other lady do?”
“Did you follow her?”
James dropped the cigarette and stubbed it out with the toe of his boot. “I ain't s'posed to go upstairs unless it's luggage, right, but yeah, I followed her. I thought I was seein' things. She went up to the Winthrop 's room, and who answered the door? Mrs. Winthrop! Two ladies lookin' the same like that, not sisters or they wouldn't have shook hands like I seen ‘em do, and one calls out the other's name like she weren't sure. A rum business, very rum!
“ I was gonna go, but Mr. Winthrop caught me in the hallway an' give me two dollars to forget an' say nothin' about it to nobody.” His upper lip curled. “American money! What am I s'posed to do with that, eh? The head clerk, Mr. Lambert, he does the money changin' round here, but he'd want to know where them dollars come from, and he might say I been stealin' or sommat, the smarmy bastard,” he added bitterly.
Lina shook her head, presumably in sympathy for the perfidy of Mr. Lambert. “What name did you overhear?” she asked.
“Emily, I think that's what Mrs. Winthrop said. Dunno the last name.”
“Think hard, I beg you.”
His face screwed up in concentration, James accepted a second cigarette from Lina, and spent a moment smoking before he said with slow deliberation, “Was somethin' like Shelltown, mebbe… sorry, milady, s'all all I remember.”
“You've done well, James, and shall have your reward.” Lina withdrew a handful of shillings from her reticule, letting them drop one by one into the bellboy's outstretched hand. Richer by ten shillings, not just the promised five, he had no difficulty turning over the American dollars to Lina, who dismissed him to return to his duties.
“Who is the murdered woman?” Rhiannon asked.
“It is more likely her surname is Shildon, not ‘Shelltown,'” Lina replied, examining the American dollar bills. “Bah! Nothing here. Well, we can make a good case for why murder was done, and we know who did it.”
“Do we?” Rhiannon frowned. “I'm not sure at all.”
“Come with me, my dear, and all will be revealed.”
Inside the Hotel Imperial, they found Inspector Jaffrey flirting with a ladies maid set to walk her mistress' wheezing Pekinese.
“Come, sir,” Lina said to Jaffrey, “the case is solved.”
“Is it?” he drawled as the maid hurried away, the Pekinese waddling ahead. Following the girl with his gaze, he waited until she had left the hotel before turning his focus on Lina. “You say you've solved the case? I doubt that, but you have my attention, at least.”
“How kind of you to say so,” Lina murmured. Despite the softness of her tone, each word she uttered was as sharp as a barber's razor. She waited until Jaffrey flushed, and went on, “The victim's name is Emily Shildon, you should be able to trace her living quarters in London . As to why she was killed… I suspect the motive has to do with inheritance fraud.”
“How do you know?”
“The amputated thumb is the most telling clue. Why would any sane woman wish to have her thumb cut off? There are at least a half-dozen reasons, but a very likely one is this: she wants to appear to be someone else . Why? I believe a considerable sum of money is involved. Greed is a powerful motivator, and Mrs. Winthrop had to alter her appearance in such a drastic fashion in order to gain a reward rightly belonging to someone else.
“The fact that Mrs. DeLancey Winthrop and Emily Sildon are blood relatives is obvious from their physical resemblance to one another, however the connection cannot be close. Cousins, perhaps. I posit they have not seen one another in some time, yet Mrs. Winthrop knew where Emily lived, or was at least able to contact her.
“If Mrs. Winthrop wished to take over Emily Sildon's identity, and money is the motive, then I suggest an inheritance of some kind. A check will no doubt yield the name of a wealthy American in New York City who has died within the last few months, leaving his fortune to an heir who has not yet been located by the his solicitors. Even now, Mrs. Winthrop and her husband are on their way to stake their claim, ready to show proof of identity in the form of a missing thumb, now that the real heir has been dispatched.”
“Sounds like a load of moonshine to me,” Jaffrey said, squinting at Lina. “Have you got any evidence?”
“None, apart from the bellboy, who could only say in court that he saw the two women together, nothing more,” Lina admitted. “However, if you have the Winthrops held for questioning when the steamer docks in New York , you should obtain the necessary confirmation from the couple. It should not be difficult to justify, inspector… the fact that the two women were together the evening of the murder is highly suggestive.”
“If I send a telegram to New York and you're wrong, it's my career in ruins.”
“If you do not, and the murderers get away with their scheme, I doubt you will find yourself in the Commissioner's good graces,” Lina pointed out. “You might also inquire of the New York City police whether DeLancey Winthrop is a known criminal. It is unlikely such a cold-blooded scheme of murder was conceived by novices.”
Jaffrey thought about it, his head bowed as he brooded. “Harry Valentine reckons you've helped him a time or two,” he finally conceded, lifting his head to spear Lina with a fierce glance, “and Valentine's a pretty fair detective.”
Lina snorted, but said nothing.
“Very well, I'll send the telegram. After all, if the dead woman was seen with Mrs. Winthrop in her hotel room, questions need to be asked, and I'm the man to ask ‘em.”
“Please do keep me apprised of developments,” Lina told him. “Good day.”
By now it was close to six o'clock, and Rhiannon's stomach protested the long wait until dinner. Sighing, she settled into the hansom cab which Lina hailed, bracing herself for the jolt as the driver whipped up the horse. Next February, she vowed, she would drop hints so her partner would not forget the most romantic holiday of the year. The Valentine's card she had made for Lina would have to be put away, she decided. To bring it out now would only cause unnecessary guilt.
When they arrived home in Grosvenor Street , Rhiannon found the house eerily quiet. “Where are the footmen?” she asked, unbuttoning her coat. “Where's Jackson ?”
In answer, Lina steered her to the study, opening the door to reveal a profusion of roses. The sweet perfume almost overwhelmed Rhiannon, who stood staring at the masses of red, pink and white blooms covering every flat surface including Lina's desk.
No, not every flat surface, she amended. A small table drawn up near the settee held dishes that made Rhiannon's mouth water: a bowl mounded with grey pearls of Astrakhan caviar surrounded by toast points; lobster, shrimp and oyster patties; and a glistening slab of pâté studded with green peppercorns. Hothouse strawberries—strawberries! in February!—were heaped on a plate, looking like a maharaja's treasure of rubies. An ornate silver cooler held a bottle of champagne half-buried in ice.
“The doctor's case came most convenient to my plans, for I had trouble concocting a reason to get you out of the house for a few hours this afternoon. At any rate, I thought a light meal best,” Lina said, slipping an arm around Rhiannon's waist, “as I have plans to whisk you upstairs after our supper, to satisfy another appetite entirely. The servants have the evening off. We are alone and can do as we please.”
It felt like Rhiannon's whole body blushed
Lina went on, bending her head to speak into Rhiannon's ear, making her shiver, “And tomorrow evening, we shall see a performance of The Gondoliers at the Savoy Theatre, and you will wear your pearls, and every woman there will envy your beauty. Ah, my dear… I do love you, you know. With every atom of my being, I love you.”
“And I, you,” Rhiannon whispered, the feel of Lina's lips on her throat igniting a blaze of desire. It was turning into a most satisfying Valentine's Day, she thought, and said aloud, “Forget supper… the caviar can wait. Take me upstairs now. Just… just take me.”
“Yes,” Lina breathed, her grip demanding, her fingers biting into Rhiannon's hips.
Rhiannon closed her eyes, her heart overflowing with love, perilously close to drowning in it, and not minding one little bit.