The day began much as any other day. With murder, of course.
From The Adventures of Miss Melanie Merkett, Private Inquisitor
Penelope Paiget was skilled at a great many things. Hiding dead bodies was not one of them.
She had returned to Wickshire Place at half six that morning as was her custom after her regular half day off the previous day. She’d spent her time as she usually did, in the company of Lady Delia Witherspoon, the woman for whom she had served as companion for nearly four years before accepting the position as Lord Wickshire’s secretary. Lady Witherspoon continued to enjoy Penelope’s company, and as Penelope had no other family in London on whom to call and likewise enjoyed the rather flamboyant observations of Lady Delia, Penelope found herself spending her afternoons off in her former employer’s company. It was a pleasant and productive way for Penelope to spend the time as Lady Delia quite enjoyed speaking about Penelope’s other professional endeavors—the ones that most of society would think unusual and even unbecoming of a woman of Penelope’s refined reputation as the daughter of a well-respected country baron. It was something Penelope enjoyed most about Lady Delia. The woman did not raise an eyebrow at others’ unusual proclivities.
It was this fascination with the unusual that had likely secured the position for Penelope at Wickshire Place in the first instance. Lord Wickshire excelled at unusual proclivities. A man who had earned the nickname Poison Peter was not likely to count a snuff box fetish as his most eccentric habit. No, indeed Lord Wickshire did not. He was an academic much like her father had been, and he was prone to eccentric rants on topics of natural history, his true passion running towards that of the chemical arts.
Really, if Penelope were to think of it, it was likely the combination of Lady Delia’s desire for eccentric acquaintances acquittances and her father’s academic pursuits that had nearly guaranteed Penelope’s secretarial position in the Wickshire household. Lady Delia often had Lord Wickshire to tea, and it was through this occurrence that he had learned of Penelope’s assistance in her father’s endeavors. A woman so skilled at keeping the notes of an academic as well as having intelligence herself was rare indeed, Lord Wickshire had professed, and offered her employment on the spot. With Lady Delia’s blessing, of course.
Lady Delia had always said Penelope was far too intelligent to spend her days wasting away as a paid companion even if Lady Delia treasured her company. It wasn’t the first time Penelope had heard such, but she had grown better at hiding how such a proclamation irked her. It was with some marked measure of glee that Lady Delia handed Penelope over to Lord Wickshire, claiming he would never be disappointed in Penelope’s work.
And he hadn’t been. Lord Wickshire, that was. At least, not until that morning.
For as she stood on the threshold of the drawing room of Wickshire Place, the toes of her boots neatly aligning with the edge of the Abusson rug, its vibrant reds, blues, and golds now muted with a peculiar dampness seeping from the dead body lying atop it, Penelope was quite certain she would not succeed at whatever task Lord Wickshire was about that morn.
Penelope stood calmly, her hands folded over her reticule as she took in the sight of the deceased. She had no reason for alarm. That is, she was not frightened by the sight of a dead man. Her own father had conducted autopsies of pigs and cats and dogs. Sometimes even a goat when the opportunity presented itself. She knew very well where meat came from, and how it was that physical anatomy worked. It was nothing more than a bit of natural study. And it wasn’t as if there was any messy blood with which to contend. The man was quite intact. Although, if she were being honest, she would have admitted a good splattering of blood would have made the scene far more interesting. As it were, it was just a poor man lying dead on a bit of carpet.
She looked up and about the room. Lord Wickshire enjoyed taking his morning tea in the drawing room where the light was best for reading the day’s newspapers. Oddly, however, Lord Wickshire was absent.
Penelope took a small step back, angling the upper part of her body into the corridor where she heard the rustling skirts of Mrs. Watson, Lord Wickshire’s appallingly efficient housekeeper.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Watson,” Penelope called down the corridor. “Is Lord Wickshire in residence?”
Mrs. Watson did not stop in her trajectory down the corridor, the basket at her elbow of burnt candle nubs bouncing against her bony hip. “He is not, Miss Paiget,” she said. “He was in the study when I departed yesterday, and that was the last I had seen him.”
“Are you aware there is a dead body in the drawing room then?” she called after the retreating figure.
Mrs. Watson did not stop. In fact, she did not even slow her step as she made her way to the back of the townhouse, likely in pursuit of the kitchens. “I do, indeed,” she returned. “It’s making a terrible mess of the carpet. It’s not as if we’ve nothing to do around here without his lordship making more work for us.” The woman opened a door at the end of the hall and disappeared.
Penelope straightened. Everything seemed to be activity as usual then. The poor man on the carpet seemed rather at peace despite Mrs. Watson’s declaration of inconvenience to the carpet and the staff. The gentleman was rather young, almost boyish in appearance, with unkempt hair and mismatched patches of stubble along his cheeks as if he were new to shaving. Perhaps he had been. Quite terrible, really.
And the rug was likely a loss now anyway. Mrs. Watson need only worry about removing it from the drawing room and bringing a new one down from the attics.
She leaned back again, her head going around the doorframe to see the clock standing in the hall. It was after seven now. Lord Wickshire usually began his dictation at this hour. Reciting to her any discoveries or ideas he had formed in the late hours he often spent in his laboratories in the extensive basements of the townhouse. He kept his working rooms down there after a terrible occurrence with sulfur when he’d housed his experiments in his second floor study. The fumes had seeped up to the servants’ quarters on the fourth floor, much to the glowering disapproval of Mrs. Watson. Lord Wickshire had vacated immediately for the subterranean comfort of the basements rather than encounter Mrs. Watson in future.
But his dictation, that occurred in the main living areas of the house, usually in the second floor study where he had a desk installed for Penelope. A lovely escritoire of glowing rosewood. It was elegant while at the same time stately. Magical, Penelope would have called it. Perfect for a use of which she did not speak in polite circles.
She straightened once more, her eyes falling to the body, and released a round, deep sigh, her lungs collapsing in repose. There was nothing for it but to wait. At least, that was what she’d planned to do.
Until someone knocked on the door.
She looked over her shoulder at it, just down the corridor from where she stood in the entrance to the drawing room. She peered the other way. Mrs. Watson had either not heard the summons or had deemed Penelope close enough to see to the matter of a visitor. It was likely the second option as it spoke most acutely to efficiency. Something with which Mrs. Watson took uncomfortable pleasure.
Penelope stepped away from the drawing room, her boots loud against the wood floors of the foyer in the quiet solitude of a house just waking. She pulled open the great front door and blinked into the increasing sunshine of what promised to be a beautiful spring day.
Her eyes settled on the gentleman standing on the stoop before her, her gaze falling directly to the bouquet of tulips clasped in his hand. They were purple tulips not yet opened in bloom and streamed with promising bits of white along the edges of the petals. They reminded her of hope and promise, and her fingers twitched against the strings of her reticule at the remembered feel of a quill in her hand.
“Good morning,” she said to the bouquet, a smile already coming to her lips before she raised her gaze to the caller. “Oh, bloody hell,” she stammered when her eyes fell on Mr. Samuel Black’s familiar face. She shook her head quickly at his stricken expression. “Sorry,” she said. “Very sorry. It was just that I was not expecting you.”
His face crumpled into a frown. “Yes, I’m incredibly sorry about the early hour,” he said quickly. “My profession does not relate itself to normal calling hours, and the necessity for an early—”
She cut him off with a waved hand between them. “I meant the year, Mr. Black. Not the hour. Wherever have you been?”
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