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Authors: Joan Smith

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Murder's Sad Tale

BOOK: Murder's Sad Tale
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MURDER

S SAD TALE

 

Joan Smith

 

Chapter One

 

Mrs. Ballard, though a rigid upholder of propriety, did not feel obliged to chaperone Lady deCoventry when she was entertaining her fiancé. Lord Luten would no more misbehave than he would vote Tory. It was a matter of the gravest importance that impelled her to enter her ladyship’s salon on that gusty morning in February. She found the couple sitting more closely together on the striped settee than seemed necessary, or even quite comfortable, but they were not doing anything naughty. Moving as silently as the mouse she was often compared to, Mrs. Ballard had to clear her throat twice to make her presence known.

Lady deCoventry looked up, surprised. “Mrs. Ballard, did you want something?”

Mrs. Ballard continued gliding forward, frowning to see Lord Luten rise in her honor. “A word, if I may, milady,” she said, wishing Lord Luten would sit down, but not quite brave enough to suggest it. She was forced to take the seat her ladyship indicated to get him back on the settee. “It is about the matter we discussed last week, if you recall. You said we should wait and see.”

After a little consideration, Corinne did recall. Her companion’s social life, other than church-related activities, centered around a group of older folks who met on a weekly basis to play whist for pennies. If Mrs. Ballard lost, she paid up. If she won, her winnings were donated to church charities to remove the aroma of sin from gambling. Her late husband, a minor cleric, had been distantly related to the late Lord deCoventry. Upon the latter’s marriage, she had been invited to act as companion to his young wife, and had remained with her upon his death.

Although Mr. Ballard had been dead a decade, his widow only changed her usual black gown to grey when the black was in need of cleaning. Lady deCoventry never enquired whether this was in his honor or because she disdained spending money on personal finery.

“You mentioned one of your friends had nearly been run down by a carriage,” her ladyship said.

“On purpose!” Mrs. Ballard reminded, with considerable force.

Luten nodded and said, “Bond Street has become dangerously congested. My own rig was nearly sideswiped the other day.”

“It is not that busy in the early morning. There is no longer any doubt that it was an attempt on Mr. Russell’s life.”

“Why do you say that?” Luten enquired, his interest piqued at her insistence. He had never before seen Mrs. Ballard so fiercely determined. The mouse had transmogrified into a rat. Good lord, was it possible she’d found herself a beau?

“Because now he has been murdered,” she announced, with a “so there” air about her. “Shot to death in Green Park, and shooting, you know, is not the work of footpads.”

“Murdered!” Luten exclaimed.

“Oh dear,” Lady deCoventry said in a dying voice.

“And I was wondering, Lord Luten,” Mrs. Ballard continued, timid again but still determined, “if you would mind just looking into it as a special favour.”

“A particular friend of yours, was he?” Luten asked.

“Well,” she said uncertainly, “a member of my whist group which , as you know, is so important to me.”

The young couple exchanged a despairing look. They were trying to find time to arrange their wedding. Lord Luten was very busy at the House as well, where he and the Whigs waged unholy war against the reactionary, reigning Tories. Mouldy and Company, they called them. While Mrs. Ballard was well aware of all this, it was still clear why she had asked him to look into the matter. He and his friends had been involved in the solving of a few crimes recently. Society dubbed them the Berkeley Brigade, as all four members lived within a stone’s throw of each other on Berkeley Square.

Lady deCoventry, Corinne to her friends, had been a wild seventeen year old Irish lass cantering through the meadow, green eyes flashing, black hair flying behind her, when first Lord deCoventry had seen her and fallen immediately in love. Her papa had sold her off for five thousand pounds to Luten’s elderly cousin, three times her age, who had not lasted four years. As his young wife had not provided the hoped-for son and heir, the estate had passed into other hands, but to the end, DeCoventry had remained uncommonly fond of his bride and had provided her the house on Berkeley Square, along with a small house in the country and a competence.

After the requisite year’s mourning, Lord Luten had asked for her hand. More shocked than flattered at the time, she had not only refused, she had uttered a nervous laugh! It had taken over three years of snipping and sniping for Lord Luten, no stranger to pride, to swallow this outrage and repeat his offer. The second offer had been accepted with a careful absence of mirth, and the marriage was now imminent, if another murder didn’t intervene.

“Yes, certainly we must look into it,” Luten said reluctantly, but not tardily.

Corinne gave him a sad, grateful smile. “I know you are already late for that meeting with Grey and Grenville, Luten,” she said. “I shall get all the details from Mrs. Ballard and we can decide when you return what must be done.”

“So kind of you,” Mrs. Ballard said. “I disliked to ask, but really--murder! Something must be done, and Bow Street takes no interest.” The Bow Street officers, who worked on commission, saw little profit in this crime.

“Of course. We’ll look into it.” He turned to his fiancée. “We’ll want the details on the victim’s background, Corinne. Find out who are his heirs and enemies and what he’s been up to recently. No doubt Coffen will get a start on all that for us.”

He rose and made a bow to the ladies before leaving. Corinne’s gaze followed him from the room. How had she, a widow with only a small competence, managed to attach one of the most eligible gentlemen in London? Not only a marquess and very well to grass, not only a gentleman of sterling virtue who might quite possibly be Prime Minister one day, but tall, elegant and handsome as well. His crow black hair grew in an interesting peak on his forehead. His lean face was given authority by his strong nose and square jaw. And his gray eyes could either freeze you at a glance, or cause you to melt.

“About the murder,” Mrs. Ballard said.

“Yes, a Mr. — er —”

“Russell,” Mrs. Ballard said, with an unusual tinge of impatience, and was about to launch into her tale when the door-knocker sounded.

Corinne’s cousin and neighbor, Coffen Pattle, ran quite tame in the house. He did not wait for the butler to announce him but ambled in, a discordant symphony in wrinkled blue jacket, spotted cravat and dusty Hessians. A tousle of mud brown hair and sharp blue eyes added no elegance to his dumpy appearance.

“I saw Luten leave,” he said, bobbing a bow to the ladies before taking up the seat vacated by Luten. He waited for Mrs. Ballard to leave, as in the usual way she darted out of the room as soon as he came in the door. He and Luten were the two gentlemen callers about whom she had no fear of impropriety.

When she retained her seat, he said, “What’s up, then?”

“Murder,” Corinne said, suppressing a sigh of resignation.

Coffen’s blue eyes danced with delight. “By the living jingo, I didn’t expect such luck as that from the Friday face on you, Corrie.”

 Coffen, the third member of the Berkeley Brigade, loved murder more than he loved food, and he was a famous gourmand. He felt he had a bit of a knack for solving murders. Things had been a tad dull since their return from Newstead Abbey at Christmas, where Lord Byron had given them a dandy murder to play with. A murder with bells on it. Ghosts and everything.

While there, the group’s other member, Sir Reginald Prance, Bart., had been bitten with the gothic bug and was writing a novel. It would probably be as dull as that long poem about King Arthur he had written a while ago, but at least a novel wouldn’t be half footnotes like his
Round Table Rondeaux.
And with all the details, the gudgeon had left out Lady Guinevere.

“Who’s our victim?” he asked, and sat with his ears stretched to catch every word.

Mrs. Ballard was not much of a talker, but she knew her duty, and she did it. “A gentleman named James Russell,” she said.

“A gentleman! You never mean you had an admirer, Mrs. Ballard,” he exclaimed, as he could think of no other reason why she should be involved.

“I am a widow, Mr. Pattle,” she reminded him. Then with a chagrined glance at her employer, she added, “Of a certain age. Mr. Russell was a member of my weekly whist club.”

“A Captain Sharp, was he?”

Mrs. Ballard had acquired a regrettable acquaintance with cant since her mistress had taken up crime. “You mean a cheat at cards? Certainly not. It was not that low sort of murder. First he was nearly run down by a carriage on Bond Street.”

Coffen shook his head and gave a tsk. “Sorry to tell you, Mrs. Ballard. But that’s not murder. Accident. Happens all the time.”

“That was only the first attempt on his life. Now he’s been shot to death. And
that
was no accident.”

“Shot, eh? That’s more like it,” he said with satisfaction. “Where and when?”

“It happened the night before last. I just heard of it last night when my whist club met. We don’t really know many of the details. His body was found in Green Park yesterday morning. He had his calling cards in his pocket, so they were able to identify him all right. And by luck, he also had Mr. Cooper’s card — he is another member of our club — so poor Mr. Cooper had to go down and identify the body. And he, of course, had the unpleasant job of telling Miss Fenwick.”

Corinne and Coffen exchanged a quick glance at this new name. The phrase

cherchez la femme
,"
one of the few bits of foreign language Coffen had a passing acquaintance with, darted into his mind. “Why Miss Fenwick in particular?” he asked.

“Oh, she was to marry Mr. Russell. She is entirely broken up over it. She was too upset to attend last night’s meeting. Poor lady. At her age, you know, she never imagined she would find anyone so attractive to marry her, even though she is quite eligible.”

“How eligible?” Coffen asked, nose quivering at this first hint of a motive.

Mrs. Ballard was in no doubt as to his meaning. “We do not discuss such thing at our card parties, Mr. Pattle,” she chided, but went on to say, “I have heard the sum of twenty thousand mentioned. Not in so many words, you know, but something about the annual return on Consols giving her a certain sum, and Mr. Cooper figured she must have twenty thousand invested. Her late papa was a successful merchant. Pots and pans, I believe, were the basis of his fortune. Both her parents are dead and Miss Fenwick is the only child. She is better off than the rest of us, but I don’t say that is why all the gentlemen were dangling after her. She is also younger and more attractive. Very stylish, you know. A different gown every week.”

“What age would you say she is?” Coffen asked.

“Not a day over forty-five, and looks younger.”

“Would you have her address?”

“She has a lovely flat on North Audley with live-in servants. It’s just on the corner of Oxford Street.” Mrs. Ballard turned a pleading eye to Corinne. “I told the members I would speak to
Lord Luten,"
she said.

“I’ll handle it,” Coffen said. “Luten’s too busy.” Mrs. Ballard’s shoulders sank in dismay.

Corinne understood that her companion’s standing in the group was at stake. “Would it do if I go with Mr. Pattle?” she asked.

“That might be best,” she said, smiling in relief. Not wanting to hurt Pattle’s feelings, she added vaguely, “A woman’s touch at this sad time, you know.”

Unoffended, Coffen fired off a dozen questions, and made a mental note of every answer.

She assured him that Mr. Russell was no fortune hunter. He had inherited an estate from a nabob uncle and invested so wisely that he lived off the interest, lived at a good address on Baker Street and had even set up his own carriage and team. Mrs. Ballard had not heard where he came from, she rather thought it was up north somewhere, Keswick, was it? Miss Fenwick would know. He hadn’t said much about his past, but undoubtedly Miss Fenwick would have all the details.

Coffen also got Russell’s address, then said, “You wouldn’t have any idea as to who wanted to be rid of him?”

“I’m sure he was liked by everyone,” she said dutifully. Then with an air of doing an unpleasant duty, she added, “Well, perhaps except for Mr. Cooper. He had hopes of attaching Miss Fenwick before Mr. Russell came along.”

“Just how long was Russell one of your group?”

“Over three months. He joined around Halloween last year.”

“Who got him into the group?”

Mrs. Ballard frowned. “Now that is odd. I really don’t recall. He was just
there
one evening, but he could not have come uninvited. We had just lost Mr. Simms — it was his lungs that took him — and were looking about for a replacement.”

“What about his heir or heirs?” Corinne asked.

“I never heard him mention any living family. Just the nabob uncle, but he really didn’t talk about his past much at all.”

BOOK: Murder's Sad Tale
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