THE CASE OF THE MARQUIS' UNCHOSEN BRIDE by Nied Darnell
The client took Miss Alasadorph Fitz-Castlecutt unawares. Mostly because he simply materialized before her desk. Once she’d recovered her aplomb, a task accomplished in but a moment – she was a professional, after all – she arched an inquiring eyebrow at him.
“Considering your entrance, sir, I surmise the reason you’ve come to Castlecutt and Whitemayne Inquiry Agents is a matter that demands secrecy, you were simply saving on the cost of a conveyance across the city, you’ve come to assassinate someone on the premises, or you are possessed of a dramatic lean in regard to arrivals,” she said, then added, “Or you’re a right git.”
The man huffed in irritation. His extravagantly waxed moustache quivered between bristling muttonchop whiskers.
The flakes decorating the shoulders of his dark cut-away indicated a severe need of Woods Pomade to vanquish his dandruff. Unless, of course, it was the residue of fairy dust he’d used to transport himself to the office. Alasadorph narrowed her eyes, peering at the residue. Yes, definitely a fairy product after all. As though it heard her thoughts, a tiny green, pink and blue head peered around the boutonniere on his lapel. Miss Fitz-Castlecutt nodded slightly in greeting to it and mentally added rescuing the magical being to her list of things to accomplish.
“It would serve your employers right should I assassinate such an impertinent menial,” the obnoxious man snapped.
Ah! She knew that sort of bearing. Jumped up military officer. Had probably gotten every man under his command expurgated by the Zulus in the late war. Probably popped himself off the battleground in the same manner he’d popped into the inquiry office, too. She pitied the fairy enthralled to him.
“Except you need this menial to act as go-between to achieve whatever original purpose led you to this office,” Miss Fitz-Castlecutt hissed back. Not an easy task considering she’d had but three Ss with which to work. “Now, what is your problem? I will require all the details so that the most reliable agent can be assigned to your case, sir. Please, have a seat.”
Although no seating sat before her desk, Alasadorph pressed her knee against the hidden lever that swung a chair seat from a side panel, pushing it out a sufficient distance to allow legs to drop down and a simple ladder back to build itself and lock in place. She gestured to her visitor, took a sheet of paper from a drawer, and uncapped her pen. “Your name, sir?” she asked sweetly.
“I would prefer to give that information to the gentleman assigned to the case,” he declared stiffly. Rather than take a seat, he folded both gloved hands over the nob of his cane and leaned forward on it, thus looming over her desk.
Looming was a trait she most despised. But a client was a client. Her opinion of them didn’t matter. It was the amount she could bill them for solving a case that did.
“That is not the way it works, sir. Even if it did, there are no gentleman available to speak with you.” Nor were there any gentlemen who worked for Castlecutt and Whitemayne, but that was beside the point.
“No one is available?” he asked as though dumbfounded that all agents should be engaged in business when he required one.
“We aren’t the only inquiry office in London, sir. Perhaps you’d prefer another?” Alas offered, knowing quite well he wouldn’t bite at the chance. He had materialized in her office, after all. The fellow over on Baker Street was but one investigator in the city who looked askance at visitors with such ill manners and uncommon abilities.
“No, no,” the man before her said. “Only Castlecutt and Whitemayne will do for this. Their reputation proceeds them.”
“Yes. Well, then.” Alas sat with pen poised. “Your name, sir.”
He sank to the chair her desk had built and condescended to pass her his calling card. “Colonel Sir Petimaze Gabaldy, late of the 17th Lancers. I am here about my niece. Recently she pricked her finger and has since fallen into a sleep that the doctors cannot explain. She is perfectly healthy yet will not awaken.”
“I see,” Alas murmured. “Do you happen to know how she pricked her finger? Stitching up mufflers for the poor? Inadvertently injuring herself on a mechanical device she constructed to astound short-sighted gentlemen such as yourself with her ingenuity?”
He ignored what he likely viewed as an impossibility. Well, he probably did know his niece best. “My sister says the weapon was a barb inside an ill made thimble,” the colonel allowed. He seemed quite content with such an absurdity.
“Do you have the thimble with you?”
“No. It had been tossed in the dustbin before her condition took hold, but I do have the reckoning slip,” he admitted and fished it from a pocket.
“Took hold? Then she didn’t instantly fall into a state of slumber upon being pricked?”
“No. It was three days later.”
Alasadorph took the purchase slip from him, her mind already racing. Not painted with the normal Sleeping Beauty potion then, but a delayed one? Or merely an ill concocted one? Either could apply. Then she noted the name on the sheet in her hand.
Siedem Metal Works.
“We’ll take the case, Colonel,” she declared. “And, as a surety on your part, you will leave your pixie with me.”
He looked relieved then irritated. “Leave the pixie! Without it, how am I to return to my home or visit my club?”
Alasadorph waited until the tiny magical being had fluttered across to rest in her outstretched palm before answering. “I suppose you could do what normal people do, sir. Either hire a steam hansom or jump on the clockwork trolley. It stops just outside the door. The one at street level, five stories down. We’ll be in touch.”
~ ~ ~
Reginald Templeton Whitemayne was exactly where she expected him to be – at the track. Considering he was a shape shifter who reverted to a large palomino stallion, this was not uncommon for him. He did exceedingly well when placing bets, for the horses themselves told him which of them they had decided beforehand would be the winner and runners up. Jockeys and trainers had nothing to do with the system. Even when posing as a man Reggie was no gentleman, so she hadn’t lied to their pompous client. Considering she was the other partner in the firm, she did not qualify as a gentleman either.
She was, however, the guiding force behind their success. Reggie served as muscle, backup, and when required, transportation in a pinch.
He did manifest as a very attractive gent though, his bearing quite that of a stallion. He attracted looks from women wherever he went. Of course, part of that was the glorious spill of his magnificent platinum hair tumbling about his shoulders, which lent him quite the air of bohemia, as well.
“Come on, Farthingale,” he shouted at a friend in the galloping herd as it passed his spot on the rail. “You run like your dam was a donkey!”
“Is that how you talk to your associates, Whitemayne? You insult them?” Alasadorph demanded as she joined him at trackside.
“It’s a cover,” he said. “’Allo, Alas! Only a case would drag you from the office. What have we got?”
“A damsel who developed a case of extreme sleeping sickness after pricking her finger,” she said.
“Niece of a pompous client, so I’m guessing she’s the daughter of some manufacturing chap who has done well for himself.”
“What’s her name?” Whitemayne asked, his eyes on the field as it swept past the finish line.
“Haven’t the foggiest. The client didn’t like to give details to the trumped-up char woman,” Alas growled.
“Char woman? Alas! You’ve never done of lick of domestic work in your life.”
“And don’t intend to either,” she declared. “But, unless you just made a bundle on the races today, we will not be eating much beyond biscuits and tea.”
“Didn’t make as much as thruppence,” he confessed, “because I didn’t bet on this race or any other. This –” He gestured to where the horses were being walked back to the stables. “—was all to keep Charlie from being sent to the glue factory. His speed has been a bit off. Since he finished in a nice mid-field position, he’s got the reprieve for a bit.”
“I’d no idea an equine’s life was so fraught with difficulties,” Miss Fitz-Castlecutt declared soto voce.
“So the blighter’s got money, got a problem, and has got an attitude. Won’t talk to the little woman so the stallion will have to step up to the bar,” Reggie clarified.
“If he wants his preferred portion of oats, yes, he does.” She fished the colonel’s visiting card from her reticule and handed it to him. “I doubt he’ll be at home, so go to his club first. Fortunately, he’s listed both.”
“And you will be doing what?”
“Shopping for thimbles,” Alasadorph said.
~ ~ ~
Siedem Metal Works’ manufacturing plant was located downriver from the Tower on the less desirable side of the Thames. Their retail shop was on Oxford Street where it would catch the attention of the fashionable set. Merchandise lay on display behind gleaming windows that would have sparkled had there be a trace of sunshine successful enough to make it through the terminal brown fog of the city. Items on display were varied and included a wide selection of thimbles.
Her modestly festooned hat pinned in place over chestnut hair, her gloves, and skirts free of any flotsam inadvertently picked up at the track, Alas transferred her trusty umbrella to her left hand and opened the door.
A man of small stature was immediately at her side. While foreshortened, he was not stocky of build as a dwarf nor a midget, though his complexion was more that of a laborer for it was much browner than Reggie’s. But then, her partner’s coloring mimicked his coat when a Palomino. This fellow, she knew, had a different reason for his tint. He was a Brownie, one of seven brothers who had taken over Siedem Works during the dwarf wars five years before.
“Welcome to Siedem’s Emporium, madam,” he greeted. “I noticed you admiring the stock in the window. What was it particularly that caught your eye?”
“The thimbles,” Alasadorph admitted. “You seem to have several sizes and styles. I doubt I’ve seen such a wide selection before.”
He grinned widely at her. “One of our most popular items. We pride ourselves on the diversity offered.”
“As well you should,” she agreed. “Is there a specific model that finds particular favor with your clients?”
He practically rubbed his hands together in anticipation of a sale. “More than one, madam. Would you care to view the selection?”
“I would,” Alas said.
She waited as he presented her with one after another, always slipping that previously viewed back in a drawer before handing her the next. Miss Fitz-Castlecutt held back a sigh over the tedium. What were the chances that a lady such as herself would grab a steel thimble and make a run for it? Perhaps there were more upper-class kleptomaniacs than she realized.
“Would this help?” she asked, the reckoning slip the colonel had lent her in hand. “A friend had one I quite admired, but she lost it. I thought as her name day approaches, that it would be just the gift she’d most appreciate. Perhaps this has a number that you use for stock keeping purposes and will pinpoint the one in question?”
The Brownie slipped a pair of wire rimmed spectacles from an inside pocket of his jacket, settled the wires over his ears, took the sheet she extended...
And hastily dropped it to the countertop.
“I’m sorry, madam. This was a special order and only a dozen were made to the client’s specifications. Siedem Metal Works no longer carries them.”
“Oh, that is a shame,” Alas sighed as though in resignation as she swept the slip up and tucked it away once more. Then she fussed with the handle of her umbrella and surprised him by swiftly withdrawing the sword hidden inside it. With the tip of a hungry, well-sharpened blade held in a steady female hand so near his throat, the Brownie swallowed shallowly knowing he was a bare inch from death.
“Could you give me their name?” she asked calmly. “I’d be most grateful. The sooner I have it, the sooner I’ll be on my way, likely leaving you alive. Unless, that is, you dawdle. I dislike dawdlers and while it is a hanging offence to kill a man or a woman, the law says nothing about reducing the number of beings of your race, does it?”
“You’d kill me over a thimble?” he gasped.
“Over a thimble that quite possibly will rob a young woman of her life,” Miss Fitz-Castlecutt countered. “Yes, quite likely I would.”
While she felt she sounded quite docile, the sword did rather undermine that impression.
Apparently, the Brownie felt the same. He supplied a name and an address, though he stuttered a bit in his delivery.
~ ~ ~
Alasadorph was not surprised to find the name she’d been given was that of London’s top matchmaker, a woman whose very name conjured to mind blushing brides, weeping mothers, satisfied fathers, giggling female attendants and leering male ones, topped off with a disconcerted bridegroom.
Lady Amalgama ffolks-Bloomingburg.
Lady Amalgama was the not-so-quiet partner of a consortium of firms that catered to the joining of the unsuspecting or reluctant – or both – men and women troth to join their fortunes – or one’s fortune to the other’s pending foreclosure on the family estate – to the bounds of holy of matrimony. Mantua makers with French accents, though possibly lacking any French antecedents, were at her beck and call. So too a host of other businesses catering to the soon-to-be-wed, including livery stables with Cinderella-like coaches and teams of pure white – or temporarily painted white – horses, and, of course, musicians and opera singers. Those that actually sang opera rather than operate bordellos. Though, Alasadorph was sure, if they did run pleasure palaces, that the gentlemen of the wedding party had said a proper adieu to the sacrificial victim’s bachelorhood on their premises.
But why Lady Amalgama’s name should be connected to this affair was quite a puzzle. The colonel had made no mention of a pending marriage in his drowsing niece’s future, nor of a worried swain watching her sleep away his chance at solvency.
Rather than visit the matchmaker just yet, Alasadorph headed for the office of the London Social Times and the reporter most likely to cater to her curiosity: Mr. Hydelbrand Coaxemout.
Brandy, the school name he grew to manhood under, was as flamboyantly outfitted as usual, his suit a particularly violent tweed. The floridity of his weskit was to be abhorred. One always saw Brandy coming, though avoiding him was quite impossible. The man was a veritable hound to the hunt when it came to sniffing out the peccadillos of society.
Which made him a valuable asset.
He looked up as she made her way across the newsroom floor. “Alas!” Brandy cried in the same manner Reggie used, making the foreshortened version of her name sound like the cry of a heroine beset with unconscionable woes in a melodrama. “What bee in your bonnet has brought you to my humble garden of truths?”
“Do stuff it, Hydelbrand,” Miss Fitz-Castlecutt suggested. “Your dramatics are quite lost on me. I didn’t appreciate them when we were children, must less now that you are supposedly a grown man.”
“Supposedly?” he croaked, placing a hand to his heart. “You wound me, Alas! Truly, you do.”
He waved her to a chair before collapsing dramatically back into his own, then leaned forward, his newshound senses fully engaged. “What have you got and how can I use it?”
“A possible murder in the making, but more likely a severe discombobulation,” she said as she made herself comfortable. “Do you know anything about a girl who contracted some sort of sleeping sickness after pricking her finger?”
“Oh, darling, of course I do. There’s been a veritable outbreak of them!”
Alas grabbed the notebook and fountain pen on his desk without a by-your-leave and leaned forward. “Do you have names?”
“Sweetling!” he admonished. “Of course I have names. The first to fall victim was Princess Vanacore of Pottsheimat. Some minor connection of the queen’s. Word is she was about to announce her engagement to the Marquis sans Slope, better known as Wat Whipple to his friends. Before ascending to the peerage, he made his way through the lower ranks of society as a fencing master. Then one old potter after another fell to the wayside leaving the title and quite a tidy fortune up for grabs. Watty grabbed and grabbed it quick. One of his fencing clients was a young cockerel budding toward barrister and he took care of the paperwork to land Whipple the golden goose. Between his dashing corsair looks and a tidy bit of pocket change, the Marquis sans Slope became catch of the season.”
“And then Vanacore succumbed to long nap syndrome?” Alas pressed.
“Yup, as the Americans say. Contender number two moved into his circle. American heiress shopping for a title. Sarawapathea Collingswood. Papa has cornered the market on rapid transit with his amoximated hydro infusion system. It can get a ship across the pond from New York before Liverpool sees the dawn of the next day.”
“A trip across the Atlantic in under twenty-four hours!” Miss Fitz-Castlecutt gasped, then calmed. “Don’t let Reggie hear of it. He’ll want to purchase a ticket.”
“Horses and their need for speed,” Brandy sympathized. “However, I’ve not run through my tally of hopeful marquesses yet. Miss Collingswood also succumbed to a good snooze and was followed in the win Watty sweepstakes by Miss Buckleshot, a rail baron’s brat, and Miss Chasmwell of Aethelbow-upon-Ouse, whose father owns most of Yorkshire, though I’ve no idea what he does with it. Which well-placed strumpet is your possible victim, Alas?”
Alasadorph tore the sheet she’d transcribed the unfortunate young women’s names on from his notebook, capped his fountain pen, and slipped the list in her reticule. “The one related to an obnoxious bore from the 17th Lancers. Colonel Sir Petimaze Gabaldy.”
“Who?” he demanded. “Never heard of him,” then added, “Just a sec,” before bolting from his chair.
Alasadorph folded her hands in her lap, resigned to waiting for her hound to fetch further information.
When Hydelbrand returned it was with a wide grin on his face. “Lovey Parks,” he said.
“Lovey Parks? The actress?”
“The soprano, dear one. Same thing but one sounds higher priced than the other.”
“Well, that’s quite a comedown from a princess and a horde of heiresses. Was Miss Parks Wat’s mistress prior to his rise in station?”
Brandy shrugged. “It would take more digging, but you say she’s comatose as well?”
“According to the puffed-up uncle,” Alas said. “It seems someone doesn’t want the new marquis to find a bride.”
“Or, more importantly, plant an heir,” Brandy said.
“Quite,” Alasadorph agreed and got to her feet.
As did Hydelbrand Coaxemout. He grabbed both his bowler and the notebook and pen she had relinquished. “I’m coming with you,” he announced.
“You most definitely are not,” Alas shot back. “Where I am bound you will stand out like a mare’s tale in a field of broom.”
“I will not be compared to a weed, darling, and you can’t discourage me. I smell a story and that’s better than steak and kidney any day.”
“You still can’t accompany me, Brandy,” she insisted, and pulled her jacket pocket open. “You see, my travel arrangements are for but one.”
“What travel arrangements?” he demanded, narrowing his gaze at her when he caught the tinkle of tiny bells. His eyes widened. “Alas! Don’t tell me that’s a pixie in your pocket!”
“Alright,” she murmured agreeably, “I won’t.”
Then, the pixie having zipped out and fluttered about to supply a coating of dust – an arrangement arrived at earlier in exchange for a proper wage – Alasadorph Fitz-Castlecutt vanished.
~ ~ ~
Siedem Metal Works failed to meet the dictates of good taste. Had this been his century, Christopher Wren would have succumbed to apoplexy at his first glance of it. Miss Fitz-Castlecutt was simply relieved she and the pixie hadn’t stopped for tea en route.
It was quite the ugliest erection she had ever seen. Perhaps to dwarf eyes, it was beautiful. Alasadorph made a mental note to never take on a case that required her to set foot in the dwarf kingdom just in case.
The pixie held the same opinion Alas did for it sat quivering in fear on her shoulder.
“Yes, I know stealing inside will be dangerous, but someone has to do it and it will not be you, dear,” Alas assured it. “I never ask anyone to do something distasteful if I am capable of taking on the task myself.”
This did not include any chores categorized as the dominion of char women, of course.
The pixie twittered something in her ear.
“No, I should not have brought Hydelbrand. He would get in the way. Frankly, between you and me, he is clumsy. He would trip over the first obstruction encountered,” Alas explained. “And, no, the horse won’t do either. With his mane, he stands out even under a heavy cloud cover on a moonless night.”
Once her new associate had accepted the short comings of the men in Alas’s life, the pixie fluttered to a lookout position that would keep it safe but not assist Alasadorph in the least.
Fortunately, she had her trusty umbrella and had taken the precaution of affixing a garter holster with a Webley-Preyse No. 4 double action pistol to her right thigh.
No sensible woman should be without either, she had often told female clients. Only one had fainted. As further backup, there were always her hat pins. A prepared and trained woman had no need of a gentleman who would likely get in her way.
The shadows were deep, anticipating the night yet to come. Alas slipped from one to another, making her way ever closer to the building. She had already located a door which appeared to no longer be in use. It was her first goal. She only hoped that her lock abstusifier spell was up to snuff.
It worked like the charm it was not. The door complained when she opened it, which was to be expected, though in truth the noise of machinery in play quite drowned it out.
She slipped inside. It was as black as the depths of a coalminer’s workplace and likely as filthy.
Alasadorph waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior of the building. A large machine chugged away, shooting items along a conveyor belt. A dozen Brownies in protective work clothing stood along it doing quality control checks. Above on a scaffold attached to the high ceiling a foreman strode back and forth. How officious of him, she thought. But she hadn’t come to observe the manufacturing of fribbles but to raid the office to discover precisely whom had ordered a special batch of barbed thimbles. She hardly thought Amalgama herself could draw plans for them.
Then she spotted a door that obviously led to quieter, cleaner, and smaller quarters. After observing the workers and the foreman for several minutes, she judged when best their attention would be away from both herself and her goal, and, when the opportunity beckoned, moved swiftly through the shadows. The door, fortunately, was not locked, thus her entry was swift.
Still, once through the door, Alasadorph took a moment to press her back to the wall and took a few deep breaths to calm her pounding heart. There was nothing like a spot of danger to cause a woman to become flushed with excitement.
Prior to forming the inquiry business with Reggie, she’d done time in several offices. Mostly because she was far too efficient for the men in charge, though they had called her insufferably pert, giving it as the reason for turning her off. Such diversified experience allowed her to home directly to where invoices and contracts were kept. She placed the umbrella close at hand, then turned to the shelves of paperwork. The Brownies filed by product rather than customer, thus she had all orders for thimbles in hand quickly. While she had been pleased to find no lamp had been left lit in the room – for that would imply someone had simply stepped away from their desk – not having sufficient light to scan the documents by allowed a word to two from the Dictionary of Vulgar Language to slip past her lips. Under her breath, of course.
She nearly tossed the papers into the air in surprise when a match flared to life next to her.
Reggie stood there grinning. For a horse, the man could move with supernatural stealth when he chose. She noted he’d pulled his mane of white hair into a queue, turned the collar of his coat up to hide it and donned a flatcap to cover the rest. Then the flame went out.
“What are you doing here?” she snarled in a whisper.
“Following the clues, Alas,” he murmured back. “I am an inquiry agent. Old stick up his arse Gabaldy told me about the crumpled crumpet’s marriage prospects and how helpful Lady Amalgama was in introducing her to that blighter sans Slope. Turns out that Amalgie gifts the brides-to-be with a basket of household trifles. Among them –”
“Thimbles,” Reggie agreed. “So, I visited a couple ladies’ linen shops asking whether Lady A bought the trifles from them. The shop girls didn’t know but the managers did. Griped about her ordering stuff from Siedem. As I know your methods, I figured you’d be here burgling the joint.”
Alasadorph glared at him. “Well, since you’re here, light another match so I can read these things.”
Her partner did as directed. It took five more matches before she found for what she searched. Unfortunately, the elation of the find was slightly trampled by the fact that it told her nothing that Reggie hadn’t already unearthed. Lady Amalgama had indeed ordered a dozen thimbles with the uncommon request that they have a mar in the casting. Each must have a tiny barb deep in the cap.
“What now?” Reggie asked. “Beyond slipping out of here, naturally.”
It was a question she couldn’t answer but disliked voicing such indecision.
“There’s a pixie I need to reclaim first, then a meeting of minds,” she suggested.
“I’ve already got the pixie. She zipped around me, worried about you, when I got here. Didn’t want to be left behind so I’ve got her tucked under my cap,” he said.
“Oh.” Feeling as though her partner had muscled in on her adventure, Alasadorph sighed. “Then on the way back we should sweep up Hydelbrand. He seems to know quite a lot about sleeping heiresses.”
Reggie grinned widely at her. “And we both know where to find Brandy at this time of day,” he murmured and offered his arm. “Shall we scarper?”
“We shall,” Alas agreed, totally ignoring his gallant gesture. She reacquired her umbrella, swept ahead of him toward the front door, used her lock abstusifier on it, and slipped out into the night.
~ ~ ~
Hydelbrand Coaxemout was indeed where he was expected to be, at the Bleeding Finger tavern just down the way from the newspaper office. The sign showed a hand with a papercut dripping an unconscionable amount of blood, but the place did have a ladies’ salon where reporters of both sexes could mingle and boast of their latest articles.
Brandy was at the bar in the men’s snug, but Reggie herded him to the table Alasadorph commandeered. They brought drinks with them, ale for themselves and a tepid, watered-down lager for her. The moment her mug was before her, the pixie fluttered in to lick a bit of foam from the rim and immediately collapsed on the table. Delicate, but gusty, snores issued from its open mouth immediately. Alasadorf dropped a handkerchief over her small associate to give the tiny drunk a modicum of privacy as it slept the draught off.
“It occurs to me that we have a loose thread in this case,” Alasadorph told the two men. “If the thimbles in question are gifted by Amalgama to her budding brides, how did Lovey Parks’ uncle happen to have an invoice that supplied both the Oxford Street location and the factory address. Plus, it was for a single thimble, not for the twelve that Amalgama ordered. That was a separate dun, a copy of which I found at the Siedem plant.”
As though it would aid their mental faculties, Reggie and Brandy both scoffed a heavy slug of ale.
“That isn’t the part that makes me itch,” Reggie declared. “It’s the quick turnover of fillies lining up to snag the marquis. Considering only Lovey Parks may not have a bundle in Funds like the other girls are rumored to have, how did she scrape up the ready for the race?”
“Uncle Sir Colonel?” Alasadorf suggested.
“You’re only assuming he’s got the ready because he irritated you,” Reggie said.
Hydelbrand retrieved a cigarette case from his coat pocket and took his time lighting up. “The other birds aren’t rumored to have the ready,” he insisted. “They’re all rolling in it. So, yes, Lovey Parks is the sticky wicket. But old Gabaldy hired you to find out why she got targeted, didn’t he? Was that a blind to put everyone off?”
“We wouldn’t even have been hired or aware there was a sleeping heiress outbreak if he hadn’t popped into the office earlier today,” Alas reminded. “You were the one who told me there were victims by the dozen, Brandy.”
Hydelbrand blew a smoke ring toward the already smoke covered ceiling. “Not a dozen. I thought you could count, darling. I make it five if you count Lovey.”
“But Amalgama ordered a dozen thimbles,” Alas said.
“Considering that invoice you found covered only twelve thimbles, does that mean the set was broken up or was a baker’s dozen actually made? Lovey had a reckoning slip for the one that pricked her,” Reggie reminded. “The prototype, perhaps? Brownies aren’t known for wasting materials at hand, and a thimble isn’t large enough to make more than a blip of steel if melted down. Someone decided to profit by the sale of it, thinking Amalgie was none the wiser.”
“Which she wouldn’t have been if Lovey hadn’t succumbed to whatever is making these young women mimic Sleeping Beauty. However, just a prick shouldn’t cause the condition. There has to be an alchemical formula or a curse or spell or charm added that does the trick,” Alas mused aloud. She turned to Brandy. “Do you know if Amalgama was apprenticed or mastered any of these dark arts or has she connections within the consortium that could whip up the sleeping dose?”
Considering he was engaged in waving a barmaid down for a refill, Alasadorph worried that he hadn’t heard the question. But questions were Hydelbrand Coaxemout’s bread and butter.
“Don’t know, but know enough people to ask,” he assured her, then added, “Either of you hungry? I could do with a bit of treacle pie.”
Both Alas and Reggie looked at him in horror.
“Thank you, no,” Alas said. “My landlady will have put back a portion of supper for me.”
“And I know where to find a nice bucket of oats,” Reggie assured. “The treacle’s all yours, mate.”
“How soon can you have the information for us, Brandy?” Alas pressed.
“By breakfast,” the newspaperman assured. “I know who to hop in bed with to gather what’s needed.”
Alas and Reggie left the tavern moments later. Since it had been a trying day, she raised her umbrella to attract a steam hansom. “You don’t think he meant that literally, do you?” she asked her partner as he handed her into the vehicle when it pulled to the curb.
“Considering Brandy will need to work all night to gather the information, I believe he will definitely be hopping into someone’s bed,” Reggie said. “In fact, more than one.”
~ ~ ~
The next morning, they convened at the Castlecutt and Whitemayne offices. Hydelbrand looked sleep deprived but very relaxed. His clothing was the same as that worn the day before and was quite creased from numerous redonnings.
Alasadorf poured him a cup of tea as Brandy dropped into the chair attached to her desk.
Reggie had a shoulder to the wall, his arms crossed over his chest, his mane back to tumbling in wild abandon. Alas had chosen attire suitable for morning calls.
“Are you prepared to be dazzled?” the reporter demanded.
“No. Should I be?” Reggie countered.
“It was rhetorical, pony boy,” Brandy snapped.
“Do stop dawdling and tell us what you learned,” Alas ordered.
While he dawdled no longer, he was long winded. Alas mentally edited the monologue down to what she would put in the case file once the conundrum was solved.
What he had discovered was, that the colonel was not in fact Lovey Parks’ uncle, but her father. The woman who posed as his sister was Gabaldy’s mistress and actually was Lovey’s mother and had been milking the former Lancer for funds for years.
Lovey had indeed been sans Slopes’ mistress in the past and had decided to back him into making her a marquess once she heard about his other forays into bride shopping.
Amalgama did package up thimbles in the bride packets, but it was not the lady herself but her assistant who was the one in charge of distribution.
The last bit of information was the most interesting though.
“This sans Slope fellow is in danger of losing the title. Seems he leap frogged over a distant cousin who has a better claim. The family’s had a poor showing of fresh offspring for generations, so the contestants are unlikely to have ever met.”
“What’s this cousin’s name?” Alas asked.
“Well, it wasn’t Whipple, but I’m afraid I heard it at the end of a long evening of drinking. It’s slipped my mind. A bit Frenchified, I believe, but it will come to me. I did find the photograph the Times ran when Wat became the Marquis sans Slope though.” He fished in an inner pocket and produced a creased scrap of newsprint to hand over. “Thought you might want to recognize the bloke should you run into him.”
Reggie stepped forward, did a quick scan and passed it to Alas.
“But that does not account for whatever is putting the almost brides to bed,” Alasadorph insisted as she glanced at the photo then slipped it in her desk drawer. “We’re missing something important, and it has to tie back to the consortium, specifically to Amalgama. There was nothing on the Siedem invoice about tinctures applied to the thimble barbs, so it had to be added later.”
“Do you want me to dig further?” Brandy asked. “I can return to the fray after a bit of a snooze myself.”
“No, get your well-earned rest, Brandy. Reggie and I’ll take it from here.”
The cheeky bastard got to his feet and gave her a salute before ambling out.
“Where are we bound then?” Reggie asked. “I distrust that look in your eye, Alas. It means you plan to make uncommon use of me.”
Alas reached for her hat and pinned it in place. Checked that her Webley was secure. Reggie, the cad, didn’t bother to turn his back when she raised her skirt to inspect it.
“Brandy has given us a lead, though I didn’t want to mention it. His ego is quite sufficiently inflated,” she told the stallion as she straightened.
“It’s the assistant, isn’t it? The woman behind the scenes that no one notices but who gets the job done,” Reggie said.
“On the nose, my noble steed. I believe a visit to Lady Amalgama’s office is in order.”
This time when Whitemayne offered the crook of his arm, Alasadorph lay her kidskin gloved hand upon it.
~ ~ ~
Lady Amalgama ffolks-Bloomingburg operated her matchmaking services from a building barely within the gentry’s purview. Situated on the second floor, it was accessed by way of a moving staircase, thus allowing the marriage minded to conserve their strength for the gauntlet of questions staff hurled at them before they were granted an audience with Lady A herself.
Alasadorph sent Reggie in as a wealthy swain in search of a helpmeet. She trailed along as his timid sister, though they looked nothing alike. Such was not unheard of in certain circles though.
What was surprising was that Amalgama’s assistant was a man. A quite athletic chap she took to be in his third decade who, naturally, was well turned out in morning coat as though bound for a marriage service at St. Paul’s. His waving dark hair drew the eye and made a lady wish to tousle it. A well-trimmed moustache enhanced his rugged good looks.
He greeted Reggie with an outstretched hand. “Cyprian Forsythe,” he said by way of introduction. “How can we assist you, Mr. Whitemayne?”
Reggie gave the man a smile that resembled that of a fellow who had eaten something that disagreed with him. “What brings any man here, Forsythe? The family tells me it is time to stop enjoying life, settle down and marry. As they don’t trust me to turn my talents to the hunt, my sister is along to ensure I make an effort.”
Forsythe nodded in Alasadorph’s general direction. “Miss Whitemayne,” he murmured but turned back to Reggie, dismissing her as unworthy of notice. She was not the client. Reggie was. “Whitemayne. Why does that sound familiar?” Lady A’s assistant asked.
Reggie grimaced in a different way. “You’ve probably heard of my cousin Reginald. Rather the black sheep of the family. He runs an inquiry agency. I’m Rupert.”
“Ah, that must be it,” Forsythe said. “Come this way, won’t you?”
As he turned away, Reggie glanced to Alas and mouthed, “What,” before following.
Flummoxed over what her partner referred to, Alasadorph trailed behind the men. She let her gloved fingers trail along an assortment of wedding folderols as though in longing.
Forsythe noticed. “Something attract your attention, Miss Whitemayne?”
She sighed deeply. “Someone, Mr. Forsythe. Do you think Lady Amalgama could arrange an introduction for me as well? I’m not financially dependent on the family, for a great aunt recently left me her estate in Kent.”
The word estate caught his attention. “If I might inquire, what is the annual income?”
Alasadorph named a sum that was ridiculously large. It changed Forsythe’s focus from Reggie to her.
“You said there was a man to whom you would like an introduction? Might you know his name?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, attempting to look quite eager.
Reggie frowned at her. “Yes, dear. I know of your foolish fascination with sans Slope, but a marquis is a bit above your station. Now, about my requirements for a bride—”
“Sans Slope? Do you mean Walter Whipple?” Forsythe asked.
“Is that his family name?” Alas queried, the complete innocent. At least in her eyes. “All I know is that he is new to the title and has the most beautiful manners.”
“Actually,” Forsythe said, “you would do well to put him from your mind. The man is not the best choice for any lady of sensibility.”
Reggie stepped up to the wicket. “What of yourself, Forsythe. You look to be a gentleman from a distinguished family line. Are you a married man?”
“Er, no,” Amalgama’s assistant admitted.
“No prospects? Or just haven’t found the right enticement? Roseamond here brings a wealth of opportunities with her.” He leaned closer to the man. “Frankly, I’d like to have her off my hands. Nothing a man likes less than to have a spinster cluttering up the family home when a bride is in his future.”
“I would not presume,” Forsythe murmured. “At least not until my own prospects improved.”
“There a chance that they might?” Reggie pressed, to all intents and purposes a man determined upon unloading his sister on the first decent prospect to come her way.
“I have hopes,” Forsythe admitted.
“What kind?” Reggie pushed. “Word at my club is that this sans Slope fellow might have jumped the line and that there’s a cousin swinging on a better branch of the family tree ready to knock him from his perch. Fact is, you’ve got the look of a sans Slope. I met the last marquis at the track a few times.”
Alasadorph wondered in what form Reggie had been at the time, or whether he was making the story up as he went. But now she understood what he’d mouthed at her a few moments earlier. It hadn’t been what it had been Wat, the current marquis’s name. It seemed everyone speaking of him called him by the diminutive version instead of his formal name.
When Forsythe didn’t answer immediately, Alas moved on to a prettily made-up basket nearly hidden among the trinkets on display. “This is nice,” she said, picking it up. “What all is in it?”
“This and that. Basic small household items,” Forsythe answered. “Lady Amalgama presents these to our female clients.”
“Really? How kind of her!” Alas declared. “Is there a thimble included? I’ve recently lost mine and as I would quite like to be one of the dear lady’s chosen few, perhaps I could see what is included?”
Without waiting for permission, she rifled through the items like a barbarian looting a church. “Oh, there is a thimble! And quite a lovely one.”
Forsythe kept his gaze fixed on Reggie, but an explosion of pink silk burst from the next room. A middle-aged woman attempting to suspend time with a heavy use of theatrical paint. Lady Amalgama, Alas presumed.
“Don’t touch it!” the woman screamed. “It’s dangerous!”
Continuing to play her part, Alasadorph blinked at her. “Dangerous?” she echoed. “It’s a thimble.”
“One that he’s tainted with a curse,” the matchmaker declared and turned on her assistant. “Do you think I don’t know what you did, Cyprian? I found the harridan you hired. She told me she’d bewitched the thimbles you ordered in my name. Each young woman slated to be sans Slopes’ bride is affected, but not those of other bridegrooms. What are you playing at?” she stormed. “You’re ruining the reputation of the consortium. Of me!”
Forsythe moved swiftly to escape, but Reggie was between him and freedom. His fist stopped the assistant in his tracks. As Cyprian Forsythe went down, Alas noted the man was unconscious. She suspected a bit of iron horseshoe had been worked into the punch.
“You ruin all my fun, Whitemayne,” she grumbled. “Will I ever be given the chance to use my Webley?”
“Not if I’m around, dearest,” Reggie said then addressed the crowd of people suddenly crowding the open doorway. “Perhaps someone can ring for a constable? I believe Mr. Forsythe has some attempted murders to answer for.”
Alas stamped her foot. “You obnoxious man! That was my line!”
Her partner merely grinned at her.
~ ~ ~
“I missed all the fun,” Hydelbrand Coaxemout whined.
“Yes, well,” Alasadorph murmured. “I, on the other hand not only did not get to claim the arrest but I didn’t get to shoot anyone with my pistol, either.”
Brandy grinned at Reggie Whitemayne. “I’d watch my back, if I were you, mate,” he counselled. “Nothing worse that Alas when she’s riled, and she’s majorly riled.”
“The client is happy and Amalgama found someone to reverse the sleeping sickness. All previously snoozing maidens are up and dancing once more,” Reggie said.
“And the colonel did pay the amount I charged him without bickering,” Alas conceded.
“So all’s well that ends well.”
“Not if your name is Walter Whipple, Marquis sans Slope,” Alas said. “Look what was delivered in this morning’s mail.”
And, with that, she slid a wedding invitation across the desk toward Brandy. It announced the marriage of Lovey Parks to her trapped marquis.
The Case of the Marquis’ Unchosen Bride
© 2020 Beth Daniels / Nied Darnell
Cover graphic ID 68512974 © Zastavkin | Dreamstime.com
Cover Design by Beth Daniels
The Case of the Marquis’ Unchosen Bride is a work of fiction. No actual people or circumstances were used or altered in the writing of this story. The author reserves all rights. No duplication of any sort known and unknown or created in the future can be used without the author’s written permission, though brief excerpts may be used in reviews.
If you enjoyed the humor in this story
take a look at "Murder Unscripted"
which I wrote under my J.B. Dane pseudonym.
It, too, is posted as a free read here in the blog.