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Home By Nightfall
By Charles Finch
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Charles Lenox
All rights reserved.
It was a blustery London morning in the autumn of 1876, wind and rain heavy in the trees lining Chancery Lane, and here, damn it all, stood before Charles Lenox something that nobody should have to tolerate before breakfast: a beaming Frenchman.
"What is it, Pointilleux?" he asked.
"I have solve the case."
"I believe he has never enter the room at all."
Lenox sighed. "Are those the papers you're holding? Could I see them?"
"Do you not observe the elegance of it, though! He has never enter the room at all."
Pointilleux handed over the neat pile of newspapers, face expectant, and Lenox, tired and moody, felt an unbecoming glee at being allowed to dash his enthusiasm. "Three people saw him go into his dressing room. And the glass of wine that he always had waiting for him after a concert was drunk up, all but a few drops."
Pointilleux's face fell. He was a tall, straight-backed, handsome young person of nineteen, very earnest, with large dark eyes and jet black hair. A late-summer attempt to grow side-whiskers had ended in ignominious defeat; his face was clean-shaven again.
"You are certain?"
"Yes. I had it from the detective inspector himself."
"This information does not present itself in the newspapers."
"They're holding back as much as they can to distinguish false tips from real ones. So you'd better keep mum."
"Mum." Pointilleux looked dissatisfied. "I was very sure."
"Better luck next time," said Lenox, tiredly. He was past forty-five now, and it took more of the day for him to overcome a late night. "And now you'd better get to your desk — I have a great deal to do, and not much time before my first appointment of is due."
This was true. His professional life had rarely been better, more gratifying, more full of excitement; nor had it often been more exhausting, more burdened with care, more tedious.
Newby, his appointment, was a country fellow, a prosperous brewer of apple cider in Somerset. He arrived precisely at eight o'clock — but looking much battered, red in the face, with mud spattered three-quarters of the way up his trousers.
"You found your way easily enough?" asked Lenox.
Newby gave him a look of outrage. "I call it a pretty kettle of fish," he said, settling his great bulk into the chair across Lenox's desk, "when a fellow in the prime of his life cannot walk down the streets of England's greatest city without getting trod on by a horse, or knocked about by a woman selling oysters, or pushed over by an omnibus!"
Lenox frowned. "Oh dear."
"I am accustomed to a pretty hearty traffic in Bristol on market day, too, sir!" he said. "Pretty hearty traffic!"
"That's very bad," said Lenox.
"These young women selling oysters ought to be in jail."
"I can have a word with someone."
"Would you? I think someone should, honestly."
It was the usual story — London was a hellish place to walk if you weren't accustomed to it. There was a famous story about Charlotte and Anne Brontë coming from the country to visit their publisher; they'd stayed at a hotel not two hundred yards from his offices, but their morning walk to reach it had taken them more than an hour, including long periods for which they stood completely still, in something near blind despair, as foot traffic moved around them.
Lenox, used to it all, the children ducking under the heads of horses, the city men whose strides gulped great stretches of pavement, hadn't had such troubles in many years, but he was happy to spend five further minutes listening to Newby bemoan the impossibility of walking down Holborn Street in broad daylight without being knocked over like a spring flower every thirty seconds, what did they have an empire for at all, and in older days people hadn't been quite so busy and they had managed very well if you asked him, thank you, and really things had come to a fine pass — and all that kind of thing, the statement of which gradually lulled Newby into a better mood than Lenox had ever seen him in before. It occurred to Lenox that if he instituted the practice of spending the first ten minutes of every meeting listening to their thoughts on the state of the modern world, his clientele would be the most contented in London.
At last, Newby came to his business. "I'm convinced that our distributor in Bath, Jonathan Fotheringham, is skimming money from us."
"Can you change distributors?"
"He's our best and only option there, unfortunately."
Lenox frowned. "What makes you think he's stealing?"
Newby was provincial, but he was no fool. From his valise he pulled a sheaf of papers, which showed that in each of the last five quarters there had been an incremental decline in the revenue of Fotheringham's district, while everywhere else there had been a rise in revenue. Lenox asked a variety of questions — Was it possible there was a new competitor? How long had Fotheringham been a reliable partner? — before at last nodding, thoughtfully, and promising to send Atkinson to Bath.
"Is he good?"
"Our top man," said Lenox, nodding. "He was at Scotland Yard until last year. First person we hired."
"What about you, or Strickland, or Dallington? The fellows on the nameplate?"
"They're both on cases, and I'm working primarily in a supervisory capacity nowadays. Believe me, Atkinson is excellent. If I didn't take this seriously, I would send our new chap, Davidson. He's promising, but greener than one of your apples."
Newby seemed satisfied by the answer. He accepted a fortifying glass of sherry, then rose and braced himself to wade back into the midden of London, with a grave final word before he left about the city's general decline, and what it portended for them all.
These were Lenox's days now. About ten months before, at the start of the year, he and three other people had started the first detective agency in England. After a difficult beginning, particularly for Lenox, who had spent the better part of the previous decade sitting in Parliament, falling hopelessly out of practice as a criminal investigator, they had made a success of it.
Well — something of a success. One of the partners, the Frenchman LeMaire, had left the firm during its initial wobbles, certain that it would never make a profit, and founded a competing agency of his own. Fortunately, just when LeMaire's pessimism seemed as if it might have been quite clear-eyed, the three remaining partners had found their feet. In part this was because the other two were superb: Lord John Dallington, an aristocrat of nearly thirty, and Polly Buchanan, an enterprising young widow who worked as "Miss Strickland" and was a specialist in all the small mysteries the middle class produced, stolen silver, vanished fiancées, that sort of thing.
An even greater percentage of their success came from Lenox, who had theretofore been far and away the least productive of them all. The difficulty had been some resistance in him, at first, to treating it as a business — a gentleman by birth, with a private fortune, in his previous life he had been an amateur detective, working from his town house in the West End, taking cases as it pleased him.
When he had finally realized — after those crushing first months, after LeMaire's departure — that he was actually in trade now, his attitude had changed. With systematic determination, he had set out with a new idea: that he would win clients from the City, the business world. Using all of his many contacts from Parliament and the social sphere in which he and his wife, Lady Jane, moved, he had amassed some two dozen regulars just like Newby, who kept Lenox, Strickland, and Dallington on retainer. They were the agency's prizes, their names and files kept in a small gray safe, secure from the snooping eyes of anyone who might be willing to offer them to LeMaire. The firm regularly checked in on each of these clients, and also remained on call should anything unusual occur — a work stoppage, the theft of materials or money, bookkeeping discrepancies. Lenox and his colleagues prided themselves on handling such issues much more quickly and adeptly than Scotland Yard could. That speed and discretion was where they made their fees worthwhile.
The triumph of this strategy — the agency had had to hire four additional detectives now, and several more clerks — had come at some cost to Lenox. It was the beginning of October now, and he hadn't personally handled a case since July. Instead he spent a great deal of his time managing men like Newby and delegating their problems to the firm's active detectives, Atkinson, Weld, Mayhew, and now Davidson. Polly had her small but lucrative cases to handle — "Miss Strickland" continued to advertise in the papers — and Dallington his own idiosyncratic custom, much of it criminal, which came in part from the close work with the Yard that Lenox had handed down to him upon taking up his political career.
And in fact, that was precisely the kind of work that he had returned to this field to do. He loved above all the pursuit, the infinitesimally small details upon which a murder investigation might turn, the dirt in a shirt cuff, the abrasion on a windowsill, the missing ten pounds. Well; he would return to it, in time. At the very least, dealing with Newby was vastly, incomparably better than the dismal state of affairs he had experienced from January through the spring, when he had had no clients, had contributed nothing, had been a positive millstone around his partners' necks.
Shouldn't he be appreciative for that?
Yes, he thought, with resolve — and for the rest of the morning he handled the business with great good cheer, just as he had past midnight the evening before, putting his signature to papers, assigning work to the clerks and detectives, making time for a rapid and humorous cup of tea with Dallington, and glancing in his free moments at the account book, which was pleasingly crosshatched and filled in and prosperous-looking.
By noon, therefore, he was in an excellent mood. "Pointilleux!" he called out.
The young Frenchman appeared, one hand on the doorway, head popping around it. "Yes?"
"Are you still investigating that break-in in Bayswater? The butcher's shop?"
Pointilleux nodded and stepped into the office. He was actually LeMaire's nephew — had stayed behind after his uncle left, a serious, pleasant presence, very young, and beloved by them all, only in part because he'd kept faith in their project. Though he was barely nineteen, they assigned him some of their smaller cases, as part of an agreement they had made to train him. "I am come to suspect the wife very strongly. She has conduct an affair of the heart with the constable."
"Then take the afternoon off," said Lenox.
Pointilleux's face opened into a beam. "Ah!" he said. "Excellent! I will!"
Lenox, pleased at having atoned for his previous irritability, bade the young man good-bye and then turned his eyes to his own appointment book. What was next? He knew there was a meeting with Carter later that afternoon, an important client who owned a cloth wholesaler in Lambeth. But was his lunch hour spoken for?
And then Lenox's own face fell, his heart with it. All the vim he felt from having achieved so much on a Monday morning vanished.
He was engaged to have lunch with his brother, Edmund, he remembered now; in fact, he had to leave soon, if he was going to get to the restaurant on time. With a sigh, he rose and fetched his hat from its stand, dreading how difficult it had become to see one of the three people in all the world that he cared about the most.CHAPTER 2
He stepped out into Chancery Lane and looked left and right for a cab. In that instant, at least, he could see London through Newby's eyes — chaos. Toward the Holborn end of the street there were two carriages hopelessly wedged together, as they stood abreast almost exactly as wide as the lane, and closer to Lenox was a great congregation around the local coffee stand. The young clerks of the businesses along this avenue liked to gather here; there was a great bright copper boiler over a brass-handled smudge pot, and its hawker in his green smock was calling out "Cup and two thins, only a penny, mind!" to all who passed. Two of Lenox's own clerks were standing nearby, eating their two thins — pieces of bread and butter, thickish ones in fact — with between them a piece of cold beef, another ha'penny.
Lenox turned up toward Holborn. What he knew and Newby didn't, of course, was the secret regularity that existed within this commotion. Though it looked like there was a mad press at the coffee stand, every person knew his place in line, and even now one of the carriages at the top of the road was sliding forward, the other one just backward. Both would be on their way within a minute or two.
Even the swarming walkers on the pavement — the only secret there was to keep to the right and walk at a steady pace. There were men of the city who traveled four or five miles to work by foot every morning and read their newspapers the whole way without lifting their eyes, because they were so confident of their paces.
As he reached the corner, he came to a man selling newspapers, with large placards on his cart announcing the most recent news about the disappearance of Muller, the great German pianist.
The fellow tipped his cap. "Mr. Lenox, sir," he said.
"Anything new in there, Parsons?"
"Not a mote o' news, sir, no. 'Tis the midday edition, however."
"Ah, well, give me one for the ride, then."
"Much obliged, sir," said Parsons, taking his coin.
Lenox found a hansom cab and settled into it for the westward journey, scanning the headlines.
They were all about Muller. It was this mystery that Pointilleux believed he had solved that morning — an error by which he had perhaps become a true Londoner for the first time, for seemingly every soul in the metropolis believed that they and they alone knew the answer to the puzzle that had so trialed and tribulated Scotland Yard this past week. Across every class that autumn, in the butchers' stalls at Smithfield market, on the crowded buses full of clerks and respectable widows, in the glittering drawing rooms of Hanover Square, Muller was the only subject of speculation.
The facts were these: that on the fourth of October he had played a concert, his fifth of nine that were planned (though the promoters had already been urging him to add several more performances, based on the enthusiastic reception he had received in the city); that at the end of the final piece, the overwhelmingly popular Fantasia on "The Last Rose of Summer" by Mendelssohn, he had stood up, bowed once in his customary fashion, and left by stage right; that he had said to an employee of the Cadogan Theater, "I feel very tired — hold my visitors for half an hour," before going to his dressing room; that, after a tentative tap on the door thirty-five minutes later, the theater owner and Muller's own manager had opened the door and found the room empty, without any sign of violent struggle, or indeed anything out of place at all; and that nobody had set eyes on him since.
And yet it was impossible! That was what made the case so interesting, of course — the impossibility of it. For between Muller's private room and any conceivable exit of the building there were dozens of staff, managers, well-wishers, cleaners. On an average night, the Post-Courier had calculated, in an ingenious bit of journalism, Muller had seen thirty-six people between leaving his dressing room after a performance and stepping into his carriage.
Aside from the dread possibilities of what might have befallen the pianist, his disappearance was known to be an embarrassment to the Queen and her retinue. She was part German herself, of course, Prince Albert had been entirely German, and many of their retainers were, as well. All of them had watched Muller perform on his opening night; now the Queen's cousins across the channel were extremely aggrieved at the disappearance of one of their finest artistic exports.
Lenox had seen him play and had to admit the fellow was magical — a short, slim, swarthy, balding, unprepossessing person, and yet when he sat before a piano, suddenly transformed into the most sensitive and subtle conduit of artistic beauty. His pauses, his rhythms, gave new meaning to music that a whole audience had heard dozens of times, and thought they knew.
Excerpted from Home By Nightfall by Charles Finch. Copyright © 2015 Charles Lenox. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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