Captain Hunter glanced around the White Hart Tavern’s common room and selected one of the nearby tables. “Please, if you would?” he asked, gesturing toward an empty chair.
“Certainly,” Mrs. Monkhouse replied, walking gracefully to where Hunter pointed. Her general demeanor suggested an air of importance, perhaps even self-importance. She smiled politely enough, almost pleasantly, but with the glint in her eyes, she could not quite conceal the icy look of distaste for her surroundings.
Hesitating a step as the manners and etiquette from his younger days came back to him, Anthony walked over and pulled out a chair for Mrs. Monkhouse.
She paused, regarding the chair with a mild contempt, then eventually lowered herself into it with a very soft and resigned sigh. “Thank you, Captain,” she said. Her polite yet stiff smile returned, almost pleasant but not quite.
Anthony reciprocated her smile with a similar one of his own before walking around the table to the opposite side. After dropping his coat into a free chair next to him, he nodded to the barmaid.
“Changin’ dance partners, Cap’n?” Mary said saucily as she walked up.
When Hunter shot a sour look her way, Mary cleared her throat, “Oh, uhm, right. A couple of stouts for ye both, then?”
“Tea,” Mrs. Monkhouse said flatly in her mild Scottish accent. She never so much as glanced at Mary.
“A stout and some tea, then,” Mary replied, slightly flustered. Before any more could be said, she hastily retreated from the table.
Hunter looked at Mrs. Monkhouse, then idly tapped the table a moment with a gloved, clockwork finger. He could hear the muffled click of gears as they turned in response to the movement. “So, Mrs. Monkhouse,” he asked, “just what did you need to speak to me about?”
Anita Monkhouse sat forward a bit in her chair, straightened her spine, and said, “Ah’ve come to speak with you about a personal matter. It involves my husband. Ah do believe you two have spoken?”
The captain’s features darkened slightly: the memory of the unpleasant man was still fresh. He answered, “Yes, we most certainly have. Once.”
“Yes, well, it’s that conversation Ah’m here to speak with you about. How shall Ah put this delicately?” Mrs. Monkhouse thought a moment, a small frown furrowing her brow. “That discussion troubled my husband greatly. He’s a man of great passion, you see.”
A dozen words leaped to Hunter’s mind to describe his opinion on where Gilbert Monkhouse’s passions actually lay. None, though, were suitable to repeat in a lady’s presence. He instead responded diplomatically.
Mrs. Monkhouse implored, “Captain, please don’t judge my husband too harshly. He has worked slavishly to build what he has now.”
“On the broken backs of honest men and women, that is,” Hunter replied, almost a bit too sharply. Mrs. Monkhouse sat back slightly, a look of surprise on her face.
The captain took a deep breath to regain control of his temper. “Mrs. Monkhouse, while I am certain your husband has worked very hard to build his textile business, I have personal issues with some of his, shall we say, methods towards his workers. In regards to the conversation he and I shared, it centered around one particular worker, or now former worker.”
Mrs. Monkhouse blinked but quickly regained her previous composure. “Oh, the Olivander girl,” she interjected quickly. “Yes, he was … hmm … distraught over the whole matter, Ah assure you.”
“He referred to them in much the same manner a farmer would recount tales of his cattle, Madam,” Anthony said icily. “Miss Olivander included.”
“Well, yes, his choice of words often isn’t what it should be. However, that isn’t precisely what Ah’ve come to talk with you about,” Mrs. Monkhouse said earnestly. “Please pardon me, but Ah did ask after you and was much pleasantly surprised to find that you are well-respected and quite dependable in what you do, what with your business of shipping cargo, that is.”
She interlaced her gloved hands on the table. “Ah thought perhaps we could engage in business. You see, we have begun to ship regularly to London, Berlin, and the Americas. Ah understand this will seem rather strange, me speaking for my husband in matters of business, but the man does all he can. He leaves some of the business arrangements, such as trade and transport, to my care,”
“I see,” Hunter replied cautiously. “That sounds to be a most lucrative trade route, if one was a party to it.”
Mrs. Monkhouse smiled. “So you see the possibilities ahead, then? Just capital. Ah’ve taken the liberty of arranging the papers; we could later today to meet to sign and ‘seal the deal,’ as my husband would say. Then you could begin shipping for us as early as tomorrow. Of course, that’s after you apologize for the episode in the factory, being that it was just a misunderstanding and all.” She finished with a light chuckle. “Just to keep good relations between business partners, of course!”
“Mrs. Monkhouse, I’m sorry, but I’m currently already engaged in looking for … ” Hunter suddenly sat bolt upright in his chair, his face dark and terrible as a thunderstorm striking shore. “Wait. I don’t believe I heard you right, Madam. Apologize? I am to … apologize?”
Mrs. Monkhouse, taken aback at the captain’s reaction, blinked. “Why, of course,” she said. “Gilbert was horribly hurt and insulted by your attitude, especially over the subject.”
“The ‘subject’ is a young girl, a living being,” Anthony corrected with a dangerous snarl in his voice. “One that was horribly abused, I might add.”
“Captain! Please, calm yourself!” Mrs. Monkhouse said in alarm, “I understand the nature of sailors and their dalliances, especially with this Olivander girl being rather comely for one of her station, I suppose. If you prefer to see that her needs are met until your next proper visit to her as part of our business dealing, we can arrange that. However, try and understand the level of grievance a man of my husband’s station has suffered from your insult. An apology would be only proper.”
“Insult? Proper? His ‘station?'” Hunter growled as he slammed his artificial hand down upon the table with a sharp bang.
Nearby, Moira jumped at the sound, instinctively looking around for its source. Thorias and Rodney, no longer engrossed in conversation over the valve and gear, turned around as well. Rodney looked rattled, while Thorias was a deadly calm, turning slowly in his chair to lay his eyes upon the table where his old friend was speaking with Mrs. Anita Monkhouse. All around the tavern, conversations faded away and silenced.
With pronounced effort, Hunter withdrew his clockwork fist from the small crater left in the table top. The wood cracked audibly in angry protest at the abuse. “Madam, your husband is a fat frog who enjoys sitting upon a ‘station’ supported by the sweat and labor of hard working men, women, and children. The latter, I would add, are put in constant danger by the ill-conceived choice of jobs they are required to do. As for my insulting him, Madam, I am now certain I did not properly finish the job. You, however, have insulted me, and by proxy, Miss Olivander, through your insinuation of impropriety!”
From across the tavern at the bar, Mary rushed over with a small tray. On it sat the unlikely trio of tea, teapot, and a pint of dark stout. The barmaid came to a quick stop and placed the stout in front of the captain.
“Here, Cap’n, a good cool stout, so ye can calm ye nerves,” Mary said rapidly, her Scottish accent growing thick with her rising anxiety. She carefully set the remainder of the tray down by Mrs. Monkhouse, “Here ye go, one tea for the lady. Sorry ’bout the wait and all. Had to be finding the teapot.”
The barmaid glanced from the seething look of Captain Hunter, eyes bright with outrage, to Mrs. Monkhouse and her look of shock and stiff-backed stubbornness. Slowly, Mary stepped away from the table, “Well, then, ye two have a nice chat, eh? Just give a shout if ye need any more.”
Captain Hunter grabbed the stout, but instead of taking a drink, slammed the glass back down upon the table. “And furthermore, as for shipping his textiles, allow me to formally suggest, Mrs. Monkhouse, an alternative solution that your husband may take with packaging and transportation!”
At that moment, the door to the White Hart Tavern burst open. A young man, no more than fourteen at best, rushed inside. He was dressed in gray trousers with a rough-sewn patch at the knee, dirty leather work boots, and a threadbare waistcoat and shirt. He doffed his wool cap to reveal a shaggy mop of black hair and looked around the room. His face lit up in a bright smile the moment he saw Anthony.
“Cap’n Hunter!” the young man exclaimed, racing over. He scrounged through the pockets of his waistcoat. “Got a message for ye, Cap’n.” Finally, he withdrew the crumpled, stained paper from the bottom of a pocket and held it out.
The captain, struggling to contain his boiling temper, gave the young boy a thin-lipped smile. “Thank you, Jimmy.”
“Captain,” Mrs. Monkhouse began carefully, “Ah do believe we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot somewhere. My purpose was to conduct a business arrangement with you, as you come so highly recommended. Forget all that unpleasantness with my husband. We can soothe ruffled feathers another time; this is business. Let’s return to the details of the contract, shall we?”
Anthony, blatantly ignoring the woman, unfolded the note, read it, then looked at Jimmy Quick curiously, “I’m not sure I follow this. ‘Room service for you, Captain?’ Lad, who gave you this?”
Jimmy shrugged, “Don’t know his name, Cap’n. Big bloke. Big at the shoulders, he be, with busy black hair and a bent nose. Reminded me of a bulldog with an Irish accent. Oh! Limped he did, too, favorin’ his left leg. One of a pair Ah be seein’ here at the tavern quite a bit. Always dressed like Irish fishermen, but Ah don’t think they are. Don’t smell much like fish ta me. Looked more accustom to a bit of thuggery than fishin.'”
Hunter was on his feet in an instant. “Bloody hell, it was Conor! Lad, stay put, you’re likely in grave danger for just helping that man.”
“What?” the lad blurted out, eyes wide in shock. As if shot from a cannon, the captain had already raced across the room for the stairs.
Captain Hunter burst into the second floor hallway, startling the constable seated in a chair at the far end. The constable in his freshly pressed uniform, a young man no older than twenty years, was alarmed by the captain’s sudden appearance. He sat next to the room in which Detective MacTaggart had arranged for Lydia Olivander to be kept for her protection. Anthony paused at the door to his own room while he waved a hand to the constable in a quick greeting. On recognizing the captain, the young officer relaxed his posture, though his eyes remained tense and alert for any other surprises.
“Constable, has a large man with a blunt nose and sporting a limp come though the hallway within your watch?” Hunter asked quickly.
The constable gave the captain a quizzical look. “No, Sirrah. No one like that. Just the tavern owner within the past hour, the barmaid several times, and a few of the guests.”
“Has anyone come to see Miss Olivander?” Hunter then asked.
“Not a one. As per the detective’s orders, Ah take in a bit for the Miss to be nibblin’ on. Ah won’t be lettin’ even the barmaid within a few paces of the door,” the constable replied firmly.
“Good man,” Hunter said while he pushed a key into his door lock. When the unlatched door swung wide open, Anthony leaned heavily against the door frame and rubbed his eyes with a deep, depressed sigh. His room was a wreck, his belongings scattered wildly about. However, that was all secondary.
There, in the middle of the room, was Vivian Carpenter, dead.
She was tied to the chair, her body slumped ever so slightly to one side, eyes wide and staring in horror, her face lax in its death mask. The captain noticed a small scrap of paper pinned to her sleeve with a steel hat pin. He walked over and detached the paper. While he read the message, his face became a mask of cold fury.
“Anthony, what is it?” Thorias asked as he skid to a stop at the door to Hunter’s room. “Oh my,” he said in a low voice.
A gasp of shock behind Thorias was followed by Moira’s voice, “Mrs. Carpenter …”
Thorias stepped into the room to examine the body while Hunter read the note aloud to himself and anyone within hearing. “‘Stay out of matters that don’t concern you!’ Nothing else on the paper.”
“Lydia!” Moira said abruptly. Then, before anyone could say a word, she bolted down the hallway. The constable immediately stood and put out a hand to stop her.
“Sorry, Miss, the Detective be quite clear on it,” he said firmly. “Only a handful are allowed to be visitin’.”
“Look, there’s a dead body down there,” Moira said, pointing back to Captain Hunter’s room.
“What?” the constable said in alarm. “Just now?”
“Weren’t ya payin’ attention? Yes! She is … was … Mrs. Carpenter,” Moira explained. “Mrs. Carpenter was Lydia’s friend. I’m just wantin’ to check on Lydia. Just to make sure nothing’s happened.”
“She’s there, Miss. Ah brought a tray in for her a wee bit ago. She ought ta be restin’ now,” the constable replied firmly.
Moira fixed a stern frown at the constable. “We outta at least check, y’know!”
Flustered with the turn of events and the obstinate woman standing before him in the hallway, the young constable fumbled for his keys. “The Detective’ll be havin’ my hide for lettin’ you in like this. But it’d be only right to do.”
A few yards down the hallway at Captain Hunter’s room, Thorias looked up from where he knelt beside Mrs. Carpenter’s body. “Strangled. More accurately, suffocated in that ‘burking’ manner I told you about before.”
Hunter, who still stood next to the body, nodded as Brian and Anita Monkhouse appeared on the landing, followed by some of the more curious patrons from the common room below.
Mrs. Monkhouse gasped in shock at the sight of the body. She held out a hand to steady herself against a nearby wall. Brian turned pale, then red with rage. “What be goin’ on here?” he exclaimed..
“A murder, and a warning,” Hunter replied sharply as he left the room. The captain pushed through the crowd towards the top of the stairs. “Jimmy!” he shouted. “I need to know precisely where you were given your message.”
There was no answer from below. Hunter raced back down the stairs, but where Jimmy had stood, only Hunter’s overturned pint of stout lay. Mary was on her knees scrubbing the floor.
“Mary!” Hunter barked. “Where’s the boy?”
“Oh, him?” she said sourly. “Took a swipe of your stout, Cap’n. Ah told him to leave it be! But no, the lad had to go and be stubborn about it!” she groused bitterly. “Turned him green, it did. He said he was feelin’ ill, so raced out the back.”
Without another word, Hunter tore across the room for the back of the tavern. He opened the door so forcefully that it slammed against the wall with a bang while he rushed outside.
The narrow street that ran behind the White Hart Tavern was empty save for three overgrown, forgotten wooden boxes stacked by the left side of the door. Black birds called out from their perch in the nearby trees that dotted the far side of the road. Jimmy, however, was nowhere to be seen. Hunter took another step out. He looked at the ground, the road, and behind the boxes.
Finally, Hunter spotted Jimmy’s woolen cap next to the road. Beside it were the partial imprints of hooves where a horse had stood for more than a few minutes. Turning the hat over, the captain found a small spot of fresh blood on the inside near the back.
After a moment of morbid silence, all Hunter could say was, “Damnit, boy.”
Moira raced out of the back door of the tavern. “Cap’n!” she shouted. “Cap’n! It’s Lydia! We just checked. She’s not in her room! Her window’s been cut open, and she’s gone!”