Anne Perry

Seven Dials

Book 23 in the Thomas Pitt series, 2003


PITT OPENED HIS EYES but the thumping did not stop. The first gray of mid-September daylight showed through the curtains. It was not yet six, and there was someone at the front door.

Beside him, Charlotte stirred a little in her sleep. In a moment the knocking would waken her too.

He slid out of bed and moved quickly across the floor and onto the landing. He ran down the stairs in his bare feet, snatched his coat off the rack in the hall, and with one arm through the sleeve, unbolted the front door.

“Good morning, sir,” Jesmond said apologetically, his hand still in the air to knock again. He was about twenty- four, seconded from one of the local London police stations to Special Branch, and he considered it to be a great promotion. “Sorry, sir,” he went on. “But Mr. Narraway wants you, straightaway, like.”

Pitt saw the waiting hansom just beyond him, the horse fidgeting a little, its breath hanging vapor in the air. “All right,” he said with irritation. It was not a particularly interesting case he was on, but he had it nearly solved; only one or two small pieces remained. He did not want a distraction now. “Come in.” He gestured behind him towards the passage to the kitchen. “If you know how, you can riddle the stove and put the kettle on.”

“No time, sir, beggin’ your pardon,” Jesmond said grimly. “Can’t tell you wot it’s about, but Mr. Narraway said ter come right away.” He stood firmly on the pavement as if remaining rooted to the spot would make Pitt leave with him even sooner.

Pitt sighed and went back in, closing the door to keep the damp air out. He climbed the stairs, doffing his coat, and by the time he was in the bedroom, pouring water out of the ewer into the basin, Charlotte was sitting up in bed pushing her heavy hair out of her eyes.

“What is it?” she asked, although after more than ten years of marriage to him, first when he was in the police, now the last few months in the Special Branch, she knew. She started to get out of bed.

“Don’t,” he said quickly. “There’s no point.”

“I’ll get you a cup of tea, at least,” she replied, ignoring him and standing on the rug beside the bed. “And some hot water to shave. It’ll only take twenty minutes or so.”

He put down the ewer and went over to her, touching her gently. “I’d have had the constable do it, if there were time. There isn’t. You might as well go back to sleep… and keep warm.” He slid his arms around her, holding her close to him. He kissed her, and then again. Then he stepped back and returned to the basin of cold water and began to wash and dress, ready to report to Victor Narraway, as far as he knew, the head of the Secret Service in Queen Victoria ’s vast empire. If there was anybody above him, Pitt did not know of it.

Outside, the streets were barely stirring. It was too early for cooks and parlor maids, but tweenies, bootboys, and footmen were about, carrying in fresh coal, taking deliveries of fish, vegetables, fruit, and poultry. Areaway doors were open and sculleries were brightly lit in the shadows of the widening dawn.

It was not very far from Keppel Street, where Pitt lived in a modest but very respectable part of Bloomsbury, to the discreet house where Narraway currently had his offices, but it was already daylight when Pitt went in and up the stairs. Jesmond remained below. He had apparently finished his task.

Narraway was sitting in the big armchair he seemed to take with him from one house to another. He was slender, wiry, and at least three inches shorter than Pitt. He had thick, dark hair, touched with gray at the temples, and eyes so dark they seemed black. He did not apologize for getting Pitt out of bed, as Cornwallis, Pitt’s superior in the police, would have done.

“There’s been a murder at Eden Lodge,” he said quietly. His voice was low and very precise, his diction perfect. “This would be of no concern to us, except that the dead man is a junior diplomat, of no particular distinction, but he was shot in the garden of the Egyptian mistress of a senior cabinet minister, and it seems the minister was unfortunately present at the time.” He stared levelly at Pitt.

Pitt took a deep breath. “Who shot him?” he asked.

Narraway’s eyes did not blink. “That is what I wish you to find out, but so far it unfortunately looks as if Mr. Ryerson is involved, since the police do not seem to have found anyone else on the premises, apart from the usual domestic servants, who were in bed. And rather worse than that, the police arrived to find the woman actually attempting to dispose of the body.”

“Very embarrassing,” Pitt agreed dryly. “But I don’t see what we can do about it. If the Egyptian woman shot him, diplomatic immunity doesn’t stretch to cover murder, does it? Either way, we cannot affect it.”

Pitt would have liked to add that he had no desire or intention of covering the fact that a cabinet minister had been present, but he very much feared that that was exactly what Narraway was going to ask him to do, for some perceived greater good of the government or the safety of some diplomatic negotiation. There were aspects of being in Special Branch that he disliked intensely, but ever since the business in Whitechapel he had had little choice. He had been dismissed from his position as head of the Bow Street station, and had accepted secondment to Special Branch as protection for himself from the persecution that had followed his exposure of the Inner Circle ’s power and its crimes. His new assignment was the only avenue open to him in which he could use his skills to earn a living for himself and his family.

Narraway gave a slight smile, no more than an acknowledgment of a certain irony.

“Just go and find out, Pitt. She’s been taken to the Edgware Road police station. The house is on Connaught Square, apparently. Somebody is spending a good deal of money on it.”

Pitt gritted his teeth. “Mr. Ryerson, I presume, if she is his mistress. I suppose you are not saying that loosely?”

Narraway sighed. “Go and find out, Pitt. We need the truth before we can do anything about it. Stop weighing it and judging, and go and do your job.”

“Yes, sir,” Pitt said tartly, standing a little straighter for an instant before turning on his heel and going out, thrusting his hands into his jacket pockets and pushing the entire garment out of shape.

He set out along the street westward towards Hyde Park and the Edgware Road, intending to pick up a hansom as soon as he saw one.

There were more people around now, more traffic in the streets. He passed a newsboy with the earliest edition, headlining the threat of strikes in the cotton mills of Manchester. This problem had been grumbling on for a while, and looked like it was getting worse. Processing cotton was the biggest industry in the whole of the West Midlands, and tens of thousands of people made their living from it, one way or another. The raw cotton was imported from Egypt and woven, dyed and manufactured into goods there, then sold again all over the world. The damage of a strike would spread wide and deep.

There was a woman on the corner of the street selling hot coffee. The sky was calm and still, shredded with ragged clouds, but he was chilled enough to find the prospect of a hot drink welcome. There could well be no time for breakfast. He stopped.

“Mornin’, sir,” she said cheerfully, grinning to show two missing teeth. “Lovely day, sir. But a nip in the air, eh? ’Ow abaht an ’ot cup ter start the mornin’?”

“Yes, please.”

“That’ll be tuppence, sir.” She held out a gnarled hand, fingers dark with the stain of the beans.

He gave her the money, and accepted the steaming coffee in return. He stood on the pavement, drinking slowly and thinking how he could approach the police when he reached the Edgware Road station. They would resent his interference, even if the case threatened to be so ugly they would be glad to pass the blame on to someone else. He knew how he had felt when he was in charge of Bow Street. Good or bad, he wanted to handle cases himself, not have his judgment overridden by senior officers who knew less of the area, of the details of the evidence, and

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