amuse himself, if only for a moment, with the agreeable thought of a mob from the Blue Dog overrunning Lord Edmonton’s country home and hunting him with scythes and axes.

The carriage, a new, lighter two-wheeled cabriolet, had covered the treacherous terrain from Bow Street and north through Hackney and Homerton in less time than a short-stop stagecoach. Yet it had left him exposed to the elements and Pyke cursed Edmonton for insisting they meet at Hambledon Hall rather than at one of his town houses. That, and the inclement weather, redoubled Pyke’s determination to charge Edmonton at least twice the figure the old man intended to offer him.

As the afternoon rain began to clear, the old Elizabethan hall became visible, its crenellated stone walls and Gothic, semi-fortified tower reminders of an era long gone. Still, Pyke was disappointed by the distinctly shabby interior. There were none of the excesses that he had been expecting. Lit dimly by gas lamps and candles, the entrance hall had the feel of an empty tomb. Pyke reluctantly allowed one of the servants to take his heavy coat and was informed that Edmonton would be down to greet him in due course. Etiquette demanded that Pyke remain where he was, and so he unhesitatingly made his way through large doors into the Great Hall, an unappealing room cluttered with dark furniture and adorned with a gallery of grim-faced ancestral portraits. Ornately carved wooden brackets held up the heraldic panels of the ceiling. In the distance Pyke heard the soft notes of a piano and followed the sounds through another smaller set of doors, along a corridor and to the threshold of a lounge room warmed by a fire.

From the doorway, and without drawing attention to his presence, he watched Emily Blackwood, Lord Edmonton’s only progeny. Pyke followed her fingers as they stroked the piano’s keys and noted a contradiction between her expression, fixed in concentration, and her body, which moved in time with the rhythm of what she was playing.

She wore an embroidered muslin dress that enhanced her delicate frame. Her dark hair was gathered in a simple comb and offset her pale skin. He admired her fine looks as someone might appreciate a painting by Turner, an object that was pleasing to the eye but ultimately bland. Far better than Turner, for Pyke, was Hogarth, with his scenes of despair and violence. Better still was Hieronymus Bosch; those phantasmagoric images of human suffering made him feel, at once violated and aroused. In short, there was something too virtuous about Emily Blackwood, an element that shone from within her and made her not just unobtainable but somehow too perfect. He wondered whether she might crumble or snap into pieces, should anyone try to fuck her.

Though reluctant to spoil the moment, he feigned a cough. She stopped playing and looked up at him, startled and then angry. They had met once before when he had last performed a service for her father; however, he could not tell whether she recognised him or not. She worked for the philanthropist Elizabeth Fry, a woman of some public esteem, who had long campaigned for improved conditions in Newgate prison.

‘I would tell you to make yourself at home, but clearly you have already followed such advice,’ she said, without moving from behind the piano.

‘You are a very fine pianist.’ Pyke stepped into the room and ignored her indignation.

‘You fancy yourself as an expert?’ she asked, sceptically.

‘At first, I thought you were playing a piece by Mozart, one of his piano concertos perhaps. But then I considered the way you carried yourself, as though you were trying to hold something back against your will, and it made me revise my opinion.’

Her anger abated and a curious expression spread across her face. ‘You presume to know me, and what I played, perhaps a little too well.’

‘Last month, I saw this German fellow, Felix Mendelssohn, give a fine rendition of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in town. What you were playing reminded me a little of him.’

‘Mr Pyke, you are clearly more cultured than your reputation suggests.’

‘Oh? And what does my reputation suggest?’ He tried to hide his satisfaction that she had remembered his name.

‘When people talk of you, they do so with a reverence that borders, I would say, on fear.’

‘And you imagine that I seek to encourage such a reputation? Or deserve it?’ He was wearing a shirt with a collar to hide the cut he had received from Flynn’s blade.

This time she smiled a little. ‘I would imagine it serves your own interests quite well.’

‘My interests as a thief-taker?’

‘I have heard that only one of those words describes what you are, Mr Pyke. Or what you do.’

He couldn’t stop himself laughing. He looked at her again, approvingly this time. ‘You seem to know an awful lot about me, Miss Blackwood.’

‘I know you’re a Bow Street Runner but I have little idea of what Bow Street Runners are meant to do. I can see you’re confident to the point of vulgarity. I would guess your age to be a little over thirty. I have heard other less agreeable rumours about your profession in general which I do not wish to dwell on. Beyond that, I have been blissfully unaware of your existence and intend to remain that way.’

Emily Blackwood was, indeed, very pretty, but not as pretty as she might have been had her dress been tattier, or her hair not so immaculately pinned up, or had she not worn her breeding so aggressively in the company of others.

Pyke had been told he was handsome, although not in the suave if effete manner of an English gentleman. His thick black hair, curled in places, mutton-chop sideburns and swarthy olive skin suggested someone coarser, more readily associated with Continental peasants and bandits. A former lover, after she had been discarded, had described his lips as cruel and his pale grey eyes as lacking in sentiment. Another, while running the tips of her fingers suggestively across his bare chest, had commented that there was not an ounce of fat on him, although she too had delivered more disparaging remarks about his appearance after he had admitted growing bored of their affair.

‘I have heard something about your own good work, Miss Blackwood. Since Mrs Fry first visited Newgate there have been some important changes.’

‘It’s a shame that our interests largely concern the female prison, for otherwise you yourself might benefit from the reforms at some future point.’

Pyke allowed her remark to pass. ‘Your fine looks belie a sharp intellect,’ he said, amiably. ‘But then your piano playing already revealed that fact.’ He was interrupted by the sound of raised voices and the urgent clip of heeled shoes striding across a wooden floor. Edmonton himself entered the room, wheezing like a wounded animal, followed by someone Pyke knew only by reputation; in the flesh, Edmonton’s brother William seemed frightened of his own shadow.

‘Dammit, Pyke, were you not told to wait in the entrance hall? Do you imagine I care to walk through my own home searching for hired help?’

Pyke bowed his head. ‘Please accept my apologies. It was selfish of me to forget that such strenuous exercise might cause you discomfort.’ He detected a smile on Emily’s face.

Edmonton’s bloodshot eyes narrowed. ‘As I am reminded that conversing in a manner above one’s station does not make one a gentleman.’

Pyke let the insult pass. It was true he had worked hard to erase any lingering trace of the rookeries from his speech and was as comfortable holding forth with aristocrats as with the working poor of St Giles.

‘You seem agitated, Father.’ Emily’s demeanour belied her apparently sympathetic words. ‘What vexes you so?’

‘What vexes me?’ Edmonton, who was carrying a newspaper, glanced down at the front page. ‘ “The particular case of Catholic Emancipation will not be stated in detail . . .” Pah. The cowards are afraid to, that’s why.’ He crumpled the newspaper and threw it into the fire. ‘It’s the consequence of handing over power to a military man and a turncoat industrialist with liberal blood running through his veins.’

‘Except liberal blood doesn’t extend to easing the hardships most ordinary people have to endure,’ Pyke said, looking across at Emily. ‘And the idle rich remain idly rich.’

‘What poppycock,’ Edmonton said, wiping spit from his chin. ‘You sound like a damn Jacobin.’

‘Or worse still, a reformer,’ Emily said, playfully. ‘Excuse me for being presumptuous, Mr Pyke, but perhaps you might enlighten us as to your own political convictions.’

‘The word “conviction” implies I have a firm opinion on such matters, one way or the other.’

‘You would like us to believe you are entirely without conviction?’ Her eyebrows were raised.

Pyke smiled as best he could. ‘I think tradition should be upheld only when under attack from reformers, and

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