reform should be upheld only when under attack from traditionalists. Apart from that, the business of politics is best undertaken by those of us who seem to believe our goal as human beings is a selfless one, rather than to serve our own ambitions.’

‘How delightfully cynical.’

‘What I mean is I have no politics myself and am happy to leave such business to men of your father’s . . . abilities.’

Edmonton accepted the compliment without apparently detecting its irony. ‘That’s enough of such pleasantries. Make yourself scarce, girl. The menfolk have some important matters to discuss.’ He rearranged his white waistcoat, revealing buckskin breeches that were stretched so tightly over his belly it seemed as though they might split at any moment.

‘Please excuse me, Mr Pyke, I have some flowers to press,’ Emily said, smiling mischievously. ‘But I have no doubt our paths will cross again.’ She collected herself to depart. ‘Until they do, I bid you farewell and hope you have a pleasant trip back to the city.’ She glanced out of the window. ‘It is such a ghastly day.’ Turning to Edmonton, Emily added, ‘Father.’

Edmonton muttered something inaudible and shook his head.

As a Bow Street Runner, Pyke worked for two magistrates, Sir Richard Fox and his second-in-command Brownlow Vines, who both presided over the courtroom at Bow Street and oversaw the operations of the Runners. The Runners were the capital’s de facto police force; foot patrols roamed the city streets as far east as the Ratcliffe highway, while the horse patrols covered an even wider area stretching as far north as Enfield. In his ten years as a Runner, Pyke had served on both patrols, though he had more quickly taken to the latter, in spite of the showy uniform - a blue greatcoat over a red waistcoat and spurred Wellington boots. Chasing highwaymen and livestock thieves on horseback, armed with pistols and truncheons, across rugged country terrain had been eminently preferable to patrolling the city’s back alleys on foot. Now, however, Pyke was employed almost exclusively as a thief-taker and as a recoverer of stolen goods. Under Sir Richard’s instructions, his job was to arrest those malefactors accused of crimes as various as murder on the one hand and embezzlement on the other, and deliver them to Bow Street. But part of his job was also to provide a service to well-heeled clients who had been victims of crime, usually robberies. If he successfully recovered what had been stolen, Pyke would be paid a finder’s fee. Two years earlier, Pyke had performed such a service for Edmonton, whose Belgravia town house had been relieved of six thousand pounds’ worth of jewellery and bonds. On that occasion, Pyke had orchestrated the return of all the stolen articles, and had earned a fee of three hundred guineas.

What Edmonton did not know was that, in collaboration with another Runner who had a personal score to settle with the aristocrat, he had executed the robbery.

Edmonton introduced his brother, and Pyke remembered he was a banker. His double-breasted jacket and trousers were cut from cheap cloth and made him look more like a Puritan minister than a successful businessman. He was frail in comparison with his brother, and seemed to occupy the background, as if it were his natural place in the order of things.

‘I don’t know how much you know about banking, Pyke, but suffice to say, my brother owns and manages a collection of small country banks . . .’

‘We have branches in Norwich, Ely, Colchester and King’s Lynn.’ William spoke in a soft, almost effeminate voice.

‘Yes, quite.’ The lord turned a hard stare on his brother. ‘A small business, then, but not an insignificant one, you’ll understand. I take an interest only when scandal or ill fortune threaten to impugn the family’s good name. I fancy my brother will not mind if I let it be known that my judicious intervention helped save the business from ruin during the last banking crisis a little over three years ago.’

‘Well, that’s not entirely the case . . .’ Beads of sweat had gathered on the brother’s forehead.

‘For heaven’s sake. If I wanted your opinion on the matter, I would have asked for it. Can I speak without being interrupted?’

‘I just didn’t want Mr Pyke to think the banks were managed recklessly. A well-regulated country bank only issues notes in fair demand . . .’

‘What Pyke thinks of your rather modest acumen as a businessman is quite beside the point,’ Edmonton said, ‘but then again we would not be in this mess if it were not for your childlike sense of what constitutes appropriate security and your wholly predictable lack of judgement.’

William glared but refrained from starting an argument.

‘Now, would you permit me to speak without interruption? ’

William mumbled something weakly in response.

The function of a country bank, Edmonton went on to explain, was to oversee the circulation of banknotes in a particular area, and exchange banknotes belonging to the Bank of England and other smaller banks for their own. It was also to facilitate the transfer of funds from cities to towns and vice versa.

‘Usually there is no need to transfer hard currency between banks, unless one is embroiled in a banking crisis, in which case it might be necessary or prudent to bolster one’s cash reserves.’

William stood in silence next to the fire.

‘Presently, however, the opposite is the case. All our banks are performing admirably and it is incumbent on us to transfer the surplus capital to where the demand is greatest. For our bank, that is London. Now, we keep all our surplus currency and a great proportion of our general circulation in government security inside the Bank of England itself but, and this is the vexed issue, on occasion we have to take it there ourselves. We currently lease an office close to the Bank of England on Cornhill in which we have installed a vault. The funds from our various country banks are transferred there for safe keeping, and when it is deemed appropriate, are taken under heavy guard to the Bank of England.’

Pyke forgot about the icy temperature. Large sums of money were being discussed.

‘Until now everything has worked perfectly well.’ Edmonton drank liberally from a glass of claret. As he did so, his Adam’s apple swelled to the size of a small plum. ‘But, I am afraid to say, the last two deliveries, one from the bank in King’s Lynn and the other from the Colchester branch, have been . . . how can I put it without sounding vulgar ? Well, suffice to say, two thousand pounds has gone missing. Not enough to break us, you will be relieved to hear, but banking is a business built on trust, and if our investors discovered that such a sum had been stolen from under our noses, well, you can understand the awkward position it would put us in.’

He made a point of glaring at his brother. William kept his eyes on the floor. His face, however, was crimson.

On each occasion, Pyke was told, the carriage transporting the money had been held up by a team of four masked riders, once near Waltham Abbey and once just outside Chelmsford. On both occasions, the guards riding with the carriage, who were also employed as parish watchmen, had been beaten unconscious. Although the men had been armed, they had not managed to let off a single shot. Pyke did not bother to tell Edmonton that, as someone who had served on Bow Street’s horse and foot patrols, he considered watchmen to be wholly ineffectual. Edmonton explained that he did not imagine for a moment the attacks had been random. Rather he believed information regarding the transfer of money had been leaked by someone within the bank to his associates. Edmonton also claimed he knew who was responsible and berated his brother for employing this man in the first place.

William continued to stare in silence at the floor but his hands were clenched so tightly the whites of his knuckles were shining.

‘Would you care to share that information with me?’ Pyke asked.

‘That would depend on whether I can count on your services regarding this matter or not.’

‘Since we are what one might call old acquaintances, how would you feel if I proposed a modest fee of, say, five hundred guineas?’

Edmonton’s face puffed up like a bullfrog’s throat until it was so blotchy he could no longer hold in his indignation.

‘Modest! ’ He made to loosen his collar. ‘My God, you are an impudent sort. It’s almost half of what was stolen.’

‘I see your mathematics is as well developed as your generosity as a host.’ The brother, Pyke noticed, was also without a drink.

‘Or my sense of righteous outrage is as well developed as my prudence.’ Edmonton’s neck wobbled as he

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