After the cold-blooded murder of her odious husband, Marisol Pendenning, a lovely but pregnant young widow, and Lord Kimbrough, the handsome aristocrat who had been the last to see the victim alive, are drawn into the search for a killer.
“Facts is facts,” quoth the Bow Street Runner. “They don’t change for nobody, not even a duke.” Mr. Jeremiah Dimm (“That’s my name, not my brain”) unbuttoned his red vest and leaned back in his stuffed chair, official ledger, pads, and pencil on the table next to him. He sighed once in contentment when his son poured another bucket of hot water into the basin in which the officer’s aching feet were splayed. Then he sighed again and took his good luck piece out of the vest’s pocket. The lad had to be taught right, if he was ever to be a successful thief-taker like his da.
“Now listen, Gabriel, facts is like this here rock.” He dangled the stone from its string so Gabriel could see the streak of gold through it. “You can turn it this way and that, look at it from every side and every angle, and it’s allus the same. You, me, everybody, we all see the same rock. That’s a fact.”
He held the stone in one beefy fist and let the string trail down. “Now, suspicions, they is like this string. Sneaky, snaky bastards a man can get to take on any shape. See, they can wrap theyselves around your facts a hundred different ways.” He illustrated his point by twining the cord one way, then another around the rock, finally ending the lesson with the string tied in a square knot around the stone, like a package. “You got to make sure the supposition fits the facts.”
Young Mr. Dimm hung on his father’s words, even though he’d seen the demonstration countless times out of mind. Anxious to follow in his father’s illustrious if aching footsteps, Gabe nodded eagerly. “Like the Denning case.”
His father agreed. “Like the Denning case. It would be easy as pie to pin the thing on the duchess. Witness saw her at the scene, she admits having words with Denning, and lud knows there was motive. But.”
Gabe leaned forward. “But it doesn’t fit?”
The older Dimm reached out for his occurrence book. “It fits too neat, if you was to ask me. And there be a dozen different theories that fit just as well. Problem is, there just ain’t enough facts to make any quick resolution to the case. His nibs ain’t going to be happy.”
“His nibs” being Mr. Dimm’s boss at Bow Street, the officer consulted his notes again, looking for insight. What he had was deuced little to look at.
Late that November afternoon, Duchess Denning had received a note, directing Her Grace to the carriageway between Denning House, Portman Square, and its neighbor, Armbruster House. There Lady Denning had come upon her husband’s closed carriage, whose door she opened to find the duke in flagrante delicto, as it were, with Lady Armbruster. The duchess declared her intention of retiring to the country to have her child, with the duke or without, and damn his eyes, while Lady Armbruster fled out the other side of the carriage. Both women’s testimony agreed to that point. Then the duchess made her cumbersome way back to the ducal property, let herself in the side library door while the servants were at their supper, and retired to her bedchamber to start packing. Which was where her maid found her when the Watch banged on the door, after the driver returned, as ordered, to restore His Grace’s carriage to the coach house in the mews.
So facts were as thin on the ground as hen’s teeth. Mr. Dimm had the note, which had been delivered by an urchin, the Denning butler reported. He had Lady Armbruster’s pantalettes from the closed carriage. He had a recently fired pistol, the mate of which was still in Lord Denning’s desk, and he had one very dead duke.
Both of the women involved were unavailable for interviews by the time Officer Dimm was assigned the case. Lady Denning’s physician had prescribed a heavy sedative immediately after the local constable took her deposition, and Lady Armbruster had dosed herself into laudanum-laced sleep after telling the constable what little she knew, between hysterical bouts of “I’m ruined, I’m ruined.”
She sure as Hades wouldn’t be getting any invites to Almack’s, if Mr. Dimm knew the ways of the ton, which he did, as much as any working man could, which was why his nibs had given Dimm the case.
If he could not question two of the people most directly involved in the crime, Mr. Dimm could at least spend profitable hours querying the employees, the neighbors, and the residents of both houses, and both Their Graces’ associates and relations. Which he did, traipsing across the raw London landscape from servants’ halls to gentlemen’s clubs, from ladies’ parlors to taverns, gathering blisters and gossip. He didn’t find any witnesses to the crime or any more pertinent evidence, but he did get enough information to compile a list of suspects three pages long in his daybook, with every motive that ever existed for murder, and nary an alibi that could hold water. The only surprising thing he found from his investigations was that Lord Arvid Pendenning, Duke of Denning, had lived this long without someone killing the dastard ages ago.
If Jeremiah Dimm had the handling of the thing, all those suspects would be gathered up and hauled off to little cells in Bow Street and held there until one of them sweated out a confession or a valid accusation. But his nibs had vetoed that idea. Bow Street’s funding would be slashed if the nobility found themselves treated like common criminals. Handle the toffs like lambkins, he’d ordered Jeremiah Dimm. Don’t make the scandal any worse than it is, he’d commanded. Don’t offend the innocent or the influential. But solve the bloody case, and do it quick!
So Jeremiah Dimm tracked down all his other likely prospects, besides the sleeping ladies, that is, taking notes well into the night. That was how, for once, he found his crowded little house on Hill Street in Kensington blessedly quiet of chatter and squabbles and cooking clatter. He lit a clay pipe and sighed again. A man could enjoy peaceful times by the fireside like this, if he didn’t have so much else on his mind, and swollen ankles.
With smoke rising from the pipe, the Runner read through his notes. He had started with the servants at Denning House, interrupting their celebrations at the duke’s demise. If ever there was a loose screw, His Grace was it. Extravagant in his own pleasures, Denning was a cheeseparing tyrant with his household. He was vicious and abusive to the men and not above taking liberties with the women. He was often in his cups, frequently violent, and capricious both in dismissals and paying earned wages. Of course, they had all claimed, conditions were much better since Her Grace had arrived three years ago. Half of the staff refused to believe such a kind, courteous female could commit ruthless murder; the other half thought she was justified, especially in her condition.
Dimm had no real suspicions of the servants. For one thing, there had not been a dismissal in a year, and the most disgruntled had left voluntarily for other positions, not the nubbing cheat. Life was bearable under the duchess, and good jobs were hard to find. Besides, they were all accounted for at the approximate hour of the crime, having early supper in the belowstairs dining room. The only ones missing were the chef and his two assistants, who were starting preparations for the family’s dinner, and Her Grace’s woman and the duke’s man. Having helped her mistress from her bath and onto her couch for a rest, the maid, Eleanor Tyson, was in the ironing room, pressing the gown the duchess would wear to dinner. As Tyson noted, Her Grace’s condition required a great deal of fabric to be ironed. Tyson usually ate later, while the family sat to dinner. Purvis, the valet, was laying out the duke’s evening clothes while waiting his turn to smooth out any creases in the duke’s neckcloths. But one of the footmen had placed his finger alongside his nose. Purvis, it seemed, was sweet on Tyson, and took any excuse to share her company. Good for them. Dimm shrugged and turned the page.
The servants, even those who staunchly maintained their mistress’s innocence, admitted that the ducal marriage was less than ideal. Miss Marisol Laughton had accepted the dissolute duke in her come-out Season because her family was at point non plus, and he promised relief. Arvid, Lord Denning, had taken a bride almost twenty years his junior because she was a Diamond and he needed an heir. He hadn’t come through with the commission for her brother or the annuity for her aunt; she hadn’t conceived for nearly three years. Neither got what they expected, and the servants agreed Lady Denning got the worst of the deal. Her Grace’s maid reluctantly revealed the use of the hare’s foot to cover up bruises on Her Grace’s fair skin, although those occasions were blessedly less numerous once Lady Denning was known to be awaiting a blessed event. Arguments between husband and wife grew more frequent, however, as the duchess’s time grew near.