Monday, August 31, 2009

BAIT AND FRIENDSHIP: A Catherine & David Mystery

Author's Note: Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket...did my middle name use to be Adjective? Maybe Adverb? This is quite possibly the longest short story ever written, but what can I say? I was thirteen and thirsting for words. More than that, I was thirsting for adventure, and I imagined it in excess. I've cleaned this up considerably, but there are some things you can't scrub out of something meant to be precisely as silly and for-fun as it reads. Enjoy!

      It was a balmy night in Grosvenor Square, but the inside of Lady Wendleham’s ballroom was nothing short of stifling. Miss Catherine Quimble, a particular friend of the countess, was at least managing to appear cool as she sat in a chair on one side of the large, opulent room, slowly sipping her glass of champagne. Her dress was designed specifically for that effect, the pale pink silk looking crisp in the candlelight even though it was heavy and the lace-trimmed tucks were difficult to manage. She was listening halfheartedly to something her friend Jillian McCullaugh was saying. It was probably something terribly scandalous -- even more scandalous than the low cut gown Jillian was wearing that evening. It had caused quite a stir the moment she arrived.
      “I’m sorry, Jilly I haven’t been able to listen to a word you've said over everyone else's chatting. They're all talking about you, you know. Why did you have to wear that dress tonight? And isn’t your grandmother’s sapphire necklace a bit much?” Catherine gestured at the heirloom, a piece not at all suited to Jillian’s relatively young age.
      Jillian laughed. She always laughed, and she was always completely unconcerned about any stir she caused. It was the strangely Jillian thing about her. Though she was Irish, she looked unquestionably English, her complexion fair, her hair a pale blond, and her eyes an impertinent shade of green. In so many ways she was Catherine’s complete opposite, and appearance was but one of them. While Jillian was fashionably tall, Catherine was diminutive in comparison. She had wide brown eyes like that of wild doe, and her hair was a darker blond hue, more like caramel than honey. While Jillian loved a good commotion, especially if she was the center of it, Catherine was far more reserved in company. She dressed elegantly, never a hair or bit of lace out of place, but she never hesitated to leave her own creative mark on the fashions of the day, subtle though they might be.
      “I was saying that this ball is turning out to be very dull anyway, and to answer your question, I most certainly did have to wear this gown and necklace. How else is Lord Hayward ever to notice me?”
      Catherine smiled tolerantly while Jillian let her sigh speak loudly enough for her exasperation with her reluctant suitor.
As the strains of the last set died away, a lilting waltz quickly took its place. Several of the couples trickled from the dance floor and several others took their places. The ball was most certainly a sensational “squeeze,” making dancing quite a hazard.
      “Look, Cathy, here come my sister and her friend,” observed Jillian, once again drawing Catherine back to the fact that they were supposed to be in conversation
      Indeed, Jillian McCullaugh’s younger sister Mallory and a young gentleman were approaching from the other side of the crowded room. The gentleman was tall with a distinguished look. He had light brown hair, longish as was in style, and eyes of a brilliant shade of blue. He was dressed in the required black, and Mallory, not quite as daring as her sister, was still dressed more vibrantly than was proper for her even-younger years.
      “Jilly, Cathy,” Mallory smiled. “Why aren't you dancing? Cathy, might I introduce to you Mr. David Carrather? David, this is Miss Catherine Quimble, one of Jilly's greatest friend. We've known her absolutely forever. And Davy's just taken a house down the street, Cathy. He's been keeping things livelier than they've been in years. I think I should die of boredom without him."
      Catherine didn’t rise, but she extended her hand in response to his bow.
      “How do you do, Mr. Carrather? It’s a pleasure to meet you,” smiled Catherine politely, but without much interest. Mallory was wont to rave about every newcomer.
      “The pleasure’s all mine. Would you care to dance if you're not already engaged?”
      Catherine didn’t bother to glance at her dance card, handing her champagne glass to Jillian as she rose and allowing David to lead her unto the dance floor. He held her at a very proper distance as they stepped into the waltz on the third beat rather than the first. He was obviously a skilled dancer, newcomer or no.
      “Jillian and Mallory have been speaking highly of you since the beginning of the Season, Mr. Carrather. It’s an honor to meet you at last.”
      David laughed, revealing even, white teeth.
      “I find it much more likely that they've been filling your head with wild exaggerations, Miss Quimble. Those girls are the most indecent gossips I've ever met, though I love them as dearly as any sisters I would wish to have as my own.”
      Catherine smiled and decided that she liked Mr. Carrather's frank language. She proceeded to tell him so, adding: “And please, do call me Catherine. Miss Quimble is reserved for my elder sister, my eldest having recently found a new name for herself. Besides, I find it terribly formal,” she added.
      “Then you must call me David.”
      They continued to make their way in even circles around the room, David avoiding the other dancers with ease. There was a span of comfortable silence before Catherine sighed.
      “What is it?” inquired David.
      “Jillian. I vow that she is going to get herself into trouble one of these days and not know how to get out of it. Look at that dress, and of course the necklace! I swear that half the matrons here were about to faint when they saw it. She knows better, too, she always does, she just does it anyway.”
      “Ah, but look at the stunning effect it’s having on poor Lord Hayward. The baron will find himself leg-shackled before he knows it if he keeps playing into her hands like that.”
      Catherine laughed, though her eyebrows remained furrowed. “But that’s precisely what Jillian wants, didn’t you know?”
      David rolled his eyes. “Yes, as does everyone else here. I don't envy him in the least, no sir. I hope to live to see many more seasons of freedom after this one.”
      The waltz ended and Catherine and David spun to a stop at the end of his sentence. Catherine grabbed two glasses of champagne from a passing footman and offered one to David.
      “I will most certainly toast to that, David Carrather. May we both avoid the meddling matchmakers.”
      The clink of their glasses was lost amidst the merrymaking around them.

      By one in the morning, the evening was finally beginning to wind down. Catherine hadn’t seen Jillian since the waltz, and the rush for the door was already thickening.
      “Please, excuse me,” Catherine muttered half-earnestly while she pushed her way through a few guests so that she could collect her wrap and leave.
      “Catherine! How good to see you again. Have you seen Mallory around? Or Jillian for that matter?” asked David as it turned out it was he whom Catherine had been about to push past.
      Catherine did a cursory glance over the crowd for the McCullaugh sisters. As she did though, Mallory joined them.
      “Have you seen Jillian?” David and Catherine asked in unison.
      Before they even finished asking though, Jillian’s laugh was heard beside them.
      “Have no fear, Lady Hayward is here,” announced Jillian grandly.
      Catherine's mouth fell open. “Don’t ever tell me that he proposed right here. --At the Lady Wendleham's! Gracious, Jillian!” Catherine exclaimed somewhere between surprise and excitement.
      “No, no! He didn’t propose," Jillian laughed. "At least, not exactly, but he's as good as caught. Just you wait and see.”
      Catherine lowered her hand from her chest where it had initially flown in shock and David grinned a little at Jillian’s ability to send even the calmest person into a state of alarm. Jillian turned around so that David could slip her mantle around her shoulders and Catherine found herself gasping again.
      “Oh, Jillian! Where are the sapphires? Please, tell me you took them off.” But the instant Catherine said the words, she knew Jillian would never have done something so logical.
      Jillian’s hand flew to her bare bosom and gasp echoed Catherine's. “They’re gone!”
      Catherine spun around and skimmed the floor in vain hope that the little blue miracles would conveniently be lying nearby. Jillian moaned.
      “Mother is going to kill me!”
      “Not to mention Grandmother,” added Mallory unhelpfully.
      “Well, there’s certainly nothing we can do now,” observed David.
      Catherine nodded at the accuracy of the statement: to try and turn back against the flow of the guests would be suicide. The rush had become deadly and Catherine was acutely aware that guests were growing increasingly impatient to get past them.
“      David’s right. The best we can hope for is to come back tomorrow. Besides, if we don’t move out of the way, we may all end up crushed or worse.”
      The foursome inched slowly into the brisk morning and gradually separated. Catherine waved and called frantically as they separated.
      “I’ll call on you tomorrow, Jilly. Take care! Good bye, Mallory! It was marvelous to meet you, David! Good night everyone!”
      Catherine disappeared into her carriage and David bundled Jillian and Mallory into his own, the two black boxes imperceptible amidst the swarm of identical ones lumbering slowly into the night.

*      *      *

      It was around noon when David Carrather ventured out to pay a call on Lady Wendleham. He hadn’t made his intention known to either Jillian or Mallory; he felt it was his duty to go investigate alone. On account of the morning being particularly fair, David was dressed in a tasteful morning coat of blue Superfine over grey trousers with a matching waistcoat. A tightly tied cravat was held in place with a tiny diamond pin and he idly slapped his white day gloves against his thigh as he walked, rather than wearing them on his hands. As he was walking alone, he swung his cane with his other hand, completing the caricature of a man of leisure. The ebony-handled stick that had once belonged to his father seemed to take the place of human company on David's longer walks, especially when curious thoughts occupied his mind, making conversation impossible. His mind currently puzzling over the missing necklace, David opened the gate to Lady Wendleham’s Grosvenor Square home, the mansion looking much more stately in the daytime than it had the previous night, overflowing with revelers. A stylish barouche pulled by a team of greys pulled up to the curb as David was about to shut the gate and out stepped Catherine Quimble. Halfway down from the carriage, she stopped, noticing David for the first time, and stared at him with obvious surprise.
      “What are you doing here?” they asked each other at once.
      Catherine blushed slightly and David coughed against the back of his hand.
      Catherine lifted her head, as though to shake off any awkwardness she might have felt. “I’m here to talk to Lady Wendleham about Jillian’s missing sapphires, not that it’s anything to you. Why are you here?” she demanded.
      “For precisely the same reason.”
      “Well. Then." Catherine pursed her lips, unsure as to what to say next.
      She finished her descent from the barouche and straightened, smoothing the folds of her simple blue walking dress. Reaching over, she grabbed a quaint bonnet trimmed in forget-me-nots and tied it deftly under her chin. David graciously offered her his arm, and they walked up to the door together. Stepping into the front hall, Catherine offered the butler her card, and the elderly man hurried off promising to see if her ladyship was “in.” Catherine and David waited patiently and were soon led to the Gold Drawing Room.
      “Catherine! Mr. Carrather! How do you do? I’m so pleased to see you both this morning!” smiled the countess, boldly declaring it morning while it was quite accurately after noon.
      David kissed the lady’s hand and Catherine kissed both her cheeks
      “Now, what could I possibly do for the two of you?” she asked, getting straight to the point. She noticed their stunned faces and added, “I can tell by your stern faces that you came here about some matter or other and not a trifling social call. --So, get on with it! No use beating the bush about.”
      David stifled his urge to correct the countess’s words, refraining only because of Catherine's warning look.
      “You're quite right, Lady Wendleham, as always. You see, it has to do with my good friend, Miss McCullaugh,” began Catherine as she seated herself on the settee the countess indicated. David sat beside her.
      “Ah yes, the minx. She caused more than a little bit of a stir last night, didn't she? What with that dress and those pretty little gems around her neck!”
      “Yes,” interrupted David, fearing the conversation would be derailed. “Those pretty little gems, as you call them, are unfortunately now missing.”
      “Oh my!” exclaimed Lady Wendleham, putting her hands to her cheeks in a fabulous act of surprise.
      “Yes. I don’t suppose you found them lying around anywhere, did you?” asked Catherine hopefully, albeit doubtfully. "Perhaps kicked to the side of the corridor from the departing guests last night?
      “No, I’m sorry to say not,” she answered, lowering her hands.
      “Then I'm afraid we must conclude they were either picked up by some good Samaritan who plans to return them...or stolen,” observed David.
      Catherine cleared her throat nervously and the countess was silent.
      “Well, I wish I could be of more use, but the cleaning has all been done and there's no sign of them here. Best of luck to you both in searching for them,” smiled Lady Wendleham stiffly, the conversation clearly ended.
      Catherine and David bid farewell somewhat hastily and exited the drawing room.
      “Well,” sighed David as they descended the stairs to the front hall. “That certainly didn’t get us anywhere, and was mighty suspicious too, I might add. We’re not much better off than before we came.”
      “I have an idea,” Catherine murmured under her breath as they approached the front door and the waiting butler. Then, more loudly than she needed to, for David was right beside her, but not loud enough for the mistress upstairs to hear, Catherine exclaimed, “Oh my! Lady Wendleham forgot to give me the list of her guests last night!” Catherine turned to the butler. “Would you be ever so kind as to run and fetch the list, James? She said it was on the writing desk in her morning room. I would appreciate it if you would,” she smiled.
      James bowed and went to do as he was bid, not suspecting anything in the least. Catherine smiled at David, quite pleased by the result of her spontaneous acting attempt. A few minutes later, the butler returned with the list and handed it to her.
      “Thank you so much, James. Good day,” she nodded.
      “Not bad,” David said once they reached the gate. "Now what, maestro?”
      “We should probably go see how Jillian has weathered the morning and tell her the bad news about not finding anything at Lady Wendleham’s,” answered Catherine as David lifted her back into the barouche. She gestured that he was to join her and they were soon both on their way to the McCullaugh house.
      “Jillian is going to be very disappointed when we come empty handed,” pointed out David.
      “But we’re not empty handed, we have this.” Catherine waved the sheets of paper in her hand.
      “Which reminds me: how did you know where the guest list would be?”
      “Where else would a carefully organized woman keep her guest list but on her writing desk in her morning room, the very place she is most likely to’ve written the invitations?”
      “Of course,” nodded David, sharing Catherine's smile, but not her logic. The world of women was an unknown to him, so he had to presume that this made sense.
      The topic was dropped as they pulled up in front of their destination.

      “What do you mean you didn’t discover anything?” Jillian moaned upon hearing a summary of what had just passed.
      Jillian was reclined on a chaise lounge in the Red Drawing Room wearing a very becoming cherry-stripe walking dress, all frilled and fashionable.
      “We mean that Lady Wendleham was very unhelpful and that we are no closer to finding your grandmother's sapphires than we were last night,” David repeated unhelpfully.
      “Sh, sh!” Jillian glared warningly. "Lower your voice."
      “Which brings me to an interesting point, Jilly. What did you tell your mother about the necklace?” inquired Catherine.
      Jillian blushed. “I told her that the clasp came loose last night and that I was sending it to be fixed today. Both her and Grandmother seemed unconcerned, luckily. No one's worn them in years anyway, it seemed a likely story.”
      “Which buys us a little bit of time I suppose,” Catherine mused aloud. “Answer me this though, Jillian: do you recall the last moment when you were aware of the necklace still being around your neck?"
      Jillian deliberated a moment and then began counting off moments on her fingers.
      “Well, --I remember wearing them when I waltzed with Lord Hayward. I remember having them on when Sir Dooley led me to supper. I know I was wearing them when Sarah Gilmore showed me the peacock in the garden. I can’t remember if I still had them when Sarah introduced me to Lady Lauren Betruccio. Did I tell you I met the Comtessa, Cathy? It was amazing! She’s quite as lovely as everyone says. She was the very picture of a dark Italian beauty, and what a wonderful dress she was wearing. Quite an array of diamonds if I recall, too."
      David opened his mouth, ready once again to make sure the conversation did not stray, when Jillian exclaimed, "But that’s it! I don’t remember having the sapphires when Sarah introduced us. Sarah, that snake! I bet she stole them out of jealousy. She always did have hard feelings for me, especially when she though I stole that silly Danny Farnwood from her, which I never did, but even if I had, he was never really hers anyway. That little thief!”
      "Now, Jillian, be reasonable. You only said you can’t remember if you still had them,” David reminded.
      “That is right,” Catherine was about to agree, but she was interrupted by Jillian.
      "No! I’m convinced of it. It would’ve been a cinch for her to slip them while I was looking at the peacocks running through the moonlit gardens. Quite easy. I even recall that we were practically alone on the balcony. I can’t believe that little--”
      “Enough of the names, Jilly, just the facts for now. Won't you run and get me something to mark the guest list with?”
      Jillian left reluctantly to get a pen from the library and Catherine shuffled through the papers.
      “Do you think it was Sarah?” David asked when they were alone.
      “No,” laughed Catherine. “She and Jillian have had a rivalry since they both came out in the same Season. Sarah’s the jealous type and not beneath viciousness, but I don’t think she’s got fingers swift enough for theft. Shredding reputations, yes, but not stealing jewelry.”
      Jillian returned with the pen and ink and Catherine made a mark beside the names of both Sarah Gilmore and the Comtessa Betruccio. As an afterthought, she also wrote Lady Wendleham and put a mark beside her name as well.
      “You never know,” she explained, knowing full well David had seen her do it.
      “Can anyone think of anyone else?” asked David as Mallory walked in.
      Oh, Davy, when did you get here?”Mallory asked, pecking his cheek as affectionately as she would have a brother.
      “Just a while ago,” he answered.
      “What are you doing today?”
      “Not much as of now.”
      “Care to join the usual troupe on a trip to the Museum?”
      “My pleasure, of course. When do you propose we meet them?”
      “Everyone is coming here in about half an hour and then we’re to dine out afterward. Freddy’s bringing his curricle, so I’m planning to ride with him. Would you mind taking Elizabeth?" When David nodded she clapped her hands. "That’s splendid! All settled then. I’m just going to go change bonnets. --Oh, how is the case of the missing sapphires coming along?” she asked as an afterthought.
      “Not as well as we’d hoped,” answered Catherine vaguely.
      “Oh. --Well, I’ll be down in a few minutes!” Mallory went cheerfully out of the room again.
      “Why don't you and I take a trip to New Bond Street, Jillian?” suggested Catherine. “We can tell your mother that we’re dropping off the necklace at a jeweler, I’ve got a fitting with my modiste, and then we’ll do a little shopping to keep your mind off this business, shall we?" Catherine figured that if David meant to occupy his afternoon elsewhere, she would be best served to do the same. Jillian nodded her agreement, still somewhat sullen.
      "We’ll take my carriage because it’s waiting right outside," Catherine added, rising and waiting for Jillian to follow.
      Jillian nodded her assent in a rare moment of compliancy and went upstairs to grab her gloves and bonnet.
      “What are your plans this evening?” David inquired politely, finding himself once again alone with Catherine.
      “I plan to see an opera at Covent Garden this evening.”
      “Are you an opera enthusiast?”
      “Quite. I see all the new ones when they finally come around. I’d have to say I envy Comtessa Betruccio much less for her beauty than for her homeland, where all the greatest operas are created;. I'm sure Italy must be a very beautiful place, though I've never seen it myself. --I have heard that the Comtessa has recently arrived from France and not her homeland though, now that I think about it. Either way...” she trailed off.
      Jillian came down a few moments later and in fifteen minutes David and Mallory left with their party to visit the Museum, and Catherine and Jillian left for Bond Street.
      “Look at that! Look over there, Cathy!” cried Jillian of a sudden as the two strolled past the usual shops.
      Catherine followed Jillian’s finger across the street to see Sarah Gilmore exiting a jeweler’s shop.
      Surely this proves her guilt!” insisted Jillian, dragging Catherine across the street.
      “And what do you propose we do, Jillian? Accost her on the street and demand that she confess? Not likely. We'd be better to inquire at the jeweler's what she was looking for? It’s not likely that the clerk will question us. It couldn't hurt, anyway.”
      Jillian’s eyes lost their eagerness, but she nodded her agreement to this rationale. The two entered the establishment and questioned the clerk with little success.
      "The young lady who was just in here? Yes, she had some questions about sapphires,” answered the clerk hesitantly, but he refused to say much more.
      “How much more proof do you need!?” demanded Jillian once they were out of the store.
      Catherine had to admit that the only thing remotely resembling evidence did seem to point in the direction of Sarah Gilmore...

*      *      *

      Catherine was sitting in a comfortable chair in the library of her home the next morning, puzzling over the cover of the London Times. It wasn't particularly gruesome or disturbing, but it could easily lead one to the belief that the theft of Jillian’s sapphires was not an isolated incident. Last night, at Convent Garden, about midway through the opera, the Duchess of Sanfield had let out a piercing scream, interrupting the show. Her heirloom diamonds, entailed to the Sanfield estate, were stolen. The necklace, with choker and ear drops, a brooch of considerable size, and even the Sanfield diamond ring were all missing.
      And there was the story, sprawled across the main page of the Times. The whole bloody story. Catherine read with interest Bow Street’s theory about the infamous international jewel thief. It was true that Italy, Austria, and France had lately been plagued by a clever thief who slowly purloined renowned and valuable jewelry, but the chance of such a bandit making his way to England was highly unlikely, and would surely not know the likes of either the Duchess of Sanfield or Lady Wendleham, let alone know either well enough to get close enough to touch them. True, Sarah Gilmore knew them both, but Sarah had not even been at Covent Garden as far as Catherine knew. She stared at the paper in deep thought, puzzling over the mystery in her mind.
      A knock came to the library door and Cole, the family butler, entered to hand Catherine a card.
      “Send him in,” she answered and turned back to the paper.
      Cole nodded and exited. A few minutes later, the library door opened and closed again.
      “How may I help you, Mr. Carrather?” inquired Catherine without even looking up from the paper.
      “May I not just pay a friendly social call?” he asked, seating himself opposite her though she hadn't acknowledged him yet.
      Catherine looked over the top of the paper. “You could, David, but not when Jillian’s sapphires are still missing and there is such a tantalizing story on the front page of the Times.” Catherine tossed the paper at him and watched his face as he read it.
      “Well,” was all he could say when he was done.
      “Yes, ‘well,’” mocked Catherine kindly.
      “You were there, weren’t you?”
      “Yes, I was.”
      “Did you see anything unusual or suspicious?”
      “David, it was the opera! I was much more interested in what was happening on stage than I was with people in their boxes. Of course, it was awfully hard to ignore Her Grace when she screamed as though the Reaper had appeared at her door.”
      “The Sanfield Diamonds are very famous.”
      “Of course.”
      “As are the McCullaugh Sapphires, I suppose.”
      “As a matter of fact, they are fairly well-known. Why these leading statements though? If you're concealing a point, I wish you'd make it known already.”
      “You're hosting a soiree tonight, are you not?” David continued, ignoring her plea.
      “Apparently you'd rather give me a headache than the point," Catherine glared to no effect and finally sighed. "You know very well I'm having guests tonight. You're one of them.”
      “And is your guest list near to the same as Lady Wendleham’s?”
      “Yes, nearly so, give or take a decent twenty."
      “And did not your great-grandmother leave you the Eargon Emeralds in her will?”
      “Yes,” answered Catherine slowly, realization in her voice. “Please tell me that you're not thinking what I think you are.”
      “I’m thinking that we may need a little bait if we're to catch our little thief, and we're fortunate to have some very tempting bait if you're willing.”
      Catherine leaned back in her chair and looked David steadily in the eye. At last, she sighed in resignation.
      “I don’t know why I’m going to agree to a scheme like this. You had best have a well-thought plan because if I end up the same as Jillian, your life will be forfeit -- my father will gladly see to that.”
      “Don’t worry, Cathy,” David assured, handing her back the paper with a confident smile and slipping in the familiar nickname unthinkingly.
      At that moment, Jillian burst into the room.
      “Cathy, I don’t know why on earth Cole always insists on sending up my card when he knows very well that you’d never not want to see me, the silly old man! Cards indeed! Anyway, I have the most shocking dilemma and you’ve positively got to help me. Oh, hello, Davy.”
      Jillian entered the drawing room with characteristic drama and threw herself on the settee beside Catherine, only noticing David at the last moment.
      “What is it now?” asked David politely, as always.
      “I said Cathy, David, not you. But, since you’re here, I doubt she told you about how we saw Sarah Gilmore leaving a jeweler’s shop yesterday afternoon, having inquired of the clerk about some sapphires.”
      David glanced at Catherine and she nodded.
      “And how do you know she inquired about sapphires?” inquired David.
      “Why, because we went in and asked, of course!” Jillian rolled her eyes as though David was ridiculous for even asking.
      David looked at Catherine again. Catherine put an exasperated hand to her head and nodded again.
      “But, Jillian, sweetheart, what is this new dilemma of yours?” Catherine asked, changing the subject, or rather, changing it back.
      “Oh, yes!” Jillian turned slightly to face Catherine, having completely been deterred from the retelling of the entire shopping excursion yesterday afternoon. “Everyone expects me to be fashionable and even a little daring, I would say. Whatever am I to do for your party this evening? I thought about borrowing one of Mallory’s gowns. One of the simple ones with only pearls or no jewelry at all.”
      “You know you could never --” began Catherine.
      “Oh, I’m so glad you agree with me!” interrupted Jillian.
      "Now let me finish, Jillian. Someone would know something was wrong if you dressed even slightly out of character, and your mother would be the first to notice. Why not wear that scarlet dress that was just delivered the other day? With, well, some less expensive or noticeable jewelry.”
      “Like my rubies? That dress screams for rubies.”
      “No, I would most certainly go for something less obvious. Stick with diamonds. --And small ones.”
      “Oh, Cathy, you’re a Godsend! I adore you. Thank you ever so much.” Jillian pecked both of Catherine’s cheeks and then the same to David.       “Call for Mallory and me up at seven, Davy. We'll be waiting!” And she was gone.
      “I vow there's nothing that could dampen Jilly's spirits,” sighed Catherine.
      “Well, at least we're all settled for tonight. It'll be nice to close the book on our little mystery.”
      “Is it really our mystery?” asked Catherine with mock coyness.
      “Yes. Our first, I daresay,” answered David thoughtfully.
      “You say that as though it might not be our last. Just in case, let's be sure to make the most of it. I’ll see you tonight then. Around half past seven?”
      “Or closer to eight; Jillian’s never ready.”

*      *      *

      Catherine stood at the head of the receiving line that evening when the guests began to arrive. She was wearing the latest creation from her modiste, Dame Lillencroft. The dark green velvet evening gown would no doubt be considered simple by some, but the lines were elegant and in good taste. Her hair was styled simply as well, in a neat bun bound by a matching velvet ribbon with carefully loosened tendrils of hair. Around her neck, Catherine wore the previously discussed Eargon Emerald necklace. The emerald was large and heavy, held on a chain that appeared not nearly strong enough to hold it: three slender chains of silver braided together. The emerald drops hung from her earlobes and the Eargon ring, a gaudy piece by most standards, sat on the middle finger of her right hand, giving anyone who kissed or shook it a clear view of the handsome cut and set of the jewel.
      “I can see why you never wear them,” David commented when he danced with her later that evening. “They look heavier than an elephant. --And more obvious too!”
      Catherine laughed. “They are, although there was a time when I wore the ring every day.” Catherine watched the light bounce of it admiringly.
      “Well, just so long as you make sure you’ve got all of them about you at all times.”
      “I know, I know. And you just make sure you’ve got your eye on me whenever I’m alone or with Lady Wendleham, Lady Betruccio, or Sarah Gilmore.”
      “I will, of course. Are you nervous at all?”
      "No, not really. A little bit, I suppose, but I trust you.”
      After the dance, David watched as Catherine talked to Lady Wendleham. He kept an eye out when she handed Sarah Gilmore a glass of champagne. It was, of course, when he was not looking, that Lady Lauren Betruccio approached her.
      “Miss Quimble, I’m afraid there’s been a mishap in the sitting room that requires your attention. Lord Hayward seems to’ve knocked over one of the vases and cut himself on a piece.”
      Catherine waved to the nearest footman and allowed Lady Betrucio to lead her to the crisis. In the sitting room, the footman helped Lord Hayward up and led the man to the kitchen to have his cut tended while Catherine carefully picked up the pieces of the vase and laid them on the table. As she did, it was no small miracle that she felt the weight of the Eargon Emerald being lifted off her bosom. Catherine whirled and backed up, finding herself face to face with the beautiful comtessa.
      “You,” she breathed, feeling the need to voice her surprise while the pieces of the puzzle were quickly coming together in her head.
      “Me?” asked Lady Betruccio with a hand to her chest in feigned innocence while her other hand remained suspiciously behind her back.
      “It's been you all along.” Catherine continued to back up while the comtessa continued to inch closer.
      “I haven’t any idea what you’re talking about,” insisted Lady Betruccio, smiling almost too kindly.
      Catherine collided with a small desk and was forced to halt. She felt along its surface hurriedly for any sort of weapon, suddenly feeling the need to defend herself. She continued to accuse the comtessa though in a voice with scarcely concealed fear.
      “You stole Jillian’s sapphire necklace. You stole the Duchess of Sanfield’s diamonds. Now that I think of it, you were at the theatre last night. Yes, you were. You visited Her Grace’s box during intermission.”
      Lady Betruccio’s smile was slowly beginning to fade, but her look revealed an indecision over what to do next.
      “And that’s not even all. Surely you’re the jewel thief the papers mentioned, too. No one would ever suspect you. Everyone was looking for a man, not an already wealthy, respectably widowed countess. Oh, but I see it now. You cleared out the valuables of Italy’s elite. Then you headed to Austria and France, moving west until you reached England. Of course you would be accepted by every society of your title and your married name, but what did you plan to do after England? Where next? And why continue thieving at all? Surely you're rich enough by now.”
      “What? Where? Why?” The comtessa rolled her eyes. “What unoriginal questions. You assume that I'm already wealthy I don't blame you. Indeed I was, but life is expensive, my dear. Especially the kind of life I like to lead. There are gaming debts to settle, mortgages to pay, estates and servants to keep running. All those things cost a pretty penny, not to mention my own jewels and gowns. Think of it this way, Miss Quimble.” Lady Betrucio lifted her other hand from which the Eargon Emerald was dangling. “This precious gem will fetch quite a price in Italy. --Or it will once I have it cut into four unrecognizably smaller emeralds.”

      “Mallory, have you seen Cathy anywhere?” David asked as he danced with her, his eyes scanning the faces of the room.
      “No. I haven’t seen her for a good while actually. --Not since you two last danced, I think.”
      David could see Jillian dancing with Mr. Farnwood and still wearing her diamonds, he noted, but Catherine was nowhere to be found. The set ended and David led Mallory over to Jillian.
      “Have you seen Catherine anywhere?” he asked Jillian.
      “No, not in several sets. Danny, have you seen our hostess?”
      "Yes, I believe she and Lady Betruccio went into that sitting room over there not long ago to attend to some incident. Quite a lady, that Italian comtessa,” commented Mr. Farnwood.
      “Please excuse me a moment,” bowed David, who then walked over to the sitting room, a bit ashamed that he had just now noticed that he hadn’t seen her in over a quarter hour.
      “I say, Cathy, are you still in here?” called David as he opened the door to the sitting room.
      Lady Betruccio spun, snatching a piece of the broken vase and holding it against Catherine’s throat.
      “Don’t move,” she ordered once David was fully in the room.
      David watched Catherine’s eyes widen. The jagged piece of porcelain was much too close for comfort, though its damage would likely not be fatal. David swallowed hard, not knowing what to do.
      “Don't worry," the countess began. "I’m going to let Miss Quimble go. And you are both going to be quiet.” She took each of the ear drops. "And everyone is going to live happily ever after. If you scream or even so much as speak before I get out the door and --” Lady Betruccio lightly drew the piece of porcelain against Catherine’s neck, leaving a red scratch, but no blood. “Or much worse. Do you understand?”
      David nodded, still too stunned to move any of his other appendages. He watched as the comtessa inched toward the side door with Catherine. As she did though, he saw Catherine’s right hand move, revealing something that looked very much like a dagger. In a quick movement, Catherine lifted it and slashed blindly at Lady Betruccio’s arm, causing the woman to cry out and slacken her hold. Catherine slipped out of her grasp and stumbled away at the same moment David was able to unfreeze and catch the comtessa by both her wrists.
      “Send for a constable,” he ordered Catherine, easily containing the beautiful woman's efforts to twist away from him.
      She nodded and slipped out, sending the nearest footman in to help David and giving the butler instructions to get a Runner or Constable immediately. Then she returned to her guests to reassure them that nothing at all was amiss. Bidding the orchestra to play a Highland Fling, she grabbed Jillian by the arm and led her out.
      “I believe we've caught the thief,” she whispered.
      “Excellent!” Jillian clapped her hands in delight. “Is it Sarah as I told you?”
      “No, it’s Comtessa Betruccio.”

*      *      *

      It was two weeks later before life in London returned to normal and Lady Lauren Betruccio wasn’t the gossip of the hour -- only the gossip of the week. The comtessa’s London house had been searched by Bow Street, and Catherine’s emeralds had been returned, as well as Jillian’s sapphires and the Duchess’s diamonds. In addition, the Runners had discovered numerous foreign gems, but not the complete collection of missing pieces. They suspected that Lady Betruccio had already cut and distributed the missing pieces, a shame though it was. Catherine and David were praised for their excellent detective work, although it was a good week before Catherine stopped berating David for not coming nearly soon enough. The two amateur mystery-solvers soon replaced Lady Betruccio on the tattle monger lists and it wasn’t long before their mail trays were full to overflowing with invitations, letters, and cards.
      “It appears that we are never to rest,” commented Catherine as she sifted through her mail while David looked on.
      “One of the downfalls, I suppose, to being great detectives.”
      “Well, if it’s going to be like this every time, I think I’m going to have to become a hermit detective.”
      “Every time?” inquired David, raising a brow.
      “ was awfully exciting, even if I did get held hostage at porcelain point. And -- if you don’t mind -- I should be glad to work with you on any other mystery that may happen upon us in the future.”
      “As long as it doesn’t happen our way in the too near future, I can think of no better partner.”
      Catherine laughed and fiddled with a familiar object in her hands.
      “What is that? I’ve seen it before. Yes, when you stabbed Lady Betrucio. It looked like a dagger, but it couldn't be...”
      Catherine grinned more broadly and held the object up for a better view with a slight blush.
      A letter opener.
      “Silly as it may sound, David, I’m never going to leave home without it now.”
      David stared at her for a long moment with a blank face before roaring with laughter. It was the most ridiculous, but strangely clever thing he had ever heard off.
      “For just such potentially dangerous situations as being held at porcelain point?” he inquired through his merriment.
      “Exactly!” laughed Catherine.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lunch With Murray: II

I could tell Murray was settling in for a long chat with me. Or rather, he was settling in to tell me a long story. It didn’t seem likely that I would be participating. He needed to talk, I needed to listen. His voice trailed off as he began to speak and the years seemed to melt away from his face. I could see that past the lines and deep, craggy wrinkles on his face, he had once been a handsome man.

“My great-great granny Essie was born in 1845. Bein’ in the South like it was at the time, ain’t no shock that she was a slave. Born a slave, I know that much, but ain’t got anythin’ else ‘bout her own mama or daddy, though I ‘spect that they were slaves, too. Never actually knew her, just knew ‘bout her from the stories my granny Ruth would tell. Ain’t even sho’ that her real name was Essie, jus’ know that’s how folk spoke of her when I was a boy. She was only fifteen when she done had her first chile, her only chile, that was my great granny. Named her Esther. Strong name fo’ a strong girl. Needed to be strong, y’know? The weak ain’t gonna be gettin’ too far back then if you know what I mean. Needed strong people out in them fields who ain’t gonna break under that Georgia sun. Now, I don’t know how they was treated by the folk that owned ‘em. Can’t hardly think ‘bout it. Don’t wanna think ‘bout it. Don’t wanna know. I mean, I know a li’l bit from what my granny told me but I didn’t wanna know much. Life was hard enough fo’ a black boy like myself without takin’ on that burden of knowin’ what all things a person had to go through.

“Y’know somethin’, Missy? I can’t watch all them movies them Hollywood folk make about the Civil War. Too damn depressin’. My stomach cringes tight inside when I think ‘bout my own family having to endure all that. Don’t make no never mind that I never knew ‘em. Ain’t the point. Blood is blood. Family ties and all that. But shee-yit, ‘scuse my language, Missy, if’n it’d been me havin’ babies back then, I ain’t sho’ I wouldn’t a drowned ‘em myself. Wouldn’t wanna be bringin’ no babies into that kinda life. ‘Course, I s’pose that’s easy fo’ me to say since I wasn’t there back then. I think ‘bout how young they was—that Essie was only fifteen. Fifteen years old and havin’ a baby of her own to be raisin’ on a plantation, never even fo’ sho’ knowin’ if she’d see the next day, if enough food would be makin’ its way to her baby’s mouth, never knowin’ if the master was havin’ a good day or a bad day and if it was a bad day, what it might mean for all them folk out there in the quarters, most ‘specially the children. Not quite sho’ what I woulda done if someone, anyone, master or not, had come after one of my babies.”

Murray shook his head, clearing an image that only he could see, leaned back and closed his eyes, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. He took a deep breath before opening his eyes and continuing.

“I think after hearin’ so many stories ‘bout Essie, it makes me understand why the good Lord makes women the mamas. Daddies ain’t got enough strength to bring they kids into this world, let alone keep up with ‘em and protect ‘em from anything bad. I mean a daddy will offer his own strength for his children to show ‘em how it’s done, but a mama? A mama is different. A mama will do anythin’ fo’ her babies, anytime, and she’ll go on and do it over and over, usually without never complainin’. Ain’t so sho’ ‘bout the menfolk, myself included.”

Murray looked at me. “You like bacon, Missy?”

“Excuse me?” I was completely baffled. Why did he want to know if I like bacon?

“Jus’ what I asked,” he said, looking mildly annoyed. “I wanna know if you like bacon.”

“Ummm…I guess. Yeah, I like bacon well enough. Don’t eat it too often, but it’s good when I have it.”

“Good. I done thought you looked like a bacon gal. Some gals are sausage gals, but you remind me of someone that would like bacon.”

I had no idea what bacon had to do with this story. I don’t think Murray knew, either. If there was anything I was learning about this man, it was that he operated on his own time and in his own way. Which probably explained why I was already a half hour past my regular lunch break.

“Anyways, what was I sayin’?”

“You were talking about Essie being a young mother and raising her child in the circumstances she was living in.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah. Essie had my great granny Esther and since they was still there on the plantation, Esther was a slave, too. I don’t know what all meant fo’ Essie or fo’ my great-granny Esther. Can’t very well be makin’ a tiny baby work out in them fields, least not at first. Granny would tell me the mamas would carry they babies with ‘em, and once the babies could be walkin’ they started ‘em workin’. Can you believe that? A baby not but a few years ol’, my own great-granddaughter’s age, walkin’ in some fields, all hunched over, plantin’ and growin’ and pickin’? Havin’ to look back over a tiny shoulder to make sho’ they keepin’ up with everyone? Who does that, somethin’ so dumb and foolhardy as to bring a baby into a situation where there ain’t no hope, leastaways back in them times? And why? Babies should be babies, laughin’ and playin’ and lovin’ life, not worryin’ ‘bout whether they gonna get beat or have enough to eat or drink at the end of the day. People were damn fools back then and lookin’ ‘round me now makes me think we ain’t learned so much from our kinfolk. Damn kids still havin’ kids.”

Murray was shouting now, his voice and hands shaking. I looked around hurriedly, but nobody else was there. He rubbed his eyes with his fists and I looked at him helplessly, not sure what to do or say. Catching the look on my face and concern in my eyes, he reached out and patted my arm.

“Sorry ‘bout that, Missy. I get carried away when I think about folk bein’ unkind to li’l babies. People need to respect they kids, love ‘em and raise ‘em up right. Dry they tears when they cry, kiss ‘em when the world’s got ‘em down and out. Children need they mama’s and daddy’s lovin’ and understandin’, guidance and lotsa patience to turn out good. Ain’t nobody needs perfect kids, no way, Missy. Just need ‘em to be good, not perfect. It’s how I raised up my own babies and they turned out real good. Woulda done their mama proud.”

I caught that he was speaking in past tense about his children’s mother, but didn’t ask about it. I sensed that he would eventually come to that part.

“Anyways, my great-granny Esther was born longaways ‘bout 1860 to a fifteen-year-old mama. What a time to be born. What word? Too-mutch-you-lus.”

I was puzzled. What was he saying?

He caught the confusion on my face. “You know what I mean? Too-mutch-you-lus. Bad times. Dangerous times.”

Duh. Tumultuous. He was saying tumultuous. I nodded to convey my understanding.

“Anyways, wasn’t so much of a good thing to be born back then. Hell, not that there was any real good time back then to be gettin’ born roundabout the time the Civil War started up. Don’t really know too much about great-granny Esther. By the time the war was done, she was only five. ‘Course, she’d a prob’ly seen mo’ in her five short years workin’ on that plantation than any white folk had seen in they whole lives back then. All I know fo’ sho’ is that then’s about when the story goes and gets kinda muddled. Ain’t no records that I know of, just folk tellin’ each other what they know by mouth and hopin’ it gets passed on down right.

“Far’s I know, Essie done stuck ‘round that plantation fo’ a while, kept on workin’ the land. Not sho’ how long. Esther, too. They’s jus’ there, workin’ and workin’. Ain’t too much changed for black folks in the south, even after that war. It’s a mentality, y’know? People jus’ think the way they wanna be thinkin’, don’t matter none that the war was over. Black folk could go on and get out, but go where? Seemed to Essie that plantation was home. She’d a been born and raised there, supposin’ she planned to do the same for Esther, but the way granny Ruth told it, Essie ended up marryin’ a man, former slave like herself. Don’t think it was Esther’s daddy, but like I said before, who knows? Didn’t have no fancy paternity stuff and DNA back then. Just a man who loved Essie enough to take care of her and her baby. ‘Course, wasn’t much a black man could do to take care of a family. He did farmin’ mostly ‘cause that’s what he knew. I know Esther done growed up and got married herself, but don’t know nothin’ else. Well, I know she died when she was thirty-one—let’s see that was in 1891? Yeah, that’s it, it was while she was birthin’ her last baby. Granny Ruth was born in 1880, she was the oldest and ended up raisin’ up her brothers and sisters and Esther went on to the Lord.

“My granny Ruth, though, Missy, let me tell you, she was somethin’ else. Like nobody I’d a known befo’ or after. My mama had a lot of granny Ruth in her. A spitfire. Not afraid of nothin’. S’pose that’s what folk nowadays would call one of them kick-ass attitudes. S’pose that’s what I see in yo’ eyes. Some of that kick-ass bid’ness. When the world done goes and kicks you, I bet-choo go right on and kick it back.”

He smiled a knowing smile. “Okay then, Missy. Now that I done given you some background, I s’pose you might be wantin’ know a li’l bit more about ol’ Murray, am I right?”

I nodded. Of course he was right.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Waking the Walrus

There once was a girl who loved owls,
She even embroidered them on towels,
When along came a Taurus,
And the Curse of the Walrus,
To put an end to those hoots and howls.