Cady Delafield drew a breath of wintry air and stepped from the hansom cab. Against the sun’s glare, she narrowed her eyes staring up at the austere yet beautiful townhouse, one of dozens lining the prosperous street. What business could a near penniless student like Fiona, a woman short on family and connections, have in this affluent dwelling?
“Wait for me please,” she directed to the ruddy cheeked driver who held open the cab door. “This shouldn’t take long.” As quickly as the slick ice covered walkway allowed, she hustled to the building’s door, her brow drawn with question about Fiona’s recent disappearance.
She rang the bell, tapping her foot while an unsettled feeling slithered across her shoulders making her shiver. “Where is everyone?” She jabbed the bell a second time. A home this size often employed several servants, yet curiously, no one answered. The puzzling matter brought forth two other questions which had plagued her all morning. Whom did Fiona meet here last night and where was she now?
Scowling, Cady gave a hearty rap to the door and was surprised to see it creak open. Curious, she stuck her head inside.
“Hello?” Bouncing off the high ceiling, her voice ricocheted with an eerie resonance. A wide, carpeted staircase led to a second floor. Alongside it, a center hallway flowed to the back of the house. “Hello? Is anyone here?”
Her gloved fingers tensed around the door handle. A voice in her head clamored walk away, but she had to find Fiona. When the young woman’s roommate had come to her worried to tears about Fiona not coming home last night, Cady could hardly refuse to help. As school administrator, she knew Fiona was a top student, dedicated, and conscientious and not given to spending the night away from the tiny flat she shared with Rosaline.
When a gust of chilly air pressed at her back, Cady scampered inside prepared to tell anyone she met about the open door. A deserted parlor sat on the right of the entrance while near the base of the stairs two mahogany pocket doors were closed tight. “Hellooo.” She tipped her head, straining to hear and caught only the wind whistling off the nearby lake.
“This is ridiculous,” she scoffed and marched across the foyer. After one unanswered knock, she slid the door open and peeked inside. Heavy drapes cast the room in a dim light. A figure, no more than a shadow, lay on a sofa.
“Forgive me,” she murmured backing away but something about the woman made her pause.
Getting no reply, Cady paraded over to the bay windows and threw open the drapes. Light spilled through the lace under curtains. “Fiona. What in the world…” Cady spun about and gasped.
Stretched out on her back, head nestled on a pillow, Fiona stared at the ceiling with lifeless eyes.
The room became a kaleidoscope of dizzy movement. Cady grabbed the top edge of an easy chair for support. “Oh,” she moaned struggling to regain her equilibrium.
“Good God,” she whispered, her head reeling. Fist pressed against her lips, she edged closer.
Hair neatly arranged, hands crossed in a virtuous pose over her heart and clothes resting smooth and undisturbed about her limbs, Fiona resembled a body laid out for viewing. But this was no funeral parlor. The whole arrangement, as Cady could think of no better word for what lay before her, was unreal and eerie.
An arctic cold gripped her. Trembling, she crossed an arm over her chest, her fingers digging into her upper arm. Swallowing back the lump in her throat, she poked the young woman’s shoulder and prayed the thick twill of her jacket would rise on a gulp of air. Yet regrettably, Cady knew her student, one of her most gifted, would never graduate, marry, laugh or breathe again. Tears stung her eyes. She brushed them away, aware she must send for a priest, a doctor. No, no. The police.
“What are you doing here?”
She yelped and twirled toward the blaring voice, heart pounding in her throat. A glowering man filled the doorway. Danger clung to him as tangible as the fur collared overcoat draped over his shoulders.
“I…ah…” She swallowed convulsively, her gaze riveted to the frightening man. Whiskers shadowed his strong chin while hair, black as oil, spilled in haphazard strands across his forehead.
“I asked you a question.”
“She’s dead,” she whispered.
His blue eyes grew wild. “What?” He exploded into the room.
Cady shrieked and snatched a bronze statue from a nearby end table. “Don’t come any closer!”
He jolted to a stop and surveyed the weapon clutched in her fist. “Put it down.”
“Not until you explain yourself. Who are you?” Her voice wavered like a frightened moth captured in a bottle. She couldn’t trust him. If he would stay put, she could slip around him and run for the police.
His mouth set into a thin slit, he started forward.
“No! Don’t come any closer.” She brandished the statue determined to use it if necessary.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Now an arm’s length from the sofa, he glanced down at Fiona. “If I’d wanted to hurt you, I would have done so before now.”
He skimmed a hand across the dead woman’s forehead.
“Don’t touch her.”
His mouth crimped with annoyance, but to her surprise, he withdrew his hand. Then, in one dramatic, fluid movement, he yanked his coat from his shoulders and hurled it into a nearby chair. He faced her and said, “Who are you?”
She sucked in a ragged breath. “A woman is dead. Have you no feelings?” As the tart words slipped from her mouth, she realized the foolishness of antagonizing him.
“Of course I care,” he said as though she were an idiot. “I care very much. Now, please, hand me the statue.” He thrust forth an upturned palm.
Uncertain about his intentions, she shifted foot-to-foot. Tired lines rimmed his eyes but his bold manner, as though he ruled the kingdom, suggested he was accustomed to getting his way. Keeping well away from his reach, she edged past the fireplace and closer to the door.
“I didn’t kill her,” he offered. “As you saw, I arrived home only minutes ago and she…” His gaze slid in Fiona’s direction. “She appears to be dead for some hours. She’s as cold as the room.”
Cady blinked not certain if she’d heard correctly. “Your home?”
“My home. You heard correctly.” A muscle twitched in his cheek, a certain sign his jaw was tightly clenched. “And since you are standing in my library, I should like to know your name.”
As she had nothing to hide, she said, “I am Miss Arcadia Delafield, school administrator of Women’s Preparatory College.” In a defiant gesture, she threw back her shoulders. “I didn’t kill her either.”
“So you say.”
She inhaled a strident breath, shocked at his effrontery.
“What do you know about this woman?” Frowning, he glanced about the room, as if searching for a lost item. “Where’s Booker?”
“I don’t know who Booker is.” A wave of sadness rose as she dipped a chin toward the body. “She’s Fiona Murphy, one of my students.”
Grasping one of Fiona’s hands, he inspected each fingertip then laid the hand on her chest before he repeated the process with the other hand.
“What are you doing?” No murderer would exam his victim with the same concentration one might use when reading a map. As if he hadn’t heard her, he inched Fiona’s high collar aside. Cady was startled to see him flinch.
“What is it?” Sharp pinpricks stabbed at her nerves.
“The skin’s been brutally lacerated.” A weary sigh escaped his lips. “She’s been strangled.” His tone sounded so bleak and his expression was so haggard she knew a moment’s pity for him. “Strangled with a garrote I suspect.” He shot her a dubious glance. “But you already know.”
“No! How could I? I never saw her neck.”
“Why is it, Miss Delafield…?” He inhaled deeply, his broad shoulders rising at the effort. “Why is it upon returning home, I find two strange women in my library and one of them is dead?” His gaze smoldered. “What have you to say?”
“Well, I…I can’t explain it anymore than you.” Cheeks burning, she resisted the urge to glance away from his stony glower. “You act as though I killed Fiona when, in fact, you have as much to account for, perhaps even more, given the murder occurred under your very roof.”
A nasty sound rolled deep in his throat. She ignored the threatening noise.
“Fiona wasn’t in school this morning. She never misses class.” Speaking of the girl made her voice hitch. After a labored swallow, Cady continued. “When she didn’t return home last night, her roommate reported something was wrong.” She set the statue on a table and fished a scrap of paper from her handbag. “Her roommate had no further information, but apparently Fiona had an appointment to meet someone at this address last night.”
“Not possible,” he replied with the utmost assurance. “I was out for the evening. As to my manservant, he has a standing engagement on Wednesday evening. No one else resides here.”
As she studied the elegant cut of his clothing; the black evening suit, the starched bib and stiff wing collar with the top button undone and the missing tie, her suspicions mounted. No man wore full evening dress before noon which suggested he hadn’t been home last night. She had no reason to trust him. Yet to kill someone and leave the body on the library sofa overnight for the servants to find the next day made no sense. But then again, where were the servants?
“So you say, but Fiona never came home last night.” Blinking back a tear, Cady waved the note in the girl’s direction. “You can see the outcome.”
His stern face darkened. “May I see the note?” He thrust forth an upturned palm. She considered slapping it aside.
She hesitated, but as his impatience bristled ever higher, she passed him the paper if only to keep him from ripping it from her hand.
He studied the note, glowered then moved to stick it in his pocket.
“No. I’d like it back.”
She blanched beneath his formidable gaze, but to her relief, he handed her the note and said, “It’s not my handwriting. If you mean to offer this as evidence to the police, it will gain you nothing.” The police would make the final decision. She searched his face for some sign of truth, but his strong features and sharp, quick gaze revealed no clue.
The silence clamored between them like an electrical tension wire. With his brow creased, he stalked over to the window, pushed the curtain aside and lifted the lower sash. “Is it your cab at the curb?”
“Yes,” she replied but doubted he heard her over his loud bellow to the driver.
“What are you doing?”
“I need a messenger,” he said, closing the window with a thud. He turned and his stare was so intense she looked away.
“Did Booker let you in?”
Before she could answer, someone knocked. The bowlegged cabbie stood in the doorway. Fingering the rim of his cap, his rheumy gaze swept over the shelves of books and settled on Fiona. His watery eyes widened in alarm.
“There’s been an accident,” the big man in evening dress said plucking a calling card from his waistcoat pocket. “Take this to Inspector Dinsmore. You’ll find him at the Cook County Jail.” Only a fool would disregard his curt demand. “Tell him to come at once, and tell no one else what you’ve seen.”
The driver took the card then slipped her a questioning look. “Yes, do as he requests.”
Any smart woman would have taken this chance to run, but she’d made a promise to lead her students to a better life. With Fiona’s future stolen, the promise weighed even heavier. Furthermore, the unsavory aspect of murder would throw the school’s donors into a tizzy. For the sake of both Fiona and the school, Cady needed to learn more about the circumstances surrounding her death. At the very least, she’d watch over the body and ensure no clues were pocketed or destroyed.
“And take her with you,” directed the tall man in eveningwear who shoved a coin into the driver’s hand. “Take her wherever she wishes to go.”
“No, I’m staying right here.” The bold declaration surprised even her, yet with the police about to arrive, she doubted he would cause her harm.
“I insist you leave, miss.” He motioned to the door.
“No, I believe I’ll stay.” Despite his thunderous glower, she slipped into an armchair, all grace and good intentions, settled her crocheted handbag in her lap and forced a charming smile. “You may go driver. And hurry back.”
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