Miranda Fawcett was ensconced on her gold sofa. Louisa thought she appeared even more dramatic than usual in a fashionable gown of pale blue silk and dark blue velvet. Pearls glowed on her fingers, circled her throat, and gleamed in her hair.
“Ah, there you are, Louisa, my dear.” She smiled warmly and beckoned with one beringed hand. “Please sit down.” She turned to Anthony. “How delightful to see you again, sir. I’m so glad you were free tonight. I realize I gave you very short notice.”
Anthony bowed over her hand. “My pleasure. I look forward to meeting your very good friend.”
“Mr. Corvus is already here.” Miranda winked. “He is waiting in the wings, as it were. The dear man has spent so much time around me that I fear he has learned the value of making an entrance.”
Louisa perched on one of the satin-covered chairs and adjusted her spectacles. “It was very kind of you to arrange this meeting.”
Miranda chuckled. “I assure you, Mr. Corvus was eager enough to meet Mr. Stalbridge after he read those papers that you left with me.”
A man spoke from the doorway. “Indeed, sir, I was most enthusiastic about making your acquaintance.”
Louisa turned her head and saw a surprisingly short, neatly made man. Although he was no taller than herself, there was an unmistakable aura of elegant menace about him. They did not call Clement Corvus The Raven merely because of his name, she thought. A little chill went through her.
His hair had clearly once been jet black. It was now a striking silver. He was clean-shaven and dressed in an exquisitely tailored black suit.
Anthony inclined his head, silently acknowledging Corvus as an equal. “Good evening, sir.”
Corvus’s eyes crinkled faintly at the corners. Louisa got the impression that he was pleased with Anthony’s respectful manner.
“And this is Mrs. Bryce, whom you know very well as I. M. Phantom,” Miranda said. “Mrs. Bryce, Mr. Corvus.”
Corvus walked to Louisa and bowed formally over her hand. “Mrs. Bryce. It is a privilege to meet you. I am a great admirer of your work.”
“Thank you, sir.” She smiled. “The pleasure is mine tonight. At last I have an opportunity to tell you how grateful I am for what I strongly suspect has been your behind-the-scenes advice on several occasions.”
Corvus smiled indulgently. “Miranda will tell you that I find it vastly entertaining to be of assistance to such an intrepid correspondent.”
Miranda laughed. “What Clement really means, of course, is that he is always pleased to help I. M. Phantom rid him of some of his business competitors who happen to move in Society.”
Something cold and glittery appeared in Corvus’s dark eyes. “It is not the competition that I mind, my dear. I am, after all, a businessman. I enjoy the sport. But I will admit that I take strong exception to certain gentlemen who choose to engage in commercial ventures that cater to the most depraved tastes or those who take advantage of people who do not move in their circles. Those same gentlemen would never dream of lowering themselves to inviting a man of my background into their homes for a glass of brandy, yet they do not hesitate to dirty their hands in businesses that I would not touch.”
Anthony’s brows rose. “I agree, the hypocrisy is rather blatant in some instances.”
“It certainly was in the case of the Bromley scandal and the California Mine Swindle,” Corvus said. “May I offer you a glass of brandy, sir? Miranda buys only the best.”
“Because I buy it for you, Clement,” Miranda murmured.
Corvus smiled. “Thank you, my dear.” He did not take his eyes off Anthony.
“A brandy sounds like an excellent notion,” Anthony said.
Corvus crossed the room to a small table. He removed the stopper from a cut-crystal bottle and poured two glasses of brandy.
He carried the brandies back across the room, his footsteps hushed by the thick carpet, and gave one of the glasses to Anthony. The two men locked eyes. Two hunters assessing each other, Louisa thought.
“To your good health, sir,” Corvus said.
Anthony raised his glass in a small salute. “And to yours, sir.”
Louisa watched both men swallow some of the brandy. When Corvus lowered his glass, he appeared to be quietly satisfied. She got the impression that Anthony had just passed another small test.
“Please sit down, sir,” Corvus said. He waited until Anthony lowered himself onto one of the chairs, and then he, too, took a seat.
“I take it that the reason you invited us to meet here tonight is because you found those papers instructive,” Anthony said.
Corvus inclined his head. “As you obviously knew I would.”
Anthony shrugged. “I have had some experience managing my family’s investments.”
“I am aware of that.” Corvus chuckled. “Indeed, it is said that you single-handedly kept the Stalbridges from sliding into bankruptcy.”
“As I was the only one in the family who showed no aptitude for creative talent of any kind,” Anthony said, “I was more or less stuck with the finances. I know enough to spot an obviously fraudulent arrangement when I see it.”
Corvus swirled the brandy in his glass. “I object to fraud on general principle. It is seldom good business in the end. But I find it particularly offensive when I am the intended victim.”
Anthony’s mouth edged up at one corner. “I understand.”
“I am in your debt, sir, as I trust you are well aware. I like to keep the accounts even.”
“I have heard that.”
Corvus nodded. “I assumed that was the case. I will not embarrass either of us by asking how a gentleman like yourself learned about my personal eccentricities. Let us get down to business. You have done me a great favor. How can I repay you?”
“Mrs. Bryce and I have a few questions about Elwin Hastings,” Anthony said. “Would you be willing to answer them?”
“Certainly, if I can.” Corvus’s mouth tightened with distaste. “Given his intention to cheat me, I no longer owe Hastings the customary loyalty that I generally grant those with whom I do business.”
Louisa leaned forward intently. “May I ask why you decided to do business with Mr. Hastings in the first place?”
Corvus sipped his brandy. “A little over a year ago I was invited to participate in one of his investment schemes. It paid off quite handsomely. Naturally, when he approached me with another, similar investment opportunity last month, I was predisposed to consider it with a favorable eye.”
Anthony looked intrigued. “You were involved in a business arrangement with Hastings around the time of his wife’s death?”
“Yes, although Mrs. Hastings was still alive at the time.” Corvus drank some brandy and lowered the glass. “I never met her, of course. Obviously, I did not move in the same social circles. All of my dealings were with Hastings and his man of business, Grantley. Mostly with Grantley, I might add. He was the go-between. I got the impression that Hastings worried about being seen with me.”
“You know, of course, that Fiona Risby is reported to have killed herself a few days before Mrs. Hastings and in the same manner,” Anthony said.
“I am aware that your former fianc'ee died that same week, sir. My condolences. Both deaths featured heavily in the sensation press for several days.” Corvus paused. “Until they were driven off the front pages by the murder of Lord Gavin, of course.”
Louisa sat very still, hardly daring to breathe. No one so much as glanced at her.
“I have reason to believe that Miss Risby did not commit suicide,” Anthony said.
Corvus cocked a dark brow. “Indeed?”
“I strongly suspect that she was murdered by Elwin Hastings. If I am right, I think it is safe to assume that he also killed his wife. The coincidence of both women casting themselves into the river in such a short span of time is a bit much.”
Cold curiosity lit Corvus’s eyes. “That is a very interesting theory. Do you have any proof?”
“Yes,” Anthony said. “When I discovered those papers, I also found hard evidence linking Hastings to the death of Miss Risby.”
“I see.” Corvus looked at Louisa. “Can I assume that you are involved in this investigation because you intend to write a report for the press about the mysterious deaths of the two ladies?”
“Yes.” She pushed her spectacles higher on her nose. “Mr. Stalbridge and I are both pursuing the truth of the matter.”
Miranda’s eyes widened. “A murder investigation. How thrilling.”
“There is a detective at Scotland Yard who also has questions about what happened that night,” Anthony said. “His superiors forced him to suspend his inquiries, but he is prepared to take action if irrefutable evidence of Hastings’s guilt surfaces.”
“Evidence is something I cannot give you, I’m afraid.” Corvus reclined in his chair. “I can only tell you what I know. Approximately two weeks ago, Hastings contacted me and requested that I provide him with two armed guards. I obliged him.”
“For a large fee, of course,” Miranda added as an aside.
Corvus’s eyes tightened. “My association with Hastings is based on mutual business interests, not friendship. In any event, he is quite wealthy, and he did not object to paying what I asked for my men. Indeed, he seemed greatly relieved to obtain their services. I got the impression he was decidedly nervous.”
“We encountered one of the guards at his home in the course of a ball the other night,” Louisa said.
“Yes, I know.” Corvus was amused. “Quinby, the guard you met, reported the incident to me along with the fact that certain items were missing from an Apollo Patented Safe. He did not know precisely what had been stolen because Hastings refused to say. Of course, when Miranda gave me those papers, I got an inkling.” He looked at Anthony. “Before we proceed, I have a question of my own, if you don’t mind.”
Anthony inclined his head. “Of course.”
“What else vanished from that safe?”
“Items that Hastings had been using to extort money from some wealthy, elderly women,” Anthony said.
“Blackmail.” Corvus raised his brows again. “I had no notion that Hastings was involved in that particular business.” He paused. “May I ask what became of the extortion items?”
“They were returned anonymously to their rightful owners.”
A smile came and went around Corvus’s mouth. “Yes, of course.”
Anthony turned his glass between his palms. “Do you know why Hastings requested the two guards? From what I have seen he never goes anywhere without them these days. He is clearly worried about something.”
“He told me that his business manager, Phillip Grantley, died under what he considered suspicious circumstances,” Corvus said. “Although according to the press Grantley committed suicide.”
Louisa looked at him. “But Hastings did not believe that?”
Corvus considered for a moment. “I got the impression that he hoped the verdict of suicide was true, but for some reason he remained skeptical. Interestingly, when he recently learned that Thurlow had also taken his own life, he became frantic according to Quinby and Royce.”
“Both Grantley and Thurlow worked for him,” Anthony said. “At first we assumed that Hastings killed both of them. Now, however, that does not appear to be the case.”
Corvus nodded. “I agree. I can tell you that Hastings was genuinely alarmed by both deaths. He definitely perceives some threat to himself. That is why he wanted the guards.”
“When you consider the matter closely,” Louisa said, “Hastings has reason to be afraid. He is a blackmailer, after all. Perhaps he fears that one of his victims tracked down Grantley and Thurlow and will come after him next.”
Corvus nodded. “That is a very reasonable bit of logic, Mrs. Bryce. I would not be at all surprised if that is exactly what he is thinking.”
“It certainly explains Hastings’s fear,” Anthony said. “But I don’t think the killer was any of the blackmail victims. He chose them shrewdly. They were all elderly women who were trying to protect young, vulnerable members of their families.”
Miranda gave him an arch look. “Never underestimate a woman, sir.”
“Believe me, I am not inclined to do so,” Anthony said with some feeling. “But somehow I cannot see these particular ladies having access to the resources that would have been required to track down Grantley and Thurlow. It is also difficult to imagine one of them obtaining a revolver, learning how to shoot it, and then sneaking into the men’s lodgings and killing them.”
Louisa looked at him. “I just thought of something. Perhaps one of the elderly women hired someone to murder Grantley and Thurlow.”
Corvus looked amused. “Hiring a killer to murder two seemingly respectable men is somewhat more complicated than you appear to think, Mrs. Bryce. Trust me when I tell you that inquiries of that nature would have been brought to my attention.”
A little shiver shot down her spine. “I see.”
“I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Stalbridge,” Corvus said slowly. “I doubt that any of the blackmail victims killed Grantley and Thurlow or paid someone else to murder them. The thing is, intelligent blackmailers usually don’t attempt to extort money from victims who might prove dangerous. You must look elsewhere.”
“One more question if you don’t mind,” Anthony said quietly.
Corvus waited politely.
“How many people, aside from you, would have known that both Grantley and Thurlow worked for Hastings?”
Corvus gave that a long moment’s deliberation. “I made it my business to learn as much as possible about Hastings before I did business with him. I was aware of Grantley from the start because he handled the details of the investment consortium. But I knew nothing of Thurlow. If you had not asked Miranda about the possibility of Hastings having other employees and provided a rough description, I doubt I would have ever stumbled onto him. As it was, I had to dig quite deeply to discover that there was some connection between Thurlow and Hastings.”
“In other words,” Anthony said, “the link between Grantley, Thurlow, and Hastings was not common knowledge.”
“No,” Corvus said with grave assurance. “Not common knowledge at all.”