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45

Louisa took two steps back, moving out of the light that came through the opening in the door and deeper into the shadows of the cell. She could be mysterious, too, she thought.

I assume you have some purpose in bringing me here, she said.

Victoria stepped closer to the door, peering through the bars. Im afraid there is going to be yet another unfortunate suicide in the Thames. This time the victim will be Lady Ashtons unprepossessing and extremely distant relation from the country. Very sad.

You have made a grave mistake in kidnapping me, Louisa said. Mr. Stalbridge will not be pleased.

By the time Stalbridge figures out what has happened it will be too late for him to do anything about the situation. In any event, I doubt that he will trouble himself overmuch with your demise, even if he does suspect the truth.

You seem very sure of that.

Victorias smile was all that was arrogant and certain. I am sure of it because, unlike you, I understand him. Once you comprehend a man, once you know what he wants most, he is yours to control.

How can you say that you know Mr. Stalbridge? According to him, the two of you met only in passing at occasional social affairs.

Victoria gripped one of the iron bars embedded in the door. I said I know what he wants. He is obsessed with obtaining revenge for his beloved Fiona. He suspected from the beginning that her death was not a suicide, you see.

He is right, isnt he?

Victoria smiled coldly. Yes. And soon I am going to give him what he seeks most. Fionas killer. Rest assured, Stalbridges concern for your safety is based entirely upon your usefulness to him in the pursuit of his quest. Once you are dead and he has his answers, you will cease to have any value to him.

Hastings murdered Fiona, didnt he?

With my assistance. Victorias shoulder moved in an elegant little shrug. We had no choice. She accidentally came upon us that night in the gardens at the ball. I do not know what drew her outside. Perhaps a desire for some fresh air. Whatever the case, she overheard an argument between Hastings and me. The quarrel involved the details of the blackmail scheme I had arranged. It was working nicely, but Elwin wanted to expand it.

Blackmailing those elderly ladies was your idea?

Of course. All of the plans that Hastings profited from so handsomely were conceived by me. Victorias face tightened with anger. But the fool convinced himself that he was the brilliant mind behind each venture. My mistake was in allowing him to deceive himself. He actually came to the conclusion that he no longer needed me.

What did you do to Fiona?

When I heard a faint sound from the other side of the hedge I knew at once that someone was there and that she had no doubt heard enough to ruin us. We could not afford to let her live. I went around the corner of the hedge and spoke politely to her, as though nothing was amiss. Hastings came up behind her and struck her on the back of her head with his walking stick.

Dear heaven, Louisa whispered.

Once she was unconscious we carried her out through the garden gate and left her in the alley, bound and gagged with items of her own clothing. Leaving her there was a risk, but we could not think of anything else to do. We went back into the ballroom, summoned a cab, and departed as though nothing had happened.

And then went back to take her to the river?

Elwin handled that part. He took one of my cloaks and returned to the alley for Miss Risby. She was still unconscious but not yet dead. He wrapped her in the cloak.

How did he get her out of the alley and to the river?

You will have noticed that Hastings is a large man. Miss Risby was a small woman. Elwin simply put her over his shoulder and hauled her out of the alley as though she were a sack of coal. When he reached a side street he summoned another cab.

How did he explain his burden to the driver?

Victoria smiled. That was simple enough. He explained that the woman with him was a whore who had entertained him and then passed out from too much gin. Out of the goodness of his heart he wanted to see the woman safely back to her lodgings near the river. The driver asked no questions.

Louisa shuddered. But Hastings made a mistake. He could not resist the temptation of the necklace Fiona wore that night. He removed it before he threw her into the river.

Victoria laughed. You must not blame Elwin for taking the necklace. I removed it from Miss Risby when we left her in the alley. One could hardly allow such a valuable piece of jewelry to go into the river. I had planned to have the stones reset in the modern style, of course.

I understand why you and Hastings murdered Fiona Risby, but why did you arrange to disappear and come back as the proprietor of a brothel? Bit of a comedown, wasnt it?

In less time than it takes for a viper to strike, Victorias beautiful features were transformed into a mask of rage.

Are you mad? she rasped. Do you think I wanted this? I loved him. Do you hear me? Elwin was the one man on earth I trusted. I thought we were two of a kind, meant for each other. I taught him everything he knows about manipulating money and the greed that consumes most people. Everything.

Louisa realized she was holding her breath. Victoria was on the brink of some inner precipice.

What happened? she asked gently.

That was when the bastard concluded that he no longer needed me. I think that killing Fiona Risby gave him a sense of power. Having murdered once, he found it easy to do it again. He came for me a few days later when I was asleep. He used chloroform. I woke up too late to do more than put up a weak struggle. He held me down while he finished the job.

But you lived.

It was luck and fate that saved me that night. I was partially awake when I went into the water. I knew how to swim, and I was wearing a nightgown, not a dress and corset. I was pulled from the river by some deranged man who had a hovel near the waters edge.

What did you do?

Victorias mouth thinned, and her eyes tightened. I survived. It is something I am very good at, Mrs. Bryce.

Yes, I can see that.

The man thought I was some sort of fey being that had been sent to him. He took excellent care of me. When I recovered, I made my plans.

Why didnt you simply come forward and tell the authorities what had happened?

Victoria gave a scornful laugh. Surely you are not that na"ive, Mrs. Bryce. I had no proof that Elwin had tried to kill me. You know as well as I do that the authorities are very quick to leap to the conclusion that any woman, wife or not, who lodges charges against a gentleman of Hastingss background is suffering from hysteria.

Memories of Lord Gavins relentless assault on her nerves before the final attack sent another shiver through Louisa. She had known then that if she had gone to the authorities they would have considered her to be suffering from female hysteria.

Yes, she said. I know.

At best I would have found myself locked away in an asylum. The other, far more likely possibility, of course, is that Elwin would have had another go at killing me.

So you remained in hiding.

And I formulated my vengeance.

Im surprised you didnt simply murder Hastings.

I thought about it many times, but that would have been far too easy. I wanted him to suffer. I yearned for him to roast over a long fire. I needed him to see his destruction bearing down upon him slowly, inevitably.

You murdered the former owner of Phoenix House, didnt you?

Victorias twisted features relaxed back into their customary beautiful alignment. It was not difficult to get rid of her and assume control of this place.

Where does a lady who moved in some of the best circles of the Polite World learn to operate a brothel?

Victoria was coldly amused. Why, Mrs. Bryce, cant you guess? I know the business because I was raised in it.

Louisa stared at her. You were a prostitute?

My stepfather sold me to a brothel when I was twelve years old. I learned the business very well, indeed. By the time I was eighteen, I was running the place. I met Elwin Hastings when I was twenty-two. He was a client. We were married eight months later when I convinced him that I could make him rich. I kept my promise, but the bastard didnt keep his.

Youve been following me, spying on me for the past few days, Louisa said.

I heard rumors that someone was making inquiries about Phoenix House among the women who go to Mrs. Woodss establishment in Swanton Lane. I thought it best to find out what was going on. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that you were a correspondent for the Flying Intelligencer.

Louisa did not know what to say. You are an amazing woman, Victoria. She raised her eyes to the vaulted ceiling. Where am I now? Inside your new brothel?

Yes. Welcome to Phoenix House. Let me assure you that the profits have increased quite dramatically since I took charge.

I cant believe that you willingly returned to this world.

Victoria made a derisive little sound. And I would have credited you with a more worldly view of the matter, Mrs. Bryce. The reality of the situation was that I required money in order to exact my revenge. In case it has escaped your notice, it is virtually impossible for a woman who lacks family connections or a wealthy husband to make her fortune in our so-called modern age.

Was it difficult to lure Hastings to this place?

Not at all. Victoria smiled again. I know his tastes better than anyone, after all. I told you, once you comprehend those things that a man desires above all else, you have him in your power.

Youre going to kill him, I assume?

Yes. Tonight, in fact. I hadnt planned to do it so soon. I wanted Elwin to suffer financially first. I have been working on my plans for months. The investment scheme he is so proud of is doomed, Im afraid. He would have lost everything. Then he would have committed suicide, of course. After which I would have reappeared as the grieving widow. With the profits I have made from Phoenix House I would have been able to resume my rightful place in Society.

You concocted the scheme?

Of course. I used Grantley to handle the details and to lead Elwin to it.

When you no longer needed Grantley, you killed him.

Victoria shrugged. I thought it best.

What of Thurlow? Why did you murder him?

He discovered my identity here at Phoenix House. It turned out that one of the girls was servicing him on the side. He became suspicious from something she said and managed to get inside by coming here as a client. He snuck upstairs and spied on me. He caught a glimpse of me without my veil and recognized me instantly.

What did he do?

The fool tried to blackmail me. He threatened to let Elwin know that I was alive.

So you went to his lodgings, waited for him to come home one night, and shot him.

Thurlow was exceedingly handsome, but Im afraid he was not very bright.

How will you kill Elwin Hastings? Louisa asked.

As I said, you and Stalbridge have forced me to move more quickly than I had intended. Victoria was clearly annoyed by that turn of events. So tonight Elwin will suffer a heart attack while undergoing his weekly treatment here at Phoenix House.

How do you plan to simulate a heart attack?

It is no great secret that a sufficient quantity of chloroform will cause the heart to fail.

And then I go into the river, is that it?

Im afraid so. You will leave a sorrowful note behind stating that you lost your heart to Mr. Stalbridge and that you recognized that the affair was doomed because of the difference in your stations. Women are always throwing themselves off bridges because of illicit love affairs. Amazing, isnt it? Victoria shook her head. I have never understood why anyone would die for love, but there you have it.

Mr. Stalbridge will not believe it.

My dear Mrs. Bryce. You really do not comprehend the nature of men. I told you, Stalbridge is only interested in you because he thinks you can help him bring down Hastings. Trust me, once he learns that Hastings is dead, he will be satisfied that his hunt is concluded. There is no reason why he would feel compelled to investigate your death. You are simply not important to him.

I think you are the one who is in danger of misjudging Mr. Stalbridge. I agree that he is not in love with me, but I assure you he will nevertheless feel an obligation to question my sudden demise.

You are deluded, Mrs. Bryce. Victoria paused. Do you know, I regret the necessity of killing you.

Do you really expect me to believe that?

Its true. Aside from your appallingly na"ive views on the subject of Anthony Stalbridge, you are an interesting woman. I admire your accomplishments as a journalist. Under other circumstances, I would have enjoyed a closer acquaintanceship with you. Im sure we would have much to discuss.

I doubt it.

Victoria paid no attention. Unfortunately, due to your journalistic endeavors, you have become a problem for me. It became clear that your inquiries were bringing you closer and closer to the truth. It was only a matter of time before you realized my true identity. Sadly, you are in the same situation as Fiona Risby. Im afraid you know too much, Mrs. Bryce. I can hardly resume my place in Society after Hastings is gone and create new investment opportunities for the gentlemen of the Polite World if a correspondent for the Flying Intelligencer is aware that the grieving widow was a former brothel madam.


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