Luck Be a Lady
London, August 1886
His name is William Pilcher,” said Catherine’s brother. “And it’s no wonder if he stares. He has proposed to marry you.”
Catherine choked on her champagne. From her vantage point across the crowded room, William Pilcher made a very poor picture. It was not his looks to which she objected; he had a blandly handsome face, square and straight-boned, and a full head of brown hair. But he hunched in his seat with the gangly laxity of a scarecrow leaking its stuffing.
That posture was probably intended to convey a fashionable insouciance. But it looked distinctly foolish on a man in his forties. Indeed, Mr. Pilcher’s confidence annoyed her. At the beginning of the musicale, she had noticed how fixedly he gazed at her. That was not unusual; men often stared. But by the third aria, Pilcher’s look had grown lecherous. Realizing now that he had finally caught her eye, he offered her a thin, twisting
smile. He was congratulating himself, no doubt, on encouraging a spinster’s dreams.
Catherine snorted and turned to her brother. At last, she understood his mood tonight—the high color on his face, the poorly restrained excitement. “Peter.” She spoke in an undertone, as the soprano launched into Verdi’s “O Patria Mia.” “For the final time. You will not choose my husband.”
It was a matter of private regret that she resembled her brother so closely. The cross look that came into his face, and the temper that narrowed his lavender eyes, mirrored her own—as did the fall of blond hair he brusquely hooked behind his ear. “You make no effort to find one,” he said. “And Mr. Pilcher is a fine choice. Assistant chairman in the St. Luke’s vestry, with no small prospects. Besides, he has agreed to your terms.”
Astonished, she opened her mouth—then thought better of it as the soprano descended into a low, soft note that provided no cover for arguments. Instead, she clutched her program very tightly and glared at the small type: “An Evening of Musical Delights from Italy.”
For weeks now, ever since Catherine had broken her engagement to Lord Palmer, Peter had been harassing her to find a new suitor. He claimed to think of her happiness. She was nearly twenty-seven, he pointed out. If she did not marry this year, she would remain a spinster. By the terms of Father’s will, you cannot assume equal governance in the company until you are wed. Isn’t that your wish?
But her happiness did not truly concern him—much less the power she might gain, once she married and became his full partner at Everleigh’s. What he wanted was to marry her to some man who would forbid her
to work at all. Then, Peter would have free rein to loot the place. He was already embezzling from the company to fund his political ambitions. He imagined she didn’t notice, that her attention was swallowed wholesale by her duties. But he was wrong.
And now he’d solicited a stranger to accept her terms? He could only mean the marriage contract she had drawn up with Lord Palmer. But that had been the product of a different moment: Palmer had needed her aid in drawing out a villain, and she, having just discovered Peter’s embezzlement, had felt desperate for a powerful ally who might force her brother into line.
In the end, fate had saved her from the rash plan to marry. Palmer had fallen in love with her assistant, Lilah. Their elopement had left Catherine feeling nothing but relief. She did not want a loveless marriage—or any marriage at all. It was not in her nature to be a wife: to subordinate her own desires and needs to a man’s, and to knit patiently by the fire in expectation of his return from the office. She had her own office, her own work, and a gentleman would never allow that. Better to muddle on independently, then, and find some other way to stem Peter’s thieving.
But how? Unless she married, she had no authority to challenge him.
The aria soared to a crescendo. Peter took the opportunity to speak into her ear. “Only say the word. The contract is signed, the license easily acquired.”
She snorted. “Lovely. I wish him luck in finding a bride.”
The sharpness of his voice drew several looks from
those nearby. Pasting a smile onto her lips, she rose and walked out of the salon.
In the hallway, Peter caught up to her, his hand closing on her arm. She pulled away and faced him, still careful to smile, mindful of the guests chatting in an adjoining drawing room. “This isn’t the place to discuss this.”
He raked his fingers through his blond hair, then winced and smoothed it down again. Always the peacock, ever mindful of his appearance. “At least meet him.”
“No.” She should have known something was awry when he pleaded so sweetly for her to accompany him tonight. Like husbands, polite society had little use for women who worked. Nor was this crowd known to her from the auction house, for it represented the second tier of political and social lights in London—those who aspired to bid at Everleigh’s but lacked the funds to merit an invitation. The truly rich were summering abroad, or had gone to their country homes for hunting season.
Peter, on the other hand, had every reason to associate with this lot. He nursed dreams of a political career. He had managed to gain a seat on the Municipal Board of Works, but such power meant nothing outside London. Among these minor MPs and political cronies, he hoped to lay the groundwork for his future.
The family business had never held his interest. He was looting it in service of his true ambitions. But for her, Everleigh’s was everything. Their father’s legacy. Her sacred birthright. Everleigh’s made her who she was—which was not merely a spinster, the “Ice Queen” that rude wits had dubbed her. She was a person of business.
An expert in the field of fine arts. A learned professional, regardless of her sex.
And she was done looking for common ground with her brother. “I am leaving,” she told him. “Fetch my coat, please.”
“You will meet him.”
She started toward the cloakroom. He caught her wrist, his grip bruising now. “Listen carefully, Catherine. I have practiced patience with you. But you have mistaken it for indulgence. I have given my word to Mr. Pilcher that you will—”
“It will not help your prospects to be seen abusing me.”
Peter’s hand fell away. Far better to quarrel with him in public than in private, in this regard.
“You have given your word,” she said in a fierce undertone. “Not me. When he asks where I have gone, simply explain to him the arrogance of your presumption—if indeed you can explain it. For it is perfectly incredible.”
Peter took a breath through clenched teeth. “If you won’t think of yourself, then think of Everleigh’s. Don’t you wish for children to carry forward the company? What is the future of the auction rooms, if not—”
“Stop it.” Anger made her hands fist. If Peter had his way, there would be no auction house for her fictional children to inherit. He was trying to tap into the principal now. Did he truly think Mr. Wattier, their chief accountant, would not have informed her of that attempt?
But she could not confront him before she had devised a way to check him. She had sworn Mr. Wattier to secrecy, for surprise was the only advantage she
possessed right now. “Think of your own children. Find yourself a spouse. But you will leave me be.”
“I think of your welfare,” he said flatly. “If you do not wish to find yourself homeless and penniless one day, you must marry.”
Now he was speaking nonsense. “I am far from penniless. I will remind you that half of Everleigh’s belongs to me.”
His smile made her uneasy, for it smacked of some secret satisfaction. “But you are not a partner in its directorship,” he said. “Not until you are married.”
That fact never failed to burn her. No doubt Papa had anticipated that she would marry long before the age of twenty-six. But he should have foreseen that Peter would abuse the authority granted to him in the interim.
What she needed, Catherine thought bitterly, was a puppet husband—somebody she could control, or somebody so indifferent that he permitted her to do as she pleased. But Mr. Pilcher would not suit. He was Peter’s creature. What she needed was a creature all her own. “Regardless,” she said. “Your threats hold no water.”
“I have made no threats,” Peter said softly. “But I will tell you a fact. If you do not marry, you leave me no choice but to safeguard your future through other means.”
She stared at him. “What means that, precisely?”
He shrugged. “I have been thinking of selling the auction rooms.”
The breath escaped her in a hoarse gasp.
“Naturally,” he went on, “half the profits would go to you.”
Had he struck her, here in public, he could not have stunned her more completely. “You . . . you’re lying. This is a ruse to make me entertain Mr. Pilcher.”
As though her words had summoned him, the scarecrow came into the hall. “Ah!” Pilcher manufactured a look of surprise. “Mr. Everleigh, how good to find you here tonight. And this lovely lady must be—”
“I fear I am no one to you, sir.” Catherine kept her eyes on her brother, who must be bluffing. But he looked so pleased with himself. Rage roughened her voice. “My brother, however, has an apology to make.” She inclined her head the slightest degree to Pilcher—the only courtesy she could bring herself to pay him—then turned on her heel for the cloakroom.
Peter’s voice reached her as she rounded the corner. “She is shy,” he said. “Only give me a little time to persuade her.”
“For such a vision,” said the scarecrow, “I will gladly grant as much time as it requires.”
A chill went through her, followed by a surge of panic. She needed a method to deter Peter from this mad course. There was no time to waste.
An idea seized her. Perfect madness—but what other recourse did she have? She knew just the man to bring Peter to heel. All it would require of her was a great deal of money . . . and a reckless disregard for decency and the law.
* * *
“Sad sight, to see a grown man weep.” Nicholas O’Shea lifted away his blade, then motioned to his man by the door.
Johnson hurried over with the flask. Alas, a single
mouthful of ale wasn’t going to wash this bitter taste from Nick’s mouth. Nasty work, torturing a pig. He tipped back the flagon, drinking long and deep. Would have drained it to the dregs, had a single word not interrupted him.
He lowered the flask. “Please, what?”
“I’ll thell ’oo. Honeshly, I will!”
There was all he’d been wanting: a spot of truth amid the lies. He handed the flask back to Johnson, then crouched down.
The man on the floor was called Dixon. He’d looked much prettier two hours ago, very spiffy with his fine wool trousers flapping at his ankles. Nick had interrupted him in the middle of a poke-and-cuddle with a girl barely old enough to sport a bosom. Why did swine always have a taste for children? It never failed to baffle him, these patterns to which evil so regularly inclined.
But they were handy in their own way. Kept his conscience from troubling him now as he yanked up the bastard’s head, and saw what his own fists had wrought. Dixon’s face wasn’t pretty any longer. No more little girls for him. Now they would spot him at first glance for a monster. “You’ll be needing dentures to eat,” he said. “I’ll spot you the coin, if you make this quick.”
Dixon sniveled. There was no other word for the way his face crumpled, nor the sound that came from his bloody, foaming mouth. “Jes’ know ’afore I tell you, sir. The buildings, they weren’t safe! I was within my rights to condemn them!”
Scoffing, Nick sat back on his heels. Here was the greatest lie yet. “You idiot. You haven’t put it together yet. Those properties are in Whitechapel. I own them.”
“What?” Dixon blinked. “No, you’re . . .”
“Tricky things, parish borders. Whitechapel’s poke like”—he jammed his finger into Dixon’s forehead—“this into St. Luke’s. Those neighboring lots aren’t mine. But the two buildings you condemned, they’re out of your jurisdiction. Whitechapel’s mine.”
Dixon’s jaw sagged. He looked properly sick now. “I didn’t—”
“Didn’t know,” Nick finished. He’d imagined as much. For three years, Dixon had been trotting about the edge of Nick’s territories, exercising his authority under the Torrens and Cross Acts to condemn hazardous buildings.
Speculators liked nothing better than those acts, for they gave a man a chance to buy property on the cheap. The law required the new owners to replace the condemned buildings with decent housing for the poor. But speculators rarely followed through on that part. What buildings they constructed charged rents no ordinary man could afford. Thanks to Dixon, the displaced had been flooding into Nick’s territory, placing a mighty strain on the parish of Whitechapel.
Still, Nick might have tolerated it, had Dixon’s work remained honest. Recently, however, Dixon had taken to condemning buildings that were perfectly sound. Peculiar business for a surveyor. Downright irritating when the properties he condemned belonged to Nick.
“I will ask you one last time,” Nick said. “Who paid you to condemn them? And no more rubbish about a corporation. There’s a man behind it, and I’ll have his name.”
“He’ll . . .” Dixon swallowed. “Look here, sir—I’ll
go to the board. I’ll explain the mistake, tell them that I didn’t realize—”
“Somebody realized,” Nick said flatly. “And I’ll have his name.”
“He’ll kill me for telling you!”
Probably so. “Got to watch who you mix with in the future.” He raised his knife again. “Assuming you’ve got one.”
Dixon began to cry, big, fat tears that mixed with his bloody snot. “William Pilcher.”
The name rang a bell. “St. Luke’s man?”
“Yes,” Dixon said. “And . . . he’s the vestry representative to the Municipal Board of Works.”
Brilliant. The very board that approved petitions under the Torrens and Cross Acts.
Nick snorted as he rose to his full height. Corruption was a rich man’s game, with the poor always paying the price for it.
Dixon grabbed his ankles. “Please, sir, I’ll do anything. Only protect me from him! I promise, I’ll serve you well—”
Nick kicked free. “This is Whitechapel, lad. We’ve got standards hereabouts.” He nodded to Johnson, who pulled open the door.
“What should I do with him?” Johnson asked.
Nick paused. Alas, in this part of town, men kept their word. “Let him go, with a coin for the dentist.”
The stairs held steady as Nick descended them by twos. The balustrade felt solid as rock beneath his hand. He’d no objection to the improvement acts, in principle. Once, this building had deserved condemnation, too. A broken skeleton with eight people to a room, it had trembled in the breeze and flooded at each rainfall.
Only the desperate had lived here, knowing it was just a matter of time before the building collapsed and became their grave.
But Nick had fixed that with no interference from meddling lawmen. He’d won the deed in a card game, then rebuilt the place himself. He’d started by knocking down the subdivisions by which the former owner had extracted maximum rent for minimum space. Built new rooms, and allotted two or three to each family. That small trick had turned the male tenants into heads of households, which in turn qualified them as voters. Nick had entered their names in the parish lists. Come the next election, they had voted for him.
He’d controlled the Whitechapel vestry for four years now. Wasn’t a single local man who didn’t answer to him. Meanwhile, the parish officers would sooner condemn their own houses than one of Nick’s.
But those buildings Dixon had condemned were tricky. Whitechapel’s western border poked like a sore thumb into the neighboring parish of St. Luke’s. No coincidence, Nick supposed, that the plots to left and right, which stood in St. Luke’s, had been razed a year ago. Pilcher obviously had plans for that street. But if he thought he could dip into Whitechapel to effect them, he had a hard lesson coming.
On the landing, a tenant stepped aside, bowing. Nick nodded as he passed, sparing a glance for the polished window that looked onto a sea of fine, new roofs. This entire block—and the nine or ten streets around it—would stand till kingdom come, thanks to him. As for how he paid for the constant improvements—whether his coin was earned through fair means or foul—his tenants did not care. As long as the roof kept the rain out
and the rent stayed reasonable, they’d bow to him gladly, of their own free will.
That was how he wanted it. What good was respect earned by force? That wasn’t respect at all.
In the street, he came to a stop, drawing a long breath of the pungent air. The smell of fried oysters was coming from Neddie’s, the pub where he always broke his fast. But today, he lacked the appetite. Irritation had killed it.
Thundering footsteps approached from behind. Nick didn’t bother to turn, because a knot of men outside Neddie’s had raised their hands in greeting, and in their faces, he saw no alarm. This place, these people, were his. If a threat was coming, they’d be charging to meet it, weapons in hand.
Johnson joined him, breathing heavily. The Englishman wasn’t built for speed, but he could slip into places that an Irishman found . . . uncomfortable. Nick had hired him as an experiment. How far did money take you, without the ties of kinship?
So far, it had gone a nice distance. “Shall I make inquiries into Pilcher?” Johnson gasped. “Can’t say I know the name, but somebody will. At the docks, maybe.”
“No, that’s fine.” Johnson knew the docks better than almost anyone, for he had been one of the Royals, once—that group of men chosen first for work each morning at the quays. It was there that Nick had first met him, as a boy of ten or eleven.
So perhaps the experiment wasn’t so pure, after all. They shared a kind of kinship, even if it wasn’t one to cherish. Dock work could be a sight more brutal than torture, depending on the cargo—or the victim.
Today’s torture should have brightened his mood. He’d gotten a name, at last. Why, then, did he feel so befouled?
Bloody toffs. They looted and despoiled without a care for the cost. Nick had seventy-six tenants in those condemned buildings. Their fates never troubled a man like Pilcher.
“I could follow him,” Johnson offered. “He’s heading for the high road.”
Nick glanced back, spying Dixon’s hobbling retreat. A lick of humor lightened his mood. “Maybe you could even catch him, at that.”
Johnson went red. Folks in these parts, now that they’d grown accustomed to him, had taken to calling him Blushes. It was a natural wonder that a giant with a pierced ear and a head as bald as a pirate’s could color more brightly than a girl. “I wouldn’t let him get away, sir.”
“No need.” Pilcher’s henchman wasn’t the problem. A vestry or district could submit petitions under the Torrens and Cross Acts until they ran out of ink, but it took approval from the Municipal Board of Works for a building to be condemned.
Pilcher sat on that board, but a single vote could not do anything. He must have powerful allies—which meant that Nick needed allies there, too.
Nick faced front again, surveying the road. A gaggle of children were playing by Lola’s Alley—truants, all. No matter how many times the school board rounded them up, they slipped free. “You see Mrs. Hollister hereabouts of late?”
It was her job to investigate truancies for the school board, and force children back to school. Should that fail, the new laws gave her the right to summon parents before the board, where they would be fined an amount they could not spare.
“Ho!” Nick yelled. “You lot!” He strode forward, and one of the children, Tommy Ferguson, took note, calling the others’ attention in a hurry.
They clustered into a panicked herd at Nick’s approach. “Who’s keeping you out of school?” he said. Sometimes a newcomer, not grasping the way of Whitechapel, made the mistake of pulling his child from class in order to earn. Then, sure as dominoes toppling, the likely suspects followed suit, bunking with glee.
“It’s a holiday,” Tommy Ferguson said, brazen as brass.
Nick eyed him. “Does your ma know you for a liar?”
The boy winced. His ma, Mary Ferguson, was as broad-beamed as a ship, and didn’t spare a smack for sass. “Don’t tell her, sir! I’ll go!”
“Take the rest with you. Five minutes, Tommy. If I see a single one of you in the road, it’s your mother I’ll be speaking with next.”
Tommy had a talent for leadership. With gasped apologies, he harried the pack down the road, making them scramble.
“Who’s the little one?” Nick asked Johnson. A small girl, more bedraggled than the rest, was barely keeping up, her bare heels kicking as she trailed around the corner.
“New to the street,” Johnson said. “Mother’s a fur stripper. Don’t know the dad.”
“She had a beggar’s bowl under her arm. And no boots.” There was no call for that. He’d seen to it that the Whitechapel vestry covered the school fee for parents who could not pay it, and supplied the boots that the law required schoolchildren to wear. “You speak with her mother. Go gentle, though. She may not know there’s help for her.”
“Aye. I will.”
Satisfied, Nick straightened his hat. Nothing else looked amiss. Brisk business at the cookshop on the corner, women hanging the washing out the windows—he grinned at Peggy Malloy’s coy greeting—and men making smart progress toward their destinations, no loitering in sight.
Once this quarter of Whitechapel had looked different—violent, ugly, choked with rubbish. But now it boasted orderly streets, solid tenements, quiet nights, and schools with no seats to spare.
He frowned. He’d been feeling restless of late, uneasy for reasons he couldn’t quite place. Everything was going very well—so well, in fact, that he’d left off with petty crime entirely. His legitimate businesses were turning a far handsomer profit, to say nothing of his gambling palace. But contentment too closely resembled carelessness. And carelessness always led to a fall.
Perhaps this was where it started: some upstart toff from St. Luke’s.
“Do this,” Nick said. “Gather Malloy and the rest of the boys. I’m calling a meeting.”
Johnson nodded. “At Neddie’s?”
“No, we’re done with bloody business for a time. I need a proper meeting.” Nick bared his teeth in a smile. The Municipal Board of Works shaped the entire city. One seat was reserved for Whitechapel, but he rarely tasked his man to attend the meetings. Malloy lacked the allies required to sway the board’s decisions, and most of the votes didn’t interest Nick anyway. He had no care for matters in Southwark or Clerkenwell; the East End was his territory, no farther.
But perhaps it was time he did take an interest. Bring
the board into line, and while he was at it, address the question of water in Whitechapel—these competing companies had been sabotaging their rivals’ pipes, making the supply unpredictable.
“Convene the vestry,” he said. “I’ve a proposal to put to the citizens.”