The bowler hatted man strode ahead of her, his cane thudding in the dirt, head bent to a purpose.
She padded after him, far enough behind to not arouse suspicion if he turned back, close enough to not lose him in the maze of twisting alleys. A good thing, too, for he suddenly took a sharp turn and disappeared. She followed at a trot but as she reached the corner the faint sound of men roaring carried to her on the still night air. Her step faltered. She stopped. Pressed a steadying palm to the rough bricks of the corner building. Images of pummelled flesh, dripping blood, rolled over her, threatening to make her lose the small amount of food in her stomach; then she shoved the images away, pushed off the wall and continued after her quarry. What did it matter, that she had yet another thick layer of guilt to apply to her already heavily-lacquered soul?
Ahead, the man stopped at a door that opened directly on to the street. Twin lanterns glowed on either side of it. He raised his cane, rapped three times on the wood. Mutterings ensued before the door creaked open. He stepped inside and the door slammed shut.
Slowly she approached the door. It was plain and unadorned, with no sign to give any indication as to the nature of business carried on within. No lights in the windows. What to do now? For a moment, the disaster that had been this evening almost made her feet turn and march her back to Margot’s apartment and into bed. Then she thought of Sebastien and her fists clenched. At this very moment he was probably being patched up from the beating he’d received in her name. Protecting her. Surely she could muster the courage to rap on a bloody door.
She knocked. Footfall approached the door from within.
“Who do you wish to see?” came from inside.
She was careful to lower her voice before she answered; the change in register was made with ease, thanks to Jean’s earlier attempts to strangle her.
“I must see … “ Who? He wouldn’t be so stupid to use his own name. She racked her brains.
“Who do you wish to see?” Impatient now.
She crossed her fingers and thought of their dog.
Silence. Her heart sank. Then the door creaked open and she was in.
An elderly man, some kind of bowed and decrepit servant, led her up a flight of dark stairs, candles in sconces casting pools of light at their feet. They reached a small anteroom, surprisingly elegant in its appointment, with wallpaper of green peacocks, a soft rug, a fire in the grate.
“You are to wait here while I confirm your credentials. Give me your name - not your real one, mind,” the old man was quick to add. “No matter Monsieur Rex’s invitation, we don’t want to know who you are.” He grinned toothlessly. “Just as we do not want you to know us.”
The answer came easily - he would recognise it, and it would serve as a warning shot across his bow.
She waited, seated upon a leather tub chair, legs spread apart as would a man, tapping her fingers. The servant returned and he nodded. “You may join.”
She stood. Join? Join what?
The answer was apparent when she stepped into the next room. The curtains were thick and drawn tight. Bees wax candles in a glittering crystal chandelier attempted, with limited success, to provide light above the centrepiece of the room - a round table covered in green felt, with the images of every card of the deck painted upon it. Markers were placed upon five of the painted cards; five well-dressed gentlemen sat around the table’s circumference, glasses of cognac within reach, their faces obscured by the darkness and the miasma of cigar smoke that curled to the ceiling.
But she had eyes for only one man. Bowler hat man; Monsieur Rex. His sandy hair and brows were dyed dark, his moustache shaved off, but he was, unmistakably, sneeringly, her brother. Lewis William Beaufort Knight.
He raised his blue eyes to hers. The left one twitched at the corner, the only evidence of his discombobulation; other than that, they betrayed nothing.
“Monsieur … Izasmell.” The name with which he had tormented her as a child croaked from his mouth. He cleared his throat. “Have you the requisite coin?”
She pulled Legrande’s pouch from her pocket and tossed it in what she hoped was a manly fashion to the green felt. The thud it made left no doubt as to the richness of its content.
She saw Lewis’ throat ripple as he swallowed, the avaricious gleam in his eye as he stared at the pouch.
“Very good, monsieur,” he murmured. “You may take your seat.”