The Curious Case Of The Clockwork Menace Page 10

“They may,” Perry admitted. “Which is why you’re going to take up Lord Rommell’s generous offer of a man to watch over you during the day. I’ll arrange for a Nighthawk to keep a watch on your apartment of nights, though, whilst we try to get to the bottom of all of this.”

“And what should I tell Rommell?”

“Tell him it wouldn’t be proper, so arrangements have been made,” Perry replied. “How much pressure is he placing on you?”

Miss Radcliffe lowered her head, scrunching the handkerchief in her gloved fist. “He’s like that with all of us,” she whispered. “I knew what to expect, of course, after the way he went after poor Nelly, but I just– It makes me feel so helpless, when I know my career relies upon his good graces. I’d hoped to be able to keep him at arm’s length, but he’s... persistent.”

That made her furious. “If you need help, you should come to us. Nothing, not even your career, is worth being pressured into a relationship you don’t wish for.”

“What else do I have, other than my career?” Miss Radcliffe’s smiling facade slipped, revealing a haunted edge to her eyes.

A question Perry had often asked herself. She’d forced herself to put aside any other feminine dreams to focus on her career. To forge her own path up the ladder in the Nighthawks, she’d had to be ruthless, exacting and forgo her own pleasures.

She also had no answer for Miss Radcliffe. A woman’s lot was precarious in this world. “Perhaps... if you made it clear your attentions were engaged elsewhere, he might relent.”

“Nobody else would dare stand up to him.”

“Garrett would.”

Silence bloomed. Miss Radcliffe flushed. “I-I wasn’t aware that you’d noticed.”

So her heart did lie in that direction. Something squeezed tight in Perry’s chest, but she forced it down. A woman’s safety was more important than her own insecurities.

“Or perhaps you could earn your right on the stage. If the audience loves you enough, they’ll clamour your name,” Perry said. “Rommell wouldn’t be able to cut you from the show.”

“The audience is fickle, and I’m not Nelly. She owned the crowd, you know. Flirted with all of them - men and women alike. She had this... this ability to make everyone think she belonged to them - and yet, it’s only now that I realize how private she was in person. How little I knew of her.”

“May I ask you a question?”

Miss Radcliffe nodded. “Of course.”

“I find it curious the way you said ‘Rommell went after poor Nelly’. Did he pressure her into becoming his mistress?”

Miss Radcliffe’s eyes widened. “Oh, Nelly wasn’t his mistress. She had a beau, I think, who sent her peonies. I caught a glimpse of the card once. It read, ‘From Nick, with love’, or something like that. Maybe it was Nathan? No, no it was something shorter than that.”

Everything in Perry went still, as her hunting instincts rose. “It wouldn’t have been James, would it?”

Miss Radcliffe shook her head. “I don’t think so. I’m certain it began with ‘N’. Or maybe it was Mick?” She frowned. “Nelly saw me looking, and tucked the card away, most likely to keep it quiet from Rommell. He was so focused on having her, and she put him off all these months.”

Which was unusual, because Rommell had told Garrett precisely the opposite. “I was under the impression that she’d accepted his proposal.”

Miss Radcliffe shook her head. “Nelly... it wasn’t easy for her, but she... she managed him far better than I have. She kept pretending she’d think about it, or hinting that she enjoyed the chase, but sometimes, when he’d turn away she’d get this look in her eyes - as though he disgusted her. Rommell was desperate to have her. He kept bringing her more exotic gifts, but she’d always turn them away. It only made him more determined.”

That was a very important fact. “How strange. Rommell’s made it clear she was under his protection - indeed, he seemed to think that several other blue blood lord’s were trying to steal her away from him.”

Trying to lead her and Garrett to other potential suspects perhaps?

“Oh, he was very protective of her - or her affections, rather. And that slimy Lord Beckham’s been trying to lure her to the Highcastle. Offered her a place in his troupe - and his bed, no doubt. Rommell was furious. It’s like a game to them.”

So Nelly wouldn’t commit to Rommell, who had a direct challenge for his pursuit of her. That could be motive, but how did Hobbs fit into all of this? Perry’s pulse quickened in excitement. All of the little bits of puzzle pieces started rearranging themselves in her head. Still not complete, but she felt like she had the edge piece of the puzzle in her hand. From there, she’d be able to start filling in the other pieces.

Was Hobbs Nelly’s beau? If Nelly loved Hobbs and was seeing him privately, perhaps someone had found out? Beckham? Or Rommell? Neither of them would like discovering Nelly had a low-rate human suitor, when she’d turned both of them away.

She needed to find Garrett. Now. But first... “What was Nelly’s response to Beckham? And did Rommell ever warn her away from Beckham?”

“Nelly treated Beckham the same way she treated Rommell, as if it were all a great lark, and that she might consider it, but not... not yet. And Rommell never confronted her in public, though he often sought a private audience when he came in to go over the books with Fotherham.” Miss Radcliffe pursed her lips. “Although... There was an altercation here a month ago, when both Rommell and Beckham came backstage after the play. Nelly laughed it off, but she locked the door on the pair of them, and insisted on one of the stagehands seeing her to her hackney afterwards, so it must have shaken her up. The pair of them went at it, until Fotherham broke them apart, and told Beckham he was not longer welcome backstage. I never even thought to mention it. Do you think it has something to do with what happened?”

“It’s something we’ll consider,” Perry told her. “If anything strikes your attention as important, I’d appreciate it if you let us know. Sometimes the most random snippets of conversation can break a case.”

“Of course.” Miss Radcliffe nodded earnestly.

“Excuse me, ladies.”

They both looked up.

Arthur Millington tipped his head to them, “Miss Radcliffe. Hope you’re feeling a mite better.”

Miss Radcliffe smiled. “Thank you, Arthur. I’m much recovered.”

“Might I have a word, then? It’s about the lighting during the third act?” Impatience made him shift under their scrutiny.

“Of course.” Miss Radcliffe patted her hair into place, then handed Perry back her handkerchief. “If I think of anything I shall come directly to see you.”

They hurried onto the stage, where several other actresses were gathered with Mr. Fotherham.

Perry slipped a small brass piece out of her pocket, and slipped it into her ear. Fitz, one of the other Nighthawks, had designed the aural communicators for Nighthawks who might have to work alone, and Perry and Garrett often used them. Within the range of the theatre, they’d be able to communicate, without anyone else hearing.

If Garrett had his turned on.

Perry fiddled with the frequency. She needed to find Garrett. This new information–

A scream tore through the theatre.

Perry spun toward the stage. Miss Radcliffe! She started sprinting, her wrist pistols spinning into her hands, as she fought her way through the sudden flurry of actresses that scattered toward the backstage and perceived safety. It was like fighting her way through a flock of startled chickens.

Gun fire barked. Perry grabbed a young woman in a ball gown and jerked her behind the nearest prop - an enormous set piece that was crafted to resemble a ballroom in some fancy Echelon manor. “Stay down!”

More screams lit the auditorium.

“Stay back, you beast!” A man yelled.

Perry crouched behind the curtains, twitching them aside in order to see. From the other side of the stage, she saw Garrett duck behind a wardrobe prop, his pistol in hand. Their eyes met and Perry nodded, feeling relief.

Miss Radcliffe was on her knees, with Arthur Millington and a couple of other stagehands forming a protective circle around her. Fotherham staggered off the stage and fell, as something pushed past him.

The huge, lumbering form roared incoherently, and drove toward the edge of the stage near where she hid. Perry stepped forward, sighting along both barrels of her wrist pistols. A hideous face swam into view, frightened eyes locking on her and yet, not seeing her. Perry’s breath eased out, the world narrowing to the man’s massive chest, and the sensation of her fingers easing over the triggers. At the last minute she jerked the pistols up, and he rushed past her. Hell. That was Lovecraft–

“Don’t shoot!” she yelled, taking off after him. Leaping off the stage, she spun her pistols back into the sheaths at her wrists and started after him.

“Perry!” Garrett’s voice echoed, then a curse as he realized she had no intentions of stopping.

Lovecraft lurched toward the side door, hitting it with his shoulder. Wood splintered, and he bellowed in rage, then vanished into the blinding sphere of afternoon light.

Perry winced at the brightness - her sensitive eyes preferred night - and leapt through the hole he’d created. Her shoulder clipped a startled passer-by in a bowler hat and she spun off balance, collected herself on the base of a gas lamp, then kept going across the road as Lovecraft smashed a man off a monocycle.

Horns blared as an omnibus steered desperately around her. Perry leapt up onto the seat of a steam-carriage to the startled cry of the driver, her boot hitting the top of the carriage as she slid over the polished walnut exterior and dropped off the other side. Shock ran up her calves as she landed, and she only just managed to leap off the road as a carriage hurtled down upon her.

Ahead of her Lovecraft vanished around the corner, elbowing people out of the way. He was shockingly fast, but so too was she.

Perry went after him, ignoring the shouts behind her. He pounded through an abandoned church cemetery, long neglected, and she made up time by hurdling the iron fence, and reaching out to snatch at his sleeve as he thundered across another road.

With a snarl he threw her off, and slammed through a pair of gates into a park. A squirrel tore up the nearest tree in fright, and people looked up in shock from their picnic rugs, scrambling in a mad rush to get out of the way. There was a cricket match in progress among a flock of young schoolboys, and a gentleman in a top hat snatched a boy up under each arm, as she and Lovecraft drove straight through the middle of it.

Perry made one last-ditch effort.

“Stop!” She threw herself into a tackle, dragging him down to the grass.

A blow stung her ears, and she rolled over his shoulder in a tangle of arms and legs, until she came up against a tree. Lovecraft staggered to his feet, and drew back his boot as if to kick her in the face.

“Lovecraft!” She held up a hand. “I’m your friend, remember? It’s Perry. From Hobbs’ shop!”

Recognition dawned. “Nurly,” he said.

“Yes,” she let out a breath of relief, not daring to move. “I’m trying to find Nelly. To help her. Why did you come to the theatre?”


“Nelly’s not there, remember? She’s gone away. I have to find her.”

Wringing at his cap, he rocked back and forth, wide eyes frightened as he watched people running away from them. “Gone. Nurly gone. Jerm gone.”

“James?” she asked. “James is gone?”

He looked panicked. Perry rolled onto her hands and knees. What was he trying to say? “I can help you,” she said. “You can’t find James or Nelly, can you? Is that why you came to the theatre?”

“Jerm hurt. Jerm gone.”

Her breath caught in the back of her throat. “That’s right. Did you see the man who hurt James?”

Tortured eyes met her own. Lovecraft tore at his cap, as though to hide behind it, but he nodded.

“Was it someone at the theatre?” she asked breathlessly. “Is that why you came there?”

Whistles screamed as the local constabulary came on the scene. Lovecraft cupped his hands over his specially-designed earmuffs, wincing. Whatever she did, she would have to do it quickly. She could see they all had pistols.

Hell and blazes. She needed time to talk to him. Lovecraft had witnessed Hobbs’ murder - he knew who’d done it.

But if he stayed here... Where people didn’t understand him...

“Go,” she said, meeting his gaze, and imploring him. If they caught him, they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot. Not with his appearance. People were always frightened of what they didn’t understand, and Lovecraft was like a child trapped in a man’s body. He wouldn’t know how to appear unthreatening. “You need to run! Go! They’ll hurt you! Go home! I’ll find you!”

Tears wet his eyes, then the big man turned, and started running. The pair of constables bolted past her, and Perry took her time rolling to her feet, brushing the grass off.

Garrett caught up to her, grinding to a breathless halt. “Are you all right?”

Perry brushed a couple of leaves off her shoulder. “I’m fine. How is everyone at the theatre?”

“Shaken up, but not harmed. What the hell was that? Why the hell didn’t you shoot?”

Perry wet her lips. “That was Lovecraft.”

Garrett cut her a look. “Hobbs’ adopted... project?”

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