THE DISGRACED DEBUTATNE
Outside the carriage window, Ellen Nightingale saw London was now cloaked in fog as darkness slowly settled over the city. Night suited her. She liked to be concealed from the eyes of society. Not that she walked in their exalted ranks anymore and hoped never to again. Which was ironic, really, considering she lived not that far from the world she’d been raised in and yet it could be an entire continent away.
Opening the door above her head, she spoke to the driver.
“Are we near to home, Mungo?”
“Approaching the shops on the corner of Crabbett Close, Miss Ellen.”
“Halt then, please.”
The carriage rolled to a stop. Stepping down, Ellen looked up at the large man who sat on the driver’s seat.
“Go home, Mungo. I shall walk the remaining distance.”
“You’ll not in this fog!” he barked back at her.
“It is a matter of a few feet. I wish to return my book to Mr. Nicholson, as I promised him I would do so today.” Ellen stared up at her family’s driver, footman, and whatever else he was on any given day.
“I am unsure how long I will be. The horses will get cold if you wait. Besides, I have my umbrella.”
She felt the weight of his gaze, even though she saw only his large outline through the fog.
“I’ll return on foot to collect you, then. Stay in the shop until I arrive,” he said in his broad Scottish brogue. “Your uncle would have my head were I to allow you to stroll about London at such a time and with the fog thick as it is tonight.”
Ellen sometimes wondered who was the servant and who was the master in their relationship. In fact, he was this way with all their family, even Uncle Bram, his friend and employer.
“Oh, very well.” She knew better than to argue with a man who was as malleable as English Oak. Of course, she did not utter those words, as the insult would be extreme due to his birthplace.
“Not one foot, Miss Ellen.”
“For heaven’s sake, Mungo, I have agreed to not leave the bookshop.”
“You’ll pardon me for wanting the reassurance, but considering your reckless need to charge into danger, I would like it.”
“I am not reckless, and the single occasion you recount constantly was an accident.”
“How is it an accident when you run from your family and into a melee, where a stray punch then knocked you to the ground before we could aid you?”
Ellen hissed out a breath. “I felt the need, as clearly that woman was in trouble.” She raised a hand that he probably couldn’t see and continued. “Before you resume your lecture, the bookshop is but a few feet.”
“I will stay here until you reach your destination,” Mungo said.
Ellen fought back the sigh and walked away. Thick fog wrapped its eery fingers around her as she made her way to Nicholson’s Book Store. The tap of the heels of her sensible leather ankle boots were the only sounds in the air.
She knew to her right was the sign announcing Crabbett Close, where they lived. To the left were Nicholson’s bookshop and Appleblossoms Bakers and beyond that Nitpicks Trinkets and Treasures.
Mr. Nicholson would be inside as he always worked well into the evening and welcomed visits from anyone passing.
Ellen swung her umbrella back and forth to avoid bumping into anything. Had she not walked in these conditions before, it would have been unnerving.
Peering up through the fog, she saw the sign announcing the bookshop, and the lamp George always kept lit in the window when darkness fell.
“I have reached my destination!” she called out loud enough for Mungo to hear.
“Well, get inside then!” came his reply.
The roll of carriage wheels told Ellen that he was finally moving.
The bookshop was a favorite of the Nightingale family. They were often found there perusing the shelves and discussing titles with George Nicholson.
Placing her foot on the first step, Ellen stopped as tension gripped her. The vision that followed was of a man lying on the floor with blood staining his white shirt.
Taking the four steps up, she pushed the door open and entered.
Behind the counter was a boy who she did not recognize. On the other side, with his back to her, was another. Both appeared to be searching for something.
“Where is Mr. Nicholson?” Ellen demanded.
Both turned to look at her as she spoke.
“Not here,” the lad closest said. He was clutching money to his chest. She could see the corner of the banknote sticking out between his palm and finger.
“Well, where is he? And why are you behind his counter?”
The boys ignored her questions and continued doing what they were, dismissing her at their peril. Ellen took the two steps forward to reach them. Raising her umbrella, she then rapped it with some force on the shoulder of the one closest.
It was reinforced with a metal rod after she’d snapped the last one on a man’s head.
“Ouch!” He leapt back and glared at her. “What’d you do that for?”
“I demand an answer. Where is Mr. Nicholson?”
“Not here,” the boy she’d struck muttered, rubbing the injured spot. “You need to leave.”
“Why are you going through his things if he is not here?” Ellen ignored his words. “Are you stealing from him?”
“He’s not been in here all day,” the other boy said, his tone as belligerent as the other one’s had been. “If he left the door open, that’s his problem, and we’re taking advantage of that. Now, a pretty lady like you should go before we decide to check what you have in that little bag around your wrist.”
He raised his fists. Rather than be frightened, Ellen stood her ground and stared calmly back. “I don’t think so. You need to leave here at once. That is Mr. Nicholson’s money, and I won’t let you take it with you.”
The boy came round the counter and stopped beside his friend before her. Ellen guessed they would be about her sister Fred’s age, around thirteen, but it was hard to tell.
“Who’s going to make us, then?” one of them said.
“Me.” Ellen raised her umbrella, and the boys laughed. “It’s wrong to steal from others. You should earn your own money.”
“It ain’t easy to earn money, and if it’s there to be stolen, why not take it?”
“Because that’s stealing and unlawful.”
They charged her, and she jabbed the first in the stomach, then spun and struck the next on the cheek with the metal handle.
Curses filled the shop.
Stay on the balls of your feet. It’s easier to face an attacker that way. Keep moving.
Uncle Bram’s words had Ellen shifting her weight from foot to foot. The boys lunged again. This time she ducked and caught the first lad in the shins, sending him onto his knees. Straightening, she then jabbed the second in the stomach. The boy yelped as he doubled over.
“Let’s go, Snippy!”
The one on the floor tried to crawl away. Ellen beat him to the door.
“Leave what you have in your hands here.”
She heard money hitting the floor seconds later.
“Pockets,” Ellen said.
Keeping an eye on her, they emptied them too. More clattered onto the boards. Ellen stepped aside, and they fled out and into the night.
She locked the door behind them. Walking around the shop, she saw no sign of Mr. Nicholson. The place was filled with shelves of books, each grouped by author and alphabetized. She noted some were thrown to the floor.
“Where are you, George?”
Taking the lamp in one hand and her umbrella still clenched in the other, she headed through the door that led to the rear. Tense and uncertain what she’d find, Ellen wished one of her family or Mungo was here. But if George was in trouble, she could not wait for them.
“You can do this.”
Exhaling, she walked into the room. Her knees went weak with relief when she found only books and other supplies in the small space.
“Okay, that’s good. No George,” Ellen said. She headed for the stairs.
Perhaps it was not George Nicholson she had seen in the vision?
Walking up, the fourth step creaked, making her jump. Instead of fleeing, which everything inside her was urging Ellen to do, she entered another room. The first thing she encountered was a pair of feet in black leather polished shoes.
“George,” she whispered. “Dear Lord, no.”
Approaching, she knew instantly he was dead because it was just like her vision. Dropping to her knees, she reached with her gloved fingers and gently closed his eyes.
“I am so terribly sorry this has happened to you, dearest friend.”
Ellen remembered the hours she’d spent in here discussing books. She bit back a sob as grief surged through her. Grief for the gentle man who had not deserved this fate.
Another vision of a hand holding a knife, the blade red with blood, flashed through her head. She sat there waiting to see if more came, but when it didn’t, she looked around and found something trapped beneath George’s body.
Easing him over, she pulled it out by the tips of her gloved fingers. Horror washed through her as Ellen realized what she was holding. Surely this wasn’t her uncle’s knife? Rising, she studied the intricately engraved silver handle. It was exactly like the one Uncle Bram owned, but why was it here and covered in blood that was likely George’s?
Removing her handkerchief Ellen wrapped the blade. She then tucked the knife into her sleeve with trembling fingers. Picking up the lamp, she hurried back down the stairs. Opening the door, she walked out, locking it behind her. She then made her way through the thick fog once more. The chill seemed to have invaded her limbs, and pulling her coat tighter achieved little as it seeped deeper into her bones.
George, her friend, was dead.
Ellen had seen the hand of his killer but not the face. She had to get help and then hurry home to tell her family what she had found. Tell them that their beloved uncle’s knife was under the dead body of George Nicholson.