Murder at the Merton Library
Book Seven—The Wrexford & Sloane Series
A perplexing murder in a renowned library at Oxford University and a suspicious fire in the London research laboratory of a famous inventor set Wrexford and Charlotte on two separate investigations which put each of them —and everyone they hold dear—in harm’s way as past secrets entangle them in a dangerous web of lies and betrayals . . .
Responding to an urgent plea from a troubled family friend, the Earl of Wrexford journeys to Oxford only to find the reclusive university librarian has been murdered and a rare manuscript has gone missing. The only clue is that someone overheard an argument in which Wrexford’s name was mentioned.
At the same time, Charlotte—working under her pen name, A. J. Quill—must determine whether a laboratory fire was arson and if it’s connected to the race between competing consortiums to build a new type of ship—one that can cross the ocean powered by steam rather than sails—with the potential to revolutionize military power and world commerce. That the race involves new innovations in finance and entrepreneurship only adds to the high stakes—especially as their good friend Kit Sheffield may be an investor in one of the competitors.
As they delve deeper into the baffling clues, Wrexford and Charlotte begin to realize that things are not what they seem. An evil conspiracy is lurking in the shadows and threatens all they hold dear—unless they can tie the loose threads together before it’s too late . . .
A rumbled roar shattered the night, as if the deepest pit of Hell was tearing free from the underworld. Flames shot up, red-gold against the black velvet sky, and in the next instant a section of the building’s roof collapsed in a cacophony of splintering wood and brick. A joist snapped, throwing up a shower of sparks that shimmered with a terrifying beauty as they floated back to earth.
So delicate. And so deadly . . .
Charlotte, Countess of Wrexford—though hardly a soul on earth would recognize her dressed as she was in rags rather than fancy silks—winced as a bank of windows exploded in a blinding flash of light. The blast forced her back into the shadows of an alleyway bordering Cockpit Yard, a cluster of brick buildings just south of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury.
Shouts collided with screams as the onlookers shied away from the conflagration. A wagon filled with sloshing buckets rumbled past her, its wheels bouncing over the cobblestones. Slipping and sliding over the smoking debris, the band of men pulling at the ropes managed another few steps and then stopped to heave a wave of water over the flames before retreating for another load.
Gasping for air, Charlotte swiped a hand over her face, adding another layer of gritty soot to her brow. She had received word just an hour ago about the fire and had immediately resolved to see it for herself after changing into her second—or was it third—skin. Raggle-taggle urchin . . . high-and-mighty countess . . . London’s most popular satirical artist . . .
She shifted her gaze from the shadows, forcing herself to focus on her reason for being here. Working under the nom de plume A. J. Quill, she kept the public informed of the current scandals, politics and serious social issues of the day with her colorful satirical drawings.
Fires ravaged through London every day. But this was no ordinary one. The burning building housed the laboratory of—
A flicker of movement caught Charlotte’s eye. A group of men with wet rags wrapped around the lower part of their faces was fast approaching the flames. A whoosh of smoke suddenly knocked the hat off one of the leaders, revealing a flash of guinea-gold hair.
Her breath caught for an instant in her throat.
Ye gods—why is Kit here?
Christopher Sheffield had been her husband’s closest friend since their days at Oxford, and Charlotte had formed an equally strong bond with him over the course of a half dozen dangerous investigations.
A friendship forged by fire, thought Charlotte with a wry smile—
Sheffield suddenly looked her way. He hesitated for just a heartbeat as she shifted in the shadows. Smoke hazed the air, but he had seen her enough times dressed as a ragged urchin to recognize her silhouette. A subtle gesture—a tiny flick of his hand—acknowledged her presence, and then he kept moving. Glass crunched underfoot as the men rushed for the far end of the building, which had not yet burst into flames, and hurriedly kicked their way through the side door.
Hell’s teeth—are there poor souls trapped inside?
Fear rising like acid in her throat as she watched them disappear into the black maw, Charlotte then pivoted and darted out of her refuge, intent on edging around to where Sheffield and his companions had disappeared. The thunder of snapping timbers and crashing walls was growing louder—the very air was crackling with warning.
Damnation, Kit—it’s too dangerous to be caught within such a raging inferno.
The smoke thickened, slowing her steps. She paused to pick out a path through the swirling embers and started forward—
Only to be stopped short by the clatter of iron-shod hooves on stone and the screech of another water wagon skidding around the corner of the street.
Drawing a steadying breath, Charlotte retreated and chose a more roundabout route that skirted the worst of the falling debris and frantic flailings to douse the flames. In the past she might have ignored the blatant danger, but her recent marriage had brought not only profound joy but a heightened awareness of her responsibilities to her loved ones. Not that she would ever give up her passions—
She ducked low and took cover in the opening of an alleyway as a jumble of crisscrossing lantern beams swept over the Yard.
“Oiy! Oiy! Move off, ye little gutter rats,” bellowed a group of night watchmen, trying to make themselves heard above all the noise and confusion. Waving their truncheons, they began to herd back the street urchins who had crowded the cobbled carriageway to gawk at the fire.
Charlotte crept into the shadows snaking along the edge of the carriageway and under the cover of darkness stealthily made her way to far end of the building.
A conventional wife I am not, she thought, pausing to make a quick assessment of the surroundings. A fact that on occasion drove her husband to distraction.
Her lips twitched. So be it. Wrexford might not always agree with her passions, but she knew that he admired them, heart and soul. Which was why, despite the outward differences—reason versus intuition—they made a perfect pair.
For an instant, Charlotte wished that Wrexford was here by her side. If Sheffield—
A shuddering crack pulled her thoughts back down to earth.
She moved closer to the smashed doors. Framed by the splintered moldings and creaking hinges, the opening seemed to glower with menace through the ghostly flutters of smoke. It was black as Hades . . .
Charlotte thought she saw a tiny flicker of light, but it was gone in a flash.
Hell’s bells. Sheffield was family—perhaps not in a traditional sense, but in every way that mattered. Be damned with the dangers—she couldn’t simply walk away.
She was about to start forward when the light winked again, and then grew stronger. As the wind gusted, setting off a chorus of moans through the buckling roof slates, she squinted through the clouds of choking vapor and whirling ash. A jumble of dark-on-dark shapes materialized into a group of men, tripping and stumbling as they wrestled with a load of crates.
Craning her neck, Charlotte spotted a gleam of golden hair. “Thank God,” she whispered.
Harried shouts broke out to her right. Tongues of red-gold fire suddenly licked up from a gap in the outer wall.
“Make way, Make way!” A bucket brigade trundled closer and a wave of water quickly doused the threat.
She retreated to the alleyways just as Sheffield and his companions stumbled free of the building and started across the carriageway with their loads.
“More water!” cried the man next to Sheffield, waving desperately at the fire wagons. “If we work quickly, I think we can keep the blaze from spreading to this part of the building.”
Charlotte recognized him despite the whirling light and shadows— it was Henry Maudslay, the brilliant inventor whose engineering wizardry had made him famous throughout Britain’s scientific community.
And these days, his name was becoming more familiar to the public—thanks to her series of drawings on Progress.
Maudslay set down the crate he was carrying and rushed off to help the bucket brigade. He was quickly followed by the others.
Save for Sheffield, who hesitated and glanced around the Yard.
Keeping well back in the shadows, Charlotte let out a three quick whistles.
He walked across cobbles to her side of the Yard and turned, as if intent on assessing the scope of the damage. “There’s no reason for you to linger. All that’s left to do is get the remaining flames under control,” he murmured, just loud enough for her to hear “Go home. I’ll join you there as soon as possible and explain what I know about what’s happened here.”
“Oiy,” acknowledged Charlotte, then added “Be careful” before slipping off into the gloom. Sheffield was right. She had seen what she needed to see for any potential artwork. There was nothing left for her to do . . .
Save to wonder whether it was merely an unfortunate accident that Henry Maudslay’s new research laboratory was going up in smoke.
* * *
“Here I go out for a quiet evening of scholarly discussion over port and brandy, and . . .” Expelling a martyred sigh, the Earl of Wrexford cast a baleful look Charlotte, who despite having changed into more conventional attire still had a streak of soot on her face and ashes in her hair.
“And all hell breaks loose,” he finished as Sheffield entered the earl’s workroom.
Tactfully ignoring her husband’s grumbling, Charlotte hurried to help their friend out of his sodden overcoat. She gave it a quick shake, sending up an acrid fugue of burnt wool and stale smoke, and then draped it over one of the work stools.
“Shall I pour you a whisky or a brandy?” she asked, offering Sheffield a wet cloth soaked in lavender-scented hot water.
He took it and flashed a grateful grimace before wiping the filth from his face. “I’m happy to quaff anything as long as it’s liquid,” he mumbled through cracked lips. The bright lamplight showed that his face was raw and red from the heat of the fire.
As their friend brushed a tangle of hair off his brow, Wrexford saw it was singed in several spots.
“Sit down, Kit,” said the earl, reaching out to steady Sheffield’s stumble. After settling him in one of the armchairs by the hearth, he added, “You look like bloody hell.”
Charlotte hurried to bring Sheffield a glass.
A good choice, noted Wrexford. Scottish malt was stronger than French brandy.
“How did you know about the fire?” she asked.
Sheffield closed his eyes for an instant and took a long swallow of the amber spirits before replying. “One of our clerks was drinking with friends at a nearby tavern when it started.” Sheffield and his fiancée, Lady Cordelia Mansfield, were partners in a very profitable shipping company—secretly, of course, as the strictures of the ton didn’t permit aristocrats to sully their hands in trade. “He sent word to me right away, knowing of my interest in Maudslay’s work.”
Wrexford frowned. Maudslay’s expertise in engineering didn’t seem to align with the practical demands of moving goods from here to there as quickly as possible.
“What, precisely, is your interest?” he asked.
Henry Maudslay was famous throughout the scientific world for creating innovative lathes that had greatly improved both the speed and accuracy of mass producing interchangeable parts for steam engines, looms and a myriad of other important mechanical devices. It might sound mundane to most people, mused the earl, but in truth it was revolutionizing a great many industries.
“He’s been working on a special project involving an innovative new design for a steam engine,” replied Sheffield.
Wrexford was still puzzled. “What does that have to do with your business?”
Sheffield pressed his fingertips to his temples. “A great deal, actually. He’s working on a radical idea that would revolutionize the transportation of goods and people around the globe—a marine propulsion system utilizing a steam engine . . .”