I was late for my appointment with a dead man.
Unfortunately, even though the man in question had died in Egypt some four-thousand years ago, he had living representatives. Namely Dr. Hart, the director of the Nathaniel R. Ladysmith Museum, who would not look kindly on my late arrival to the all-staff meeting.
I ran down Merry Cat Lane to the waiting omnibus, my arms full of books and loose notes. I’d neglected to wind the alarm clock the night before, caught up in my translations of hieroglyphics until I nodded off in my armchair. I was now hurrying to work in a slept-in suit, my cheeks reflecting the hastiest shave, with neither coffee nor breakfast to brace me.
A group of clerks climbed onto the omnibus. I tried to step on after them, but the conductor blocked my path. “Sorry; full up.”
The driver cracked his whip, and the bus pulled away, flinging half-melted slush out of the road and onto my trousers.
I swallowed a curse and readjusted my grip on my notes and books. Very well. I’d just enjoy a nice, brisk walk across town, carrying thirty pounds of paper. In my now slush-soaked shoes. The perfect start to the workweek.
At the end of the block, I plunged into the crowds along River Street, the main thoroughfare cutting through the heart of Widdershins. A group of rough-looking men dressed for work in the canning factory jostled me; I murmured an apology and ducked around a flock of chattering shop girls. Cabs raced up and down the street, reckless of pedestrians, and the velvety richness of coffee and pastries wafted from a café, competing with the omnipresent stink of fish. Newsboys bellowed the headlines from every corner: “Police baffled by grave-robbing! Body of Widdershins founder still missing!”
A good number of blocks lay between my apartment and the Ladysmith. By the time I sprinted up the grand stairs of the entrance, I was completely out of breath. Mr. Rockwell, the chief of security, gave me a hard stare as I rushed through the grand foyer without even a glance at the hadrosaur skeleton which greeted visitors.
“Dr. Whyborne,” he said, as if he suspected I might be taking refuge in the museum having fled the scene of some particularly heinous crime.
I nodded as I opened the discreet staff door at the back of the gallery, too out of breath to return his greeting. His small eyes stayed on me until I shut the door firmly between us.
Safely away from the public areas—and Rockwell’s scrutiny—I hurried through the back hall in the direction of the large meeting room. Maggie Parkhurst, one of the clerical assistants, called to me as I rushed past her desk.
“Dr. Whyborne—your hat and coat?”
“Oh! Er, yes.” Bad enough I was late for the meeting; there was no need to draw further attention. I hastily shucked my hat and overcoat into her waiting hands, juggling my burden of papers and books from one arm to the other. “Th-thank you, Miss Parkhurst.”
“Of course, but you’d better hurry—they’ve been in there fifteen minutes already.”
Blast it. Perhaps I could slip in quietly, find an empty seat, and escape the director’s notice. I eased the door open, slid through the narrow gap, and discovered every eye on me. I froze, like an antelope wandering into a clearing only to realize the lions were waiting.
All the curators were present, as well as the departmental heads, assistants, interns…everyone really, except for the clerical, janitorial, and library staff. Some of them looked bored, others impatient, and still others amused. None seemed particularly friendly.
Not that I would have expected otherwise.
“There you are, Dr. Whyborne! We’ve been waiting on you,” the director said crossly.
Dr. Hart looked rather like a large walrus stuffed into an expensive, though conservative, suit. The effect was partly due to his extravagant mustache, and partly to the roundness of his physique. He stood at the front of the room, next to a man I didn’t recognize.
“Y-yes,” I stammered. I couldn’t imagine why the director would wait a meeting on me, especially one concerning the Egyptian Gala. I was hardly the most critical staff member working on it, after all. “Er, the cl-clock, I mean the alarm, it, ah…” My ears grew uncomfortably warm, and I slunk toward the nearest empty chair.
“Don’t sit down just yet, Whyborne,” the director ordered, motioning me to the front of the room. “We’ve a bit of business concerning you before the meeting.”
I couldn’t possibly imagine what business would concern me. I’d dedicated my entire life to making sure business didn’t concern me whenever possible. Still, there was nothing for it but to walk past the long tables, the eyes of all my colleagues fixed on me. I hunched my shoulders instinctively, even as I wracked my memory. What had I done to bring anyone’s attention, let alone the director’s, down on me? Surely not my latest article in the Journal of Philology; my conclusions about the origins of the Phoenician language might have been suggestive, but not so far outside the bounds of scholarly opinion as to damage the museum’s reputation.
The stranger gave me a friendly smile as I joined them. He was quite handsome, although his chestnut hair was longer than fashion usually allowed. Perhaps he was newly from the West, where Bill Hickock’s flowing locks were more in style.
Oh dear lord, had I remembered to comb my hair? Of course, given its regrettable tendency to stick straight up unless tamed by great quantities of macassar oil, it might not really matter. Which wasn’t much of a comfort, actually.
“Mr. Griffin Flaherty,” the director said, “allow me to introduce Dr. Percival Endicott Whyborne, our comparative philologist.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Whyborne,” said Mr. Flaherty, extending a hand. With no other choice, I shifted the mass of paper and books into my left arm, held out my hand—
A book in the middle of the pile started to slide; I fumbled to keep from dropping everything, but a moment later the whole lot tumbled to the floor in a series of loud thumps.
Several of my colleagues let out loud barks of laughter. Dr. Putnam gave a resigned sigh, and the snigger could only be from Mr. Osborne.
The heat spread from my ears to my face as I dropped to my knees and began hurriedly gathering up the mess. Perhaps lightning would strike the museum, or a cataclysm would open up the ground beneath me.
“Let me help you,” Mr. Flaherty offered.
“No need, er, I’ve…”
But he was already on his knees, gathering up loose papers. “Nonsense. It was my thoughtless action which caused the mishap; you must allow me to make amends.”
Up close, my first impression of handsomeness was only reinforced. His eyes were green as malachite, shot through with strands of rust and lapis, and crinkled at the corners with his smile. He possessed a straight nose, firm mouth, and lightly-tanned skin with a spray of freckles along his cheekbones. He wore a sober gray suit lightened by a dashing blue vest, and a tie matching the color of his eyes. Not at all like my gawky, ugly self. I hastily averted my face, gathered my books and papers, then accepted the stack he had amassed.
He climbed back to his feet with the assistance of a sturdy cane I hadn’t noticed before: ebony, with a heavy silver head. His height was average, the body under the suit well-formed and broad-shouldered. I hunched my shoulders and tried not to loom, although at over six feet, I couldn’t really help it.
“If you’re finished,” Dr. Hart said, as if I’d deliberately made a spectacle of myself, “let’s get down to business. Mr. Flaherty is a private detective in the employ of Mr. Rice.”
“The trustee?” I asked. What would one of the museum’s trustees need with a detective? If someone had been stealing from the Ladysmith, surely Mr. Rockwell would have dealt with the matter.
And what on earth did any of this have to do with me?
“Quite, quite,” the director replied. “Mr. Flaherty needs a book translated, so Mr. Rice sent him to us for assistance.”
“The book is in cipher,” Mr. Flaherty added. “Mr. Rice would have come himself, but was detained by business in Boston. I hope you’ll be able to help.”
“Of course he will!” Dr. Hart’s mustache bristled alarmingly as he spoke, and I resigned myself to the usual lecture. “There are no substandard employees in this institution, sir! The Ladysmith Museum will finally put Widdershins, Massachusetts on the map, both culturally and scientifically, and to that end I hire only the best. The best!”
“Percy? The best what?” Bradley Osborne wondered aloud, although the director didn’t hear him.
“Then I am reassured,” Mr. Flaherty said, although he seemed rather startled at Dr. Hart’s vehemence. “Perhaps Dr. Whyborne and I should retire somewhere else to discuss the matter?”
“Oh!” I said. “But the meeting…”
Dr. Hart flapped his hand in my direction. “One of the trustees wants your time, Whyborne. You’re at Mr. Flaherty’s disposal for as long as he needs your assistance.”
Although I resented the gala’s preparations for interrupting the museum’s steady routine, at least my part in the proceedings would result in actual scientific knowledge. And although I quite enjoyed solving ciphers in my spare time, it hardly seemed reasonable to ask me to put aside my real work to play with a book brought by some detective.
“Oh,” I said again, but I couldn’t think of anything to add. Dr. Hart and the trustees had final say over my fate, so long as I wished to remain employed at the museum.
I tightened my arms around their burden of books and hopelessly-disarranged papers. “Yes. Well. I suppose you had best come with me, Mr. Flaherty.”
~ * ~
I led the way to my office without speaking. Mr. Flaherty followed, his cane tapping lightly on the polished wood of the floors. He didn’t limp or lean on the walking stick; it must have been purely a fashionable embellishment.
“The place is rather a maze, isn’t it?” Flaherty said after we had walked for a few minutes. I started at the unexpectedness of the sound.
“Er, yes.” Although the public areas of the museum were designed to give the appearance of a neat and orderly progression through history, the rest of the building exemplified chaos. Storerooms burrowed deep into the earth, while various wings sprawled off in every direction. The library was a literal labyrinth, and shortly after I’d first been hired, I’d found myself obliged to cross the flat roof of one of the wings as the most direct route from one department to another. Even though the museum was less than forty years old, there were rumors of lost storerooms and offices, and I did not doubt the possibility.
“Construction began in 1859,” I offered, “and the architect was a bit, er…well. Th-they say he went mad while designing the library. He was committed to an asylum shortly after construction ended.”
Mr. Flaherty shivered. “I see,” he said, and did not pursue the matter further.
My office was located on the first floor below ground, down a long hallway with exposed pipes running along the walls. Flaherty glanced about uneasily; no doubt he wondered what “the best” comparative philologist was doing tucked away in a windowless room. What could I say? I liked it precisely because of its isolation. Indeed, when Dr. Putnam was in the field, I might go days or even weeks without ever speaking to another soul.
Mr. Flaherty had been kind so far, even though I’d made a fool of myself in front of him once already, but I doubted he would understand my desire to hide. Perhaps he’d even read something sinister into it; he was a detective, after all.
I dug out my keys and unlocked the office. The books in my arms made the procedure awkward, but at least I managed it without dumping the lot on the floor a second time. The office was in its usual deplorable state. I truly meant to get around to straightening up, but there was always something else more urgent, and as long as I could find everything it didn’t seem to matter. Mounds of paper, journals, and books buried the surface of the desk, one chair, and a good deal of the floor. A dozen cold cups of coffee lurked here and there, some of them alarmingly old.
I deposited my burden on top of a teetering pile on the desk and cleared the second chair by shifting its contents onto the floor. “P-please, have a seat, Mr. Flaherty.”
“Thank you.” Amusement flickered around his mouth, and I looked away.
A tentative rap sounded on the half-open door as I went to seat myself, and Miss Parkhurst stuck her head inside.
“I just wanted to see if your guest—and yourself, of course—wanted coffee,” she said breathlessly, her gaze locked on Flaherty.
“Yes, thank you,” I said, more waspishly than I’d intended. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed my guest’s good looks. She flushed and ducked back out the door.
I busied myself putting my pile of notes in order. What would Flaherty do if I simply pretended he wasn’t there at all?
Complain to Dr. Hart, of course. There was no way around this. Better to accede to his request and have it done with quickly.
“If you wish to leave your book here, I’ll see about deciphering it,” I said, aiming the words in the general vicinity of my desk. “In between my normal duties, of course.”
Flaherty stiffened. “And what are those?” he asked, his tone oddly neutral.
“Translation.” How much he would understand? I knew little about so-called private detectives, but was under the impression they went about apprehending bank robbers and breaking strikes. “I work on artifacts brought back from museum expeditions, or those mailed to us by private collectors or other museums wishing assistance. At the moment, however, I am meant to be translating papyrus fragments and canopic jars to be displayed at the Egyptian Gala. My time is at a premium, so I hope you understand if your cipher must wait a bit…”
I trailed off, hoping he would get the hint. Instead, he only stiffened further. “Mr. Rice and the director both assured me I would have the cooperation of this museum.”
“Y-yes, of course,” I said, defeated.
Flaherty drew a small book from his coat pocket. No title marked its fine leather binding, and I noticed the pages looked rather worn, as if from frequent consultation. “You heard about the death of Mr. Rice’s son, I presume?”
“Mr. Rice’s son?” A hazy recollection came to me from some museum function or other: a well-built, robust man with a ready laugh and sensitive smile. I of course had been lurking against the wall, hoping not to be noticed by anyone. “That is, no, I didn’t.”
Flaherty stared at me as if I were some alien specimen brought back from the darkest jungles of Borneo. Miss Parkhurst chose that moment to return with the coffee; by the time we were served and Miss Parkhurst gone, his expression had settled into one of bemusement. At least it wasn’t contempt.
“The newspapers kept it quiet to avoid scandal. Philip Rice’s body was found in an…unsavory part of town, shall we say.”
The docks, then, where the gambling dens and brothels congregated along with the sailors and dockworkers they served. I’d even heard whispers there was a bathhouse in the area, although of course I’d never found out for certain.
My eyes went to the book, still clasped in Flaherty’s square, strong hands. Was it a diary? There were reasons a man might keep his private journal in cipher, especially if the contents of those pages might lead to ruinous scandal.
“The day before the murder, Philip mailed this book to his father,” Flaherty went on. I tore my gaze away from the book and found the detective watching me closely. “A week ago, Mr. Rice senior hired me to take a closer look at his son’s death. This book, obviously, is a potential clue, as Philip considered it important enough to send to his father.”
“Oh.” Surely if the diary contained that sort of information, Philip wouldn’t have entrusted it to his father. “I’ll do what I can.”
The smile Flaherty offered me was unexpectedly warm. “Thank you.” He held the leather-bound book out. As I accepted it, our fingers brushed together; my skin seemed to burn and tingle from the accidental contact.
“I-I’ll start today,” I stammered. “As soon as I have anything, I’ll send word, Mr. Flaherty.”
He nodded and rose to his feet, hand extended. His fingers were rough against my own, though not as callused as a laborer’s. Their warmth, and the smile he gave me along with the handshake, sent a flicker of heat through me. I tamped it down ruthlessly.
“Please, as we’re to be working together, call me Griffin,” he said
“Good day, Mr. Flaherty.”
His smile turned rueful, but he didn’t press, the way most would have. “Good day, Dr. Whyborne. I look forward to hearing from you again.”