Authors: Amy Corwin
On the other hand, it wasn’t like a woman to say as little as Sanderson had said last night, given the opportunity. So he was inclined—albeit reluctantly—to return to his original assumption. Mr. Samuel Sanderson was indeed a male and had perhaps suffered the loss of his manhood during his escape from the fire. Hence Sanderson’s smooth cheeks, soft mouth, and feminine eyes.
Finishing the coffee, he flipped a few extra coins onto the table and strolled out into the sunshine of a temperamental April afternoon. A blustery wind whistled through the alleys, stirring up bits of paper and rags. He hailed a passing hackney coach and gave it the address of Second Sons. With luck, Sotheby might have managed to find an enterprising urchin who could discover where Mr. Sanderson was employed. William wanted another word with his client.
“Wait here!” He ordered when the coach came to a standstill outside the townhouse.
He leapt down.
As he was climbing the stairs, Sotheby opened the door. “Mr. Trenchard,” he greeted him.
“Did you do as I ordered?”
“Yes, sir. I found a…child, sir, and sent it after your client. It appears the gentleman is working for a Mr. John Archer—“
“Yes, sir. Mr.
Archer. In a residence near Leicester Square.” He gave the address in clipped, precise tones.
“John Archer? Are you sure?”
Sotheby paused for a moment, allowing William to remember that he had already said the name twice. “That
what the child reported, sir.”
William dashed back to the coach and repeated the address Sotheby had given him to the driver. What could possibly have possessed Sanderson to take a job for his
? No wonder this previously moribund affair seemed to be rising again, like a phoenix from the ashes.
John Archer may have recognized Sanderson— who apparently didn’t have enough sense to change his name. And now, Archer was trying to murder him. As he settled into the worn seat, he glanced outside. A man on foot walked briskly past the slow-moving coach.
“Hurry!” he bellowed through the window.
Good God, it's a wonder the lad is still alive. He hasn't a particle of sense behind those gray eyes.
The carriage moved sluggishly along, rattling over the cobbles. The streets around Portman Square thronged with men and woman who apparently had nothing better to do than impede the already tortoise-like progress of William’s hackney. A block away, his patience shattered.
“Stop!” He thumped his booted foot against the side of the carriage.
Climbing down, he tossed a sovereign to the driver, ignoring the coachman’s protests that the gold piece far exceeded the fare due him.
He made better progress on foot. He soon stopped opposite the staid, red brick townhouse purportedly inhabited by the Archers. The door was painted a brilliant red, trimmed with a black frame that matched the glossy black shutters adorning each window. Scanning the crowds, William didn’t see anyone unusual loitering about, except the usual gangs of urchins and merchants hoping to catch a coin dropped by the gentry.
Through the shadows of a narrow alley running between the right side of the Archer’s townhouse and the neighboring establishment, William could see movement. Glancing up to make sure no maid chose that moment to fling open a window and empty a chamber pot, William strode through the short passageway. He turned sharply left through an old iron gate into the area behind the townhouse.
A tangle of workmen labored over the construction of a brick wall. The half-built edifice encircled a square garden plot, already dotted with a few perennial herbs. William hurriedly scanned the men. He recognized Sanderson aligning a brick along the top of the wall.
William relaxed a bit and took a step forward, gazing around the small yard. There was the usual collection of outbuildings, including a carriage house and adjoining stable, shed for gardening implements, and a dovecot. He glanced uneasily at the windows overlooking the back. Not only did Archer’s house have several vantage points, but anyone could spy on the workmen from the townhouses on either side of Archers, or from the rear.
As he studied the situation, he noted several other gentlemen. They idly walked down the alley to view the work before sauntering away.
“Sir, can I be of assistance?” a large man asked as he dusted off his hands on his smock. He moved in front of William, blocking his view of Sanderson.
“No, just curious. Is this the work of the Hawkins and Hawkins firm?”
A broad smile grew across the man’s face. He stuck out a meaty hand and grabbed William’s hand, pumping it mightily. “Yes, sir. That we are, sir. You’ve heard of us, then?”
“Yes. Are you by any chance the owner? Mr. Hawkins?”
“That I am!” His doughy face turned pink with pleasure. He waved a hand toward the laborers building up the wall behind him. “Mr. Hawkins, at your service, sir. Have you an interest in brickwork, then?”
“And your name, sir? If I may be so bold?”
William transferred his gaze to Hawkins’s small black eyes. In less than two heartbeats, Hawkins glanced away.
“Never, mind, sir,” Hawkins sputtered, realizing the impertinence of his question. “It’s my pleasure to meet you, sir. Watch as long as you wish. If you have any questions, I’d be glad to be of assistance, sir.”
“I was sure you would be,” William replied, watching Sanderson's clean profile as he—rather,
—worked. Some instinct within him had made at least one decision about his client. It was Sarah Sanderson who had survived, not her brother.
However, since her only safety seemed to be in her pretense of being a common laborer, he was obliged to keep her secret. And of course there was always the possibility that he was entirely wrong and that Sam was indeed Samuel Sanderson.
Sanderson flashed a quick glance in his direction but never paused in his task. He continued applying mortar and bricks, building up the wall in front of him with sure, confident movements. After two more bricks, he pulled off his floppy hat to mop his brow with his sleeve, never glancing toward William again.
“Good worker, that one,” William said, waving his hand negligently at Sam. “Wouldn’t think it to look at him, though. Narrow-shouldered.”
Hawkins laughed. “Regular bag o’bones he is. But he’s a bright lad. Reads and does his sums as well as any lord.”
William’s brows rose. “How did you happen to hire him? I should think he’d try for a clerk’s office if he can read and write.”
“Mayhap he might have, ’cept he came to me first when he was but a lad of nine or so. Sleeping in the stables he was, when I first laid eyes on him. Chased him out, but the fool wouldn’t stay away. Kept coming ’round the house looking for scraps to eat. So I finally sent him on an errand with a sixpence in hand, never expecting him to return. But return he did. So I tried a shilling, and again he did as he was bid and came back.” Hawkins laughed, his black eyes merry. “Presented me with the change, mind you, solemn as you please, saying as how I’d given him too much for a sack of apples.
“Well, I decided then-and-there that there were worse sorts. So I let him live above the stables, using him for errands and such. Followed me on jobs so I got used to using him there, too. When I found he could read and write with a fair hand, I set him to work as my apprentice. He’s been with me ever since. Thirteen years, now, to my reckoning.”
“You’re lucky he stayed with you,” William commented. “A bright lad can get softer work than bricklaying.”
“Yes, we're lucky. Though I don’t depend upon luck, myself. Hope to bind him to me permanent-like, soon. Next week, in fact.”
While William studied Sam Sanderson, a dull gleam caught his eye. One of the windows in the townhouse beyond the rear wall of the Archers’ grounds opened. The room beyond the window was lost in shadows. He could make out nothing until a slow movement arrested his attention. An odd, thin shadow grew, cast over the bricks under the glass as if something protruded from the window.
At this distance and angle, and against the darkness of the room, it was hard to be sure. But it looked like the barrel of a rifle. When the barrel moved slightly, pointing down at the men working on the garden wall, he knew for certain.
He ran forward, knowing he was already too late. A loud report echoed off the walls of the brick houses, reverberating sharply.
Simultaneously, a large white object sailed out of the sky. It arced downward in front of his face. Before he could catch it, the object shattered against Sanderson’s head, just as the lad flipped his hat up again to reset it on his head.
Sanderson collapsed against the half-formed wall. His body knocked off the most recent row of bricks as he fell, seconds before William reached him.
“God almighty!” Hawkins yelled. “What in blazes are you about?” Three of the other men stood back, tools in hands, mouths agape.
Reaching Sanderson, William rolled him over. The young man’s face was covered with blood. Bits of white crockery clung to his blond-streaked hair, darkly saturated with water and blood. Broken pottery shards littered his shoulders and the ground around him.
A pool of water glittered under the midday sun as the dry dirt greedily absorbed the liquid.
Someone in the Archer house had thrown a water jug at Sanderson’s head.
William glanced up at the rear townhouse. The rifle was gone, and the window was demurely shut.
When he looked over his shoulder at the Archer’s townhouse, pale draperies fluttered around an open window. No one stood there. But even as he watched, the kitchen door burst open. A slender man ran out.
“Is he alive?” the man called, pushing past the workers standing around staring at Sanderson and William.
“I don’t rightly know, Mr. Archer, sir,” Hawkins replied, trying to pull William out of the way.
Shrugging Hawkins’s grip off his shoulder, William ran a hand over the lad’s head. A large gash sluggishly bled where the jug had hit him. But there was no bullet wound. He pulled the hat out of Sanderson’s limp hand. One hole ran through the crown and exited out another hole, torn through the rear brim.
He glanced up at the back of the other townhouse again, conscious of their vulnerable, exposed. The shadow in the window had been a rifle. And rifles could be reloaded. The yard penned them in, making the lad an easy target.
“He’s alive. I’m taking him inside,” William said curtly, grabbing Sanderson’s right arm and hoisting him over his shoulder.
“You are, are you?” Archer asked. His brown eyes caught William’s gaze. The disconcerting glitter of amused excitement shone in their depths.
The muscles in William’s jaw tightened with anger. He shifted his burden.
“There’s no need,” Hawkins said, hastily stepping between the two men. “Lay him here. ’Twas an accident, nothing more. He’ll be right enough in a minute.” He turned to the slender man. “No need to trouble yourself, Mr. Archer.”
“Is this your house?” William asked.
“Yes, it is. Though I fail to see how it’s any of your affair,” Archer answered with admirable sangfroid.
“Then send for the doctor. I’m taking him inside.” William couldn’t prevent his gaze from slipping back toward the window at the rear of the yard. While it was shut, there was a controlled movement within the shadows beyond the glass. “Now.”
Archer, noting the direction of William’s gaze, flicked a quick glance at the townhouse before striding off with a peremptory wave. “Come, then.”
“But, sir!” Hawkins protested. “But, sir, you can’t—”
“Don’t be an ass,” William replied, using Sanderson’s dangling legs to push Hawkins out of the way. “You can’t leave an injured man lying in the dirt.”
“Of course, not! But there’s the cart—”
The kitchen door was already open, held by Archer. He stood to one side as William carried Sanderson’s limp form into the kitchen. Archer’s wiry body was taut, humming with tension like a violin string as he passed him.
“Just a moment,” John Archer said, slipping back out the kitchen door.
William stood there briefly before pushing open the door with his foot and gazing outside after Archer. The man had jumped down the steps and was going along the wall of the townhouse, running his hands over the bricks. Near the alleyway, he paused, his fingers poking at the bricks about waist-high. Then he stood, brushed his hands off on his fawn-colored breeches, and dashed back to the kitchen.
“Come alone.” Archer passed William and led the way up a narrow staircase. “Lady Vee will never forgive me if I let blood drip all over the main stairs. These will have to do.” He paused at the turn to a second flight. “Do you want me to take him?”
“No,” William replied. The body was not as light as he expected, but he was damned if he’d let Archer carry Sanderson.
“One more flight.” Archer leapt up the stairs ahead of him, taking two steps with each stride.
On the third floor, Archer guided them through a series of corridors. They finally moved into the wider hallway where the family’s apartments would normally be situated. William glanced at him in surprise but followed, struggling to catch his breath.