Ask Me No Questions: New Excerpt
By Shelley Noble
From New York Times bestselling author Shelley Noble, Ask Me No Questions is the first in the Lady Dunbridge Mystery series featuring a widow turned sleuth in turn-of-the-twentieth century New York City.
A modern woman in 1907, Lady Dunbridge is not about to let a little thing like the death of her husband ruin her social life. She’s ready to take the dazzling world of Gilded Age Manhattan by storm.
From the decadence of high society balls to the underbelly of Belmont horse racing, romance, murder, and scandals abound. Someone simply must do something. And Lady Dunbridge is happy to oblige.
Lady Philomena Dunbridge’s father slammed the newspaper on the tea table. “This is an outrage.”
Lady Phil stared at the headlines. Dowager? Dowager?? How could they call her a dowager? She was barely twenty-six years old. It was the twentieth century; no one her age should be called dowager. “It’s shameful,” she agreed. It was probably the first time she and her father had agreed on something since … um … she couldn’t remember a time.
“Fine answer to have in hindsight.” A cloud of spittle exploded past his lips.
“How was I to know he was going to drop dead of a heart attack?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“The newspaper, my deceased husband. I refuse to be called ‘dowager.’ I couldn’t agree more.”
“Mad. Are you mad? Did you read the rest of the headline?”
Well, to be honest, she had stuck on the dowager part. She read it now. “Dowager”—her eyes stuck on that hateful word—“Countess, Lady Philomena Dunbridge Discovers Murder Victim, Solves Crime—Leaves Stymied Metropolitan Police Scratching Their Heads.”
She smiled reminiscently. Actually, a child could have followed the clues left by the murderer. But men did tend to get caught up in the wherefores and whatnots.
She pulled the paper closer to read the article. Her father snatched it out of reach.
“And that’s the best of the lot.” He barely flicked his head toward a stack of newspapers on his desk.
She didn’t think he’d appreciate her taking them. No matter, she could pick them up at the newsstand on her way back to the Savoy Hotel. She had no intention of staying under this roof and being scolded like a child. Her parents had given up that right when they’d married her off at seventeen to a man she hardly knew and wished she’d never seen.
“It’s one thing the scandals you’ve caused with your less-than-discreet behavior. Those affaires could be forgiven considering the state of your husband. But this. This. Have you no care for your family’s name?”
Actually, she hadn’t cared much for her family since they’d married her off to the Earl of Dunbridge.
“This time you’re going to have to pay the price.”
Good heavens, hadn’t she been paying the price for seven years of a loveless, cold marriage to a man who had no feelings, including the intimate kind, unless it involved whips and madams, or so she’d been told? Any self-respecting married lady would make sure she led her own, more compatible life. They had to.
“So what will it be?”
“Pardon me, sir?”
“Which do you choose? The dower house with a suitable companion, return home and live as a spinster with your family, or…”
“There is always your great-aunt Sephronia in Yorkshire.”
“Ay, Dios mío.”
Philomena Amesbury, Lady Dunbridge, glanced at her lady’s maid, who stood beside her, clutching the rail of the SS Oceanic, her eyes wide.
“Only speak in English or French, Lily,” Lady Dunbridge reminded her. “And try not to gape. It’s merely another large city, much like London.”
The steamship had slowed to a crawl as tugboats navigated it up the busy Hudson River toward Chelsea Pier, and it was a remarkable view. The skyline of tall buildings passed before them like Edison’s motion pictures, just as exciting and more than a little daunting. Lady Dunbridge could sympathize with the girl’s amazement.
Lily bobbed a satisfactory curtsey. “Pardon, madam.”
Not bad, Philomena thought, considering she’d been a lady’s maid for less than a week, after Lady Dunbridge had snatched her from the jaws of the London immigration police who had caught her attempting to stow away on the ship.
At the last minute, Lady Dunbridge’s own maid had refused to board. Stuck between a rock and the deep blue sea, and after much argument from her traveling companion, Preswick—her devoted if somewhat long-in-the-tooth butler—and promises from Lily not to run away the minute they landed in New York, Lady Dunbridge had paid her passage. Admitting defeat, Preswick spent the seven days at sea transforming the girl into a semblance of a lady’s maid.
He’d done an excellent job with a very apt pupil.
Lady Dunbridge smiled encouragingly at the young woman, who was now her servant and confidante.
She was a tad too exotic looking for a lady’s maid, dark hair and flashing eyes with a Renaissance painting complexion, which appealed to Philomena.
She’d stubbornly refused to tell her name—Philomena decided to call her Lily because of her complexion. Nor where she’d come from—certainly not the slums of London or Barcelona—or her age. She was possibly younger than she looked. Regardless, she was younger than Philomena, who was leaning closer to thirty than twenty.
She was a little rough around the edges but not vulgar, and very willing to learn. Most surprising, she was fairly fluent in three languages. Now if she kept her promise not to bolt as soon as they landed … “Speak in English or French … but listen in Spanish.”
Lily frowned, then flashed her a grin. “Oui, madame. I understand completely.”
Ah, thought Lady Dunbridge. There was hope for this trip yet.
The ship finally maneuvered into the wharf and the engines were cut, the constant rumbling giving way to the clatter of carts and carriages on the uneven paving stones. Newspaper boys and urchins cried for coinage. A marching band was playing, and she caught a glimpse of placards rising above the heads of people waiting on the street. Burly dockworkers hefted trunks and crates to their backs and lugged them through the waiting crowd, while cart boys darted in and out of the bystanders with a dexterity that belied their small statures.
There were even two automobiles, one black and one yellow, the latter she knew from Bev’s letters must belong to Reggie Reynolds. Of course, Reggie would want to show off his new automobile. He had promised to meet them at the pier and drive them to the Reynoldses’ brownstone on East Sixty-Eighth Street, while their coachman conveyed her servants and baggage in the town carriage.
The wind whipped up, rustling the ostrich plumes of Philomena’s hat, and she held it to her head with one hand while she tried to catch sight of Bev or Reggie. It was impossible in the crush of people.
The captain approached her and bowed. “Lady Dunbridge. It has been a great pleasure to have met you. I hope you enjoy your visit. May I?” He offered his arm and personally escorted Philomena and her entourage of two to the gangplank, where the purser urged everyone toward the pier and the carte de visite agents. The captain kissed her hand before bidding her adieu.
But at the bottom of the gangplank, Lily balked. “What if they won’t let me in? What will I do?”
“Just be calm and look lovely,” Philomena reminded her. “You have a perfectly acceptable carte de visite.”
“A somewhat unorthodox carte …
And perhaps not altogether legal?” he added.
Philomena shot him a warning look. “It was drawn up, albeit hastily, by a member of the immigration service.” At least she was fairly certain he worked for that branch of government. “No matter, where there’s a will…” Lily certainly had the will; Philomena had merely given her the way. They should get on just fine.
They stopped at a customs desk and had their cartes stamped—including Lily’s. Philomena sent the two off to claim the baggage and hire a carter to bring their trunks to the carriage. Then she followed the other passengers through the dark wooden reception hall to the street.
As she stepped out from the tall, wide arches, she was hit with a cacophony of sound and a sea of faces. Old and young, clean and dirty; friends meeting friends, families hoping to find their relatives—all were intently watching the opening to the wharf, seemingly oblivious of the traffic and noise around them.
Bev, petite and naturally blond, stood at the very front, accompanied by a servant, liveried in maroon and gold.
Philomena’s smile widened. She was always amused by these American affectations, but she loved Bev, and if Bev wanted a driver who looked like he just stepped out of some moldy aristocratic castle—hers, for example—Bev should have him.
She was dressed in the latest mode as always. Lady Dunbridge’s own plumed hat paled beside the clamshell Bev wore rakishly angled over one eye. Its green and beige aigrette feathers made a delicious comment on the turquoise bolero jacket and skirt she was wearing with such panache. Philomena remembered seeing its sister design in the Paquin showroom on her last trip to Paris. No longer behind the times, these Americans.
Phil raised her hand to wave. Bev waved back, then abruptly turned away and hurried off in the opposite direction and quickly disappeared from view.
Taken aback, Philomena looked to the servant, who was staring after his mistress. He roused himself and hurried to Philomena.
“Lady Dunbridge?” The driver yelled as the band marched closer and the noise grew louder.
“I am,” she yelled back.
“Mrs. Reynolds has”—he darted a look in the direction Bev had taken—“has gone to fetch Mr. Reynolds and the auto. I’ll wait here and transport your trunks and servants in the carriage.” He gestured over the crowd to a well-appointed carriage in the care of two footmen.
“Thank you…” she shouted.
His voice rose over the nearing oompahs. “Bentley, ma’am.”
“Bentley,” she acknowledged at the top of her lungs. His name rang out in the sudden quiet as the band tumbled to the end of what Philomena now recognized as “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” “My butler and maid should be arriving short—”
A pop, like a champagne cork, cut through the air. Someone was already celebrating. Except the pop was followed by a high-pitched, piercing scream. Not champagne—a gunshot.
“That’s Mrs. Reynolds!” Bentley spun on his heels and ran through the crowd toward the yellow touring car.
“Bev!” cried Lady Dunbridge. She lifted her skirts and raced after him.
They had to fight their way through the crowd, half of whom were fleeing in all directions. The band and sign-carrying women marched past, cutting off their progress.
“The Women’s Temperance Union,” Bentley said as he danced around the edges of the parade looking for a way through them. The music started up again. Bentley plunged through. Lady Dunbridge plunged in after him.
When she made it to the other side, her hat was pitched forward due to coming into contact with a tuba, the nest of ostrich plumes covering both eyes. And she’d lost a button from her kid glove where it had caught on the stick of one of the placards.
A crowd was pressed around the touring car, but there was no sign of Bentley or Bev. Philomena pushed the ostrich plumes from her face and squeezed through to the front.
She was met by a horrible tableau.
Reggie Reynolds was sprawled across the backseat, one foot on the floor, one arm dangling down from the seat, and his head cradled among the skirts of a woman’s lap. Blood oozed past his vest, edged the lapels of his sack coat, and spread across the white shirt beneath.
Bev clutched the open automobile door and stared at the scene.
“Why? Why did you do it, Reggie?” cried the woman in the auto, who was looking decidedly pale and awkward beneath her wide-brimmed platter-sized hat. “Why did you kill yourself?”
“Murderer!” Bev cried, and reached out as if to reclaim her husband, who seemed to Philomena beyond reclaiming.
The woman shrank back. She was rather pretty, with light brown hair poufed in a pompadour style. One sleeve of her pastel walking suit was smeared with blood where she was clutching Reggie. And when Philomena looked closer she could see the splatter of what must be blood across the bodice. Her stomach hiccupped in revulsion.
The crowd pressed in. Questions and speculations tumbled through the group.
“What’s happened?” “Is that Reggie Reynolds?” “He’s got a nag running at Belmont next week.” “A real winner, they say.” “Witness the evils of drinking!”
“It’s that Florodora girl. What’s her name?”
A Florodora girl. So this was Reggie’s latest mistress. Leave it to him to be found dead in the arms of a cheap chorus girl from a popular stage play. She certainly looked the part. Blond—not natural—expensively but not entirely tastefully dressed. Her tears flowed freely, streaking her makeup. She didn’t attempt to extricate herself from the body.
“And that must be his wife!” All eyes turned to stare at Bev.
“She musta’ shot him.”
“Nah, it was the girl. She musta’ done him in.”
“Oh, why, Reggie, why did you kill yourself?” the Florodora girl repeated.
Just in case anyone had missed it the first time, thought Philomena. She’d had enough experience to recognize an opportunist when she saw one, even if she was pinned by a dead man and covered in his blood.
The crowd moved closer to the car and Philomena broke from her stupefaction. She grabbed Bev. At first she fought, then realizing who it was, cried “Phil,” and collapsed against Philomena’s new spring coat.
The band was mercifully quiet as the members and the parading temperance ladies reversed course to get a better look. As soon as Philomena’s ears stopped ringing, she heard a series of whistles converging on the area. The Manhattan police, no doubt. She was thinking fast; neither she nor Bev could afford to be found in a situation like this. Neither of them might have the best of reputations, but it was paramount that they keep what they had.
“Come. Now.” Philomena pulled Bev back from the automobile.
“This way, my lady.” It was Bentley. He took Bev’s other arm.
“She’s getting away! Stop her!” someone cried.
The trio sped up, right into the dark, brass-buttoned coat of a New York City policeman.
“Now where do you think you’d be going—miss—misses, uh, you three?”
“My friend has had a terrible shock. Her husband has been ki—injured, and she’s feeling faint and needs a place to sit,” Philomena said at her haughtiest, then looked around for an escape route.
Another patrolman skidded to a stop next to the first. “Not so fast.”
Philomena noticed the piece of offal beneath his feet and turned up her nose at the smell. It worked to good effect. He blushed red, then stepped back and scrubbed the sole of his shoe against the rough surface of the brick paving stones.
Bev roused herself. “Do you know who you’re talking to? This is the Countess of Dunbridge.”
The men exchanged looks.
“Dunn’t look old enough to be no countess,” the younger one said.
The older one shook his head. “And sure she is. These society types are always pulling tricks to get out of trouble. Well, your highness, you three just go stand over there with this here officer and wait until you’re called for.” He nodded abruptly, and the younger man herded the three back toward the auto. The area around it had been cleared and the crowd was being held back by several more uniformed men. The whistles must have summoned every policeman in the neighborhood.
Bev was leaning heavily against Philomena. “Stay swooning until I return,” she whispered, then thrust Bev at the coachman. She needed a closer look.
She had no intention of being enmeshed in a scandal on the day of her arrival, but at this point she didn’t see how to avoid it unless she deserted her friend and kept moving. But that meant Bev would be left to the mercies of the police who, if they were anything like the London constabulary … She just couldn’t do it. Which meant she would have to do something about it herself. Bev’s husband had either been murdered or had killed himself sitting in a public thoroughfare in the company of his mistress for all the world to see.
Typical of a man.
Bev would need her support when the gossip became brutal, as it was sure to do.
She’d known Bev since they were girls at the same finishing school in Paris. Had it really been ten years ago? Phil had adored Bev’s American bravado and had introduced her to Paris society. As young girls, they weren’t invited to the adult soirees and balls, so together they discovered the Parisian demimonde.
Now Bev was but a pale memory of that girl, and Phil didn’t have the heart to desert her.
No one was even guarding Reggie’s body. They were too busy trying to keep the onlookers at bay. The crowd was becoming more voluble by the moment, calling for the arrest of someone, anyone, the mistress or the wife, either one of them would do, or both.
Philomena didn’t for a minute think Bev killed Reggie, though as far as she was concerned she had every right to. Everyone had affairs, but good breeding insisted on discretion. Reggie flaunted his, made headlines with them, while Bev sat humiliated at home. But how to make certain suspicion didn’t fall on his wife?
“Ugh!” Philomena pulled her skirt back, eased herself out from the restless crowd, and slipped past the distracted policeman who was trying to contain them.
She was immediately accosted by two more men in uniforms. “Sorry, miss, you can’t come no closer.”
“I’m a friend of the family. Are you sure he’s dead?”
“You should call for a doctor immediately! He might still be saved!” She warbled this out, clasping her hands together to her bosom like a heroine in a play put on during a country house weekend.
“Is there a doctor here?” one of the policeman shouted, swiveling his head.
“Are you daft, man?” jeered a bruiser leaning over his handcart. “He’s a goner for sure. Just look at him.”
The group surged forward. The police pushed them back.
A clerk in a bowler hat craned his neck to see. “Oughtn’ya go see? Maybe he ain’t dead.”
“If I say he’s dead—” The bruiser knocked the man’s hat to the ground. When he leaned down to pick it up, another man punched the bruiser in the jaw. He fell back, dominoing into the people behind him.
It was a match in a tinderbox. Others took up the cudgels, the remaining policemen rushed to help, and Philomena hurried to the auto to get a better look inside.
The Florodora girl had been removed—or had removed herself. Now both doors were open. Reggie lay alone across the leather seat as if he’d fallen asleep or, more likely, passed out in a drunken stupor. He didn’t appear to be breathing, though truth be told, she’d only said that to distract the guards.
Philomena inched a little closer, peered at the backseat, scrutinized the floor. If he’d shot himself, what happened to the pistol? She saw no evidence of one, not in Reggie’s hand or anywhere in the enclosed space. Had the Florodora girl shot him? Did she still have the pistol? Or was she disposing of it while they all stood around doing nothing?
Then she spied a small black handbag lying on the floor in the far corner. She might be able to reach it if … She leaned into the auto, felt along the floorboards, shuddered when her arm brushed against Reggie’s lifeless leg. She stretched out her hand … just a little farther. A large hand appeared before hers.
Philomena gasped, snatched her hand back, and glanced up to find a pair of glinting black eyes staring back at her. A man crouched at the other side of the automobile. Their eyes locked over Reggie’s body, then abruptly the man stood, ducked his head, and melted into the crowd.
Before she could react, she was grabbed from behind, fingers encircling her waist, and she was yanked backward out of the automobile.
A fine situation for the Countess of Dunbridge.
As soon as her feet touched the ground, she whirled around with her Parisian reticule swinging. She had to stifle a yelp of surprise when her wrist was gripped, stopping both her bag and her person in their rotation, and she came face to chest with her would-be assailant.
“Pardon me, madam, but you have no business here. This is a crime scene, if you will kindly step back.”
Philomena did step back, but out of surprise and disgust. The man was filthy and he towered over her. He wore a drab, wrinkled Mackintosh and a slouch hat pulled down on his forehead, leaving nothing of his face visible but a morning-after beard. He looked absolutely disreputable, but he was barking orders at her with the authority of the Lord Chamberlain.
“Just who are you, sir?” she demanded, gathering what aplomb she could manage. Where were all those policemen who had just been milling about when she needed one?
“I was about to ask you the same.”
She took another cautious step back. “Are you with the police?”
He reached inside his Mackintosh with a dirty scraped hand and pulled out a metallic shield. “I’m Detective Sergeant John Atkins.”
Considering the state of his hands, she decided to forgo good manners and didn’t offer hers. “I’m Lady Dunbridge…”
“So I’ve been told,” he said drily as he returned his shield to his pocket. “And may I ask what you are doing here?”
“I just arrived on the SS Oceanic from Southampton to visit my friend Mrs. Reynolds. And I would be quite grateful if I were allowed to take her home. Her husband is dead and she’s naturally in shock.”
He motioned her away from the crowd. “I have a few questions.”
“Which she’ll be glad to answer once she’s recovered. Shall we say tomorrow morning? I doubt she will be receiving visitors.” She smiled condescendingly. “Ten o’clock? Thank you. You’re very kind.” She didn’t give him time to answer, but called out, “Bentley, help your mistress back to the carriage. I’ll join you shortly.”
She turned back to Detective Sergeant Atkins. “Before you begin your inquiries, I think you should know there was a man who was taking an inordinate interest in the scene. I believe he was going to steal a handbag from the automobile, before I interrupted him.”
“Yes, black, with a lovely confection of sequins and onyx.”
“A handbag in the auto? A man? Where?”
“In the far corner on the floor. He was standing on the other side of the automobile. Over there.” She pointed back to the auto, and when the detective turned to look, she took the opportunity to slip away.
Copyright © 2018 Shelley Noble.