Historical Suspense Excerpt — the latest Lady Adelaide installment!
The historic heat wave which hovered over the northwest of the continent last week taught me two things:
- After twenty-five years, I’ve thoroughly acclimitized to the Canadian seasons. The 39C (102F) we suffered through on Canada Day was simply awful. Canadian houses are built to hold heat, not shed it. There’s no afternoon sea breeze to provide any relief, and daylight (and the heat) lasts until near midnight at this time of year. Trying to sleep is a joke. I’ve never sweated so much in my life.
- I still hate the heat. Didn’t like it in Australia. Really don’t like it now.
The experts are saying this is not the last time we’ll be hit by historic highs. So we’ll have to devise better ways of getting through such days, in the future. I’m thinking vine-covered pergolas shading the house, windows that can be opened to encourage cross-breezes, and an extra fan. Mark is thinking air conditioning.
Maybe all of the above.
In the meantime, we’re two weeks out from the release of the next story in the Adelaide Becket historical suspense series, The Lavender Semaphore, so I’m providing a good chunk of the start of the book, as usual.
EXCERPT FROM THE LAVENDER SEMAPHORE
COPYRIGHT © TRACY COOPER-POSEY 2021
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Queens Street, Mayfair. September 8, 1907.
At first, Adele thought a homeless waif had used her kitchen door as a bed. She had slept late because of the previous evening’s events, and was still barely awake when she slipped down to the kitchen just past nine o’clock in the morning. The cathedral and church bells had fallen mercifully silent, although they had stirred her enough she could not simply turn over and go back to sleep.
She took off the bar to the outer door, intending to collect the day’s milk bottle from the step. She turned the handle, and the door whooshed inward, pushed by a weight against it.
The weight fell onto the painted concrete floor, making Adele gasp and step back, pulling her peignoir hem out of the way. The small child had been curled up, his dirty shoulder against the door. Now he lay on the concrete, blinking up at Adele through sleep-fogged eyes, his face dirt-smeared. He smelled of dampness and desperate circumstances. Adele realized that even though she knew the boy, and he had propped himself against her door for a reason other than sleep, in one respect there was, indeed, a homeless lad using her doorstep as a very uncomfortable mattress.
“Charlie Rowbottom, what are you doing, sleeping there?” she demanded.
Charlie rubbed his eyes, which merely redistributed the dirt around them. “I woz ‘oping you’d read this to me, tell me if it’s werf anyfing.” He held up a scrap of paper in his other fist. “Figured it might be werf a bit o’ milk, maybe.” He looked up at her with large blue eyes and blinked.
Adele tried to harden her heart against such blatant manipulation, but failed. “Oh, get up off the floor, you fool of a child. Come in and tell me about it.”
Charlie grinned and scrambled to his feet.
Adele poured Charlie a glass of milk from the new bottle she retrieved from the other side of the step Charlie had been sitting upon. She considered it a small miracle the bottle had still been there, and untouched.
Then, because the small glass of milk disappeared almost instantly, Adele added a hunk of cheese to a bread plate, then hacked off two thick slices of bread from yesterday’s loaf. She refilled the milk glass. Charlie set to with gusto.
Adele didn’t try to interrupt his meal. Instead, she got the stove burning, made herself a pot of tea and toasted another slice of bread over the flames. She put the butter and a pot of marmalade on the worktable between the two of them, drew her peignoir in around her and settled on the other chair.
Charlie burped and reached eagerly for the marmalade.
She rested a finger on the lid of the pot, holding it down. “Now you say ‘pardon me’.”
“Pardon moi.” He tilted his head, smiling impishly.
Adele estimated that he was around ten years of age, and a small, delicate ten, at that. But he was quick and smart, and if he’d been granted an education, she was sure he would have succeeded magnificently.
He had no parents and could only remember his mother in the vaguest of terms. His little sister had died of tuberculosis a year ago, while confined to a sanitorium. Visiting her there had sufficiently demonstrated to Charlie that any form of authority was not to be trusted, and institutions were to be avoided at all costs. Adele had only suggested once that he might be more comfortable in an orphanage. His derision, and the fear driving it, had left him trembling. She hadn’t spoken of it again.
Charlie liked to sleep in Spa Fields, in Clerkenwell. “Softer dirt,” he’d observed with appalling practicality. Where he spent the rest of his day was dictated by the police constabulary’s routines and where the pickings were richest, which was how Charlie had first come to Adele’s attention.
He had attempted to filch her purse from inside her reticule—while she was carrying it, while strolling in Hyde Park. She had grabbed his wrist, made him drop the purse and, because she was offended by his thinness, she had marched him back to her house to feed him. She had wondered if she was setting herself up to become the child’s sole source of nourishment. Adele had watched him gobble down the remains of the meat pie from her supper, his other hand curved protectively around the plate, and decided it would not be such a terrible thing to have to provide for him from now on.
But Charlie was too afraid of grown-ups, even those who fed him. He had not returned until many weeks later, when early winter gripped the city with icy fingers. He did not come empty-handed, either. He had held out half-a-dozen leeks, with dirt still clinging to them. The Lord knew which private garden he’d dug them up from. Adele had taken them, then insisted she pay him in kind, and made him sit and eat everything she could find in her kitchen to spare.
She had fed Charlie several times since, always after accepting whatever payment he had managed to scrounge up. He had survived the winter. Summer had come and was now going. But another winter lay just around the corner.
Adele let go of the marmalade. “Tell me about the paper you found,” she said, as Charlie used his fingers to dig the marmalade out of the pot. She picked up her knife, took the pot from him and showed him how to spread the marmalade on his bread.
“The paper’s got writing all over it.” Charlie dug into his trouser pocket and withdrew the paper once more and put it on the table beside his bread plate.
“May I look at it?” she asked, and returned his slice of bread to his plate.
He nodded, took a huge bite out of the bread and chewed.
Adele wiped her fingers on a napkin, and picked up the note. It was a narrow strip of paper and had curled up on itself in a loose scroll. It had been crumpled from Charlie’s pocket, but it did not have any sharp folds in it.
She spread the note out, turned it around so the handwriting was the right way up, and examined it. The letters had been written in normal black ink, with a broad nib.
Sehr geehrte Frau Dr; the note began.
Adele drew in a sharp breath. She attempted to cover up the telling sound by stirring on her chair and looking at the note from several different angles, while her heart thudded heavily.
There was only one more line, and it was not German, as the salutation was. It was not English, either. It was an unbroken line of letters. Quite ordinary letters, but they made no sense whatsoever.
“Charlie, where did you get this?” She tried to sound unconcerned.
Charlie lowered the bread, wariness building in his face. “Nowhere.”
“You certainly didn’t pick this up on the street. It’s far too clean. And it wasn’t in an envelope, for it hasn’t been folded. It has been rolled, instead. I can’t think of a single situation where a note of this kind would be rolled and left out where just anyone could come across it.”
Charlie shrugged, his gaze on the knife as he dropped marmalade onto his second slice of bread.
“Charlie, this is important,” Adele said. “The note…” She hesitated. “You must tell me, Charlie. It’s possible that…well, you may have stumbled into some trouble over it.”
Charlie’s gaze met hers. He understood trouble. Then he shook his head. “Nah, no bother’ll come of it. It was in a milk bottle, see?”
She sat back. “A milk bottle?”
He nodded, chewing quickly. “Funny sort of milk bottle, too. Thought it was full, ‘til I took the lid off. Blasted thing was empty.”
That was why he’d tried to sell the note for milk. He’d thought he’d successfully stolen someone else’s milk from a milk bottle holder sitting on a doorstep.
“The inside was painted, to look like milk?” Adele asked, keeping her tone light.
Charlie nodded again. “Note was inside it. You like funny stuff, ‘n you can read, so…”
She kept her gaze on the note. “And it was the only full bottle in the holder? The other bottles were empty?”
“That’s why I took it. You know somethin’ about this, then?”
“I’m guessing, Charlie.” She looked at him squarely. “It doesn’t sound very good,” she said gently.
“What doesn’t sound very good?” came the enquiry from the kitchen door.
Adele let the note roll up, pushed it into her pocket, put a smile on her face and turned to the door. “Isa, you’re up. Just in time for tea.” She stood and gestured to her chair. “Toast and marmalade?”
Isa Hess was a woman of about Adele’s age and height, but while Adele was dark haired, Isa had golden-white hair and fine Aryan features, including crystalline blue eyes. She had been Adele’s dearest friend when Adele had lived in Cape Town. Finding Isa standing at her front door two days ago had been a wonderful surprise. Adele had insisted Isa stay with her while she was in London, and had spent the last two days and evenings showing Isa her beloved city.
Isa slid onto the chair, yawning hard. She smiled at Charlie. “Hello.”
Charlie didn’t smile. “‘ello.”
“You aren’t what I expected to find at the breakfast table.” Isa’s English was very good. She had barely any accent.
Charlie shrugged and picked up the glass of milk.
“This is Charlie, Isa.” Adele slid a fresh cup and saucer in front of Isa, and set about toasting more bread.
“So, what doesn’t sound very good, that you were talking about when I came in?” Isa asked Charlie.
Adele’s heart leapt about as she tried to find an answer she could give Isa, before Charlie said anything.
Charlie gave another shrug. “Lady Adelaide don’t like me sleepin’ in the park.” He scowled at Adele. “Keeps naggin’ me to go t’the orphanage.”
Adele focused on flipping the bread before it burned, while relief spread cool fingers through her middle.
“Oh dear, no, that does not sound very good at all,” Isa said. “You are an orphan, Charlie?”
“Don’t ‘ave no mum or dad,” Charlie said, his tone implying that he was disputing his status as an orphan.
“I see,” Isa said diplomatically.
Charlie pushed the empty bread plate away from him and jumped up from the table. “May I go, my Lady?” His tone was polite, the question was what Adele had told him was the correct way to leave the table.
Adele would much rather have Charlie stay where he was, so she could interview him more thoroughly, but she couldn’t do that with Isa in the house. Reluctantly, she said, “Yes, Charlie. You may go. It was good to see you again.”
“Thank you for the milk!” Charlie strained up on his toes to reach the high handle, and hauled the door open. He slipped out and the door shut again with a soft click.
Adele put the finished toast on a fresh plate, and put it in front of Isa. She took Charlie’s chair and pulled her own barely touched toast toward her. She refilled her teacup and added milk.
“You are rather a dark horse, Adele,” Isa said, picking up her own cup. “Here was I thinking you were the most proper Englishwoman I’d ever come across, while you are feeding homeless boys who come to your kitchen door.”
Lady Adelaide leads a double life that sits ill with her…
In Edwardian Britain, Lady Adelaide Azalea Margaret de Morville, Mrs. Hugh Becket, finds her work for William Melville, spymaster, clashes with the life her society friends believe her to be leading. Her guilt rises when her very dear friend, Isa Hass, arrives from Cape Town and asks questions Adele cannot answer.
When a homeless urchin, Charlie Rowbottom, hands a note written in German code over to Adele, she struggles to keep her true nature separated from her position in society while she searches for the writer of the note.
This novelette is the fourth in the Adelaide Becket Edwardian espionage series.
1: The Requisite Courage
2: The Rosewater Debutante
3: The Unaccompanied Widow
4: The Lavender Semaphore
…and more to come.
A historical suspense espionage novelette.
Get your copy a week early
And don’t forget that if you buy your copy directly from me (at the SRP site), you get your copy a week early. That is, next Thursday.
Stay cool and well!