Posted on 2012-10-31
The card lay on the mantelpiece taunting him. One look at the thick glossy paper and scalloped edges and he knew which side of town it came from. The cloying scent narrowed the 'who' down even further.
Wickham turned the card over and looked at the looping scrawl. Now he had the dame's measure. He could see her now.
She'd be wearing red, and a brunette. At home to her friends her hair would be loose falling over bare shoulders, but when she received him it would be exquisitely coiffured. She might even be wearing a veil. A shiver ran up his spine.
He was right about the side of town this job came from. He even knew the house. He'd been born in it.
An imposing brownstone held in the family since the Mayflower. That was what was said, whether it was the truth or not was neither here nor there. Though if one knew where to dig one might find a deed of sale passing the house into the current Mr Darcy's great grandfather … but not in the public records offices; exchanges under the table, after a long night soaked in women and wine, were rarely lodged with officials.
Wickham had never met Mrs Darcy the Third. He hadn't wanted to be drawn back into the Darcy web. He made a poor fly.
He slid the card into his pocket, pulling his office door closed behind him.
The only piece of good news he got from the landlady was that the young lady was indeed veiled when she'd come looking for him, and that she wore proper stockings, no crooked lines drawn up the back of her legs. Wickham would bet they were pins to die for.
He provided some security for the store on the lower level, so Wickham felt he could thumb through the papers and magazines with impunity.
There she was on the society page: Mrs Elizabeth Darcy the Third and there she was again and again. They always mentioned the Third.
It was a polite joke: Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy was third of his name and she was the third wife. Wickham wondered how this broad took the joke: very well by the look of her pout, jewels and fur.
Wickham turned his collar up as he left the subway; he sheltered in a doorway for a moment, back to the slanting rain to relight the butt of his cigarette.
He'd bought the cheap stuff again; his fingers stained but it gave him something to do as he walked towards the Darcy Manor. That and it soothed his nerves.
The storm rose to a crescendo as he pushed open the park gate, illuminating the manor across the way in a stark moment. Wickham thought he saw a pale face in an upper window but then the thunder crashed and it was gone.
He was made to wait in the parlour by the butler, who Wickham could tell was holding himself back from asking him to refrain from touching anything.
Wickham didn't need telling. He stuck out in this room like a sore thumb. Though he could not help wiping a surreptitious foot against the pale rug near the pristine white rich sofa, or should Wickham call it a divan, or a day bed.
"Mr Wickham," the woman speaking wasn't Mrs Darcy the third, though Wickham thought he could see the resemblance. This one defined the definition of bombshell.
It was like Veronica Lake and Jean Harlow had a sister. Long blonde hair, artfully arranged, but what caught Wickham's eye was her attire. His practiced eye told him it was nightwear, all lace and red satin. The gauzy wrap wasn't a shield, it was a weapon.
She moved like a panther into the room, and didn't offer her hand. Wickham couldn't blame her: she had an Old Fashioned in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other.
"That would be me," Wickham paused, "Ma'am." That didn't get a reaction. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn't. "I understood Mrs Darcy had summoned me."
"Jane Bennet. Lizzy's sister. Can I get you a whiskey, Mr Wickham?"
"I'd rather know why I was summoned."
Jane sank onto the divan, and crossed her legs, the material of her negligee riding up and revealing the kind of pale creamy skin Wickham usually admired. But Jane Bennet felt like she'd be a dangerous idol to worship on the altar of.
"Very well, Mr Wickham. The Darcy family has a problem. You solve problems, or so I've been told."
In that moment Wickham knew it had been the Bennet sisters to call him in; Darcy wouldn't know a thing about it.
"You and your sister have a problem, you mean."
"Why would you say that?"
"Because a true Darcy would know not to call me in."
A small tremor of her hand gave her away.
"Are you refusing a very large sum of money?"
"I'll hear you out, Miss Bennet, and then I'll decide. Some cases aren't worth the money."
Wickham sensed the moment the third person arrived in the room. Her scent wafted ahead of her, and it stoked his memory. Her wavy hair was still cropped close around her face, the small dimples and doe eyes making her look younger and more innocent than he knew her to be.
"It might be the first time it wasn't about the money with you, George."
"So formal, George?" She crossed close to him on her way to the divan.
It was so strange how he was torn between wanting to slap her and roughly kiss her.
"Georgiana ,you suggested that he - " Jane broke off, no doubt pinched by Georgiana. "Mr Darcy is missing."
"You'll probably be fishing him out of the river pumped full of lead then." Darcy had made many enemies.
The colour, what there was of it, drained out of Jane Bennet's face, but Wickham was interested to note that Georgiana did not bat an eyelid.
"Well then you will be busy. There is a lot of river." Georgiana took a sip of her drink.
"If we wanted the police, why would we have called you?"
Wickham acknowledged the hit. "I'll have that drink now. Wait. I'll pour." Wickham swirled the decanter before he took a drink.
"We haven't poisoned it, I assure you. I prefer a stiletto." Georgiana smiled.
"So when did the illustrious Mr Darcy disappear, and where is Mrs Darcy…I will take any of them. After all it's usually one of the wives. Particularly with a man like Darcy."
Jane sat up stiffly. "Lizzy would not!"
Georgiana shushed her. "There is little that a woman provoked would not sink to. But the first Mrs Darcy is at Betty Ford and the second Mrs Darcy is…how do I put this politely. Wait. I can't. She's wearing an orange jumpsuit."
"So the Third Mrs Darcy then."
"Perhaps," said Georgiana.
"Georgie! Lizzy wanted to call someone in … "
"Perfect way to cover up … " Wickham found himself talking at the same time as Georgiana and it sent something up his spine. He refused to call it a thrill. Wickham did not have long to meditate upon the subject because the subject of their conversation arrived.
She had been crying. The dark tracks down her cheeks advertised it. Wickham idly wondered if she'd painted them on for effect. Her hair was flowing around her shoulders, but they weren't bare. Mrs Darcy the third was wearing lounging pyjamas.
"Lizzy," Jane held out her arms, drawing her sister to her. Then it was the three of them ranged against him on the sofa. Most men would kill to have three beautiful dames in a room alone, even dangerous broads like these.
"When did you last see Mr Darcy?"
"Last night, before bed," replied Lizzy in a honeyed voice. "I begged him to come to bed but he said he had some business."
"What kind of business, ma'am?"
"I don't ask about that sort of thing. What sort of woman do you think I am to be constantly nagging my husband?"
Wickham thought she did plenty of nagging, but only for more jewels and fur.
"I think it would be a smart woman who knew what her husband did, Mrs Darcy." Wickham tried Georgiana, "Do you know what your brother does?"
Georgiana smirked. "Do I know my family business? Of course I do. I don't know who my brother met that night but I do know it wasn't anything to do with our business."
"Yes and besides I heard Fitzwilliam return, he went out with the driver and he came back two hours later; he tripped over my hat stand in the hall. I can't possibly repeat what he said."
By the daggered looks Jane was thrown from the other two women for this artless speech she was definitely the weakest link. Wickham threw them a bone. "Of course it is likely Mr Darcy went out again, this time without a driver."
"How smart you are, George," smiled Georgiana, showing her teeth.
Wickham knew what side the bread was buttered on. Either the sister or the wife had done away with him, or had him done away with, and if they suspected he wasn't their tame Private Gumshoe then he could expect to be the one in the river pumped full of bullets.
"I must say it's a hopeless business. This is a big city, I tramp it every day. It's a dark city. He could be anywhere."
Lizzy dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief; "Somewhere out there is my poor Fitzwilly, please help us find him."
Before Wickham could make a swift exit to the nearest speakeasy to think of a way of extricating himself from this mess, there was a knock on the door.
"Expecting someone else?"
"No." Jane sounded puzzled, "Who could be out on a night like this? No one respectable."
Wickham didn't let that sting.
It turned out to be a police captain. Wickham admired his shiny badge, its shininess had almost enough to seduce him, but then he'd seen the precinct and the lack of respect. At least as a private gumshoe he might work in a squalid building, for peanuts with no respect but he set his own hours and no one complained if he did all his work in a speakeasy.
"Mrs Darcy," the captain doffed his cap. "I have had a report that your husband is missing. His Aunt is very concerned, and was worried you might be too prostrate to call us."
"But now I see you are having a party."
Wickham tried to blend into the background; he had not considered what could make this night worse, but the arrival of Lady Catherine De Bourgh certainly made the list. She made no attempt to play off her beauty, which was lucky because she had none. She wore a suit. Wickham would bet good money it had been designed for a man. Her hair was closely cropped but no gamine style for her. By the state of her fingers she smoked her cigarettes like he did, but the best quality no doubt.
"We are anxiously awaiting news of my brother," offered Georgiana.
"Do you expect news to come by pigeon?" Lady Catherine stared down her niece.
"No, George will find him."
Lady Catherine noticed him for the first time, and Wickham nodded at her.
"While this good man - " Lady Catherine indicated the befuddled police captain - "takes your statements so he can put the resources of this good city behind finding my nephew, I shall have a word with Mr Wickham."
Wickham never said no to a lady.
Lady Catherine stuck a match against the desk, the light flickering in the room. She took a deep breath of her cigarette and looked at him. She hadn't turned on any of the lights in the room and the effect was eerie. If she was trying to put him off his game, it wasn't working. Wickham hadn't been punched or pistol whipped this evening and his trench coat was currently drying somewhere not on his person. This was practically a perfect evening.
"You're a fool."
"You aren't the first to tell me that."
"You know the Darcy business."
"Extortion, protection, nose candy, booze, gambling, all kinds of vice."
"Indeed. My nephew could be anywhere."
"That's what I told the ladies. I recommend they have the river dragged. I expect your tame cop will do just that."
"He's hardly tame."
Wickham didn't want to delve into that, it wasn't the kind of fantasy he was prone to.
"But you can hardly want to be mixed up with this family again. You barely escaped with your life before. Surely you could find another woman to fulfil your needs."
"I go where the money is."
But that was not true. As soon as he'd seen it was Darcy Manor he could have torn up the charming card. He could have turned his back. But that wasn't George Wickham and he'd never be that man.
"Like a moth to the flame."
"Do you have a theory as to what happened to your nephew? Miss Jane Bennet has told me, quite stupidly and against the party line, that Mr Darcy returned from his late night rendezvous. So either he left the building of his own volition - though no one heard him go out - or he met his fate here."
"My nephew wants to go straight. Did they tell you that?"
"I wouldn't have believed them."
"You can believe me."
Well that put a different spin on it. Jane Bennet would support her brother-in-law, but would her sister? The money might not vanish over night, and nor would the social cachet, but she might be attracted to the danger. After all ,Mr Darcy was balding with a paunch: the epitome of fat cat. He got others to do his dirty work. Then … would Miss Darcy be happy about her family business being given away? Or was she in line to be the head of Darcy Incorporated?
"I see the wheels are turning," Lady Catherine stubbed out her cigarette. "I shall leave you to your deliberations."
Wickham didn't claim to be a genius, he'd studied dames and gams at school but he knew which way the wind was blowing and it wasn't pretty. Because there was no way Lady Catherine wasn't having a say in the empire her father helped build.
It wasn't manly to use his soft soled shoes to the very best of their capacity but Wickham didn't care. Unfortunately he was stymied by the fact someone had not put his fedora with his trench coat. In fact Wickham couldn't even see the hat rack; there was space for one next to the coat rack. He could have abandoned the hat but a good hat cost a pretty dime. It also said a lot about a man.
"Looking for this?" Jane Bennet spun his fedora on her pinkie, before jauntily placing it on her own head. It looked good on her. A chaff bag would look good on Jane Bennet.
"You keep it, doll."
The smile fell off Jane's face. "Mr Wickham. I stole your hat because I wanted to talk to you."
All these broads wanting to talk to him, nothing ever good came from talking, thought Wickham ruefully.
"You see, I was waiting up for Darcy." Jane mangled the fedora in her hands and Wickham tried not to wince. She stepped closer, that's how Wickham could tell it was serious; a woman like Jane sashayed, she didn't merely step anywhere. "I loved Darcy. And he loved me."
Wickham wondered what Darcy had that made all these women fall for him, and then he remembered; Darcy slept on a pile of greenbacks every night.
"Does Mrs Darcy know?"
Jane looked furtively around. "Of course not! I feel so guilty betraying my sister, but what Darcy and I have is real."
Wickham searched her eyes and by jove if he wasn't a monkey's uncle, the dame was serious. While he believed that she truly loved Darcy and was probably the only one in this pile that cared two hoots what had happened to him, Wickham didn't believe that her sister didn't know about the affair. A woman kept a vigilant eye on her pay check. She wouldn't have a lick of sense if she didn't, and Lizzy Darcy struck Wickham has having more than a lick of everything.
"Please Mr Wickham help us find out what happened to my Darcy, the others….I fear they care more for Darcy's business than they do …"
"Surely there was a contingency plan?" Gangsters always thought ahead, after all a bloody civil war after their untimely death was bad for business, and drew too much of the wrong type of attention.
Jane shook her head. "Darcy told Lizzy it was hers."
Wickham shook his head; the worst kind of pillow talk.
"And he told Georgiana it was hers….and he told Lady Catherine that, of course, it was hers."
"That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of." That was only a recipe for having three women out to kill him and a turf war after.
Jane shrugged. "I think he thought it would keep them all sweet with him. He hated a fight." She suddenly thrust his fedora at him, and melted into the shadows.
The reason for her sudden departure opened the parlor door, leaning against it proactively, though not in Wickham's direction.
"Officer, I do hope you find my husband…I am so worried what might happen without him." Mrs Darcy had turned on the charm, and her pajama top seemed a lot more unbuttoned than it had been when Wickham had last seen her.
"This house looks pretty sturdy, ma'am, I can't imagine anyone would break in here. I could have an officer make sure he patrols past during the night."
Wickham saw the narrowing of Lizzy Darcy's eyes, but in a trice it was replaced by her usual simpering. "Oh no, officer, I more meant what will become of my husband's business."
The officer was either too smart or too stupid to take her bait because he patted her avuncularly on the shoulder, "There, there, ma'am you don't need to worry your pretty head about business or money. "
She seemed to want to make a response to that, but noticed Wickham. "Mr Wickham, are you leaving us?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am, that I wasn't of more use to you, but the boys in blue will be much better situated to search for your husband."
Lizzy Darcy held out a hand and Wickham shook it, he wanted to kiss it but he didn't want to give her the wrong idea. Or the right one.
It was only when he was half way home when he was jamming his hat on his head to keep it from blowing away after he left the subway that he thought of it - where was the hat stand? Seemed an awfully strange thing to move and if it was anything like the coat stand it would be a heavy antique.
He should keep walking. He was best out of that nonsense, but he couldn't let it go. Cursing himself, Wickham turned back towards Darcy Manor.
The butler looked disapproving. "Did you forget something, sir?"
"Yes," replied Wickham, shouldering his way into the entrance hall. He stared at the space where the hat stand should have been. "Where is the hat stand?"
The butler did not reply; it was clearly a home matter below his interest. Wickham noticed that it looked as though the hat stand had been dragged slightly. Here and there on the floor were similar marks. Wickham followed them , finding himself in the tiny hallway at the back of the hall which only led to a door to the domain of the servants. There was also an old wardrobe shoved roughly against the wall. No doubt to house skating gear, or servants' coats.
Wickham opened the doors, and was pleased to note he'd found the hat stand. He'd also found what was left of Fitzwilliam Darcy the Third who had clearly lost a fight with the hat stand.
"Whoever searched the joint for him did a shoddy job, don't you think?"
The butler sniffed in response.
Before Wickham could alert the rest of the household to the fact they didn't have to worry about Mr Darcy's fate any longer, the main doors flew open and Lady Catherine stormed in followed by two stalwarts Wickham recognized from the vice squad. He didn't want to think much about why he recognized them.
The butler glared at Wickham, blaming him for his not being at his post, requiring Lady Catherine to open the doors for herself.
"Where are you, you vicious harpy?" yelled Lady Catherine. "You are none of my blood!"
"To whom do you refer?" Lizzy Darcy shielded her sister in the doorway to the parlour.
"For once, not you," retorted Lady Catherine. "My niece!"
Georgiana appeared at the top of the staircase, timing her appearance perfectly that the light hit her in such a way that Wickham could fell the breath leave the detectives' chests. He knew how they were affected because he was too, even though he knew what a lying vixen the woman in question could be.
"What have I done to upset you, aunt? And gentleman what business do you have in this house?"
"You…you…know what you have done," said Lady Catherine in a grip of powerful anger.
The detectives shook themselves of out their stupor, "We have reason to believe - well more than reason - your aunt has been dabbling where she shouldn't." At that moment they handcuffed Lady Catherine.
"How shocking!" said Lizzy, looking anything but.
"Officers! I withdraw my alibi," exclaimed Lady Catherine.
"You haven't given us an alibi! You were caught red-handed so to speak." The officer tipped his hat to the other ladies in what seemed to be an apologetic manner.
"No, for my niece! I lied to your good colleagues and said my niece could not possibly have stabbed Mrs Westerway for she was with me, but she was not, and I have her bloody dress to prove it."
Georgiana clutched the banister, and Wickham frowned; something was not quite right. If Georgiana had set up her aunt, why would she do so knowing her aunt could easily drop her in it?
Wickham wanted to put himself between Georgiana and the second officer, who leapt up the stairs to apprehend her, but he knew what happened when he did that. He did another stint in the poky for Georgiana Darcy and he knew what kind of thanks one got for doing that - nada.
Both women were dragged from the entrance hall, but unlike the butler and Jane, Wickham wasn't watching them, he was watching the self satisfied look in Lizzy Darcy's eyes. A look that dissolved as soon as the door slammed shut and was replaced with suitable distress.
"I can not believe it - my husband missing and now my aunt and cousin … "
"Oh sister," Jane comforted her.
"Well there is some good news, your husband is not missing," offered Wickham.
"Not missing?" Lizzy raised an eyebrow at him.
"No, he's in that wardrobe," Wickham jerked his head in the right direction.
He was going to add it wasn't a pretty sight, but he hardly expected her to rush to see her late lamented husband. He'd forgotten about Jane which not two hours ago Wickham would have thought was impossible.
Jane raced to see, and was overtaken by strong hysteria and Wickham rather thought would take a strong opiate to subdue.
"I think you have helped enough, Mr Wickham," said Lizzy coldly, showing him the door.
"I found your husband, I expect to be paid."
"You'll have your money soon enough."
The door closed in his face.
Wickham doubted that, but if his feelings were right he was lucky to be escaping with his life. He lit a cigarette as he walked back towards the subway station. He still didn't know who had bludgeoned Darcy with the hat rack and stuffed him in a wardrobe. But hey this was Chinatown.The End