Friday Night Book Club: ‘In the wrong hands a secret is a weapon.’ Read an excerpt from Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Daughters of Night
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend.
Treat yourself to a glass of wine this evening and this excerpt from Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson.
About the book
‘The best historical crime novel I will read this year.’ – The Times
‘This is right up there with the best of CJ Sansom and Andrew Taylor.’ – Amanda Craig
‘Top-drawer historical fiction meets compulsive, just-one-more-chapter crime.’ – Caz Frear
London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline ‘Caro’ Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thieftaker Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives.
But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro’s own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous, than she can know …
From the pleasure palaces and gin-shops of Covent Garden to the elegant townhouses of Mayfair, Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Daughters of Night follows Caroline Corsham as she seeks justice for a murdered woman whom London society would rather forget …
Read the excerpt:
In the wrong hands a secret is a weapon.
Caroline Corsham was alive to the danger, to the vulnerability of her position – she had thought of little else since last night’s disaster. Yet now that the truth was known – her secret guessed, the blade honed sharp – what choice did she have left, except to believe? A last roll of the dice. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. These banalities spurred her on. God grant me courage.
Taking a ginger comfit from her enamelled pillbox, Caro slipped it into her mouth, her nausea rising. Muslin, lace and brocade hemmed her in on every side; jewelled buttons flashing on embroidered waistcoats; pastel shades of periwig and kid glove; silver buckles glinting in the light of a thousand beeswax candles that filled the domed roof of the Rotunda with their honeyed scent. It was the opening night of Jacobus Agnetti’s exhibition of classical scenes, and half of London society had turned out for the wretched man. Distractedly, she greeted people she knew: allies of her husband in the House of Commons; clients of the Craven Bank; rival beauties, solicitous matrons, admiring gentlemen. Their laughter was shrill, pink faces merged in a smear of complacency. They smile to bare their teeth, before they rip you apart.
A young baronet was explaining some technical aspect of the paintings to her, though she doubted he’d ever held a brush in his life. Gazing around the Rotunda, the canvases encircled her in one endless, bloody spectacle. Men in helmets killing one another, killing monsters, killing women. The rape of Lucretia. Medea slaughtering her infant children. It’s how history remembers the lady, she thought. By our death or our dishonour or our sins.
Her skin was hot as Hades. Her fears clamoured at her like a Greek chorus. She glanced at the clock on the Rotunda wall.
It was time.
Outside, the music had picked up tempo as night had fallen. Before Caro stretched a fantasy-land: ten thousand lights adorning the trees and the supper boxes and the Chinese pavilion. The Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were busy even for a warm August night, ladies and gentlemen perambulating the lime walks under the stars. Drawing the hood of her sable cloak up over her piled hair, Caro headed for one of the gardens’ perimeter paths, where her peacock-blue satin and lack of servant would attract less attention.
The air was rich with the smells of Vauxhall: heady perfumes of flowers, hot pies, gunpowder. The fireworks startled like pistol shots, the revellers’ faces flashing green and red and gold. A party of young bucks in carnival masks were swaggering around by a statue of Venus. They tried to waylay her with wine, but she hurried on.
The path grew darker as she progressed deeper into the gardens. Couples giggled in the shadows: young gentlemen sweet-talking shop girls into parting with their dubious virtue; clerks and apprentices fallen prey to Vauxhall’s whores. Caro herself was not unfamiliar with this part of the gardens. God might see everything, but husbands didn’t – especially when they were sojourned in France, neglecting their wife and child. Nevertheless, her pulse was erratic. Every danger was heightened now, and anyone who saw her down here would presume she was meeting a lover.
Curls of river fog drifted towards her. The fireworks boomed like a salvo of cannon. On either side, the trees pressed in, the path deserted. Caro turned into the Dark Walk that ran alongside the eastern wall of the gardens, nearly colliding with a man coming the other way. She cried out in horror, drawing back. Two bulging eyes loomed at her over a long grotesque beak, a broad-brimmed hat casting the rest of the face into shadow. Caro backed up against the trees, half-paralysed with terror, but the man in the mask brushed past her without a word.
Collecting herself, a little shaken by the incident, she pressed on. Abutting the gardens’ wall were the bowers: a dozen or more little chambers carved into the greenery, invisible from the path. Soft laughter drifted on the breeze, and a voice murmured faint endearments. People hung hats or tied handkerchiefs to the lamps outside each bower, and Caro looked for their agreed signal: an ostrich feather. Spotting it tied to a lamp up ahead, she glanced around herself. Danger upon danger – but she’d come too far to turn back now.
Hurrying into the bower, she stopped, drawing up short. A lantern, a stone bench, willows stirring in the breeze. These were the things she expected to see. Not a woman lying on the ground – her body curled like a question mark, the stomacher of her pink gown stained a shocking dark red. One of her gloved hands clawed at a wound in her throat, the other lay limp next to a bloodstained document on the grass. Caro stared, confused, half expecting the woman to rise and laugh at the joke. It was as if she’d stepped into one of Jacobus Agnetti’s paintings.
The woman groaned, a raw, inhuman sound, and more details lodged in Caro’s mind: blood in the woman’s chestnut hair; one slipper on, one slipper off; her bone-white face, at once alien and familiar. Oh Lord. Oh no. Oh Lucia.
Still she stared – at Lucia’s contorted mouth, at the blood, so much blood. Don’t just stand there. You have to help her. Move. Dropping to her knees, the soil wet with blood beneath them, she pulled off her cloak. More blood pumped from several deep, dark wounds in Lucia’s stomach. Caro tried to staunch the flow, but her cloak was soon heavy and sodden in her hands. ‘Who did this to you?’ she cried helplessly. ‘Who did this?’
Lucia’s fingers found her own. She gazed at Caro as if from a distance. Her lips parted, her words a whisper: ‘He knows.’
Walk away and do it like you mean it.
Peregrine Child rose from the table and crossed the tavern floor. Eyes focused on the sawdust-strewn floorboards, he counted the seconds as he walked. One … two … three …
‘Thirteen guineas,’ Jenny Wren said.
Better than fifteen, but still too much. Child paused, but didn’t turn. ‘The watch is only worth twenty. My client might as well buy himself a new one.’
‘Seven guineas is a lot of money, Perry.’
Now Child turned, but only so she could see the seriousness of his intent. ‘Not to him. If I go to him with thirteen, he’ll laugh in my face. There’s pride at stake here. He was robbed.’
Jenny scowled, and a beauty spot wobbled on her cheek like a wart on a toad. Her wig was two feet high, powdered a delicate shade of violet; a convenient repository for stolen goods, Child supposed. Two of her matted-haired swains sat beside her, matching Child stare for stare. Anywhere else, they’d have stood out as singular-looking villains, but here at the Red Lion, the customers were all of a piece. The place had been a thieves’ tavern for as long as anyone could remember: a warren of crooked rooms, hidden trapdoors and secret escape routes. The ripe stench of the Fleet Ditch pervaded the cracked plaster walls.
‘I’ll tell you what’s robbery,’ Jenny said. ‘Ten, that’s what.’
‘Eleven, but it causes me pain, Jenny.’
‘By the time I pay the cove what robbed your client, there’ll be arse all left for me. A little goodwill, Perry. That’s all I ask.’
They both knew there was no cove. Jenny knew the location of the watch because she’d stolen it herself, probably in the course of undressing his client. Still, negotiating with thieves was a damn sight less arduous than arresting them, and the only sure way of getting his client’s property back.
Four … five … six … Child reached the tavern stairs and started to descend.
‘Twelve,’ Jenny called.
‘One for each disciple.’ Child was already striding back to shake her hand. ‘This is voluntatem dei, Jenny. The will of God.’
Child should have left it there. After he’d paid Jenny, he should have drained his pot, paid his bill, and gone to find his client. Walk away and do it like you mean it. Instead, he chose to celebrate.
Four hours later, he was still celebrating, having collected a little group of admirers, anxious to share in his good fortune.
‘It true you used to be a magistrate?’ one asked, eyeing Child’s old wig of office with a smirk. It was long and full with thick sausage curls. He couldn’t bring himself to replace it, though it had seen better times.
‘If I’d known you in my Deptford days,’ Child told him, ‘you’d have been creeping from chapel to church, praying the eye of Peregrine Child didn’t fall on you.’
‘So what happened?’ The villain asking these questions had a single brown eyebrow that ran across the bridge of his nose, and teeth of a similar number and hue.
‘Politics,’ Child said, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice. ‘The mayor lost his re-election and the new fellow had another man in mind for my job.’
Admittedly, it was a little more complicated than that. The election had turned nasty amid allegations of dirty tricks. Whores and vagrants had kept disrupting the meetings of the mayor’s opponent, because somebody had told them they were handing out free gin. The opponent’s import business had also received an implausibly high number of customs inspections – that much Child didn’t deny. The missing ballot boxes found under a hedge, on the other hand, had nothing to do with him, but hadn’t stopped the blame coming his way. The new mayor’s first act, on attaining office, had been to dismiss Child as magistrate. His second had been to issue an unwritten decree: no one was to offer Child employment, no one was to take his business; even his favourite taverns had barred their doors to him.
‘Magistrates.’ The villain spat an oyster of phlegm on the table. ‘Thief-taker’s a step up in the world in my book.’
Your book and no one else’s, Child thought sourly. It was enough to make a man weep. In Deptford, he’d had status and respect, not to mention a steady stream of income, much of it honest. Now he was reduced to grubbing around after stolen property, arresting the odd thief who tried his patience, and spending too much time in dog-hole taverns like the Red Lion.
The tap-boy returned, carrying another jug. As he set it down, Child felt the lad’s hand slide inside his shabby blue greatcoat, reaching for his purse. He moved fast for a man of forty-five, especially one who carried a belly like his. Fist connected with skull, knocking the lad into the wall. As he slid down it, people laughed.
Child shook his head sorrowfully. ‘I’d choose a different vocation, son, if I were you. Or you’ll end up on a hangman’s rope.’
The boy rubbed his ear, pride plainly piqued. ‘Thought you was cup-shot, didn’t I?’
‘I might be drunk,’ Child said, ‘but I’ve thirty years’ practice. Diligence in what you do, lad. That’s the key.’
An hour later, moonlight casting a pewter glow onto the slick cobbles of the Fleetside streets, Child strolled out of the Red Lion, obliviously content, straight into the arms of Finn Daley and two of his thick-necked henchmen. Child reached for his flintlock pistol, but one of them punched him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. They dragged him to the edge of the Fleet, grabbing his arms and shoving him forward, so that he leaned precariously out over the murky waters.
Daley, a muscular gnome, his face pocked as a cribbage board, edged in close so that Child could smell his tobacco breath. ‘Can you swim, Perry?’ he asked, in his soft Dublin brogue.
Craning his neck, Child searched the street for help – but this was a thieves’ district, and people hurried on by.
‘I’m from Deptford,’ he said. ‘Of course I can bloody swim.’
Daley produced an axe from beneath his coat. ‘Not without arms you can’t.’
‘Wait,’ Child cried. ‘I’ll have your money soon. I’m serious. I will.’
Daley smiled. ‘I’ve heard it all before, Perry. It’s getting tiresome.’
Child’s lies came thick and fast. ‘I’m working a job worth fifty guineas. I only owe you forty. By next week you’ll have the lot. Christ, Daley. I swear it.’
‘What kind of job?’
‘Something special. Just give me a week and the money’s yours. The only reason I haven’t been to see you is because I’ve been so busy.’
Indecision worked its way across Daley’s face. His axe-hand twitched – but at the end of the day he was a businessman, and head ruled heart.
‘Seven days,’ he said. ‘At a guinea a day. Then there’s all the trouble I had to go to, trying to find you.’ He reached into Child’s coat and plucked his purse from his pocket, emptying the contents into his hand, tucking it back. ‘This will cover the latter. Which leaves us forty-seven guineas apart. Don’t even think about running. I’ll make it my life’s work to track you down. I’m starting to take you mighty personal, Perry, and no one wants that.’