ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

 A Death in Sheffield

Chapter 43

 

Menina.”

The word was spoken quietly, but Artemis’ reaction was immediate.  Closing her hand around the pistol hidden beneath the pillow, she whirled to draw upon the woman who sat upon the foot of her bed.  Miss Valdez did not outwardly react, but Artemis saw the flash of alarm in her dark eyes. Ah, thought Artemis. The penny drops; apparently I am to discover what this is all about.

Bonjour.” Artemis held the pistol steady, aimed at the woman’s head.  As had been the case at the hotel yesterday, Miss Valdez was dressed in maid’s clothes, her thick, dark hair pulled back tightly under a cap.  Droughm was not in evidence, but Artemis knew better than to take her gaze off her visitor, and continued in French, “Start talking.”

The other girl responded in Portuguese, “There is no need for your weapon—”

“English,” interrupted Artemis in that language. “My Portuguese is not very good.”

“Very well,” the other agreed. “Perhaps you will put the pistol down.”

“I think not.” Artemis drew herself to a sitting position, and pulled the sheet across her breasts.  She was aware the other woman sought to place her at a disadvantage— confronting her in bed with no warning—but Artemis knew better than to give the enemy an advantage, and so she showed no embarrassment or discomfiture.  “I need little excuse to shoot you—best start talking.” 

“You are very pretty,” the other opined thoughtfully. “Except for the eyes, we could be mistaken for sisters. Perhaps he married you because you look like me.”

But Artemis was having none of it. “Or he married me because he found you lacking.”

Ah, this hit a sore point; Artemis could see the woman press her full lips into a thin line and felt an unexpected twinge of pity. She is not one who tolerates weakness, even in herself, she thought; and I believe Droughm is a weakness for her. Artemis drew back the hammer with a click. “You must leave, now; I shall count backwards from three.  Three. . . .”

“I am here to make a bargain,” the other interrupted. “I did not mean to startle you, but I did not have any other opportunity.”

It occurred to Artemis that this must be the reason Droughm wanted to sleep on the settee last night—but the poor man couldn’t bring himself to make her angry enough to throw him out.

With a pout, Miss Valdez continued, “My throat is still sore from when you hit me at the Museum.”

But Artemis had no sympathy to offer. “You must learn to better defend yourself.”

Tiens; how was I to know you were such a violent one?  Droughm must be very sorry he married you.”

Artemis narrowed her eyes. “You will stay away from my husband.”

Contemplating her with a trace of amusement, her visitor shrugged her pretty shoulders.  But will your husband stay away from me?”

“Remind me why I haven’t shot you already.”

“Because I have—information—that Droughm would like to me to forget; but first I must have something in exchange.”

With a trace of scorn, Artemis replied, “So you are trying to blackmail Droughm into your bed? Can’t you find anyone else?”

The other’s lips thinned again. “No; I have no need for such a trick, believe me. But Droughm tells me that you know where your uncle kept the items I seek.”

This was of interest, and Artemis asked warily, “What sort of items?”

The dark eyes sharp upon her, the other girl held her hands in a circle shape so as to demonstrate. “Plates for coins. This big—made of metal.”

Artemis could not imagine that Droughm’s people would want her to turn over the plates, and so she said with all honesty, “Mine uncle told me no such thing—Droughm is misinformed.”

The other regarded her for a moment in silence, whilst Artemis held her gaze with her own steady one. “I can ruin him,” the other woman finally threatened.

“Have at it,” suggested Artemis. “Although I cannot imagine such a course would make you more attractive to him.”

Her visitor leaned forward, her gaze intent. “You must think where they could be—think of a hiding place; I have searched your uncle’s house—and his safe—”

“Had he a safe?” asked Artemis in surprise. “It’s probably where he kept the candles.”

“The candles?” the other girl asked, bewildered.

“He was a miser—muito barato,” Artemis explained.

“Ah,” the other nodded. “It is often the way, with the rich men.”

“But not Droughm,” Artemis noted.

Miss Valdez smiled fondly. “No; Droughm is trѐs genereux.”

“You are lapsing into French,” Artemis warned her.

“I accidentally broke his nose, once,” the other girl reminisced. “He is like a tiger, in the bed.”

“Out,” said Artemis, gesturing with her pistol. “Now.”

Reminded, the other was contrite. “I am sorry—I forgot I should not say this to you; but we need to make our bargain.”

“I cannot help you, I’m afraid.” Artemis balanced the hilt of her pistol on her bent knee and casually sighted down the barrel at her visitor.

Her gaze on the weapon, the woman tilted her head as though studying an interesting specimen.  “Droughm seemed to think you would know.”

“Then he should ask me, and not you.” 

“You must see that he cannot—not with honor,” the other pointed out reasonably. “He will be happiest if you give them to me without his knowledge.  You tell me, and I will be gone from you, and leave him alone—my promise.”

Artemis decided the best course at the moment was to stall for time.  “I am going to think this over.  Why should I trust you?”

“You will tell me,” the girl warned with a hint of menace, “Or I will make things much the worse for you.”

“I am not certain how things can get worse,” Artemis observed.

Miss Valdez narrowed her eyes. “Yes, they can.”

For whatever reason, Artemis was convinced this was a bluff. “Well, if you have to kill me, promise you won’t let Lady Tallyer have him.”

“Never,” the other retorted, her color high.  “Elle est une chienne.”

“Good—we are agreed, then. Now go, and I will consider what you have asked.”

“Tomorrow morning, or I will not be so generous,” the other warned as she rose with a swish of her skirts. “Au revoir.”

Lowering her pistol, Artemis sat in bed, and stared at the door as it closed behind Miss Valdez. It was hard to believe that Droughm had arranged matters so as to allow for this alarming confrontation, but on the other hand, where was he?  And it was all so difficult to sort out—it had occurred to Artemis that perhaps the woman was actually aligned with Droughm’s people, in which case she may be setting up a trap for Artemis to reveal her supposed treason. On the other hand, there was the chance—remote, but nonetheless a possibility, that what the woman said was true—Droughm was willing to look the other way whilst Artemis relinquished the plates, if it meant avoiding the stain of a treasonous scandal.  Frowning, she discarded the idea immediately—he’d said he’d even sacrifice Somerhurst, rather than betray his country, and she believed him.

As a welcome distraction to her tangled thoughts, Katy knocked, then backed through the door, carrying the breakfast tray.  “His lordship said to see to it you were awake and made ready by eight, miss, so I took the liberty.”

Artemis drew a blank. “Am I slated to go somewhere?”

Her manner reflecting the gravity of the news she had to import, Katy informed her, “They’ve found your poor uncle, miss—it’s as they thought; he was killed in the mines.”

“Oh—I see,” said Artemis, thinking with some annoyance that she truly didn’t need any more complications, just now.

“His lordship has gone to speak with the Constable, but he asked that you be informed—he said you’d best be up and about.”

Because, of course, it would be apparent in short order that her uncle’s death was no accident.  “Thank you, Katy—I suppose my black dress can make an appearance. Is Lady Tallyer about?” Artemis thought it interesting that she’d been left unguarded—although it seemed clear she was meant to be unguarded, so as to allow for the meeting with her uninvited guest.

“Shall I fetch her?”

“Not just yet; give me a few more moments of peace.” This last was said in a tart tone, and Katy giggled.

Contrite, Artemis begged, “Pretend I didn’t say it, Katy—she’s been very kind.”

But Katy had an opening to make an observation, and took it.  “At first I thought that she was a bit too kind to his lordship,” said the maid with a meaningful look. “But the kitchen maid tells me that she has other interests.”

“Lady Tallyer does?” asked Artemis in surprise. “Truly?”

The girl lowered her voice. “She says a man creeps into the lady’s room for a cuddle every night.”

No,” breathed Artemis, completely agog.

“She says it is the gatekeeper from the mines.” Katy’s eyes gleamed. “And she so fancy!”

Artemis absorbed this astonishing information, and almost immediately perceived the truth of the matter; information—rather than affection—was being passed between the two during these clandestine meetings.  Casting back into her memory, she tried to remember the gatekeeper, and came up empty; he was a nondescript individual, but one who certainly was positioned to know who came and went from the mines.  Again, Artemis felt a faint sense of distaste when presented with further evidence of the spies’ activities; battles should be fought honorably—head to head, not by skulking about, so that persons like herself were unable to ascertain who was friend and who was foe and what was what and whether one’s husband was knee-deep in the skulking.

“No better than she should be,” pronounced Katy with a sniff.

“One of many,” observed Artemis darkly.