Book excerpt

Wouldn't It Be Deadly

An Eliza Doolittle & Henry Higgins Mystery

D. E. Ireland

St. Martin's Press

D.E. IRELAND is a writing team of two Michigan authors who met as undergraduates in an anthropology class and have remained friends ever since. Both are married to computer geeks, and each has one beautiful and brilliant daughter. Lifelong book lovers and history buffs, they have authored several novels on their own.

ONE

 

LONDON, 1913

The shadowy hallway seemed as black as the heart of Jack the Ripper.

Eliza Doolittle paused at the top of the stairs. Why were the lights turned off on the second floor? Since there were no windows along the corridor, the housekeeping staff normally kept four electric lights burning. But all she could see before her was darkness.

Although she had no idea where it was located, Eliza fumbled for the light switch. She cursed these newfangled devices. How was a soul to know what to do when the electricity went out? When she’d needed illumination when she’d lived in her old digs on Drury Lane, she’d reached for a gas lamp—assuming she had a penny for the meter. Now every building in London was awash in the dim glow of electric lights. Maybe the storm caused the lights to go out. Today’s weather was especially foul as thunderous rains and wild winds swept over the city.

If she felt her way, she’d reach the room where she gave phonetics lessons. Her fingers brushed the flocked velvet wallpaper as she inched along the corridor. With her other hand, she grasped a heavy cloth sack weighted down with the tuning forks she used for her lessons.

What a silly goose she was. For years, Eliza wandered through alleyways darker than this, with murderous dodgers lurking in them. That’s what civilized living did to people—made them fear every sound. Put a Whitechapel girl among the gentry and she became as jumpy as a Brighton maiden aunt. After all, she wasn’t walking along the corridors of a Bethnal Green council house. This was fashionable—and sedate—Belgrave Square.

The distant ring of a telephone downstairs reminded her that she was far from alone in the building. Not only did a prestigious company of solicitors rent offices on the first floor, her employer Maestro Emil Nepommuck lived and gave lessons in the apartment directly across from her classroom. In fact, she could probably hear him moving about his rooms as he prepared for the arrival of his own students.

Eliza stopped and listened. Not a sound. There wasn’t even the usual smell of Nepommuck’s Turkish cigarettes, which often permeated the whole second floor. Only the relentless pounding of rain on the roof broke the eerie silence.

Raised in the slums of Lisson Grove and London’s East End, Eliza was uneasy with too much quiet and stillness. A year ago at this hour, she would have been selling violets under the skylights at Covent Garden Market as dozens of costermongers hawked their wares around her. Now that she’d learned to speak like a lady, she had a more genteel occupation teaching others to speak the King’s English. But she missed the cacophony and lively crowds of market day. And at this moment she would have given five quid to hear just one greengrocer sing out, “Who’ll buy me fresh strawberries? Strawberries ripe from Kent! Sixpence a pound!”

She even harbored a regret or two that she was no longer living with Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering at 27A Wimpole Street. For certain there was never a quiet moment in that house with Henry Higgins holding court from breakfast to bedtime. However, if she were still living there, Higgins would never cease to remind her how grateful she should be to him for turning a Cockney guttersnipe into a proper lady. No, she had made the right decision to become Maestro Nepommuck’s teaching assistant.

She strained again to hear any sound from Nepommuck’s apartment. The Hungarian was not fond of mornings so perhaps he was still asleep. It was unlikely he had ventured outside. Eliza couldn’t imagine Nepommuck stepping outdoors on such a wet and miserable day.

As she crept down the hall, a floorboard creaked beneath the carpeting. Eliza froze. Had she caused that sound? Blimey, if she swooned after hearing her own footsteps, she’d best head back to the stairs before she made a complete fool of herself and yelled for help.

Another creak, louder this time, but she hadn’t moved an inch. The sound came from farther down the hallway near Nepommuck’s apartment. Eliza held her breath.

Was someone slowly walking toward her? If so, why didn’t they speak? Unless they didn’t realize she was here. After all, if she couldn’t see a foot in front of her face, neither could anyone else. Eliza opened her mouth to call out, but hesitated. A childhood spent living on the London streets had taught her to trust her instincts. Just now they told her to keep quiet.

When thunder crashed overhead, she jumped. Hand over her racing heart, she heard the floorboards creak yet again.

Eliza refused to stand still like a frightened bird. How many steps had she taken since she left the stairwell? If she turned and fled, she might fall headlong down the steps in the dark. And she didn’t fancy breaking her neck because a noisy hallway gave her the vapors.

The carpeted floorboards squeaked two more times, the sounds closer. No doubt about it, someone was in the hallway with her. Her eyes had adjusted to the dark, and Eliza thought she saw a shape move in the shadows.

Instinct be damned. She had to do something. “Who’s there?” Her voice sounded especially loud in the unnerving silence.

Nothing.

“I hear you, mate.” She put as much bluster as possible in her voice. “No use pretending you’re not there. If you’re lost, speak up. And if you’re lurking here in hopes of cutting a purse, it’ll be slim pickings.”

Again, only silence. Eliza heard a furtive footstep, and another. Suddenly a rush of pounding feet headed right toward her. She spun around and ran for the stairs, the bag of tuning forks banging against her hip.

“Leave me alone!”

Behind her came the sound of a grunt as whoever chased her drew near.

“Get away from me, you blooming—” Without warning, she lost her footing and fell hard to the floor. The bag of tuning forks slammed against the opposite wall. Eliza tried to get to her feet, but something hard pressed against her spine.

Her face flattened against the carpet, Eliza shouted, “Get off!”

A shaft of light broke through the darkness. She heard Maestro Nepommuck call out, “Who’s there? What is happening out here?”

The weight against her back released and a slight breeze ruffled her hair. Sprawled on the floor, Eliza turned her head and spied a figure darting into the shadowy stairwell.

“Miss Doolittle, is that you?”

“Yes, Maestro.”

She heard him mutter in Hungarian. A moment later, the lights flashed on. Her shiny new tuning forks lay scattered across the carpet.

Nepommuck crouched beside her. “Are you hurt?”

Shaking her head, she sat up. A tuning fork slipped off her back. “I’m fine. I just tripped.”

“Whyever did you turn off the lights?” He helped Eliza to her feet.

“The lights were already off when I came upstairs.” She readjusted her hat, which still dripped from the rain. “Did one of your pupils switch them off when they left?”

“I do not have pupils until after ten. You know I do not like to rise early.”

Eliza now saw that the Hungarian wore a gold brocade dressing gown and embroidered black-and-gold slippers. He had obviously not been awake long. What really caught her attention was the black netting covering his hair. And when he moved his head, she spied two strips of tape holding down his luxuriant mustache. She tried not to stare.

Clearing his throat, he seemed to realize he was dressed inappropriately. “If you are not hurt, I shall return to my apartment. I trust you can pick up your tuning forks.” Nepommuck sniffed. “Although I do not agree with the practice of using such devices. We are teaching people to speak correctly, Miss Doolittle, not tune violins.”

“Professor Higgins sometimes used them during his lessons with me.” Eliza knelt to collect the scattered forks. “A person may have a speech problem because they do not hear properly. A tuning fork helps to uncover that. And they also are good for—”

“Enough. I do not wish to hear about the Professor or his silly tricks.” He tugged at his dressing gown’s belt. “If you are done tripping about in the dark, I would like to get dressed before our pupils arrive.”

“One moment, Maestro. Did you see anyone in the hallway when you turned on the lights?”

“I saw only you and your tuning forks lying on the floor. A most unladylike sight, too.”

“Someone was in the hallway with me. It was too dark to see, but I heard the floor creak.”

He gave her a patronizing smile. “Floors often creak, Miss Doolittle. Old buildings make all sorts of odd noises.” A roll of thunder accompanied his last words. “Add thunder to the dark, and you would not be the first young woman to take fright.”

“It takes more than a thunderstorm to make me run for the stairs,” Eliza said. “I’d bet a week’s wages there was someone hiding by your door.” She nodded toward his apartment. “He chased me when he realized I was here. That’s why I fell.”

A strange expression briefly crossed the Maestro’s face before he shook his head. “Nonsense, Miss Doolittle. The storm and the dark hallway caused these fancies. Besides, why would someone stand outside my doorway only to run away when I appear?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not likely they had a pleasant purpose in mind. I think—”

He held up his hand to cut her words short. “I think you are imagining things. You may have hit your head when you fell. Perhaps you are … how do you say in English?… hallucinating.”

With a muttered curse, Eliza bent down to pick up her tuning forks. “Please don’t let me keep you from getting dressed, Maestro. I am sure it must take you some time to become presentable.”

“Impertinent girl.” He kicked a stray tuning fork with his foot.

She bent to retrieve it, but stopped when she saw the metal button that lay beside it. “Is this yours?” Eliza held up the button. Brass or even gold, she thought, and carved with an intricate design of a lion surrounded by stars.

Nepommuck stared at her in disdain. “Do you think I stand outside my door ripping buttons off my clothing?”

Eliza examined the item closely. Did it belong to the person who’d fled in the dark?

When the clock inside his apartment chimed the hour, Nepommuck gave a great sigh. “Please stop wasting time picking up trash, Miss Doolittle. Our students will be here soon.” He stalked back to his apartment. “And don’t turn off the lights again.”

“But I never touched them!”

He slammed the door behind him.

Eliza glanced up and down the empty corridor. “Someone switched them off on purpose,” she mused aloud. “Someone who wanted to hide in the dark.”

And since the stranger had lurked in the hallway between Nepommuck’s apartment and her classroom, he must have wanted to harm the Hungarian.

Or her.

*   *   *

Henry Higgins was in a murderous mood. After a long scholarly tour of Spain, he was impatient to once more listen to the fractured English of his own countrymen. For the past eight weeks, he’d heard nothing but Basque consonants and lisping Catalonians. Enlightening as the Spaniards had been, all he wanted now was to listen to the glottal stop of a dockworker from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. And he itched to correct a tradesman from Birmingham when he stressed the wrong syllable. He had half a mind to grab a hansom cab and head for the East End just to enjoy the riotous street cries of a Cockney newsboy.

He stormed over to the bell rope and gave it a yank. Then again, the last thing to raise his spirits would be the sound of a Cockney voice. It would remind him of Eliza Doolittle. In a mere six months, he had taught that ungrateful little cabbage leaf how to speak like the Duchess of Manchester. Yet after all he’d done for her, there’d been no word from the girl since her father’s wedding two months ago. Even more irritating was the fact that Eliza was still the houseguest of his own mother on the Chelsea Embankment.

“Blast,” he muttered as he pulled the bell rope again.

Not that he expected anyone to answer his summons. The household didn’t run properly with Eliza gone. The parlor maids seemed indolent, and even Mrs. Pearce acted inattentive. Worst of all, he still hadn’t found his damned slippers.

After several fruitless minutes of waiting, Higgins walked into the empty foyer. “Mrs. Pearce, I need you!”

His bellow echoed off the walls. Colonel Pickering, who opened the front door at that exact moment, jumped in surprise.

“Higgins, my good man. You gave me quite a fright.” The Colonel shook out his umbrella, spraying drops on the polished floor. “I hope nothing has gone awry with your latest pupil.” He gestured toward the laboratory.

“What’s gone awry is that two pupils have canceled on me this morning. I’ve never had anyone cancel before. Now I have two cancellations in one day, and on my first day back from an extended leave. The boorish audacity.” Higgins glanced toward the kitchen again. “Mrs. Pearce!”

“If you shout any louder, you’ll burst a blood vessel.”

“What in heaven’s name is that woman doing? I haven’t caught a glimpse of her since she brought my tea at eleven o’clock. The household has fallen into complete anarchy. We may as well be living in Italy.”

Pickering checked the watch on his chain. “I hardly think you’ve been neglected. It’s only half past eleven.”

“Exactly. I’ve not yet had the morning paper brought to me. I am accustomed to having the paper and my slippers in my possession by ten o’clock. Eliza always made certain—” He stopped himself.

Pickering clapped him on the shoulder. “I miss her, too. What say we pay a visit to your mother later today? We’ve been away for weeks. Perfectly proper for a chap to call on his mother, wouldn’t you say? And it’s an ideal opportunity to see how our Miss Doolittle is faring.”

“She is not my Miss Doolittle, and I am not playing the pathetic suitor. I’ll leave that to the sorry likes of Freddy Eynsford Hill.” Higgins frowned at the older woman coming down the hall. “The phantom housekeeper approaches. My dear Mrs. Pearce, it would be refreshing if you made an appearance once in a while.”

Mrs. Pearce wore her usual long-suffering look. “Sir, if you want me to keep the household accounts, see that the bed linens are changed, and arrange the delivery of a beef joint for dinner, then you will have to let me out of your sight now and again.” She took Pickering’s hat, coat, and umbrella. “I didn’t realize you’d returned from your appointment, Colonel. I’ll bring some hot tea. The weather is foul. Seems as if April means to drown us all.”

“What about me?” Higgins crossed his arms.

She glanced up at him. “What about you, Mr. Higgins?”

“I want more tea, I want to know why my pupils have canceled, I want my morning paper, and I want my bloody slippers!”

Mrs. Pearce nodded toward the newspaper folded neatly on a table by the stairs. “It was damp from the rain, so I had one of the girls iron it for you. I’m sure it’s dry enough now.” She grunted as she readjusted Pickering’s wet coat and hat heaped in her arms. “Now if you gentlemen will go into the drawing room, I’ll have tea sent right in. As for your pupils, a Mr. Giraldi sent round a boy not five minutes ago. He cannot come for his lesson this afternoon.”

“What the devil is going on?” Higgins ran a hand through his hair.

“And I hope I do not have to hear another word about your slippers. We’ve turned the house upside down a dozen times looking for them. You’d best purchase a new pair.” Mrs. Pearce paused. “Or ask Miss Doolittle what has become of them.”

“If you think I am going to beg a single thing from that insolent female—”

But Mrs. Pearce had already disappeared beyond the kitchen’s swinging door.

“I say, do you mind if I have a quick look at the paper?” Pickering asked. “Major Redstone will be arriving any day. He’s an old friend from Bombay, and I’d like to check the ship manifests. Since the Titanic went down last year, I find myself worrying over every ocean voyage.”

Higgins handed the newspaper to him before they retreated to what would have been a drawing room in any other Wimpole Street home. Here it served as a phonetics laboratory. Although the leather chairs, piano, and writing table were common sights in any proper drawing room, the filing cabinets, lamp chimneys, laryngoscope, and tuning forks were not. Pickering settled in the easy chair by the fireplace while Higgins began to pace about the room.

Three pupils canceling in one day was unheard of. He felt like the victim of some perverse practical joke. Without a student to terrorize, half the fun had just gone out of the day. If it weren’t raining buckets, he’d grab his notebook and head outdoors. It was always great sport listening to his countrymen murder their native tongue.

Now he faced a long idle day inside. While Colonel Pickering was good company, they had just spent the better part of two months together touring Spain. Higgins suspected they had run out of conversation somewhere in Granada. Plus Higgins was in a combative mood and he didn’t want to take it out on a fellow as congenial as the Colonel.

Indeed, he found it most fortuitous to have met Pickering last summer near Covent Garden’s vegetable market. Higgins had been so impressed by the scholarly tome Spoken Sanskrit that he was determined to meet its author, Colonel Pickering, even if it meant traveling halfway across the world to India. Fortunately he was saved the tedium of a long ocean trip when the Colonel arrived in England for the sole purpose of meeting Henry Higgins, the author of Higgins’s Universal Alphabet. That both of them happened to be standing outside Inigo Jones’s St. Paul’s Church that rainy evening was nothing short of remarkable. A certain young Cockney flower girl was also there that night, but Higgins wasn’t certain if he would term that encounter remarkable or ominous.

As two confirmed bachelor scholars, it seemed only fitting they continue their research together at Higgins’s home at 27A Wimpole Street. Soon after, Eliza Doolittle joined the household as their prize student, and the past year had been spent turning her from a caterwauling street urchin into something resembling a lady. If nothing else, Wimpole Street was never dull once that upstart had moved in.

Higgins plucked a tuning fork, threw it down, wiped nonexistent dust from the phonograph, and ran his hand over the life-size model of a human head. After straightening the Piranesi drawings on the wall, Higgins ate a chocolate cream from the dessert bowl on the piano. Just the sight of the candy reminded him of Eliza, who gobbled up his chocolates like a greedy child. Maybe Pickering was right. Maybe they should pay a call on his mother. And if the “Cockney duchess” happened to be in attendance, he would treat her with the profound indifference she deserved.

“Jolly good.” Pickering nodded with obvious satisfaction. “Major Redstone arrived in Southampton yesterday. I wouldn’t be surprised to receive a call from him later today as soon as he settles in at his club. Quite looking forward to seeing him again.”

“Is this the chap who’s an expert on Sanskrit poetry?”

Pickering nodded. “Redstone’s not yet forty, but he’s one of the best in his field. In fact, he’s coming to London to present a paper next month at the Asiatic and Sanskrit Revival Society.”

“Sounds like a fellow who enjoys a decent conversation. Have him stay with us. We’ve more than enough room here, especially since that ungrateful flower peddler left.”

“Ripping good idea. I’ll ask him as soon as he contacts me.” Pickering gave the paper a shake, then turned the page. “Oh, my word.”

Higgins glanced his way. “Did the suffragettes burn down another cricket pavilion?”

“Henry, I think I may know why you are losing pupils. Our Hungarian colleague has taken to advertising in the paper during your absence.”

“Nepommuck? That peacock has been riding my coattails ever since I corrected his abysmal English. I find it absurd I would lose pupils due to an advertisement in the Daily Mail.”

“It appears he has an assistant now.” Pickering cleared his throat and began to read. “‘Learn the King’s English from the flower girl who successfully passed for a duchess at the Embassy Ball two months ago. Taught by the renowned Emil Nepommuck himself, Miss Doolittle will have you speaking like the gentry in less than eight weeks. Visit Maestro Nepommuck today at Belgrave Square and arrange a lesson with his star pupil.’ I say, the man has more brass than the horn section at the symphony.”

“The bloody liar!” Higgins grabbed the paper. “Let me see that.”

“Try not to get too upset with Eliza. I’m sure there’s a good explanation.”

“That treacherous harridan!” He kicked the nearest table, sending a box of wax cylinders crashing to the floor. “How dare they collaborate.”

“No need to tear down the laboratory, old man.”

Higgins flung open the door. “Mrs. Pearce! Bring my coat and hat, I’m going out.”

“What are you going to do?” Pickering looked pale.

“I am going to see our Miss Doolittle, as you suggested. And when I do, I intend to strangle her with my own hands. And that thieving Hungarian, for good measure!”

 

Copyright © 2014 by D. E. Ireland