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“That blasted Nightjar has done it again!”
Alexander Harland, Earl of Melton, glanced up from his morning paper. Sir Nathaniel Conant, Chief Magistrate of Bow Street, dropped a sheaf of papers onto the table beside him and lowered himself into a vacant armchair with an irritated exhalation. “That devil—whoever he is—is a menace to society.”
Alex concealed a groan of impatience. He’d barely finished breakfast. At this hour, the Tricorn Club’s salon was usually empty. Benedict, having recently married, had moved out last month; “jumped ship,” as Seb had wryly phrased it. And Seb himself, the third pillar of their unholy triumvirate, was doubtless still sleeping off last night’s boisterous trip to the Theatre Royal. Alex had banked on a good hour of uninterrupted reading before being bothered by anyone.
Clearly, it was not to be. Mickey, the Tricorn’s mountainous doorman, had been given strict instructions to admit Sir Nathaniel whenever he so desired. Alex twisted his head to glance at the clock on the mantelpiece. Events must be concerning to have roused the elderly peer at the ungodly hour of nine o’clock.
He carefully folded the newspaper and placed it on the table next to him. “Another jewel has been stolen?”
Conant’s jowls wobbled as he shook his head. “The sneaky beggar’s hit close to home this time, Harland. Pinched a bloody great diamond from Rundell, Bridge and Rundell.”
“The Royal jewelers?” Alex raised his eyebrows as his mouth twitched in reluctant admiration. “You have to give the man credit; he never takes the easy route, does he? I’d have thought their security was tight as a drum.”
“It is. But the Nightjar still managed to breech it. And that’s not the worst of it.” Conant gave a disgruntled sniff. “The blighter couldn’t have stolen a worse piece. The diamond he took belongs to the Prince Regent himself. He’d asked Rundell to fashion it into a pendant. Prinny wants it found as soon as possible—and the culprit prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Alex’s pulse kicked up at the prospect of a new challenge. Since his return from the continent last summer, he, Benedict, and Seb had helped Bow Street investigate a number of sensitive cases. Two months ago they’d foiled an attempt to rescue Bonaparte from exile on the island of St. Helena via submarine, and the Regent had shown his gratitude by awarding all three of them with titles. Benedict was now the Earl of Ware, Seb had been made the Earl of Mowbray, and Alex the illustrious Earl of Melton.
Not that Sir Nathaniel paid it any heed. He still addressed Alex as Harland.
“Just when everything’s quiet, and I think the sneaky devil’s retired, or dead, he pops up out of nowhere and steals another gem. It’s maddening, Harland. Maddening.”
“What do we know about him?” Alex asked.
“Precious little, to tell the truth.” Conant gestured at the file of papers on the table between them. “Whatever we have, it’s in there. The mode of operation is always the same; he only ever steals one gem at a time, even when he has the chance to take more. The pieces he takes are always jewels of exceptional quality—but so are the ones he leaves. And the cheeky bugger always leaves a solitary black feather in place of the missing item, as a calling card.” Conant took an indignant breath. “He’s been at it for years. His crimes stretch back over a decade, at least. And I’m sure there have been times when his feather’s been overlooked. Those bumbling clodpolls in the provinces aren’t as meticulous as you and I, when it comes to preserving evidence.”
Alex inclined his head in acknowledgment of the gruff compliment. “Presumably he leaves the feather because he wants the thefts to be known as his work?”
Conant scowled. “But why? Are those from whom he steals supposed to congratulate themselves on being members of an exclusive club? Those with the dubious honor of being one of the Nightjar’s victims?”
“Who knows? But at least it gives us a way of linking the crimes. Perhaps there’s a pattern, some logic to them? They’re not opportunistic thefts.”
“I should say not. Each one has to have been meticulously planned. No two are the same. And no evidence is ever left, save for the feather. It’s as if the man’s a wraith.”
Alex’s lips twitched in amusement. “Oh, he’s flesh and blood, I guarantee it. And sooner or later, he’ll make a mistake. Everyone does. Do you think we’re looking for an older man, since he’s been active for so long? Or a group of thieves working together?”
Conant grunted. “That’s what I expect you to find out.” He steepled his fingers, resting his elbows on the arms of the chair. “The odd thing is, the gems he steals are the kind of stones that make jewelers sit up and take notice, but they never reappear on the market. We constantly check the pawn shops, jewelers, auctions, and gem dealers. They just … disappear.”
“Maybe he doesn’t sell them. He could be an avid collector who keeps them in a private collection somewhere for his own pleasure?”
Conant snorted. “Dammed odd thing to find pleasure in, I say. Rocks? What’s wrong with cards and women, eh?” He chuckled heartily.
Alex drummed his fingers on his thigh, his mind already whirring with possibilities. He’d been praying for something to occupy his time, some challenge to enliven his current ennui. Here, at last, was an adversary worth pursuing.
“Maybe they’re being smuggled out of the country? Or maybe money’s not the Nightjar’s primary goal. You say he could steal more but restrains himself? Perhaps he has some moral code about not stealing more than one piece from any individual?”
“Moral code? Ha! A thief like that has no morals, Harland. Nor any honor. Whatever his reasons, he’ll get no mercy when he’s caught, tried, and convicted. The law is the law. We’ll see him hanged from Tyburn tree, you mark my words.”
Conant slapped his palms on the arms of the chair and pushed himself to his feet. “Rundell and Bridge aren’t keen to publicize this, obviously. They want you to investigate quietly, but I’m counting on you to catch the slippery devil. The Prince Regent demands it.” He strode to the door. “I imagine you’ll want to take a look at the crime scene. It’s over in Ludgate Hill.” He shot Alex a teasing smile. “I’m sure you already know that. No doubt you’ve purchased plenty of pretty baubles there yourself since your return from Waterloo.”
Alex hid a wince at the man’s uncanny perspicacity. He’d been at the jeweler’s only last month to buy a parting gift for Alicia, his mistress. The discreet widow had been disappointed but pragmatic when he’d ended their month-long liaison. She’d been hoping for more than a casual physical relationship—a wedding band, in truth—but he’d never pretended to be looking for a wife. He doubted he’d ever be looking for a wife.
Not that there was anything wrong with the married state, of course; witness Benedict’s current blissful existence with his heiress Georgiana. But unlike Alex, Benedict wasn’t practically blind in one eye, nor as cynical when it came to women. As a second son, Alex was under no pressure to marry and produce heirs. He enjoyed women, their company, their bodies, but he’d never felt the need to limit himself to just one.
Except once. Almost four years ago, at a masked ball on the eve of his leaving for the Peninsular, he’d met the woman of his dreams. A woman who’d not only excited him physically but challenged him mentally. A woman whose husky laugh and intoxicating scent had wrapped themselves around his heart and ensnared it so completely, he’d almost forgotten his own name. Un coup de foudre the French called it. A thunderclap. And they were right. He’d felt a deep sense of inevitability, of utter rightness. An absolute conviction that, against all odds, here, finally, was the woman for him.
They’d talked. Danced. Flirted. They’d shared one perfect kiss.
Then she’d disappeared.
He’d never even discovered her name.
Alex closed the file in front of him with a snap and exhaled deeply. God, what a naïve fool he’d been back then. Three years in the King’s Own Rifles had beaten such optimism out of him. He’d traipsed through Spain and Portugal, France and Belgium, and witnessed the true horrors of war, the brutal nature of both men and women. It had taught him the futility of such dreams.
He still dreamed of her, though. Not every night, but often enough. He’d wake with the lingering scent of her perfume on the breeze—an exotic scent he’d never encountered since. The feel of her lips on his. And a cock hard enough to hammer nails into solid steel.
It was ridiculous. He didn’t know her hair color—she’d been wearing a powdered wig in the antiquated style of the French court some fifty years before. He didn’t know the color of her eyes—they’d been hidden behind a ludicrous mask that covered the top half of her face.
The thought of her had nearly driven him to distraction. He’d been so frustrated, never solving the mystery, never knowing if she was someone’s wife, someone’s mistress, or someone with whom he might have considered a future.
Alex rolled his shoulders. He should have forgotten her by now. It wasn’t as though he’d remained celibate over the past four years. He doubted she would have either. And yet, he’d found himself searching for her ever since he’d been back in town. He scanned every room he entered, every face, paradoxically convinced that if he just saw her—just once—he’d recognize her. His body would recognize hers. His soul would recognize her.
He huffed air out of his nostrils, irritated with himself. Bloody hell, what was wrong with him? As the co-owner of a gambling den, he was more than capable of calculating the odds of such a probability: long to the point of absurdity. She was doubtless a married matron by now with a parcel of brats driving her to distraction.
And he was blissfully free, a bachelor of means, with a handsome face to match his handsome fortune. He could, within reason, have any woman he wanted with the lift of an eyebrow, the flash of a smile.
Except that one. The one that got away.
Was that it? Perhaps the reason his mystery woman still plagued him was the sense of unfinished business. He’d have tired of her within a month if they’d ever been properly introduced. It was merely the attraction of the unknown that allowed her to retain her unholy allure.
The same principle applied to the Nightjar; it was the challenge of the unknown. Alex hated to be beaten. His pride required him to outwit his opponent, to catch the prize, to win the game. He wanted to excel at whatever he put his mind to. His competitive nature would allow nothing less.
He stared deeply into the fire. The Nightjar intrigued him. Whoever the thief was, he was a master of disguise, of guile. Nobody had ever seen him, although his exploits had featured in many a column inch of newspaper print over the past decade.
He opened the thin file beside him and glanced at the report within. Brief, sketchy details about a number of high-profile heists throughout Europe. A remote chateau in Switzerland, halfway up a vertiginous mountain. A highly fortified villa on the shores of Lake Como in Italy. He shook his head. Conant had been right—nobody had the first clue how the Nightjar had managed most of his crimes.
Some of the details remained the same, however. Never any violence. No force of any kind, in fact. No safes had been cracked, no doors blown off their hinges. No servants drugged, nor guards harmed. The most striking characteristic was stealthy, quiet intelligence. Presumably disguise. In several instances, nobody had even noticed the gems were missing for several days after the presumed theft; it was often impossible to say precisely when they had been stolen.
Only once had the Nightjar deviated from leaving a sole black feather at the crime scene. Alex smiled at the report. The thief had inadvertently knocked over a silver sugar bowl in the course of one of his robberies, but instead of stealing the silver, he’d taken the time to sweep up the sugar with a piece of paper and then penned a note of apology.
Signor Locatelli. Please excuse the mess. I regret the necessity of depriving your wife of her very beautiful emerald earrings, but I am sure she will be delighted to shop for their replacements. Pour la gloire de la France.
Alex studied the brief handwritten note. An elegant, sloping hand, obviously someone who’d received a formal education. Was he looking for a gentleman thief?
The last reported theft had been four years ago in 1812. And then nothing. Conspicuous inactivity until last night’s little spree at Rundell Bridge & Rundell.
Alex shook his head, bemused. Why the long gap? Was the Nightjar getting old? Losing his taste for adventure? Either way, here, at last, was a problem to sink his teeth into. The Nightjar, ancient or not, was a worthy opponent against whom Alex could test his mettle.
“The law is reason, free from passion,” Aristotle taught, and Alex agreed wholeheartedly. He prided himself on his relentless investigative skills, his ability to look at any situation objectively. He would bring the Nightjar to justice using cool reasoning and impartial logic. Although he, Benedict, and Seb got a financial reward for every case they solved for Bow Street, the cash wasn’t his primary goal. It was the professional satisfaction he gained from the victories that motivated him.
War had taught him that rules and laws existed for good reason. Infantry soldiers formed into squares when under attack to present a united front and protect one other. Any man who broke rank not only made a target of himself, but endangered the lives of the men next to him. Infringement led to danger and anarchy.
In the Rifles, he’d been part of a large force, a cog in a vast machine. As a Bow Street operative, he had the opportunity to do something more individual, to be part of a much smaller team with Benedict and Seb. Any successes were entirely to their credit, any failures, theirs to own. Alex liked the accountability.
He’d fought for three years to protect the innocent inhabitants of this country. With Napoleon safely incarcerated on St. Helena, he would continue to uphold the laws of England, and guard against disruptive criminals like the Nightjar.
He called for Mickey, who arrived mere moments later.
“When Seb finally drags his thick head out of bed, tell him I’ve gone to Ludgate Hill. I’ll be back for lunch.”
Copyright © 2020 by Kate Bateman.