Read A Wicked Way to Burn Online

Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn (9 page)

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“I hear you and Longfellow were taking the evening
air across the river last night, along with half the town,” Jonathan offered now in the way of conversation.

Charlotte watched the large stomach in front of her rise and fall more quickly, while the landlord began to wheeze rapidly, in the manner of a concertina.

“What you say is quite true. I wonder, though, which of your many friends happened to pass this information on?”

“Nathan … coincidentally.”

The landlord shifted his round figure, and settled back into his chair. “You wouldn’t be after Hiram’s job, would you? We all know he isn’t much good at it, what with the thread and button trade to look after. And you know he only has a few months left.”

“It’s charming, Jonathan, that you’d consider a woman as your next constable. And surprising.”

“I don’t know why. This isn’t the first time a woman’s extra measure of curiosity—and your snooping specifically—has captured my attention. And that’s perhaps the foremost requirement for the job, wouldn’t you say? What surprises
me
is how someone can think her fishing expeditions appear innocent, when her intentions can be read as easily as the
Boston Gazette.
I believe I can be trusted. Is there anything you would like to ask me, before you go? Perhaps about one of my guests?”

“Did he come back in last night?” she responded immediately, perching on the edge of her chair. Jonathan was forced to smile, a little proud that with him Charlotte would still expose the exuberant nature she’d been born with.

“If you mean Mr. Middleton, who took a room with us yesterday, he doesn’t seem to have spent the night. I believe he rode in around three or four, bringing only a small valise. His full name, by the way, is—or was, depending on which story you believe—Duncan Middleton. Of Boston.”

“What about his horse?”

“Still here.”

“Did you have any kind of feeling about him?”

“He seemed nothing special to me. Actually, we hardly spoke. I’m afraid I paid very little attention to the man.”

“Then you probably wouldn’t know why he was here.”

“It isn’t something I generally ask, being none of my business. Let’s say I assumed he was taking a break in a short journey, since he made no inquiries about anyone in town, that I know of, and brought very little with him.”

“I see. Do you suppose he may be dead?”

Jonathan sighed and regarded her more seriously.

“This morning, I sent word to his house in the city, letting them know that something might have happened to him. I expect to have a reply this afternoon. That’s all I can tell you.”

“Did he take any meals here?” Charlotte asked after some further thought.

“He arrived too late for breakfast, of course; no, I don’t believe he took any dinner, either. And he certainly wasn’t here in the evening.”

“Jonathan—where do
you
think he is now?”

“On that, my dear, I will not comment. I have enough troubles, so I leave it to you and the other ladies to supply the most likely answer. You might ask Reverend Rowe for his help; he seems to enjoy that sort of thing. All I know is that I have everything that’s left of Mr. Middleton, locally at least, and I wish that I did not.”

“Oh! Jonathan, show me what you have!”

Having fallen into a hole of his own digging, the innkeeper groaned, then scuttled behind a familiar breastwork.

“Unfortunately, I don’t believe my wife would approve.”

“No, I suppose not. I wonder where Lydia is now? I would guess she’s in your kitchen, making life difficult for your excellent cook. I only hope it doesn’t affect the pudding, or the pie, or whatever you were planning to enjoy for your dinner this afternoon.”

“That’s probably what she is doing,” admitted Pratt, after sucking in his breath. Then, he began to work his lips with annoyance at the thought.

Ponderously, he lifted himself from his squeaking chair, reflecting uneasily that here was a woman who enjoyed dangerous entertainment. From such a person, no one was safe—not even an innkeeper with the best of intentions.

Chapter 7

F
URTIVELY, JONATHAN PRATT
led Charlotte over a path of polished boards and dark Turkish runners, up the whitewashed back stairway and along the hall to a highly lacquered door.

“The Jamaica Room,” the innkeeper whispered, while he turned the brass knob.

A glow of reflected light, along with a scent of beeswax and lemon polish, seeped out of the room as they entered. Pratt quickly closed the door. The morning sun that had warmed the air inside played on a multicolored quilt spread between the bed’s four turned maple posts.

The overall effect of the room was soothing. Late roses stood in a blown glass vase, sprigs of lavender peeped from beneath the pillows, and a watercolor of a bright Caribbean scene hung on one wall. There were several things that might have told someone something
about the inn’s owners and its staff. But there was very little of a personal nature to help explain the room’s most recent occupant.

A traveling valise made of the best quality leather stood on a painted chest across from the bed. Charlotte at once crossed a figured carpet, and paused over the bag for only an instant before reaching down and undoing its clasp. Little inside surprised her. As Jonathan cleared his throat and modestly looked away, she lifted out a shirt, a pair of white silk hose and some undergarments, equipment for shaving, a box of peppermints, and a shoehorn. Duncan Middleton had apparently been a man careful of his things. Not many took the trouble to travel with a shoehorn.

“That’s all,” Pratt concluded nervously, “that, and his horse. By the way, one of my other guests told me the man is a merchant and a shipowner. This same guest took my message to Middleton’s household this morning. Now, as I believe that’s all that could interest you …” But before she could take his offered arm, Jonathan flinched at a footstep in the hall, though it soon passed away harmlessly.

In that brief moment Charlotte, too, was shocked by something unexpected—a bright flash of light from a place she thought odd. It had come from behind a small cabinet that stood between the chest and a corner. The cabinet held a large china wash set on its marble top. She moved closer, and pulled one edge away from the wall.

The innkeeper moaned softly when he saw the broken mirror. A few splinters reflected the daylight, while its thin wood backing showed through in spots where the glass was missing. More lay on the floor.

Charlotte bent and picked up a large shard with an edge of her skirt. An accident, hidden quietly away? She
straightened as the innkeeper continued to voice his dismay.

“I’ve
told
her not to cover mistakes, but to just come and tell me when something goes wrong, so that it can be fixed! You’d think I made a practice of beating my household daily, when you see the lengths some of them go to. Some day, I pray she learns to trust someone, somewhere.”

“Mary?” guessed Charlotte, setting down the jagged fragment.

“She’s had difficulties learning her duties here, coming from a house where everything ends up on the floor. It’s certainly not the first thing she’s broken. And that’s not all. What, in your opinion, is to be done with young women who are in love?”

Knowing no good answer, Charlotte simply smiled, and changed the subject.

“Jonathan, did Middleton give you anything on account?”

The innkeeper looked slightly embarrassed. “Now that you mention it, he did leave a piece of gold. A Dutch gulden, actually. I plan to give it to Reverend Rowe for his fund, as soon as I see him. In return, I’ll ask him to send up a prayer, for a poor soul beleaguered by women.”

Another show of gold! It seemed to Charlotte that Middleton might have taken more pains to hide his wealth in a small place like Bracebridge, where he was a stranger. In fact, the man seemed to have enjoyed displaying it. It was something to consider.

THEY HAD NEARLY
made the top of the stairs when another door, next to the one they’d passed through, abruptly swung open, and a bespectacled man with a body like a sapling backed into the hall. He had a canvas pack slung over one shoulder and was dressed in a jacket
and breeches of faded tweed. Looking up, he gave them a casual salute.

“Mr. Pratt!” The rich, full voice made the landlord wince and look about. “I’ve just come back for my spyglass. I was glad to have it with me last night—training it on the full moon. Quiet a performance!”

Pratt bowed silently, as if he’d had something to do with the lunar display, and seemed more than ready to move on. But Charlotte held him back. Sighing, the landlord did his duty.

“Mrs. Willett, might I present Mr. Adolphus Lee, of Cambridge. Mr. Lee calls himself a naturalist. He is writing a volume, so he tells us, on animal life in our region.”

That, Charlotte observed with an inclination of her head, explained his robust complexion, the collapsing telescope he was securing, and two thick books that stuck out from between the laces of his knapsack. His eyes also told her he had a knavish nature. Here was a man who might enjoy spending some of his time peering into the lives of his own species as well as others, she decided with an interest of her own. And she especially wondered what news of Bracebridge Lee’s telescope might have brought him lately.

“I’m always very pleased to meet a man of Science,” she began with only partial honesty, for she had in fact met a good many with widely varying results.

“I’m honored, Mrs. Willett. Have you an interest in these things, too?” asked Mr. Lee. His spectacles sparkled, but he seemed to stare above them as he regarded her freely; quite carefully, he looked his new acquaintance up and down in a most methodical way which, scientific or not, made her ears feel warm.

“In some things. I was fascinated to hear what happened last night, across the river. Did you happen to see the mysterious fire yourself, sir?”

“Alas, no,” replied Mr. Lee with a look of genuine
sorrow. “I went out walking, it’s true, but toward the east … well over the next hill. They tell me now that I only returned after the thing was over. At the moment,” he explained, “much of my work involves observing creatures who are most active at night. I got up early to go across the river this morning, though, to see what I can see; they say it isn’t much after all. Frankly, I don’t know what to make of the story.”

“You’re not alone there,” remarked the innkeeper. “Your room, you know, is next to the one Mr. Middleton occupied.”

Mr. Lee gaped with delight at the door to the Jamaica Room, as if it might still hold a potential conflagration.

“Did you …” Charlotte asked with polite hesitation, “speak with old Mr. Middleton yourself?”

“Oh, no—no. In fact, I hadn’t realized! I did notice him when he arrived yesterday. Well, with that red cape, it would have been difficult not to. I’d come in for my lunch and was examining some of my findings, before taking a nap. That’s when I saw him, through the window. I heard him, too, now that I think of it, when I awoke later. I believe he was speaking to our landlady, probably about the room—the sheets, I think, or something of that nature. As I remember, he had a rather reedy voice, and seemed a bit out of sorts.”

“Lydia never mentioned it to me,” Jonathan murmured.

“Well. If you’ll permit me?”

Charlotte was taken by surprise when Mr. Lee picked up her hand and bent to kiss it soundly.

“Mr. Pratt,” he continued after releasing her, “Mr. Pratt, I believe I will be staying for the remainder of the week, after all; I’ve found rather more of interest than I’d hoped for. If you’d be so good as to keep my room for me?”

He tipped his hat, twisted his lean body down the
narrow back stairs, and was soon out the side door below them.

“We get all kinds here, and I try to make everyone feel at home. But there’s something I don’t care for in that one,” Jonathan said uneasily. “He’s too sleek … like a weasel.”

Charlotte laughed at the rotund landlord’s unflattering observation.

“Something very supple, I agree,” she replied, picturing for herself a high-swinging monkey in the wilds of South America. “How long has he been here?”

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