Heedless of who might be watching, she darted ahead and stopped directly in his path. "I'm afraid not, sir. This cannot wait."
His brows pulled together, drawing a dark streak above his eyes, yet he shoved the jester forward. "Very well, miss. But make it quick."
"Please, put away your puppet, sir. It gains you nothing." She extended her hand. "Pay up your room and board for the past fortnight, and I shall have nothing more to say."
The jester's head plummeted, his plaster nose pecking her palm.
She yanked back her hand. "Mr. Nutbrown! Really! I should hate to bring the magistrate in on this, but if I must—"
"No." Nutbrown's hands shot up as if she'd aimed a Brown Bess at his chest, the crazy puppet waving like a banner overhead. In three long-legged strides, he sidestepped her, lowering the puppet out at arm's length. "By week's end, Miss Langley, you shall be paid in full. You have Mr. Nutbrown's word on it."
The puppet disappeared into his coat, and Nutbrown scurried down the street.
Wonderful. The word of a jester made of cloth and papier-mâché, and the clown who wore it upon his hand. Yet he was their sole source of income unless she could pry those coins from Thomas's fingers, which wasn't likely. Bending, she gathered up the dry-rotted chunks of broken shingle and frowned. Her world was falling apart as tangibly as the inn—the place she loved most. The home she and Thomas and Mam must leave if they didn't come up with the rent payment by the end of next month.
Holding tightly to the shingle remnant, she closed her eyes. At the moment, her faith felt as crumbly as the wood—which was always the best time to pray.
"Please God, provide a way. Fill the inn...and soon."
* * *
Knuckles hovering to strike, Officer Alexander Moore slid his gaze once more to the left. It paid to think before pounding away, be it in a street brawl or—as in this case—on a door. A tarnished brass relief of the number seven hung at an angle, as if no one had given the slightest thought before nailing up the house number. Considering the man who supposedly lived here, the haphazard detail stayed his hand a second more. Had he written down the magistrate's
Only one way to find out.
He pounded thrice, then stepped back, ready for anything. Behind him, hackney wheels ground over cobbles, grating a layer off his already thin nerves. Magistrate Ford never—ever—invited guests over for dinner. So why him? Why now?
Hinges screeched an angry welcome as the door opened. Lantern light spilled over the pinched face of a tall man shrouded in a dark dress coat, dark waistcoat, and darker pants. Rounding out the theme was a single-looped cravat, black as a crypt, choking the fellow's neck. A ghoul could not have been garbed more effectively. The man didn't say a thing, but even without words, Alex got the distinct impression he read, condensed, and filed away every possible facet of him in a glance—from shoe size to propensity for warmed sherry.
And Alex didn't like it one bit. That kind of intelligence gathering was supposed to be his specialty.
"My apologies. I must have the wrong address." Alex nodded a valediction, careful to keep a wary eye on the figure from the dead. "Good evening."
"Step this way, Officer Moore." The fellow set off without looking to see that Alex complied, nor even that the door was shut or locked. The magistrate would never abide such ineptitude down at Bow Street. Surely this was a ploy, or perhaps some kind of test of his wit.
Aah. A test? A slow smile lifted half his mouth.
With a grip on the hilt of his dagger, he unsheathed the blade and withdrew it from inside his great coat. Crossing the threshold, he left the door wide should a quick escape become necessary and trailed the disappearing lantern down a hall as lean as the man he followed.