Part One: The Masker Chapter Nine


as the devil was beating his wife, Matthew entered the red-carpeted lobby of the Dock House Inn through a pair of doors with insets of frosted glass. It was a handsome structure of red and black brick, three floors tall, built in 1688 where an earlier inn, the Van Pouwelson, had stood before being gutted by a fire. The walls within were dark oak, the sturdy furniture crafted for those who appreciated the difference between necessity and comfort. In a vaulted alcove stood a spinet adorned with paintings drawn from scenes of a Midsummer Night's Dream, and used in well-attended concerts played by several local musicians. Everything about the Dock House Inn, from its rich Oriental carpets to its oil portraits of famed New York business leaders, spoke of affluence and influence. It was difficult to realize that less than a hundred yards from the entrance the hulls of masted ships ground against the pilings and rats skittered under the boots of the sweating cargo crews.

Matthew had worn his best dark blue suit, white cravat, white shirt, and silver-buttoned waistcoat for his interview today with Mrs. Herrald. The rain that had showered from a sunny sky-the tears of the Devil's wife as she was being beaten, said the Dutch folk-had managed to catch him on Broad Street, just around the corner. His hair was drenched and his coat soaked across the shoulders, for thus had been the weather this day as clouds had passed before the sun, spat rain upon the town, and moved on. The sun had steamed the streets, the clouds had gathered, and the Devil's wife had cried again, and on and on since midmorning.

He had no time now to concern himself with his sodden appearance. It was enough that he make an appearance, since a broken-down timber wagon had snarled cart and pedestrian traffic on his route and disrupted his schedule enough to throw him at least three minutes late. Four times between the Gold Compass, where he and Magistrate Powers had eaten lunch, and the Dock House Inn he'd been stopped by acquaintances who wished to know more about his experiences of the night before. Of course it seemed everyone in town knew about the murder of Mr. Deverick, to the extent that Matthew was left wondering of what use was a proper broadsheet when word-of-mouth travelled at such speed. Even the widow Muckleroy, at ten o'clock this morning, had been more constant in her inquiries about the murder than she'd been in her testimony concerning the stolen bedsheets. In truth, the magistrate had been so disturbed by Matthew's story-and the evidence that the so-called "Masker" had done another deed-that he barely seemed able to focus on the woman's responses.

Powers had wished Matthew luck but had offered no further information concerning his appointment. Now Matthew pushed back his rain-wet hair, ran a finger across his teeth to clear away any remnant of the codfish pie he'd eaten, and approached the elaborately bewigged Mr. Vincent at the ledger desk, behind which a pendulum clock with a dial displaying the astrological signs showed Matthew as indeed being three minutes late.

"Matthew Corbett to see Mrs. Katherine Herrald," Matthew said.

"Mrs. Herrald is waiting in the parlor," came the stiff answer, from the rather stiff-necked proprietor. "That way." He flicked a finger.

"Thank you."

"Uh...one moment, young man. Have I heard correctly that you were fresh on the scene of that tragedy last nighti"

"I was, sir, but please pardon me, I have to go." as he spoke, Matthew was already on his way toward the other side of the lobby, where two steps led up to a closed set of double doors and the parlor beyond.

"Mind that you stop back by when you're done!" What might have been a request became a command when spoken by the imperial Gilliam Vincent. "Mr. Deverick was a very good friend to the Dock House!"

Matthew walked up the steps, started to open the doors but then decided to knock first.

"Enter," came a woman's voice.

For better or for worse, Matthew thought. He took a deep breath and went in.

If the lobby was refined, the parlor was opulent with its maroon-colored fabric wall coverings, its stone fireplace with a small mantel-clock, and its cowhide-upholstered chairs. a gaming table, complete with marble chessboard, stood in the light of a paned glass window from which one could view the shipmasts and harbor activity just beyond. This was the room where businessmen representing London, amsterdam, Barbados, Cuba, South america, and greater Europe met to weigh the bags of money and sign agreements. On a desk under an artist's landscape of New York was a row of quill pens in leather sheaths, and it was the dark red-upholstered chair of this desk where the woman sat, turned to view the doorway.

She stood up as Matthew entered, which took him by surprise because usually a gentlewoman remained seated and allowed the man to advance, offering her hand-or the quick flip of a painted fan-as a gesture of recognition. But then she was on her feet and Matthew saw she was almost as tall as himself. He halted his approach to offer a courteous bow.

"You are late," the woman said, in a quiet voice that was not as accusatory as simply making the honest statement.

"Yes, madam," Matthew answered. He thought perhaps two seconds about offering an excuse, but he decided the fact spoke for itself. "I apologize."

"Then again, you did have an interesting night, did you noti I'm sure those circumstances might have had some effect upon your progress."

"You know about last nighti"

"Mr. Vincent informed me. It seems Mr. Deverick was a well-respected individual."

"Yes, he was."

"Unfortunately, however," said Mrs. Herrald with a slight pause, "not so well-liked." She motioned with a lavender-gloved hand toward a chair situated to her left. "Would you sit here, pleasei"

as Matthew sat down, Mrs. Herrald seated herself and so Matthew had a few seconds to complete an examination of her that had begun as soon as he'd entered the room.

She wore a lavender-colored gown with small white ruffles at the throat and over it a deep purple jacket accented with gold buttons. On her head was a cocked riding-hat, the same hue as her gown, with no feather or ornamentation. She was a trim woman, about fifty years old, her features sharp and her blue eyes clear and unwavering as she also took in her examination of him. There were lines of age around her eyes and across her forehead yet there was nothing aged about her, for she was straight-backed and elegant and seemed perfectly comfortable in her own skin. Her dark gray hair, with streaks of pure white at the temples and at a pronounced widow's-peak, was fashionably combed and arranged yet not piled high and glittering with golden geegaws as Matthew had seen done by many older women of means. and there was no doubt she was a woman of means; to book an accommodation at the Dock House one had to have money, and there was just something about Mrs. Herrald-the lift of the square chin, the cool appraisal of the intelligent eyes, the confidence the woman seemed to have in herself-that indicated she was used to the greater privileges of the world. Tucked at her side was a small black leather case, the kind in which Matthew had seen wealthy men carrying their important contracts and introduction letters.

"What do you think of mei" she asked.

The question took him aback, but he kept his composure. "I suppose I should ask what you think of me."

"Fair enough." She steepled her fingers together. The expression in her eyes was not altogether lacking mischief. "I think you are a smart young man, raised rather crudely in the orphanage here, and you wish to advance in the world but at present you don't know your next step. I think you are well-read, thoughtful, trustworthy though a bit lacking in your organization of time-even though I always consider late to be better than never-and I think you are older than your years would proclaim. In fact, I think you've never really been a youth, have youi"

Matthew didn't reply. Of course he knew she'd gotten all this from Magistrate Powers, but he was interested in the road she was travelling.

Mrs. Herrald paused, waiting for his response. Then she nodded and went on. "I think you have always felt responsible. For whom or what, I don't know. But responsible to others, in some way. That's why you've never been a youth, Mr. Corbett, for responsibility makes the young aged. It unfortunately also separates one from his peers. Sets him apart, causes him to perhaps retreat inward even more than the hardships of life already have. Therefore, without true friends or a sense of his place in the world, he turns to still further serious and steadying influences. Voracious reading, say. The mental workings of chess, or imagined problems that must somehow be solved. Without a sense of purpose, those imagined problems might become overwhelming, and command the mind day and night...to no resolution. From that point one begins to wander a path that leads to a very bleak and unrewarding future. Do you agreei"

Matthew not only had no answer, but he was also aware that he wasn't just damp from the rain. He was sweating under his arms. He shifted in his chair, feeling like a cod on a hook. Had the woman made the rounds of New York inquiring about himi He didn't know whether to feel flattered by her attention or flattened by such crushing insights. She had to have gone around town discovering his habits! Damn it, he ought to put on a face of effrontery, rise from his chair, and stalk out of here.

But instead he kept his expression mild, his eyes calm, and he stayed where he was.

"So do you now have an opinion of mei" she asked, in a buttery voice.

"I think...you enjoy the process of discovery," he replied, and that was all.

"How true," came her answer. Then they sat staring at each other as darkness grew in the room, a sudden shower pelted the window, the shadows moved, and sunlight streamed down again through the paned glass.

"I am a businesswoman," Mrs. Herrald said. "I'm sure Nathaniel...I mean to say...Magistrate Powers told youi"

"He told me you were in business, yes. But not what kind of business, or why you might be interested in me."

"It's because of your responsibility. That's why I'm interested. Your youth, even your lack of youth. Your mind. Your pursuits. Even your history with Magistrate Woodward."

Matthew couldn't suppress a start. Now this maddening woman was really treading too near a grave. "Magistrate Powers told you about that, as welli To what extenti" He remembered his manners. "If I may aski"

"Of course. He told me the whole story. Why would he not, if I askedi It was a difficult time for you, yesi But you certainly kept to your convictions, even though it caused grief to both yourself and to your...shall I call him your mentori I'm sure you had a strong allegiance to him, since he secured you from the orphanage. Did you consider what you were doing a betrayali"

"I considered what I was doing," Matthew said evenly, though he wished to grit his teeth, "as a search for justice."

"and you assumed that in this case you knew more than the experienced and highly competent Magistrate Woodwardi"

Matthew looked at his hands and worked his knuckles. He could feel Mrs. Herrald carefully watching him, perhaps looking for a sign of weakness or a flaw in what had been until now a well-maintained veneer. He concentrated on breathing steadily and quietly, and in showing not a whit of emotion. Then he was ready. He looked up and squarely met her cool gaze.

"I believed that I was right," he said, "based on not only the existing evidence but the lack of evidence. In my experience-a rather limited experience, as you so correctly point out-sometimes the questions easily answered are not the right questions. Sometimes the questions easily answered are meant to lead one into darkness. Therefore, to get my light-as it were-I look to the questions that no one else might ask. The unpopular questions. The uncivil, impolite questions. I harp on them and I pound on them, and often my strategy is to drive into the ground those who refuse to answer what I wish to know. I grant that I don't have many friends and I grant that I have perhaps retreated too much into myself, but-" He stopped, because he realized he'd walked right into the little devious snare of self-revelation that Mrs. Herrald had set out for him. She made me angry, he thought. She broke my control, and now I am spilled.

"Go on," she urged, still in a quiet voice. "You were speaking of impolite questions."

"Yes, impolite." Matthew had to take a few seconds to gather his wits. "In Fount Royal, with Magistrate Woodward...everything was moving so quickly. Moving toward a burning at the stake. I didn't...I didn't feel some...many...of the more difficult questions had been answered. and yes, he was my mentor. My friend, as well. But...I couldn't let those unanswered questions lie there. I couldn't. Not with those townspeople so eager to take her life."

"Her lifei"

"Rachel Howarth was her name. The accused woman."

Mrs. Herrald nodded and looked out the window toward the forest of masts for a time. Then she asked, "What was the first thing you did this morningi"

"Well...I ate breakfast with the Stokelys. I live above their pottery-"

"after that," she interrupted.

He frowned, puzzled. "I...walked to work."

"Is that completely truei Or did you go somewhere before thati"

He realized what she was getting at. "I walked down Smith Street to where Mr. Deverick's body was found."

"Whyi"

"I wished to see it in daylight. To see if there might be anything in the dirt that...may have been left. a button, for instance, from the killer's coat. anything, I suppose."

"and you found whati"

"Nothing. Sand had already been spread to blot up the blood, and the dirt raked. I suppose that was on the high constable's order, getting things back to normal."

"Hardly normal," she said. "Two murders within the space of as many weeksi Who do you think the high constable should be looking fori"

Before Matthew could think about it, he spoke what had been on his mind since awakening this morning: "a gentleman executioner."

"Hm," she said, but offered no more. Then she cleared her throat, angled her head, and looked at him as if clearly for the first time. "I presume you've never heard of the Herrald agencyi"

"No, madam, I haven't."

"Founded by my husband. My late husband. In London, in 1685. He was a lawyer of some renown in his younger years, and later gave his aid to many individuals who required it. Legal aid and advice, yes, but the Herrald agency specializes in..." She gave him the hint of a smile. "as you put it so astutely, the process of discovery."

"Oh," Matthew said, though he had no clue what she was talking about.

"We now have two offices in London, one in Edinburgh, one soon to open in amsterdam, and we plan-I plan-to consider opening an office in New York. We have a dozen agents all with varying specialties in problem solving. Most of them have backgrounds in law enforcement, though several have been recruited from the opposite camp. as cities grow, it seems, so grows our business. Needless to say, I believe New York-as well as Boston and Philadelphia-will soon make the transition from town to city. Therefore I wish to find a central location for-"

"Pardon me, please," said Matthew, and he leaned forward in his chair with a perplexed expression. "Forgive the interruption, but what exactly do you mean by 'problem solving'i"

"I shall answer with an example. In april the young son of a very influential banking family misplaced one of his mother's diamond bracelets by giving it to his fiancee, a rather disreputable Dutch actress. The mother wanted it back, but it seemed that the fiancee had suddenly and completely vanished after the opening night. Furthermore, she was the female companion of a criminal figure whose very name turned the London law hawks into frightened pigeons. So it was brought to us to find and return the bracelet, and also to make certain that our criminal acquaintance-who had known nothing about his companion's dalliances-did not do to her with an axe what he had done to two previous ladies, because the young son still wished to marry her. The problem was solved, but unfortunately bride and groom had a falling-out over dinner plates for the home and besides, theater season was about to open in the Netherlands."

"By problems," Matthew said, "you mean...personal difficultiesi"

"Missing documents, forged letters, theft of money or property, questions of sincerity and loyalty as applied to either business or marriage, missing persons, reconstruction of accidents, courier for valuable items or bodyguard for important persons, discovery of any question that might be asked as to the truth or falsity of any given situation. all those, and more." Mrs. Herrald paused to give him time to take all this in. "In addition," she continued, "we are often asked by law enforcement officials to explore the more dangerous territory of the professional criminal and the criminal organizations, of which there is no lack and which are likely-given human corruption and the greed for both power and money-to grow beyond all current recognition. I might also point out that the investigation of murder is one of our specialties, and we have a sterling record of success. Do you have any questionsi"

Matthew was speechless. He'd had no idea anything such as this existed. It made the thoughts of law school fly out of his head like old, slow geese. "I...well...what do you want with mei"

"Now don't be thick!" she scolded, but with good nature. "and also don't be modest. You are highly regarded by Nathaniel Powers, or you wouldn't be sitting here."

"But...is this an interview for employmenti"

"It's an interview to determine whether you're interested or not. are youi"

"Yes," Matthew said, almost at once. "Certainly I am. But what exactly would I be doingi"

"Discovery," said Mrs. Herrald. "Problem solving. Thinking quickly, in dangerous situations. Taking your life in your hands sometimes, to be truthful. Or trusting your life to the hands of someone else. Picking up a question like a...like a chess piece, and determining how it fits in the game. If you're interested in doing that, in being the first member of the Herrald agency in america and being paid very well for it, then you will do what I next require of you."

Matthew listened, but said nothing.

Mrs. Herrald opened the black leather case at her side and brought out a white envelope. "Do you know the DeKonty estatei"

"I do." It was about eight miles from town along Manhattan Island. Matthew and Magistrate Powers had been there a little over a year ago to attend a party for the town's legal staff hosted by august DeKonty, who had owned both a stone quarry and one of the largest lumbermills in the colony.

"You're aware that Mr. DeKonty passed away in Marchi and that his widow and daughter have moved to Bostoni"

"I am."

"also are you aware that the new owner of the estate is a Mr. Hudson Greathouse, a business consultant who has just recently taken occupancyi"

"That I didn't know."

"He's a very private individual. You will meet him today, and give him this letter." She handed it to Matthew. The first thing he did was turn it over and look at the red wax seal embossed with the letter H. "You are not to open it. If the seal is broken, I personally take a sizeable loss of both money and reputation and you may return to your position with Nathaniel Powers."

"May I ask what's in iti"

"amendments to the deed that need a signature. There was some difficulty over the DeKonty landholdings, and this is a clarification procedure. Therefore you will take this letter to Mr. Greathouse, stand by in his presence as he signs it, and bring it back to me by seven o'clock this evening. Oh...here." She reached into the case and brought out another object, which she gave him without hesitation. "Wind it now. The mantel clock reads twelve minutes before two."

In Matthew's hand was a gleaming silver watch. He opened the lid and gazed down upon the beautiful white dial, the black numerals and hands. If the mantel clock was correct-and he was sure the finicky Mr. Vincent wound it by the hour-then the watch was also correct. Still, Matthew took hold of the winding stem and very carefully and slowly turned it several times until the spring gave resistance.

"Can you secure a horsei" Mrs. Herrald asked.

Matthew nodded, still giving all his attention to the silver watch. Had there ever been silver that shone so brightly, or a dial so white, or Roman numerals shaped as if by the etching-pen of an emperori

"I am here," she said. "Look at me."

He did.

"a horse. You can ridei"

"I can, yes madam." If he couldn't handle a horse by now, with all the travelling through the colony he and Magistrate Powers had done, then he would have to settle for the most broken-down donkey at Tobias Winekoop's stable.

"Direct your expenses to my bill here. Now listen to me with care, Matthew: I am offering you this opportunity to show me how reliable you are. There is a financial value to the content of that envelope, though you personally could not benefit from it. Some, however, with the right resources in unfit places might. any such item carries a risk. Do you understandi" She waited until he'd given a nod. "Bear in mind the serious nature of being a courier. Do not dawdle, do not leave the main road, do not stop to help any damsel or dandy in distress because that is the oldest trick in the book for highway robbers."

"Robbersi" Matthew felt his heartbeat quicken and his stomach give a lurch. He'd not considered the fact that a deed with a monetary value might attract highwaymen-or highway ladies, as the case might be.

"Do you carry a pistoli a swordi"

"No," Matthew answered, feeling a little stunned. "I don't know how to use either one."

"We'll have to rectify that, if you succeed this afternoon. Well, it's probably for the best though. If you're not an expert with a pistol or sword, you have no business killing yourself by trying to use one. Just be aware of your surroundings and, as I say, don't stop."

Matthew realized he must have had a look of terrible distress on his face, because Mrs. Herrald's voice softened. "I'm a worrier by nature. I see a plot in every plan. Do know that if you're robbed, it's only a copy yet it bears an extremely valuable signature and seal from the royal office of land transfers. The original can be recopied, of course, though it would take months to get the signature and seal redone. But don't throw your life away on my account. are you ready to goi"

He didn't reply, for his tongue was not in working order.

Mrs. Herrald said, "If you have misgivings, you may return the envelope. I'll give you money for dinner and a glass of wine at the tavern of your choice, and we shall write this meeting off as an exercise in verbiage. What do you wishi"

"Do I have to give back the watchi" Matthew managed to ask.

"Yes, and polish it, too."

He stood up, watch in one hand and dangerous envelope in the other. "I'll go."

Mrs. Herrald remained seated. "Seven o'clock," she said firmly.

Matthew wondered what would happen if his body wasn't found until eight. But he pulled himself tall, got his legs moving, and left the parlor.

"Wait! Corbett! Wait, I said!" shouted Mr. Vincent as he came out from behind his desk, but Matthew carried a watch now and time waited for no man.

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