This Cinderella goes from ashes to ashes in the new Victorian-era Fairy Tale Fatal Mystery by the author of Snow White Red-Handed . . .
Variety hall actress Ophelia Flax’s plan to reunite her friend Prue with her estranged—and allegedly wealthy—mother, Henrietta, is met with a grim surprise. Not only is the marquise’s Paris mansion a mouse-infested ruin, but Henrietta has inexplicably vanished, leaving behind an evasive husband, two sinister stepsisters, and a bullet-riddled corpse in the pumpkin patch decked out in a ball gown and one glass slipper—a corpse that also happens to be a dead ringer for Prue.
Strangely, no one at 15 rue Garenne seems concerned about who plugged this luckless Cinderella or why, so the investigation is left to Ophelia and Prue. It takes them through the labyrinthine maze of the Paris Opera, down the trail of a legendary fairy tale relic, into the confidence of a wily prince charmless, and makes them vulnerable to the secrets of a mysterious couturière with designs of her own on Prue’s ever-twisting family history.
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The author of the Fairy Tale Fatal Mysteries, including Snow White Red-Handed, and finalist for the 2004 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Award, Maia Chance is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. She is writing her dissertation on nineteenth-century American literature.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The murdered girl, grainy in black-and-gray newsprint, stared up at him. Her eyes were mournful and blank.
Gabriel placed the chipped Blue Willow teacup beside the picture. His hand shook, and tea sloshed onto the newspaper. Ink bled.
Gabriel Augustus Penrose, although a bespectacled professor, hadn’t—not yet, at least—developed round shoulders or a nearsighted scowl. Although, such shoulders and such a scowl would have suited the oaken desk, swaybacked sofa, towers of books, and swirling dust motes in his study at St. Remigius’s College, Oxford. And at four-and-thirty years of age, Gabriel was certainly not given to fits of trembling.
He tore his eyes from the girl’s. Was it today’s newspaper? He glanced at the upper margin—yes. Perhaps there was still time.
Time for . . . what?
He didn’t customarily peruse the papers during his four o’clock cup of tea, but a student had come to see him and he’d happened to leave The Times behind. The morgue drawing was on the fourth page, tucked between a report about a Piccadilly thief and an advertisement for stereoscopic slides. A familiar, lovely, and—according to the report—dead face.
SENSATIONAL MURDER IN PARIS: In the Marais district, a young woman was found dead as the result of two gunshot wounds in the garden of the mansion of the Marquis de la Roque-Fabliau, 15 Rue Garenne. She is thought to be the daughter of American actress Henrietta Bright, who wed the marquis in January. The family solicitor said that it is not known how the tragic affair arose, and that the family was unaware of the daughter’s presence in Paris. The commissaire de police of that quarter has undertaken an assiduous search for her murderer.
Gabriel removed his spectacles, leaned forward on his knees, and laid his forehead in his palm. The murdered girl, Miss Prudence Bright, was a mere acquaintance. Perhaps the same might be said of Miss Ophelia Flax, the young American actress who had been traveling with Miss Bright when he’d encountered them in the Black Forest several weeks ago.
Mere acquaintance. The term could not account for the ripping sensation in his lungs.
Gabriel replaced his spectacles, stood, and strode to the jumbled bookcase behind his desk. He drew an antique volume from the shelf: Histoires ou contes du temps passé—Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times—by Charles Perrault. He flipped through the pages, making certain a loose sheet of paper was still wedged inside.
He stuffed the volume in his leather satchel, along with his memorandum book, yanked on his tweed jacket, clamped on his hat, and made for the door.
Two Days Earlier
The mansion’s door-knocker was shaped like a snarling mouse’s head. Its bared teeth glinted in the gloom and raindrops dribbled off its nose. It ought to have been enough of a warning. But Miss Ophelia Flax was in no position to skedaddle. Yes, her nerves twanged like an out of tune banjo. But she’d come too far, she had too little money, and rainwater was making inroads into her left boot. She would stick to her guns.
“Ready?” she asked Prue, the nineteen-year-old girl dripping next to her like an unwrung mop.
“Can’t believe Ma would take up residence in a pit like this,” Prue said. Her tone was all bluster, but her china-doll’s face was taut beneath her bonnet, and her yellow curls drooped. “You sure you got the address right?”
“Certain.” The inked address had long since run, and the paper was as soggy as bread pudding by now. However, Ophelia had committed the address—15 Rue Garenne—to memory, and she’d studied the Baedeker’s Paris map in the railway car all the way from Germany, where she and Prue had lately been employed as maids in the household of an American millionaire. “It’s hardly a pit, either,” Ophelia said. “More like a palace. It’s past its prime, that’s all.” The mansion’s stones, true, were streaked with soot, and the neighborhood was shabby. But Henrietta’s mansion would dwarf every building in Littleton, New Hampshire, where Ophelia had been born and raised. It was grander than most buildings in New York City, too.
“I reckon Ma, of all people, wouldn’t marry a poor feller.”
“But what if she ain’t here? What if she went back to New York?”
“She’ll be here. And she’ll be ever so pleased to see you. It’s been how long? Near a twelvemonth since she . . .” Ophelia’s voice trailed off. Keeping up the chipper song and dance was a chore.
“This is cork-brained,” Prue said.
“We’ve come all this way, and we’re not turning back now.” Ophelia didn’t mention that she had just enough maid’s wages saved up for one—and only one—railway ticket to Cherbourg and one passage back to New York.
Prue’s mother, Henrietta Bright, had been the star actress of Howard DeLuxe’s Varieties back in Manhattan, up until she’d figured out that walking down the aisle with a French marquis was a sight easier than treading the boards. She had abandoned Prue, since ambitious brides have scant use for blossoming daughters.
But Prue and Ophelia had recently discovered Henrietta’s whereabouts, so Ophelia fully intended to put her Continental misadventures behind her, just as soon as she installed Prue in the arms of her long-lost mother.
Before Ophelia could lose her nerve, she hefted the mouse-head door-knocker and let it crash.
Prue eyed Ophelia’s disguise. “Think she’ll buy that getup?”
“Once we’re safe inside, I’ll take it off.”
The door squeaked open.
A grizzle-headed gent loomed. His spine was shaped like a question mark and flesh-colored bumps studded his eyelids. A steward, judging by his drab togs and stately wattle.
“Good evening,” Ophelia said in her best matron’s warble. “I wish to speak to Madame la Marquise de la Roque-Fabliau.” What a mouthful. Like sucking on marbles.
“Regrettably, that will not be possible,” the steward said.
He spoke English. Lucky.
The steward’s gaze drifted southward.
Ophelia was five-and-twenty years of age, tall, and beanstalk straight as far as figures went. However, at present she appeared to be a pillowy-hipped, deep-bosomed dame in a black bombazine gown and woolen cloak. A steel-gray wig and black taffeta bonnet concealed her light brown hair, and cosmetics crinkled her oval face. All for the sake of practicality. Flibbertigibbets like Prue required chaperones when traveling, so Ophelia had dug into her theatrical case and transformed herself into the sort of daunting chaperone that made even the most shameless lotharios turn tail and pike off.
“Now see here!” Ophelia said. “We shan’t be turned out into the night like beggars. My charge and I have traveled hundreds of miles in order to visit the marquise, and we mean to see her. This young lady is her daughter.”
The steward took in Prue’s muddy skirts, her cheap cloak and crunched straw bonnet, the two large carpetbags slumped at their feet. He didn’t budge.
“Baldewyn,” a woman’s voice called behind him. “Baldewyn, qui est là?” There was a tick-tick of heels, and a dark young lady appeared. She was perhaps twenty years of age, with a pointed snout of a face like a mongoose and beady little animal eyes to match.
“Pardonnez-moi, Mademoiselle Eglantine,” Baldewyn said, “this young lady—an American, clearly—claims to be a kinswoman of the marquise.”
“Kinswoman?” Eglantine said. “How do you mean, kinswoman? Of my belle-mère? Oh. Well. She is . . . absent.”
Ophelia had picked up enough French from a fortune-teller during her stint in P. Q. Putnam’s Traveling Circus a few years back to know what belle-mère meant: stepmother.
“No matter,” Ophelia said. “Mademoiselle, may I present to you your stepsister, Miss Prudence Deliverance Bright?”
“I assure you,” Eglantine said, “I have but one sister, and she is inside. I do not know who you are, or what sort of little amusement you are playing at, but I have guests to attend to. Now, s’il vous plaît, go away!” She spun around and disappeared, the tick-tick of her heels receding.
Baldewyn’s dour mouth twitched upwards. Then he slammed the door in their noses.
“Well, I never!” Ophelia huffed. “They didn’t even ask for proof!”
“I told you Ma don’t want me.”
“For the thousandth time, humbug.” Ophelia hoisted her carpetbag and trotted down the steps, into the rain. “She doesn’t even know you’re on the European continent, let alone on her doorstep. That Miss Eglantine—”
“Fancies she’s the Queen of Sheba!” Prue came down the steps behind her, hauling her own bag.
“—said your mother is absent. So all we must do is wait. The question is, where?” They stood on the sidewalk and looked up and down the street lined with monumental old buildings and shivering black trees. A carriage splashed by, its driver bent into the slanting rain. “We can’t stay out of doors. May as well be standing under Niagara Falls. I’m afraid my greasepaint’s starting to run, and this padding is like a big sponge.” Ophelia shoved her soaked pillow-bosom into line. “Come on. Surely we’ll find someplace to huddle for an hour or so. Your sister—”
“Don’t call her that!”
“Very well, Miss Eglantine said they’ve got guests. So I figure your mother will be home soon.”
The mansion’s foundation stones went right to the pavement. No front garden. But farther along they found a carriageway arch. Its huge iron gates stood ajar.
“Now see?” Ophelia said. “Nice and dry under there.”
“Not . . . terribly.”
More hoof-clopping. Was it—Ophelia squinted—was it the same carriage that had passed by only a minute ago? Yes. It was. The same bent driver, the same horses. And—
Her heart went lickety-split.
—and a pale smudge of a face peering out the window. Right at her.
Then it had gone.
* * *
On the other side of the carriageway arch lay a big, dark courtyard. Wings of Henrietta’s mansion bordered it on two sides. The third side was an ivy-covered carriage house and stables, where an upstairs window glowed with light. The fourth side was a high stone wall. The garden seemed neglected. Shrubs were shaggy, weeds tangled the flower beds, and the air stank of decay.
“Look,” Prue said, pointing. “A party.”
Light shone from tall windows. Figures moved about inside and piano music tinkled.
“Let’s have a look.” Ophelia abandoned her carpetbag under the arch and set off down a path. Wet twigs and leaves dragged at her skirts.
“You mean spy on them?”
“Miss Eglantine didn’t seem the most honest little fish.”
“And that Baldy-win feller was a troll.”
“So maybe your ma is really in there, after all.”
Up close to the high windows, it was like peeping into a jewel box: cream paneled walls with gold-leaf flowers and swags, and enough mirrors and crystal chandeliers to make your eyes sting. A handful of richly dressed ladies and gentlemen loitered about. A plump woman in a gray bun—a servant—stood against a wall. A frail young lady in owlish spectacles crashed away at the piano.
“There’s Eggy,” Prue said. “Maybe that’s the sister she mentioned.” A third young lady in a lavish green tent of a gown sat next to Eglantine.
“Same dark hair,” Ophelia said.
“Same mean little eyes.”
“A good deal taller, however, and somewhat . . . wider.”
“Spit it out. She looks like a prizefighter in a wig.”
“Prue! That might be your own sister you’re going on about.”
“Stepsister. Look—they’re having words, I reckon. Eggy don’t seem too pleased.”
The young ladies’ heads were bent close together, and they appeared to be bickering. The larger lady in green had her eyes stuck on something across the room.
Ah. A gentleman. Fair-haired, flushed, and strapping, crammed into a white evening jacket with medals and ribbons, and epaulets on the shoulders. He conversed with a burly fellow in black evening clothes who had a lion’s mane of dark gold hair flowing to his shoulders.
“Ladies quarreling about a fellow,” Ophelia said. “How very tiresome.”
“Some fellers are worth talking of.”
“If you’re hinting that I care to discuss any gentleman, least of all Professor Penrose, then—well, I do not, I sincerely do not feel a whit of sentiment for that man.”
“Oh, sure,” Prue said.
Ophelia longed for things, certainly. But not for him. She longed for a home. She longed, with that gritted-molars sort of longing, to be snug in a third-class berth in the guts of a steamship barging towards America. She’d throw over acting, head up north to New Hampshire or Vermont, get work on a farmstead. Merciful heavens! She knew how to scour pots, tend goats, hoe beans, darn socks, weave rush chair seats, and cure a rash with apple cider vinegar. So why was she gallivanting across Europe, penniless, half starved, and shivering, in this preposterous disguise?
“Duck!” Prue whispered.
There was a clatter above, voices coming closer; someone pushed a window open.
Ophelia and Prue stumbled off to the side until they were safely in shadow once more. They’d come to the second wing of the mansion. All of the windows were black except for two on the main floor.
“Let’s look,” Ophelia whispered. “Could be your ma.”
They picked their way towards the windows, into what seemed to be a marshy vegetable patch.
Ophelia stepped around some sort of half-rotten squash, and wedged the toe of her boot between two building stones. She gripped the sill to pull herself up, and her waterlogged rump padding threatened to pull her backwards. She squinted through the glass. “Most peculiar,” she whispered. “Looks like some sort of workshop. Tables heaped with knickknacks.”
“A tinker’s shop?” Prue clambered up. “Oh. Look at all them gears and cogs and things.”
“Why would there be a tinker’s shop in this grand house? Your ma married a nobleman. Yet it’s on the main floor of the house, not down where the servants’ workplaces must be.” A fire burned in a carved fireplace and piles of metal things glimmered.
“Crackers,” Prue whispered. “Someone’s in there.”
Sure enough, a round, bald man hunched over a table. One of his hands held a cube-shaped box. The other twisted a screwdriver. Ophelia couldn’t see his face because he wore brass jeweler’s goggles.
“What in tarnation is he doing?” Prue spoke too emphatically, and her bonnet brim hit the windowpane.
The man glanced up. The lenses of his goggles shone.
Holy Moses. He looked like something that had crawled out of a nightmare.
The man stood so abruptly that his chair collapsed behind him. He lurched towards them.
Ophelia hopped down into the vegetable patch.
Prue recoiled. For a few seconds she seemed suspended, twirling her arms in the air like a graceless hummingbird. Then she pitched backwards and thumped into the garden a few steps from Ophelia.
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