“I saw you first on October the twelfth, a little more than one year past. You spoke on behalf of Eric Armstrong, a thirteen-year-old boy accused of striking a patrolman. I actually think you were telling the truth then. You were wearing a gown of dark crepe.”
Her mouth fell open.
“I glimpsed you in the hall eight months later. Then, you were dressed as a boy. I checked the records after; I believe you testified that one Tom Arkin was not the same boy who served as an apprentice to the chimney sweep.”
He could see her swallow, could trace the contraction down her throat.
“I remember you precisely,” he told her. “I’ll be looking for you. You can’t disguise yourself from me. Don’t even try.”
This time when she looked at him, he finally saw what he’d been waiting for. Fear. Real fear.
“You are inhumanly precise,” she finally said.
“Yes.” No point in quarreling over the truth. What did it matter, how inhuman his memory was, if it served his purpose? He’d scared her, and she would stay away. If he was successful, he’d never see her name on the gaol delivery lists. His inhumanity was a small price to pay for that.
“Enjoy the rest of your day, Miss Darling.” He reached up to tip his hat to her, but then remembered that he hadn’t brought one. He converted the gesture into a meaningful tap of his forehead and turned to leave.
He had taken four steps away when she spoke again. “Do you recall all your witnesses in such vivid detail, Your Worship?”
He paused, not looking back at her. “Yes,” he said. “I remember everything.” It was close enough to the truth to serve. His memory felt like dry leaves, pressed flat between the pages of some heavy book. The essence was preserved, but what remained was a poor facsimile for reality. He never could recall scents, and without those nothing seemed real.
He glanced at her over his shoulder. “I particularly remember you, Miss Darling.” He met her eyes.
He hadn’t meant it that way, but she raised her fingers to her lips, and a different sort of flush pinked her cheeks.
Nobody would call her beautiful, but she was striking. And perhaps some dormant part of him belatedly decided to notice that she’d called him pretty before she’d known who he was.
A woman. Wouldn’t that be nice?
No. Not this one. And definitely not now.
He shook his head, more at himself than to her, and left before his imagination could cause him any more trouble.
OLD BLAZER WASN’T IN. Miranda could tell in one breath when she opened the door to the little shop on Temple Street. No heavy pipe smoke greeted her. Only a faint, lingering bitterness, hours old.
Old Blazer was in less and less these days.
Miranda sidled past the secondhand gowns that hung on pegs, waiting for new owners. Spools of cheap ribbon and bolts of middling quality calico were displayed atop barrels and boxes.
She did not look to her left. If she did not see how she had fared, she couldn’t get any bad news.
She wasn’t sure if she should be happy about the old man’s absence. Only a faint, sour hint of pipe smoke remained to remind her of his presence. The two customers who were in the store were silent, looking through the wares. That, most of all, made the shop seem smaller and gloomier than usual. Usually, Old Blazer was chattering away. And unless he’d been set off on one of his famous rages, someone would have been laughing in response.
Miranda clutched her basket to her chest and tiptoed to the back of the store. The counter there, usually stacked with goods, had been cleared of everything but a red pincushion.
Jeremy Blasseur—Old Blazer’s grandson—was sitting on a stool, needle in hand. He was slender, and had a shock of sandy brown hair that curled of its own accord. He was frowning at a seam, which gave him a somewhat abstracted expression. It almost made her want to laugh, which would have been very wrong, because Jeremy was one of the most intensely sober individuals she had met. Especially these days.
He looked up at her approach, and his face lit. “Miss Darling. You survived. How did it go?”
“As well as you might expect.” And that was all he was going to get from her. “I do hope that Old Blazer is well.”
Jeremy gave a halfhearted shrug. “He’s got a bit of a head-cold. Or, at least, that’s what he said. Mama says he’s just malingering. But you haven’t told me anything. I worry about you.”
Old Blazer wouldn’t have worried about her. He would have been worried about the gown she’d borrowed, and he’d have been grumbling already about the length of time she’d had it.
But Jeremy was so serious, so intent on doing everything right. Nothing made an easy friendship more awkward than a man who wanted to help.
“Don’t,” Miranda said. “Nothing happened.”
He had enough to worry about as it was. The last thing he needed to hear, after that unfortunate business with George, was that Miranda had found herself hip-deep in trouble with a magistrate.
He gave her a sad-puppy look. “If you really don’t want to talk of it…”
“It’s over,” she said shortly. “I survived. I’d rather forget it all.”
It was impossible to forget. When Lord Justice had taken hold of her today, he’d not caviled about the matter. He’d grabbed her wrist with a firm, strong grip. She could still feel the warmth and pressure of his hand.
In contrast to Lord Justice’s dark, fine coat, Jeremy was dressed in serviceable—but fading—brown. He didn’t frighten her. He hadn’t threatened to toss her in gaol.
“Did you like the gown?” he asked.
“It suited the occasion.” She dipped into her skirt pocket and slid a half-shilling across the counter. That practically gutted her remaining stash of coins.
“No, no.” He shook his head. “I can’t possibly charge you for the loan. It was just a few hours that you had it.”
“You’re running a business, Jeremy. I’m a customer. I have to pay you, or you don’t make any money.”
“But I know how much you needed it.”
“When a customer needs something, good business sense requires you to charge him more, not less.” Equal in importance was the fact that Miranda owed enough favors. Owing favors had landed her in this tangle in the first place.
“But…” He sighed and ignored the coin. “You’re a friend. You don’t need to be a customer. I have few enough friends as it is.”
“We’ll be better friends if I act like a customer when I’m a customer. I don’t want to impose on anyone. You, least of all.”
“It’s not—” He cut himself off, shook his head. “Bother. You don’t have to trade for everything.”
She ignored this. “We still have business to do, Jeremy.” She reached into her basket. “I’ve brought another wig.”
He drooped. “Um…we haven’t sold the last two yet.”
“This one is the best so far.” How
she managed to speak so calmly, Miranda didn’t know. The payment for Robbie’s schooling would be due in a few weeks. Shortly after that, she’d need to hand over the rents. Dread coiled inside of her, but she refused to let it show. Instead, she reached into her basket and pulled out her latest creation. “The hair is blond. It’s long, and it’s got the loveliest curls. I’ve fixed the hair up, but I can redo the style.” She held it out to him. “Some vain, elderly lady will want to reclaim her youth with this.”
Jeremy didn’t reach for the wig. “I…well, there’s no way to say this. Old Blazer is talking about getting rid of the wigs altogether. If they’re not going to sell, he says there’s no point in giving them valuable room in the store.”
“They’ll sell,” Miranda said airily, even though her breath jarred from her. Smile, and make it look easy. “And what’s more, they sell the hats. I should charge you a commission on the hats your customers purchase—they’re so much more appealing atop a head of hair, don’t you think? The instant a woman walks in the shop, she can imagine what the hat will look like on. Once you have a customer thinking of what she’ll look like in an article of clothing, you’re that much closer to a sale.”
Miranda stifled a sigh. Old Blazer would never have admitted that. He’d have bargained to the end.
“I’ll just set this one up, then, next to the others.”
Jeremy didn’t object to this piece of importunity, and so she arranged the wig—her third unsold wig. Her arrangement with Old Blazer paid her a percentage of each sale. Well enough in good months—more than she’d get selling her wares directly to shopkeepers. But in bad times… She had enough sewing work that they wouldn’t starve. And Robbie made a few pennies—that would pay for coal.
But they were looking at lean weeks ahead. Lean weeks, with winter coming on. If her luck didn’t turn, they might get down to thinning out the gruel until it was more water than sustenance.
In response to that, her stomach growled.
Behind her, Jeremy cleared his throat. “It’s been weeks since your last sale. You…you don’t need money, do you?”