“Welcome back, Inspector,” Sergeant David Goodwin’s broad face split into a grin when he saw who it was coming into the busy office. “I trust you enjoyed your time in France, sir?”
“Very much, Sergeant,” Devane smiled warmly, genuinely pleased to see his friend and colleague again.
“I didn’t expect to see you here quite this soon, Inspector,” Goodwin observed. He took the opportunity to look closely at the younger man. Devane didn’t look different, yet there was something very changed in him. The dark hair was as untidy as it always was, the ebony depths of his eyes sharp and insightful, and his dress simple and elegant, tailored to fit his slender form to perfection. His skin, normally pale, sometimes almost ashen, was sun-kissed and glowing with health, and Goodwin nodded in satisfaction. “Marriage appears to be doing wonders for your well-being, Inspector,” he remarked.
Devane draped his suit jacket over the back of his chair and sat down, lighting a cigarette as he considered his sergeant. He smoked in silence for a few minutes then offered Goodwin a smile that was vividly colored with humor.
“I spent the first month of my marriage in a clinic, David,” he admitted softly. “Your days of dragging me out of opium dens in the East End are over, old friend.”
“I am very glad to hear it, Inspector,” Goodwin replied.
The big man spoke lightly, but the barely audible catch in his voice told Devane how sincerely relieved he was by the news. Before they could continue their conversation, a knock on the door made Devane look upward.
“A woman here to see you, Inspector Devane,” he answered smartly. “Miss Ashton, she says.”
Devane’s eyebrows rose and he tossed Goodwin a wry smile.
“Show her in, Constable...?”
“Constable Owen. Thank you,” Devane nodded.
In less than a minute, Daphne Ashton strode into the small office and looked around, her distaste evident in every line of her body. As was her custom, she was dressed to perfection in the latest fashion, every tiny detail a testimony to taste, elegance, and wealth. The only variance Devane could see was her choice of colors; on the few occasions he’d seen her before, she was always in striking, flamboyant shades. Today, for her excursion to a police office, she had chosen a heavy shade of plum, and a hat that veiled her pretty features.
“Would you like to sit down, Miss Ashton?” Devane offered.
“This is hardly a social call, Inspector,” she snapped impatiently.
He smiled, just a little. “No,” he agreed, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable while we talk.”
“Comfortable,” she repeated, and the derisive note was in no way disguised. “I assure you, Inspector, I would not be comfortable here under any circumstances. Can we speak privately?”
At this point she hadn’t so much as glanced at Goodwin. Devane cast a questioning look at his sergeant, who had risen the instant she’d entered the office. He nodded his understanding and picked up several of the files that littered his desk.
“If you’ll excuse me, sir, I’ll see about filing some of this.”
Devane waited, and when the door closed behind his friend he stubbed his cigarette out and gestured again to the chair in front of his desk. This time, Daphne sat, barely. Hovering close to the edge of the seat, she looked like a bird poised for flight.
“What’s happened since last night?” he asked. “I’ve barely arrived here myself.”
“So Bethany told me,” she replied. “This arrived in the morning post,” she said and tossed a plain ivory envelope onto his desktop.
Devane picked it up and let the undercurrents of emotion filter from his touch to his sensitive mind... The images rushed at him like an oncoming train, their speed and impact blistering his psyche and battering his carefully cultivated control. The whirlwind of color and sounds churned like a tempest, and he instinctively reached inward and slowed the influx enough to distinguish what he was seeing: Daphne Ashton was clear and laughing happily for a moment, then she danced away from his sight, only to reappear in the next heartbeat, this time beautifully naked and smiling coquettishly as she posed gracefully on a chaise longue. The man behind the easel remained hidden, but the shift in Devane’s mental attention also changed the taint of the images, and bright joy was extinguished. In its place came the onslaught of anger and contempt, so potent that the very taste of it was bitter in his mouth. As the acrid flavor grew metallic and thick, Devane’s spirit cringed away, and as it had the night before in his nightmare world, his life exploded in pain and a wash of scarlet gore...
He dropped the envelope and drew back, his hand shaking so violently that he knew she couldn’t possibly have not seen it. There was annoyance in her eyes as she stared at him, and no trace of any warmth or concern.
“Have you been to an opium den already?”
“What?” The query sounded stupid and sluggish, even to him.
“Does Bethany know about this?”
He smiled thinly, and the cloak of composure fell into place naturally.
“There is nothing for Bethany to know, Miss Ashton,” he stated quietly. “I no longer chase the dragon, but I still see many things. Your lover is not a lover at all, is he?”
She was on the defensive now, and it galled her to have to confirm what he obviously had gleaned from his brief contact with the missive she’d received.
“He wants five thousand pounds, immediately, or he will sell the paintings to a gallery in London. That’s the price I am to pay for my trust.”
“A small price for a woman of your means,” Devane noted coolly. “Yet you choose to bring this to me instead? Why is that?”
“If I request a sum of that amount, there will be questions, and I can hardly account for five thousand pounds and nothing to show for the expenditure.”
“You could always produce the paintings,” he suggested.
“I did not come here to listen to the insults of a... a...”
“Careful, Miss Ashton,” he advised. “My wife is not here to keep us from speaking our minds.”
“You appear to be doing so in spite of that,” she retorted.
He nodded, and even offered her a sincere apology for his rudeness. She was unimpressed.
“I’ve said I will look into this, Miss Ashton,” he reaffirmed. “I will. When does he want an answer to his demand for money?”
“Within two days,” she said, sighing heavily. “I can’t arrange it, Devane, and the scandal will destroy my family, as well as my own prospects.”
He refrained from comment about her lack of consideration for those thing prior to the relationship she’d entered into.
“Tell your family you will join us for dinner tonight,” he directed quietly. “If things go in our favor, I should have some idea of this man’s identity by that time.”
She nodded, but declined to offer him the gratitude his discretion deserved. She was gone only a few minutes when Goodwin returned.
“Where are we headed now, Inspector?”
Devane buttoned his jacket and grabbed his overcoat off the rack beside the office door.
“Whitechapel,” he replied succinctly. He didn’t need to look back to know Goodwin was frowning, but following him anyway…