Once a month or so, just to keep his hand in the game, Charles Lenox liked to go shopping with his friend Lady Jane Grey.
On this occasion it was a warm, windy day in early June of 1853, quiet, the gently sunny hour of late morning before the clerks would fill the streets on their way to take lunch. The two friends were next-door neighbors on tiny Hampden Lane, in the heart of London, and he was waiting on her steps at ten o'clock precisely. At five past, she came out, smiling and apologizing.
They left, eventually turning up Brook Street and walking past the little string of streets that ran parallel to their own, talking.
"Why are you checking your watch every ten seconds?" she asked after they had gone about halfway.
"Oh! I'm sorry," said Lenox. "I've an appointment at noon."
"I hope it's with someone you've hired to teach you better manners."
"The joke's on you, because it's with a duke."
"The worst-mannered wretch I ever met was a duke," Lady Jane said. As they crossed Binney Street, Lenox's eyes stayed for an extra moment on a man painting an iron fence with a fresh coat of black paint, whistling happily to himself. "Which one is it?" she asked.
"Out of discretion I cannot say."
"I call that disagreeable."
Lenox smiled. "It's a case."
She turned her gaze on him. It had been a long drought since his last case—more than a month. "Is it? I see."
Though both considered themselves tenured veterans of London now, anyone observing them would have seen two very young people, as young and resilient as the summer day. Lenox was a tall, slender, straight-backed young bachelor of twenty-six, bearing a gentlemanly appearance, and with, whatever Lady Jane said, a courteous manner. He was dressed in a dark suit, hands often behind his back, with hazel eyes and a short hazel beard. There was something measuring and curious in his face. As for Lady Jane, she was five years his junior, a plain, pretty woman of twenty-one, though she had been married for fully a tenth of those living days, which gave her some obscure right to self-regard for her own maturity. This told in her posture, perhaps. She had soft, dark curling hair; today she wore a light blue dress, with boots of a tan color just visible beneath its hem. They had grown up in the same part of the countryside, though until he had moved to London, Lenox had never considered her part of his generation. By the time he'd noticed she was, Lady Jane had been engaged.
They neared New Bond Street, where the shops began, as the church clocks chimed the quarter hour.
In truth it was not altogether customary that she went shopping quite so often as she did—in most households like Lady Jane's, the task would have fallen to a maid—but it was one of the things that she liked, and Lenox liked it for that reason.
The meeting at noon was continually on his mind, even as they walked and spoke. Lenox was a private . . . well, what word had he settled on! Investigator? Detective? It was a new endeavor yet. Three years could count as new, when the field was one of your own rough-and-ready invention, and when success had been tantalizingly close at moments but remained mostly elusive.
A duke might well bring it close enough to hold with two hands. This intersection was vastly busier than their peaceful street. She stopped at the corner and looked at a list. After she had been studying for a moment, he said, "What do you need today?"
"Are you going to bother me with questions the whole time?" she said, trying to decipher, he could tell from many years of knowing her, her own handwriting.
She looked up and smiled. She pointed to the window next to which they were standing. It was a barber's. "Shall we buy you some mustache grease?"
"Oh, no," he said, looking at the sign that had inspired the question. "I make my own."
"Yes. Though it puts you in the way of quite a lot of bear hunting."
"You are in a very amusing mood, I suppose, Charles. There—I've made it out. Let's go to the greengrocer's first."
He bowed. "Just as you please, my lady."