Evil at the Essex House



England, August, 1926

For months now, Pippa’s and Christopher’s neighbor Florence Schlomsky, the manhunter with the teeth, has been roaming London society looking for an opportunity to trade her father’s American fortune for a British title. Both the Astley cousins, Christopher and Crispin, have landed in her marital sights, a fact which has not endeared her to Pippa.

But when Mr. and Mrs. Schlomsky arrive from America and Flossie is nowhere to be found, Pippa is first in line to offer assistance. She may not have liked Flossie, but she didn’t want anything bad to happen to her. And when a ransom note arrives at the Essex House Mansions demanding a large amount of money in exchange for the heiress’s safe return, Pippa determines to do everything she can to get Flossie back to her parents.

But when the trail leads from the glittering salons of Mayfair to the grimy streets of Southwark and beyond, Pippa discovers that there were aspects to Florence Schlomsky she didn’t know were there, and perhaps it would have been better if she had never discovered certain details about a girl she thought she knew.

When we entered the lobby, Evans was waiting.

“Miss Darling.” He inclined his head. “Mr. Astley.”

“Evans.” He looked somehow expectant, and I tilted my head. “Is something going on? Did someone stop by? No—”

My eyes narrowed, “—don’t tell me. Is Lord St George upstairs, waiting? Did he talk you into letting him into our flat while we were out?”

“No, Miss Darling,” Evans said, while Christopher chuckled. “This arrived for you, Mr. Astley.”

He handed Christopher a note. The latter took one look at the handwriting and turned pink.

I hid a smile and turned my attention back to the doorman. “So no one is upstairs, Evans?”

“No, Miss Darling.”

Next to me, Christopher opened the note. It hadn’t been tucked inside an envelope, merely folded and sealed, and as he unfolded the paper, I slanted my eyes that way.

It wasn’t a long note, just a line and a half of script I couldn’t make out, but with a rather informal signature that I could: Tom.

“If you have to leave…” I told Christopher, who gave me a distracted look before dropping his eyes to the note and skimming it again.

Behind us, the door to the street opened, letting in the sounds of early evening in London before the door shut again. “Pardon me, Miss. Here you are, guv’nor.”

A slim figure in a natty gray suit, a lad no more than fifteen or sixteen, slipped past me to hand Evans another missive. “Telegram for Miss Florence Skl…” He peered down at it. “Shhh…”

“Schlomsky,” I said. “Miss Florence Schlomsky.”

He glanced at me. “Right you are, Miss Schlomsky.”

“No, I’m not Miss Schlomsky. The telegram is for Miss Schlomsky.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, Miss. See you later, guv.”

He slid past in the opposite direction and was gone. The door shut behind him while Evans stared at the telegram. Christopher was still peering down at his own note, too, seemingly deep in thought.

I turned back to Evans. “Would you like for me to take that upstairs to Miss Schlomsky? I’m going that way anyway.”

Evans hesitated before handing it over. “If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Darling. That way Miss Schlomsky won’t have to wait for it. I’m not supposed to leave the lobby in the middle of a shift.”

No, of course he wasn’t. And while it would have been easy to buzz upstairs to Flossie and ask her to come down to retrieve her telegram, I was on my way to the second floor.

I took the thin envelope between two fingers and flicked my cousin a glance. “Coming, Christopher?”

“As a matter of fact, Pippa—” He shot me a look back, distracted. “I think I’d better respond to this as soon as possible.”

I tilted my head. “And you don’t want to come upstairs where we have pens and paper and penny stamps?”

He shook his head. “I’m just going to run down to the public call box for a minute.”

I tilted my head the other way. “Everything’s all right, isn’t it?”

He smiled. “Of course, Pippa. Just a missive from Crispin.”

“St George? What does he want?”

After a second I added, suspiciously, “He’s not coming up to Town, is he? Remember what happened the last time one of us went somewhere with him.”

(In a word, murder. Or in a few more: driving around London with a dead body in the back of the motorcar, and almost getting caught in a police raid, before leaving said body under a tree in Hyde Park. It’s a long story.)

His lips twitched. “That was your fault, Pippa. You’re the one who convinced him to put on a gown and crash a drag ball. None of that was his fault. Or mine, either.”

I rolled my eyes. “He’s the one who wanted to go out and celebrate his birthday. And we wouldn’t have been there in the first place if not for you.”

Although seeing the most eligible bachelor in England, heir to the Sutherland dukedom, in a beaded evening gown and makeup had almost been worth what came later.


Nonetheless, I wasn’t about to go anywhere with St George again anytime soon.

And that’s a bit unfair, since none of it had, technically, been his fault. But I don’t tend to be terribly fair when it comes to Crispin, to be honest. And they’d been his friends, not ours, so there was that to blame him for, at least. Even if I guess he wasn’t strictly responsible for what his friends chose to do, either.

“At any rate,” Christopher said, “I’m going to run down the block to the call box. I’ll be up in five or ten minutes.”

I nodded. “Give him my—”

He smirked, and I made a face. “Regards, Christopher. Give him my regards. I have no love to spare where St George is concerned, and you know it. Stop trying to pretend something is going on when you know there isn’t.”

“Yes, Pippa.” But he was still smirking when he turned for the door.

“You’d better not, Christopher,” I told his back threateningly. “If I find out that you’ve been telling St George that I’m sending him love, I’ll make sure you regret it.”

“Yes, Pippa.” He ducked through the door and out. I huffed and turned back to Evans.

“I’ll take the telegram up to Miss Schlomsky, Evans. Any message?”

Evans shook his head. “No, Miss Darling. You were here when it was delivered. You know as much as I do.”

Of course. “I’ll see you later, then, Evans.”

I headed for the lift.

Miss Florence Schlomsky has been a neighbor of Christopher’s and mine in the Essex House Mansions since we moved in early in the year. At that point, I believe she had been here just a few months herself. We never have gotten on well, as she’s everything I particularly abhor in a woman. Or practically everything, anyway. Since meeting Flossie, I have met a few other specimens that have actually been worse, but she’s still not one of my favorite persons.

She’s American, for one thing. And while being an American doesn’t necessarily indicate that someone is vulgar, Flossie is definitely vulgar. She’s brash, and loud, and approximately as delicate as sandpaper. She also has the personality of a steam roller, and she doesn’t slow down for anyone or anything. She latched onto Christopher as soon as she realized that he was the grandson of a duke, and I had to spend time making sure she wasn’t terrorizing him. And then, a few months later, she made Crispin’s acquaintance, and while she—thankfully—turned her attentions to him instead of Christopher, that didn’t endear her to me any further.

She is also a gold-digger.

Or perhaps that’s not fair. Flossie has plenty of gold of her own. Her father is a big deal in America, somewhere she calls Toledo. Florence is the Toledo dime store heiress. So while she’s definitely mercenary, she’s not actually looking to marry for money. She is looking to trade her father’s money for a British title instead. She might have settled for Christopher, had he been interested. He is the grandson of the Duke of Sutherland—or was at the time—and he’s both young and handsome, something which isn’t necessarily true of all the unmarried gentlemen in England.

But then, of course, she met Crispin, and decided she’d rather have him instead.

And Crispin, being Crispin, was disinclined to discourage her. So the last time he’d been to the flat—on the aforementioned occasion when we’d gotten involved in the murder—I had had to take him away from her. In this very lift, in fact. She had had him backed into the corner by the button panel, and was busy assaulting his mouth (and possibly other parts of his person) when the lift arrived on our floor. I had had to physically remove him from her, and I doubt he had ever been able to remove her lipstick from his collar.

All of which is to say that Florence Schlomsky and I will never be bosom buddies. She is, however, a neighbor, and a very friendly sort, and I don’t think she actually minds that I do my best to remove both Christopher and Crispin from her clutches when she gets her hands on either of them. When I knocked, she gave me a big smile when she pulled the door to her flat open. “Hullo, Pippa!”

“Hello, Florence,” I said.

Christopher’s nickname for Flossie is ‘the American manhunter with the teeth,’ and it’s not inaccurate. We’ve all got teeth, of course, but Florence has more than the usual number, all very white and straight. And she’s not a bad-looking girl, for all that she is, again, a bit vulgar. She has bouncy, brown curls, and pink apple cheeks, and she loves anything that flutters, or sparkles, or shines. Tonight’s evening dress was a delicate shell pink, with a scalloped hem and sparkling beads in a fish-scale pattern all over the skirt. It must have cost a fortune, and I’ll admit to giving it an admiring glance or two before I told myself firmly that it was all the wrong color for me—shell pink makes me look washed out—and stuck my hand out.

“Telegram for you. I was in the lobby, so I told Evans I would take it up.”

I had just glanced at the front of it in the lift, of course. It was there in my hand, and there’s nothing else to look at in the lift, so I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I’m sure Evans had glanced at it, too, before he handed it over to me.

Not that there was anything to see. Just a perfectly plain envelope of the same sort that Christopher and I had received a month ago, announcing his brother Francis’s engagement to my friend Constance Peckham.

In this case, it was Florence’s name and direction behind the crinkly plastic on the front, and the usual post office logo in the corner. There was no reason at all that she would turn pale, although she did.

So had Christopher and I, when our telegram arrived. We’d all got used to bad news during the war, and I guess we hadn’t quite recovered yet.

“Go on,” I told her bracingly. “I’m sure it’s not as bad as you fear. And even if it is, better to get it over with quickly.”

She gave me a look before she ripped open the envelope and pulled out the single sheet of paper. I tried to read upside down, but I’d gotten no further than SURPRISE! before she made an inarticulate sound. Her hand convulsed on the paper and when I looked up, shocked, her healthy, pink cheeks had turned a pasty white.

I put a hand under her arm for support and felt her tremble slightly.

“Florence?” I tried gently. “Is everything all right?”

It clearly wasn’t, and I craned my neck in an effort to get another look at the telegram, but she had crumpled it in her fist and it was unreadable. For a moment she looked at me as if she had never seen me before, before she seemed to pull in a very deliberate breath and straighten up. “Yes, of course, Pippa. Thank you.”

The accompanying smile was so forced it looked more like a grimace.

“Is there anything I can do?” I dropped my hand since support seemed unwanted. She had taken a step back from me. “Would you like to talk about—?”

“No.” She shook her head. “No, thank you. This is something I—” Her voice broke and she cleared her throat, “—this is something I have to deal with on my own. Thank you, Pippa.”

She stepped back, and a second later, the door shut in my face. I stared at it for a moment, annoyed, before I harrumphed and headed down the doorway towards the door to my own flat.