She seized the opportunity to present her cover-story. ‘I’m a journalist here to investigate Lord Wyndham’s murder, sir. I was hoping to interview you. I hadn’t dared hope to catch up with you so soon. If I could ask you for your views on the situation . . .’
He glided a step towards her. ‘What paper do you represent?’
‘The Times,’ she said. There was a Times in practically every single alternate she’d ever visited.
‘And how did you know that I’d come here, pretty little mouse?’ There was something very predatory about his face now.
‘Well, of course, I had no idea,’ she rattled off hastily, reaching into her reticule. ‘It was a total surprise to meet you here, sir. But I suppose it’s not surprising that on hearing of his death, you naturally hurried to his domicile, with the intention of expressing your condolences to his—’
His hand caught her wrist. ‘No guns, little mouse. I don’t think we want the police coming. No, this is all going to be very nice and quiet, and you’re going to tell me exactly what’s going on . . .’
She could lie to him. She could try to resist him. Or she could simply get that cool, elegant, well-gloved, slender hand off her wrist. ‘Take your hands off me, sir,’ she said, anger sliding into her voice. ‘Or you will regret it.’
He paused. ‘You’re very self-assured,’ he said, and for the first time there was a fraction of something other than malice or purring self-satisfaction in his voice. Perhaps an edge of uncertainty. ‘I wonder. Are you perhaps a little more than you look?’
‘Aren’t we all?’ Irene answered.
‘And is there someone backing you?’
‘Someone you don’t want to antagonize,’ she said. She’d got the measure of his suspicion now. She’d only met lesser Fair Folk before, but they practically defined ‘so devious that they’d fall over if they tried to walk in a straight line’. This one was thinking in terms of conspiracies and agents. She could play that game just as well as anyone else. ‘But I can’t give names. Not even to an Ambassador. But what I can perhaps give is a degree of cooperation.’
He released her wrist and raised a delicate eyebrow. ‘You intrigue me.’
She understood that sort of language. She was getting the message that he might find her useful loud and clear – and intrigue had nothing to do with it. Instead, she nodded towards the safe. ‘Perhaps we are both looking for the same thing, sir.’
He nodded once, sharply. ‘Perhaps we are. Well? Open it.’
‘Do you have the combination, sir?’
He rattled off a list of numbers as she worked at the safe’s combination mechanism. So it was just the iron that had kept him out. She wondered what he’d have done if she hadn’t been here – perhaps enchanted or coerced some passer-by off the street, or brought a human agent here later.
His gloved fingers brushed the back of her neck, and she shivered. He needs you for the moment, he won’t try anything until he’s got what he’s looking for, the best way to deal with him is to give him something more interesting to pounce on . . .
‘Open it,’ he purred from far too close behind her.
Irene swung the safe door open and put some distance between herself and the Fae, physically feeling his focus shift from her to the safe’s contents.
Several stacks of papers lay tidily in the large iron cavity. On top of them was a small piece of card, embossed with a golden mask, signed with the name Belphegor.
The Fae hissed. His hands clenched, and Irene heard his kid gloves rip. He turned towards her, his face furious.
Saying ‘Don’t blame me’ or ‘It wasn’t my fault’ would just have been signalling that she was a victim. As calmly as she could manage, and wishing for a few more feet of distance between them – actually, make that a few yards, or even a few miles – she said, ‘This makes no sense. If Belphegor stole the book, and wanted to advertise the fact, why leave her card here inside the safe and not out on the desk?’
He blinked once, and seemed to take a step back mentally. ‘Indeed,’ he said, pacing the room. ‘It’s the book that’s important here. Keep talking, little mouse. Tell me what you know, what you see here. Tell me what you know about the book. Explain it to me. Make yourself worthwhile to me.’
‘There were two factions,’ Irene guessed. It was as good a theory as any. It might even be true. She needed more data. The Ambassador seemed to be looking for the book as well, so why not others? Perhaps she could use that. ‘And Belphegor wasn’t necessarily after the book. She could have been after something Lord Wyndham kept in his safe. So what if the person or people who stole the book and who killed Lord Wyndham were entirely different? If they were waiting here in the study while he was hosting the party downstairs.’ She walked over to look at the glass display case where the book had been. ‘I can’t tell whether they would have taken the book first and then killed him, or vice versa.’ Well, of course she couldn’t tell, she was deducing all this on the spot, or to be more accurate, guessing wildly. ‘But we know they beheaded him on the desk. Then they went out through the house and left his head on the railings outside the front door.’
‘Why not out through the window?’ he interrupted.
‘It wouldn’t open.’ She’d glanced down at the catch while hiding in the window embrasure. It had been soldered closed. ‘It must have been one of Lord Wyndham’s precautions. Besides, there was a party going on. It would have been simple enough to walk through the house and out through the front door if they’d concealed the head and if they looked enough like guests or servants.’