‘Well, I . . .’ Irene tried to think what to say next. ‘I . . .’
Vale held up a commanding hand. ‘Say no more. I am aware that Mr Strongrock here is your subordinate.’
‘Oh,’ Irene said.
‘It was blatantly obvious,’ Vale went on. ‘Your signals to him in the restaurant, your ability to handle yourself in combat, and his unwillingness to speak while you were unconscious – these all made it quite clear that you were in command of the mission. Miss Winters, I realize that you have your own agenda, but I ask you – I appeal to you – to trust me. I believe that our aims are congruent. I think we can help each other.’
‘Then Kai’s told you . . .’ Irene let the sentence trail off meaningfully. This wasn’t what she’d wanted. The man was a near-total stranger to her. However impressive his skills were, and while he fitted the character type of nobleman, so he should understand the principles of noblesse oblige well enough, there was still risk. There was always a risk. She was supposed to be manipulator, not manipulated.
Her hand hurt. It was distracting her.
‘He has told me nothing,’ Vale said, and Kai nodded in agreement. ‘He turned up in a cab on my doorstep with you unconscious in his arms, and he asked for shelter until you were awake again.’
Irene pushed straggling tendrils of hair back from her forehead. She didn’t have to feign pain or confusion. ‘I don’t think that we’re the only ones keeping secrets here, Mr Vale. The attack on you last night was too deliberately timed to be coincidence.’ It was a guess on her part, but it hit a mark; his eyelids twitched very slightly. She looked up at him. ‘I think there’s more to all this – the murder, the theft of the book, Belphegor – than just a simple crime of greed. When we met last night, you referred to “thefts of occult material”. This isn’t the only book that’s gone missing, is it?’
Vale threw himself down into another armchair. ‘You’re correct, Miss Winters. Oh, sit down, sit down, Strongrock. To be frank, I need people that I can trust. The Fair Folk have contacts at every level of society. My enemies have even more. You two are strangers in London, and though you have no apparent links to the Fae, you have nobody to vouch for you or speak in your favour. I may have reasons to believe that you are reliable . . .’ He frowned. ‘No. Leave that for the moment. I will explain my part in this affair, and then perhaps you will explain yours.’
Irene looked down at her hand. She wished she could rip off the bandages and see just how bad it was – surely not a permanent injury? It was that infernal urge that came with any injury, wanting to see how it ‘looked’ every minute of the day, as if she’d actually be able to see it getting better or worse. And if it did get worse, if she’d damaged herself for life? She couldn’t stand the thought of being crippled . . . but investigating would have broken the flow of Vale’s confidences, and she needed his information. ‘Please,’ she said softly, looking up from her hand and trying to stop herself fiddling with the bandages. ‘Please, do go on.’
Vale interlaced his fingers. ‘When I introduced myself as the Earl of Leeds, it was accurate enough, but it is not a title that I care to use often. The dark associations of the city of Leeds and its Earls go back to King Edward’s reign in the fourteenth century. I broke from my family under – under somewhat unpleasant conditions, and have no wish for further connection with them. My father is dead, and I cannot be disinherited, but equally I have no interest in the family lands, properties and secrets.’
‘Is that why you live in London?’ Kai asked. Irene stole a glance at him. He was leaning forward with an expression of keen interest, but there were lines of clear disapproval in his face. His mouth was pursed in what was very nearly a censorious frown.
Vale nodded. ‘My family have no interest in seeing me, nor I them. They hope that I will not marry, and that the title will pass to my brother Aquila. However, a week ago I received a letter from my – ’ he hesitated a moment – ‘my mother.’ The words came with difficulty. ‘She wished to advise me of a theft which had taken place, and to ask me, as detective if not as son . . .’ He fell silent for a moment, staring at his fingers as if they were somehow stained. ‘To ask me if I would investigate the matter for her.’
‘And the subject of the theft?’ Irene enquired delicately.
‘A book,’ Vale said. ‘It was a family journal – that is, not a printed work, but a collection of handwritten notes and studies, herbal references and fairy tales.’
‘Fairy tales,’ Kai said slowly.
Vale nodded. ‘You will see why I am intrigued by Lord Wyndham’s murder and the disappearance of his book. Taken in conjunction with certain other thefts which have taken place, it suggests a culmination of events. None of the other thefts have involved murder. And as for the explosion last night beneath the Opera—’
‘What?’ Irene said, coming upright.
‘Ah, you wouldn’t have read the morning paper yet,’ Vale said. ‘The incident bears the hallmarks of secret society activity. A number of cellars were collapsed, but the foundations seem to be undamaged. The police have not requested my assistance – ’ Irene could almost hear the unspoken yet – ‘so I can only make do with the public reports.’
‘But what makes you think this is connected with the thefts?’ Kai asked.