Delacey took a step back. “What part of I don’t know you escapes your understanding?”
“Yes, I know, that’s what we say, but—”
Delacey scowled. “I do not know you, you idiot.”
“But things have changed. I’m suspected, and I must give you this because—” Andrews leaned in close, whispering.
“What did he say?” someone nearby asked. Those closest murmured to their neighbors, and they to theirs.
“He said…there’s a horse in the grain?” someone near Free said in confusion.
“No,” another man contradicted. “He said he’s being called out.”
But by that time, the poorly understood whispers were irrelevant. The little undersecretary removed a sheaf of papers all bound up in twine from his jacket.
It was Delacey’s own file. Mr. Clark had stolen it that very morning. Delacey must have recognized the contents, because he took a step back, his eyes growing wide. “How did you get that?”
Andrews held it out helpfully. “You gave it to me?”
“I didn’t! I never!”
One of the few protests Delacey had made that was actually true, Free mused. Poor man. He had no idea what was happening to him.
“Take it,” Andrews gestured. “Here, before they find me—”
Delacey stepped back just as Andrews lunged forward. The papers slipped from the secretary’s grasp, scattering widely over the floor.
“Here,” a nearby man said. “Let me help you gather those.”
“No!” Delacey said, leaping on the pile. “Nobody look at them!”
Naturally, of course, everyone did.
“I say,” a man near the papers said, “Delacey—this is a draft of a letter to the Portsmouth Herald, asking them to print a column.”
“By God,” another voice said. “There’s a statement of account here—according to this, he’s…” The rest of that sentence was caught up in a swelling murmur.
Free didn’t ask questions. She didn’t ask how Edward had stolen a file that had notations in Delacey’s own hand. The details of his plan, while not spelled out, were hinted at in such detail that it became clear what Delacey had been doing—that he’d filched early copies of her columns and paid others to reprint them to discredit her, that he’d hired the man who had set fire to her home.
It was possible that Delacey was such an inveterate record-keeper that he’d kept written notations on the arsonist he’d hired. And if he wasn’t? Well. He was now, and she wasn’t going to feel sorry about it. If he kept this up, next time, he might actually kill someone. Sometimes there was no point in playing fair.
Right now, she only watched, making mental notes about the changes she would have to telegraph back to her office for the column she’d already written, waiting to go to press as soon as the events of the evening came to an end.
To her side, she noticed her old colleagues—Chandley from the Manchester Star, Peters from the Edinburgh Review—taking note of this all. She’d asked Jane to invite them particularly. Usually, she’d be delighted to have an exclusive story on a matter of this magnitude. But this time, she wanted every paper in England to know what was in that file that had spilled. Chandley and Peters would write their own pieces, to be published in the next few days, explaining how they’d been hired to print duplicates of her columns.
The details of his entire plan would be discussed and made public.
Delacey had given up trying to gather his papers; now, he was simply trying to escape the room.
Free crossed over to him, caught his coat sleeve before he managed to exit. “No business.” She was trying not to gloat. “No reputation. That is what you promised me, is it not? Remember this, Delacey. Everything you try to bring down on my head, I will bring back to you a thousandfold.”
He glared at her. “How did you do it? How did you get that file?”
If she’d truly wanted to taunt him, she’d have told him that one of the men he’d hired had turned on him. But she didn’t know what Edward was to him, and she didn’t want to put Edward in danger.
She simply smiled and handed him the papers she’d been carrying ever since Andrews entered the room.
“James Delacey,” she said solemnly, “you are hereby served with notice of a suit against you. I’m asking for compensation for the fire you started.”
He stared at these papers, his lip curling in distaste. “You think you’ll win this way? With papers and a suit at law, perhaps a fine of a few hundred pounds?”
“I don’t care if I prevail on the suit. I care that everyone will hear the evidence, will discover how foul you are. That’s how I will win.”
He let out a long, slow breath. “You stupid girl,” he said softly. “I’ve already won. No matter what you say publicly, no matter how you stain my reputation, it doesn’t matter. You see, I can vote.” He spat on the floor next to him. “And the last I checked, the only bill supporting any form of female suffrage that was even remotely mentioned this term was Rickard’s, and that was just a showpiece. Celebrate your victory, Miss Marshall. It doesn’t mean anything. It never will.”
“You don’t believe that. If I am already defeated, why did you even waste time bringing me down?”
His lip curled and he gave her an ugly look. “For the same reason I kill mice. Rodents will never rule the world, but even hiding in the walls they’re still vermin.” He hefted the papers she’d given him. “Congratulations, Miss Marshall. You survived to hide in the walls for a little longer.”
“FREE,” OLIVER SAID LATER that night. “We haven’t had much time to talk, but—”
Free yawned. It was not quite by design, that yawn. She was tired. After the guests had left, she’d stayed up even later composing changes to her article the next day. Oliver had sent one of his servants off to the telegraph office, and then had brought her up to the room he’d set aside for her for the evening.
He smiled at her. “And I know you’re tired. But that fellow you’re working with, that Mr. Clark…” He paused, looked away. “I’m not sure he’s proper.”
Free blinked at her brother. Oliver had paid her bail four times, had been the one to retrieve her from the lock hospital. He’d read every column she’d written in her paper. He knew how she spent her time. Propriety was not a word that had often been associated with her. That was a word that belonged to misses on the marriage mart.