A Dangerous Scheme by Laura Beers

Chapter One

England, 1814

Mr. Guy Stewart found criminals to be intolerably stupid. It was the dead of night, and he was chasing after a suspect in the middle of the rookeries, rather than being home in a warm bed. How he wished he could just shoot this man and be done with it.

He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. He had been chasing this man for nearly ten blocks and had no idea how this was going to end. Surely, at this high speed, the suspect must be near exhaustion.

The suspect darted into a darkened building, and he quickly followed behind. He heaved a sigh when he saw the man start up the rickety stairs.

“Just let me arrest you,” Guy grumbled up at the man.

The man didn’t reply, not that he had expected him to, but continued to race up the four flights of stairs. Guy followed behind, pleased that the man was going to trap himself on the roof, ending this pointless chase. As he stepped onto the roof, he saw the man running towards the edge of the building.

“No!” he exclaimed. He hadn’t expected the man would take his own life.

But to his surprise, he watched as the man sailed through the air and landed with a thud on the neighboring roof. Botheration, Guy thought. Now he would have to do the same thing, or he would lose the suspect. He sprinted towards the edge of the building and jumped, hoping he had calculated the distance correctly. He landed on top of the other roof and took only a moment to collect his bearings.

Guy ran through the door and started down the stairs when he heard a woman screaming for help. His steps faltered, knowing he couldn’t just pass by and not assist the woman. But if he did stop to help her, the suspect would be long gone, and he would have to answer to Corbyn. Groaning, he turned towards the woman’s screams and threw open the door.

The suspect he’d been chasing was holding the woman in front of him, pointing a pistol at her temple. He was a rather unfortunate-looking man, with a large head on a small frame. “If you come any closer, I will kill her,” the man declared, his eyes betraying his fear.

Guy retrieved his pistol from the waistband of his trousers and stepped into the small room. “If you kill her, then I will kill you,” he said. The woman whimpered in response.

The suspect forcefully backed the woman over to the broken window and looked out. “You have to let me go.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“I did nothing wrong.”

“You plotted to kill the prince regent.”

The suspect shook his head. “I did no such thing,” he said. “I was drunk and just spouting nonsense.”

“If that is the case, then you have nothing to fear.”

“I’m not going back to prison!” the suspect shouted. “The rats gnaw at your toes when you’re sleeping.”

Guy brought his pistol up. “Then it would have been smart if you’d avoided breaking the law.”

The suspect ducked behind the woman, like the coward that he was. “But I did nothing wrong,” he declared. “You must believe me.”

“I don’t,” Guy replied. “It has been my experience that innocent men do not run and hold women hostage.”

“You left me little choice in the matter.”

Guy clenched his jaw. “Unfortunately, this will not end well for you,” he said. “I will either kill you or arrest you, and I would prefer not to kill anyone today.”

“I will pay you if you let me go.”

“How much are you offering?” he asked, feigning interest.

Looking hopeful, the suspect said, “Five pounds.”

“No,” he replied. “That is not enough to tempt me.”

“Ten pounds?”

Guy pretended to mull it over as he debated his chances of shooting the suspect without causing any harm to the woman. It was not looking good, he realized. The coward was keeping only his head exposed, and even though his head was larger than most, it was still a small, moving target.

“What do you say?” the suspect asked.

“Nah,” Guy replied. “I would rather keep my job than let you roam free.”

The suspect’s eyes narrowed. “You are making a big mistake, Runner.”

Taking a step closer, Guy clarified, “I am not a Runner. At least, not anymore. I got tired of the red waistcoats.”

“Then who are you?”

Guy smirked. “I am just a man who likes to uphold the law.”

The suspect cocked his pistol. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he stated. “Step back and let me leave this room.”

Guy shook his head. “I can respect that you are rather mulish, but I’m afraid I can’t let that happen.”

“Then I will kill the woman!” the suspect exclaimed.

“That would be a mistake on your part, since it would be signing your own death warrant,” Guy remarked. “Either my bullet will do you in, or the noose will.”

The suspect turned the pistol towards him. “Perhaps I will just kill you and be done with it.”

Guy noticed the suspect’s hand was shaking, and he could hear the quiver in the man’s voice. This man was no killer, but desperate men tended to do desperate things when backed into a corner.

“If you don’t put down the gun, I will kill you,” Guy said firmly. “I tire of this game.”

He could see the indecision on the man’s face when he heard Lord Evan Corbyn’s commanding voice coming from the doorway. “Put your pistol down, or I will do you the honor of killing you myself.”

Guy turned and saw Corbyn pointing his pistol at the suspect, his hand not wavering in the slightest.

“I would do what the man says, before you end up dead,” Guy advised, turning back towards the man in question.

The suspect’s eyes grew wide, and he ducked further behind the woman. “If you try to shoot me, then you will hit her.”

Corbyn let out a dry chuckle. “You underestimate me,” he remarked in a steely tone. “I never miss.”

“It’s true.” Guy met the suspect’s gaze and attempted to reason with him. “Give up now, or you won’t leave this room alive.”

“But—” the suspect attempted.

“I know, you did nothing wrong,” Guy mocked, speaking over him. “But I would be remiss if I did not point out that you are breaking the law right now.”

Corbyn took a step into the room. “This building is surrounded, and you have no chance of escaping. If I have to count to ten, then I might just shoot you before I finish.”

The suspect’s eyes darted between both men before saying, “I give up.” He lowered the pistol to his side and released his hostage.

“Wise choice,” Corbyn remarked.

Guy cautiously walked over to the man and grabbed the pistol, which he tucked into the back of his trousers. Then, he grabbed the man’s arm and forcefully led him towards the door.

He left Corbyn behind to speak to the woman and led the man down the stairs and out of the building. They stopped on the street as Hobbs pulled up in a wagon.

“Toss him in the back with the others,” Hobbs ordered.

“You heard the man,” Guy said as he pushed the suspect towards the back of the wagon. Another agent stood guard as the man stepped up into it.

Corbyn came to stand next to Guy as the wagon drove away. “It took you entirely too long to arrest that suspect.”

“I am well aware, but the man jumped from roof to roof like he was a circus performer.”

Corbyn turned to face him, his face stern. “You should have anticipated that.”

“How was I supposed to do that?”

“An agent always expects the unexpected, especially from criminals who are desperate to avoid capture.”

“I could have shot him, but I didn’t,” Guy said. “That should count for something.”

“It does, but we don’t negotiate with criminals.”

Guy huffed. “I wasn’t trying to negotiate with him,” he argued. “I just wanted to ensure that the woman walked away with her life.”

“That she did, but only with my assistance.”

“You don’t know that.”

Corbyn lifted his brow. “It matters not,” he said dismissively. “What matters is that we arrested the suspect and all his conspirators.”

“That we did.”

“You and Hobbs have worked well as a team,” Corbyn commented. “It took you only a couple of weeks to root out those rebels.”

“I prefer to work alone,” Guy muttered.

“Most agents do, but you have only been working at the agency for a little over a month now,” Corbyn said. “It is best if we ease you into your new role.”

“That isn’t necessary,” Guy replied. “I was a Bow Street Runner for ten years before I became an agent.”

“Yes, but your experience as a Bow Street Runner makes it even harder to train you.”

Guy was well aware of Corbyn’s animosity towards the Bow Street Runners, but he decided to press the point anyway. “That is not true,” he defended. “I am more than capable of working my own case. I used to do it all the time.”

Corbyn frowned. “Being an agent is much more complex than working as a Bow Street Runner.”

“I am well aware.”

“Are you?”

“I am.”

Corbyn watched him for a long moment, his expression giving nothing away. “I do have a case that I would consider allowing you to work.”

“Which is?”

“There is unrest in a village called Anmore,” he shared. “There are talks that the coal miners are starting to form a trade union.”

“Trade unions are illegal.”

“I am well aware,” Corbyn remarked dryly, “but the people are feeling desperate. The working conditions at the colliery are known to be rather brutal.”

“Why send in an agent?”

Corbyn glanced over his shoulder before saying, “Someone is attempting to unite the various unions in the region, which would make them quite dangerous. If we don’t do anything, the miners could unite and stage a revolt.”

“Do you have any leads on who wants to unite the unions?”

“I do not.”

Guy bobbed his head. “I will take the case,” he said. “I have gone on a lot less.”

Corbyn perused the length of him and gave him a disapproving look. “You look terrible,” he commented. “You need to bathe.”

“That is generally what happens when I’m forced to chase a suspect through the rookeries.”

“Meet me at the office tomorrow and we will discuss the particulars of the case,” Corbyn ordered.

“Will do.”

Corbyn took a step back, then said, “You’d better not disappoint me, Stewart.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

After he wasdressed in a brown jacket with buff trousers, Guy descended the stairs of his rented house and smelled food wafting out of the kitchen. He turned the corner and saw his sister stirring something in a pot hanging over the hearth.

“Good morning,” he greeted.

Esther smiled over at him. “Good morning,” she replied. “If you take a seat, I will get your breakfast for you.”

“I would appreciate that.” He pulled out a chair and sat down.

Esther wiped her hands on the white apron tied around her waist before she picked up a bowl from the counter. “You got home rather late last night,” she remarked as she placed the bowl in front of him.

“I did.”

“May I ask what kept you out late?”

“Nothing that would concern you.”

A smirk came to her lips as she retrieved a spoon for him. “I assume you were doing important Runner business.”

“I believe I already explained why Bow Street Runners do not like to be referred to as ‘Runners’.” Guy knew he shouldn’t feel bad for intentionally deceiving his sister about how he occupied his time, but it was for her own safety that she didn’t know he was an agent of the Crown.

She extended him the spoon, then said, “You did, but it is fun to goad you early in the morning.”

He shook his head. “If you are not careful, I will take you to the market and sell you off.”

Esther laughed, as he’d intended. “You wouldn’t dare,” she said. “After all, who would make you hot rolls for your breakfast?”

“I suppose I would have to learn to cook.”

“You would starve, and you know it.”

Guy put his hands up in surrender. “You are right,” he replied, smiling. “I wouldn’t be able to do the cooking and cleaning as well as you do.”

“Thank you.”

Glancing towards the door along the back wall, he grew serious. “How is Mother?”

All humor was stripped off her face. “She is not doing well, I’m afraid.”

“What’s wrong now?”

“The doctor is a quack,” Esther said. “He keeps blood-letting her, even though she is getting weaker and weaker with each pass.”

“Blood-letting is a perfectly acceptable treatment,” Guy defended.

“It just doesn’t seem to help her.” Esther picked up a bowl and joined him at the table. “We need to speak to another doctor about her condition.”

“We have spoken to two doctors already.”

Esther picked up her spoon and dipped it into the bowl. “Perhaps it is time to seek out a consulting physician.”

“I wish we could, but they are more than we can afford.”

“I can see the fight draining out of her,” she admitted. “I worry it is only a matter of time before she passes.”

“Let’s hope not.”

After swallowing a bite of her food, Esther suggested, “Perhaps I could take in sewing to help with the cost of her medical bills.”

“No, I couldn’t possibly ask you to do that,” he said with a shake of his head. “After all, you already do so much.”

“You aren’t asking. I’m offering.”

“I don’t like this. I should be the one providing for you.”

Esther reached out and placed her hand over his. “You already do,” she said. “If it wasn’t for you, we would be in the poorhouse.”

“It is my duty to take care of you.”

“You are a good brother, but I want to help ease your burdens,” she remarked. “You already work long hours as a Bow Street Runner, especially this past month.”

“It is the least I could do for you.”

Removing her hand from his, Esther said, “If I take in odd sewing jobs, it might even allow you to be home more.”

“I doubt it,” he responded. “My new boss is quite demanding.”

Esther passed him a plate of hot rolls. “I am proud of you. You are keeping the streets safe from ruffians.”

“How do you know what I do?”

“I read the newspapers.”

Guy lifted his brow. “You do?”

“It is much cheaper to read the morning newspaper than it is to go to a circulating library.”

“That it is.”

Esther reached for the butter and spread some on a hot roll. “I have read about the Bow Street Runners’ exploits and how you are policing the streets,” she said. “After all, you are rather tight-lipped on what it is that you actually do.”

“That is for your own safety.”

“I think I should be the judge of that.”

Guy shoved back his chair and rose. “As much as I enjoy conversing with you, I need to depart if I wish to meet with my boss on time.”

“So early?”

“My boss doesn’t sleep.”

“Clearly,” Esther muttered. “You might want to say goodbye to Mother before you depart.”

He pushed back in his chair. “That is a splendid idea.” He walked over to the door and knocked. He waited for a moment before he opened it and stepped inside of the room. His mother was sleeping in bed, her silver hair in a cap.

As he approached the bed, her eyes opened, and she gave him a weak smile. “Guy,” she said. “What a pleasant surprise.”

“Good morning, Mother.”

She opened her mouth to reply but started coughing.

Guy came right to her side and offered her a glass of water that was on the side table. “Here you are.”

His mother sat up and accepted the glass. “Thank you, my dear.”

Taking a moment to observe her, he noticed that his mother appeared to be aging at a rapid pace. The lines on her face were starting to deepen, and her eyes didn’t hold the fierceness that they once had.

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Awful,” she admitted.

“I am sorry to hear that.”

She waved her hand at him. “You don’t need to fret about me,” she said. “Just don’t let those leeches anywhere near me again.”

“Why?”

“It is deucedly uncomfortable.”

“I was under the impression that applying leeches to the skin wasn’t painful.”

“The feeling of their swelling bodies against my skin is miserable.” She shuddered as she extended him the glass. “Furthermore, I don’t believe it is helping me.”

Guy returned the glass to the table. “I will speak to the doctor about using another treatment.”

“I would appreciate that.”

Guy leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Mother.”

She smiled up at him. “I love you, too.”

“Don’t give up hope,” he encouraged. “We will find the right treatment for you, and you will be healthy once more.”

“This is what happens when you get older. Your body starts to break down.”

“No, I am not ready to lose you, too,” he asserted. “Losing Father was more than I could bear.”

“I will try, Son.”

He nodded. “I am pleased to hear that, and I will see you tonight for dinner. We shall all eat in here so we can dine as a family.”

“I am looking forward to it.”

Guy smiled down at her, hoping it conveyed his love for her. “Be strong, Mother.”

“Go,” his mother encouraged. “I will be fine. Esther takes good care of me.”

“Good.”

After he exited his mother’s room, he walked over to his sister and said, “I will be home for dinner this evening.”

She gave him a knowing look. “I doubt that.”

“I promise that I will try.”

“I can accept that,” she replied.

As Guy departed from his house, he was pleased to hear Esther locking the door behind him. They didn’t quite live in the fashionable part of Town, but they were a few blocks from it. The street they lived on was dark and gloomy, but the rent was affordable. Thankfully, his salary did allow them to avoid living in the rookeries, where crime was much more rampant.

He made the trek towards the agency’s headquarters. He didn’t dare hail a hackney, as he was saving every farthing he had for his mother’s medical bills. He couldn’t imagine his life without his mother, and he would do whatever it took to keep her alive.

The sun was still low in the sky when he arrived at the building. He heard the sound of an owl hooting, coming from the direction of the alley. He repeated the sound and saw Bond step out from the shadows.

“You are here early,” Bond acknowledged.

“I am,” he replied. “Is the boss in?”

Bond nodded. “He arrived hours ago.”

“Truly?”

“That man never sleeps.”

“No, he does not.” Guy walked towards the main door. “Let’s hope he isn’t in a foul mood.”

Bond chuckled. “Good luck to you.”

He walked into the building and approached Corbyn’s door. He knocked and waited for a response.

“Enter.”

Guy opened the door and stepped inside.

“Will you close the door behind you?” he asked. “I wish to speak to you privately.”

“As you wish,” Guy said, closing the door.

Corbyn leaned back in his chair. “I have devised the perfect cover for why you are in Anmore.”

“You have?”

Corbyn nodded. “You will be employed by the bank to hold an inquiry into the working conditions of the Linton Colliery near Anmore,” he explained. “I have already spoken to Mr. Watson over at the bank, and he confirmed that they hold the title on the mine. He agreed to corroborate our story and will send word to Mr. Huxley, who runs a division of the bank in Anmore.”

“How did you convince him to go along with the plan?”

Corbyn shrugged. “He owed me a favor,” he replied. “With any luck, the workers at Linton Colliery will speak to you about their harsh conditions and bring you into their confidences.”

“That sounds like a feasible plan.”

“But we do have a problem.”

“Which is?”

Corbyn perused the length of him. “Your clothing is…” His words trailed off.

Guy tugged down on his ivory waistcoat. “What is wrong with my clothing?”

Wincing, Corbyn replied, “It is terrible. No one will believe that you work at the bank with your current wardrobe.”

“I’m afraid I do not have the funds to pay for a whole new wardrobe.”

“And I’m not asking you to,” Corbyn said. “My valet has set aside some of my pieces that I do not wear anymore.”

“You are giving me some of your clothing?”

Corbyn nodded. “You need to look the part of a gentleman for this to work,” he replied. “Fortunately, you already have the mannerisms of a gentleman, so we don’t need to work on that.”

“I did attend Cambridge on a scholarship.”

“I am well aware, and that is in your favor.” Corbyn rose and walked around his desk. “If we hurry, we can have you fitted before noon.”

“I think this is madness,” Guy said. “There is nothing wrong with my clothing.”

Reaching into his jacket, Corbyn removed a handful of bills and extended it towards him. “You will need this money to give the appearance that you are a man of means.”

Guy accepted the money and gave Corbyn a disbelieving look. “This is more than three months of my pay.”

“Yes, it is,” Corbyn said, “and you may keep whatever you do not spend. I hope it helps cover some of your mother’s medical bills.”

“How did you know about my mother?” Guy asked in surprise.

Corbyn smirked. “You insult me,” he said. “I make it my mission to know all I can about my agents, especially the new recruits.”

Guy slipped the money into the pocket of his waistcoat. “Thank you.”

Corbyn tipped his head in acknowledgement. “Are you ready for your toughest assignment yet?”

“I am.”