Cinderella Six Feet Under
Author:Maia Chance

The door thumped shut.

Gabriel was not in the habit of thinking a great deal about what one might term his heart. He had attained the age of thirty-four without anyone in particular stepping forward to claim that organ, and he was glad of it. His academic work consumed him utterly.

Yet, as he spoke to the driver of the hired cabriolet waiting at the curb, his heart constricted—or did it swell?—in his chest. Either way, it was behaving in a most uncomfortable and unaccountable fashion.

He climbed into the cabriolet.

What had he fancied? That he’d discover Miss Flax weak and weeping, that he’d drag her into his arms, rescue her like a knight errant?

Utter piffle. Miss Flax was not, by any stretch of the fancy, a damsel in distress.

His cabriolet rocked forward into the mist.

*

“Looks like they’re changing the lock on the carriageway gate this morning,” Ophelia said to Prue. “A locksmith is fiddling with it.”

“Interesting,” Prue said, and yawned.

“It is interesting.” Ophelia peered through the trickling windowpane. Her—or, properly speaking, Mrs. Brand’s—guest chamber looked down upon the mansion’s rear courtyard. The chamber itself was an Antarctic expanse of creaking parquet, moth-chewed tapestries, furniture with chipped gold paint, and a lopsided canopied bed that smelled of mildew and mouse. However, its windows afforded a bird’s-eye view. Ophelia preferred not to look at the matted vegetable patch, straight down, where they’d found that poor dead girl. But she could just see into the shadowy carriage arch, and a man with a toolbox was changing the gate’s lock. “It’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Prue—are you listening?” She glanced over her shoulder.

“Course I’m listening.” Prue lolled on a brocade sofa. An ottoman-sized ginger cat lay in her lap. Prue popped a butterscotch drop into her mouth. “What’s so mighty interesting about some locksmith?”

“Number one, when we went into the garden that night—”

Prue sucked harder on her butterscotch.

“—well, the gate was open. Not locked. Number two, the police said that they had identified the murderer—”

“Still haven’t found him, though.”

“It has been but two days.”

“Feels like eternity. I got cabin fever, Ophelia.”

Ophelia had cabin fever, too. But there was no use dumping kerosene on a fire. “Listen. The murderer was said to be a derelict who dwells in the streets here. So, he wouldn’t have had a key to the gate.”

“You’re fishing for minnows.”

“Something doesn’t sit right.” Ophelia turned to watch the locksmith some more. “I can’t put my finger on it.”

“I know you caught a murderer back in Germany, but that don’t mean you ought to meddle again. Could be dangerous. Guess you ain’t concerned about danger, though, on account of your nerves got all frazzled out in the circus, standing on them trick ponies.”

“I cannot continue to twiddle my thumbs in this damp prison of a house while Eglantine and Austorga frisk about with their friends to the dressmaker’s, the milliner’s, lectures, concerts, lessons in—what did they say?—elocution, deportment—”

“Velocipede riding.”

“Surely not! Dinners, soirées, the theater, the sweet shop—”

“Austorga did bring me a bag of butterscotch drops, and some nice orange jellies. And they’re keen to find husbands so they need all them refinements.”

“But they do not seem to care about that girl.”

“My sister. Their sister, sort of.”

“Yes. And your mother—it is as though she never existed. ‘Oh, she’ll be back!’ Malbert keeps saying, and your stepsisters look away.” Ophelia had even searched Henrietta’s bedchamber. It had been untidy, but it had offered up no clues as to her whereabouts. “The whole family is keeping things back, I’d wager. The servants, too.”

“A spooky lot, that’s for sure,” Prue said.

Ophelia plopped onto the dressing table stool. She had been disguised as Mrs. Brand every waking minute for the last two days. Her scalp itched under the wig, her muscles ached from hefting around the rump and bosom padding, and her skin was dry and sore from the crinkly cosmetics. “And Malbert is downright peculiar.”

“Looks like a mushroom that’s lost its cap, don’t he?”

“What does he do in that workshop of his? No one seems to know. Not his daughters. Not the servants. When I asked him last night at dinner, he behaved in a most evasive fashion—did you ever see so much blinking and stammering?” The only thing Malbert had confessed was that he was the student of some famous clockmaker, but that he did not make clocks.

Prue picked a loose blob of fluff from the cat and flicked it into the air. “Ma says all fellers is sneaky, and if you think they ain’t you’d best be double careful.”