The Disappearance of the Devil's Eye by Nene
Adams ©2004 - All rights reserved
n Afghanistan it was called the Eye of Shaitan," said the Duchess gravely, looking at each of her dinner guests in turn. Between the thumb and forefinger of her hand, the white-haired lady held a sullenly gleaming ruby as big as a baby's fist. The unset stone looked like a drop of petrified blood from some fantastic leviathan of the ancient world.
She continued, "In that poor benighted country, the holy men say that whoever owns the Devil's Eye does not truly possess it, but merely borrows the ruby for a time at Shaitan's leisure. When the Devil wishes its return, he reaches out an invisible hand and poof!" The Duchess made a gesture. "The stone returns to its diabolical master, not to be seen again until it re-emerges whenever and wherever Beelzebub pleases." She laid the ruby on the table next to her plate and paused, plainly awaiting some appreciation of her story.
Lady Evangeline St. Claire - known as Lina to her friends, and especially to an old family friend like the Duchess of Concaster - delicately struck her water glass with the flat of her knife several times in lieu of applause. "A most excellent tale, Your Grace, and an intriguing one, to boot. Have you experienced this supernatural disappearance yourself?"
"I must be honest and tell you no," replied the Duchess, sampling a small amount of rich red wine offered by a footman in knee breeches, and nodding her acceptance. The periwigged servant began filling glasses around the table. "However, the fellow who sold it to me swore on the head of his agéd grandmother that everything he said was as true as the Prophet's word itself."
"Such a fellow would probably swear to anything if money was involved," Algernon Hubble said, wrinkling his nose fastidiously. Candlelight gleamed in rippling waves along his pomade-slicked blonde hair. He dabbed at the little brush of a mustache on his upper lip with his napkin. "Although the stone is genuine, you undoubtedly paid an inflated price for a bit of poppycock that wouldn't be out of place in the nursery."
Beside him, his wife, Lady Mary - the Duchess' daughter and only child - blew out an aggrieved sigh and shrugged her smooth white shoulders. "Really, Algie, you can be so dreadfully dull."
He ignored Mary, instead sipping his wine. He grimaced. Algernon turned to the Duchess' young niece, who was seated at his left, saying, "My dear Allegra, this vin ordinaire stuff is raw as turpentine. Could you not have afforded to bring a decent vintage from France? I know Her Grace gives you an adequate allowance."
"There is nothing wrong with the Bordeaux," Allegra answered pertly, eyes narrowing into gleaming blue slits. "You're just being hateful, Algie!"
The burly woman seated across the table from her scowled. "Are you down on my 'Legra?" she growled at Algernon, her displeasure clearly visible above the bristling floral display set in the center of the cloth. "I ain't having that, m'lad. She's an angel and you'll treat her as such, or else!" An oak-knot fist struck the snowy tablecloth with enough force to make wine slop over the rims of the filled glasses.
Allegra murmured, "Please, Olympia, no scenes at dinner. You promised most faithfully."
Olympia shot Algernon a hateful glare and returned her attention to the entreé. The fork and knife she held were dwarfed by the size of her hands; overall, she was taller than most men and built along heroic dimensions. Olympia cut off a piece of côte de boeuf Youssoupoff and shoved it in her mouth, still scowling.
"I should not worry overmuch about Miss Allegra," Lina said to Olympia, her emerald eyes twinkling. "Any young lady who has lived amongst the Bohemian set in Paris, in the very heart of Montmartre, is surely capable of mounting a defense against all comers. Much like yourself, I might add. Miss Olympia Newnham, billed as the Female Hercules, the Strongest Woman in Britain. I saw you wrestle Big Mike O'Shannon several years ago in Covent Garden - a most thrilling match."
"'Twas naught," Olympia snorted, polishing off the beef in a few bites and signaling the footman for another serving. "Besides, what goes 'twixt 'Legra an' me ain't none of your business, milady, so push off or get pushed, savvy?"
Rather than alarm, Lina showed only amusement at the giantess' threat. She remained relaxed in her seat, smiling as though she was in her box at the Opera, enjoying some exotic stage offering.
"Now see here," Algernon said to Olympia. He was the very picture of affront. "You won't get away with such behavior, my good woman! You may be able to bully the Frogs, Miss Newnham, but I shan't be scolded at my mother-in-law's table, nor will I stand idly by while you insult a respectable lady!" He threw his napkin down on his plate, a knight issuing challenge with a linen gauntlet.
"No fisticuffs, please!" Allegra begged, but there was a glint of slyness in her otherwise innocent blue gaze that Rhiannon did not like. She thought that Allegra found the idea of two people fighting over her to be quite exciting. "I must implore you both to behave in front of our guests," the young woman continued. "Such antics do you no credit at all."
"How dare you admonish me," Algernon cried, "you little baggage!"
Olympia rose and continued to rise to her full height, until she loomed over the dining table like a veritable female Goliath. She rumbled, "Take that back, or b'God, you'll rue opening that gob!"
"Algie!" shouted Mary and the Duchess simultaneously, apparently scandalized, while Allegra squeaked, "Oh, Olympia!"
Olympia and Algernon eyed one another, each swelling with indignation.
Mary shrugged again, her shoulders rising like rounded waves from the swathes of netting on her gown's bodice, only to sink back once more into the seafoam lace. "Algie is, as we all know, a gentleman of the most delicate sensibilities. Lady St. Claire, Miss Moore, please accept my apologies for my husband's deplorable manners."
Rhiannon Moore, Lina's companion and life-partner, said graciously. "It's quite all right, Lady Mary. There's no need to apologize. I'm sure that Mr. Hubbard didn't mean anything by it." Her copper-beaded gown was a perfect foil for the mass of artfully arranged strawberry-blonde locks that were plaited and held in place in her elaborate coiffure with gold-and-turquoise pins.
"I would beg to differ, however I'll hold my tongue for the nonce," Mary said, smiling. "Do sit down, Miss Newnham. The poulet Parmentier is about to be served."
Allegra added her own imploring glances. Olympia blinked, then slowly sank down in her seat again. Lina coughed to stifle a chuckle; Rhiannon nudged the dark-haired woman with her elbow as a domestic warning from one spouse to another. The situation was volatile enough without Lina stirring the pot. Dinner at the Duchess of Concaster's home was already proving to be beyond the social norm and well into the realm of melodrama. While Rhiannon understood that Lina had an innate fondness for the theatrical, she was determined that her partner would not spoil the evening any further.
At the sideboard, the Duchess' butler carved the chicken and a footman began serving. Another footman in wig and breeches passed around dishes of haricots verts nouveaux de Poissy and pommes nouvelles, while yet a third servant began clearing the red wine glasses in preparation for pouring a crisp Sauvignon Blanc. Allegra put a hand over her own glass of Bordeaux to signal that she did not wish it removed.
Still fuming, Algernon took some food then stabbed at his plate, sending a potato skittering across the table. The flying vegetable nearly knocked over a candlestick. Cutting into her chicken with too much vigor, Allegra bumped him and made Algernon spill a glass of Sauvignon Blanc over the sleeve of his jacket, in addition to flooding his dinner plate. A quelling glance from the Duchess made him swallow whatever exclamation he was about to make and allow the butler to fuss over him with a napkin. Mary supervised the whisking away of her husband's ruined meal and the substitution of a fresh plate.
Once her son-in-law had been served, the Duchess sat back as much as her rigidly corseted figure would allow. Suddenly, she straightened bolt upright. The color in her cheeks faded to an unhealthy ashen hue. Her trembling forefinger pointed towards the empty space beside her plate.
"It's gone!" she said, her voice hoarse with astonishment and dread. "The Devil's Eye is gone!"
A footman dropped the carafe of white wine he was holding in order to catch the Duchess as she slid out of her chair, unconscious.
"What has happened?" Rhiannon asked, applying a handkerchief soaked in eau-de-cologne to the stricken woman's temples. She was seated on the floor, the Duchess' head in her lap. Soft tendrils of red-gold hair framed her pretty face. Rhiannon glanced up at her partner, who was frowning thoughtfully.
"It seems that the Infernal Shaitan has paid us a visit from Hell," Lina quipped, "and without leaving behind the traditional whiff of brimstone." She pinned the unfortunate butler with an emerald glare. "No one is to leave this room. No one! Do you understand?"
The man replied, "Yes, milady," his jowls quivering.
"Oh, God," the Duchess groaned. "My ruby..."
"Do not fear, Your Grace," Lina said. "The culprit and the stone will be discovered. You have my word."
Between them, Rhiannon and Mary managed to get the Duchess to her feet and installed back in her chair. The white-haired woman huffed and puffed, her corset creaking under the strain. "What happens here must never be mentioned outside this room," the Duchess said sotto voce to Lina. "There must be no hint of scandal."
Lina nodded, the ostrich plumes of her headdress rising like smoke above her sleek black head. "Of course, Your Grace. However, I must be permitted to question everyone without reservation. It is agreed?"
"No, by Jove, it is not!" Algernon burst out. "Who are you, madam, and why should I submit myself to any damned interrogation?"
"Because the alternative is to strip you to your skin in order to prove that you did not take the Devil's Eye," Lina said, cocking her head to one side. "If you think that I will not dare, Mr. Hubbard, you are sorely mistaken. I am certain that Miss Newnham would be more than willing to lend her assistance to the proceedings."
Olympia gave Algernon an unpleasant grin and cracked her knuckles loudly. "Aye, with pleasure."
"Oh, Algie, don't make such a fuss!" Mary exclaimed. "You may question me to your heart's content, Lady St. Claire. I have nothing to hide. Indeed, I believe that I have something to confess."
Algernon subsided with ill grace, muttering under his breath.
"A moment's indulgence if you would, Lady Mary." Lina turned to regard Olympia Newnham. "Our Female Hercules is one of the most obvious suspects." She paid no attention to Olympia's sullen expression. "It may not be generally known to the others, but I make it a habit of remembering criminals and crime. Is it not true, Miss Newnham, that five years ago you were prosecuted and found guilty of theft after Lady Childress' pearls were stolen?"
"I didn't do nothin'. I didn't!"
"I am not accusing you of anything, Miss Newnham, merely reiterating the facts. Three years in Holloway prison is a fact that cannot be denied."
"It couldn't be poor Olympia," Allegra said, picking up her glass of red wine and coming around the table to comfort her burly friend. "She'd never steal that nasty old ruby."
Olympia put an oversized hand on Allegra's head and rubbed her friend's golden curls gently.
"A thief?" the Duchess asked faintly. "Allegra, you never told me that Miss Newnham was a thief!"
"Olympia doesn't do that anymore. She's an iron lady and a wrestler that I befriended in Paris. You know that, Auntie Rose!" Allegra said indignantly.
Mary said, "I have a motive for stealing Mama's jewel. Don't I, Algie?" Her dark eyes gleamed.
"Mary, darling, don't... I beg you..." Algernon turned white; beads of sweat sprang up on his brow.
"Algie is Mama's financial manager," Mary said, a queer expression of triumph on her face. "He has debts. Gambling debts, since Algie's rather fond of the horses. My husband likes a sporting flutter but his luck isn't very good. I believe Algie owes something in excess of three thousand pounds to a violent-tempered gentleman by the name of Harry Smalls."
"Harry the Hand?" Rhiannon asked. She flushed slightly when all eyes focused on her. "He's not unknown to me, at least by reputation. Harry Smalls is quite violent, Lina, and he doesn't tolerate men who don't honor their debts. They say the bottom of the Thames is littered with the corpses of men who have crossed Harry Smalls."
"Well done, my dear. That explains a possible motive for Mr. Hubbard, but why should you be suspected?" Lina asked Mary.
Mary made her habitual shrug. "Despite appearances, I love Algie dearly and I don't want to see him taking swimming lessons whilst chained to a rock! My own income is insufficient to pay Algie's debts. I've given him everything, even pawned my jewels. Mama has refused to give me any more aid unless I meet her unreasonable demands."
"I have indeed refused," the Duchess said, "Had Algernon's father given him a stricter upbringing, the boy would not be wasting his money on games of chance. The only thing I have demanded from you, daughter, is that you leave your husband to his own devices. That is the only logical course. Naturally, I will support my own flesh and blood in the manner to which you have become accustomed, but I will not support a drain upon my resources like a habitual gambler."
"Mother!" Algernon had wilted somewhat during his wife's recitation, but his mother-in-law's bluntless appeared to have affected him even more deeply. He swiped at his sweaty brow. "It's true, I owe Harry Smalls money. He's been pressing me for payment. But I swear by Almighty God, I did not steal that ruby!"
"Nor did I," Mary said. She gave Algernon a pitying look and patted his arm. "Bear up, dearest. We'll find a way."
"And what about you, Miss Allegra?" Lina asked. "Have you a motive as well?"
Olympia grumbled, but subsided when Allegra stroked the woman's muscular arm and whispered reassurances. Facing Lina at last, Allegra said with commendable coolness, "One can always use a spot of cash."
"Is there a specific reason why you might need additional funds?"
"That would be telling."
"Come along, Miss Allegra, do not be coy."
Rhiannon studied Allegra from beneath her lashes. Her late father, a tutor, sometimes had to deal with young ladies in the schoolroom. Rhiannon had learned how to deal with willfull females by watching his example. Accordingly, she adopted a waspish tone and a fierce mien. "You must confess, my girl, and do so at once! Delay won't be tolerated a moment longer, nor will disrespect! Stand up straight, shoulders back, and answer the lady's question."
"I declare, my dear, it quite takes me back to the nursery," Lina murmured.
Olympia started forward, then shrank back when Rhiannon raised a coppery brow and tapped her toe against the floor. Rhiannon knew how to deal with bullies, too. A show of strength almost always cowed them; the giantess was no exception.
Lina leaned a hip against the edge of the dining table and grinned her approval.
"Oh, very well, have it your way!" Allegra cried, a pretty pout turning her features to china-doll loveliness. "To be perfectly frank, Miss Moore, my aunt gives me a generous allowance. Why, Olympia and I went to dear old Monte - that's Monte Carlo to you, Algie - and had a marvelous time. Why should I take Auntie Rose's ruby?"
Allegra gestured, careful of the glass of red wine she was still holding. "Why don't you interrogate the servants, Lady St. Claire? Or better still... why don't you ask Algie what he did with it."
"Algernon! Allegra!" the Duchess said, almost shrieking in her agitation. Making a visible effort to regain her equilibrium, she continued in a more modulated but still steely tone, "Let us maintain some sense of decorum, I beg you."
The butler was conferring with the footmen in a corner of the room. He came forward, clearing his throat. "Begging your pardon, Your Grace," he said to the Duchess, "but Tom, Peter, John and myself are willing to be searched by Mr. Hubbard or by the police should you deem it necessary."
"Never mind," Lina said, overriding whatever the Duchess was about to say, "although I am sure that we all appreciate your show of integrity. However, the identity of the thief is already known to me."
Rhiannon had an inkling, too, but everyone else gaped in astonishment at the startling pronouncement.
"What? Who is it?" demanded the Duchess. "Where is my ruby?"
Rhiannon drew breath and stole Lina's thunder by announcing, "It was Miss Allegra who took the Devil's Eye."
Before the young woman could respond, Lina reached over and took the glass from Allegra's hand, tipping the contents onto the table. A wave of rich red wine splashed out, followed by a ruby the size of a baby's fist that came tumbling from the glass. The precious stone fetched up against a flower vase, then lay upon the stained cloth, shimmering like a leviathan-sized drop of frozen blood. The Duchess picked up the ruby, holding it tightly in her hand as if afraid the stone might vanish into thin air a second time.
Algernon leaped up from his chair with an oath, having narrowly missing being drenched. "What's this, Allegra?"
"What does it look like, Algie?" Allegra's reply was flippant but there was a gleam of desperation in her eyes.
"Oh, miss!" Olympia moaned in disappointment. "I'd no notion at all!"
"How much did you lose at the casinos in Monte Carlo?" Lina inquired.
"More than I can afford," Allegra said bleakly. Despair cast a pall over her china-doll features. "A certain Count has acquired my promissory notes. If I cannot pay him..." She broke off and shuddered. Olympia put a supportive arm around her waist, having to stoop a little to do so, and Allegra continued, "Let us say that his demands would not be considered excessive if the Count was a Turk and I, a Circassian slave. As matters stand, I am ruined whether I accept his suit or deny it, for I cannot make good my debts."
She asked Lina, "How did you know?"
"There were a few clues. The first was your glass of wine; you were the only person at the table who refused to exchange their Bordeaux for Sauvignon Blanc," Lina said. "The color of the first liquid is ideal for concealing a ruby."
"From the moment that the Devil's Eye was discovered to be missing, I noticed that you kept the glass in your hand," Rhiannon said. "You even picked up the wineglass and took it with you when you moved around the table to join Miss Newnham."
Lina nodded. "As a distraction, you deliberately jogged Mr. Hubbard's elbow, causing him to spill his own glass. While the rest of the guests were focused on Mr. Hubbard and the servants, you quickly snatched the ruby from the table and concealed it in the Bordeaux. I must congratulate you; that piece of misdirection was as adept as many a stage magician's. And it was a clever plot, Miss Allegra. A search of your person would eliminate you from the suspect list."
"No doubt you intended to make some excuse to take the full wineglass to your room before the footmen could clear the table." Rhiannon felt rather sorry for the girl. "Did you hope that Miss Newnham would help you sell the Devil's Eye?"
"No," Allegra said, "because Olympia is my friend. I intended to give the confounded thing to the Count, to do with as he pleased."
The Duchess confronted her niece directly. "Why didn't you come to me, child? Why resort to theft?"
"Because you hate gamblers," Allegra exclaimed. "You've been down on Algernon for years because of his habit. Just recently, you told poor Mary that she had to leave him or go to the Devil. What was I to think, Auntie Rose? What reason did I have to believe that you would help me instead of condemning me to a fate of my own making?"
"It was wrong of me to be so cruel, I know," the Duchess said, "but I am not lacking in compassion, dear girl. Do you truly think I'd allow my son-in-law to be harmed by common thugs and ruffians? I've already had my solicitor redeem Algernon's notes from Mr. Smalls. I merely wanted to teach him a lesson in responsibility."
"Oh, Mother!" Mary cried, and clasped her husband's hand in so fierce a grip that he made a muffled noise of protest. "You've kept us dangling above the abyss for a fortnight! Poor Algie's been in a fright day and night, almost too terrified to stir out of doors."
"Good! Perhaps he will consider his finances more carefully in the future. I shan't send any more good money after bad, Algernon. This is the last time. Expect no further assistance from me unless the matter is one of legitimate business."
"Yes, of course, Mother. T-t-thank you!" Algernon stuttered.
"And as for you, Miss Allegra," the Duchess said, fixing an awful eye upon her errant niece, "we shall sit down together and have a nice chat on the twin vices of gaming and thievery. As for this Count... well, he will not dare to presume his odious obligations any further. You need have no fear of that."
"Yes, Auntie Rose."
"I've got money, 'Legra," Olympia said, gazing down at the petite blonde. The adoration in her expression turned to stony resolve. She clenched one hand into a ham-like fist. "You just me where to find that Count an' I'll stuff the dosh in his gob 'till he chokes on it."
The Duchess shook her head, making her ruby-and-pearl earbobs swing to and fro. "That will do, Miss Newnham. Pray allow me to deal with the Count in my own fashion. I assure you he will take no pleasure in it," she concluded darkly.
"I'm dreadfully sorry that I tried to put the blame on you, Algie," Allegra said. "I'd no idea that Auntie's dinner guest was Lady St. Claire. I had to try for the stone tonight, you see, and I panicked on account of there being a consulting detective at the table. No one could prove you took it, though, so ultimately you'd've been alright."
"Yes, another distraction, although I already had my suspicions by that time," Lina said.
The Duchess inclined her head. "Thank you for your intervention, Lady St. Claire."
"If the Devil's Eye disappears again, Your Grace, you'll probably require the assistance of an exorcist rather than a mundane investigator," Rhiannon remarked.
"Not even Shaitan himself could wrench the ruby from my grasp," the Duchess replied. Her chuckle was cut off by a gasp as the familiar stench of brimstone filled the air of the dining room.
Lina used the sulphur-stinking lucifer she had struck to light one of the Egyptian cigarettes she preferred, and blew out the match with a stream of vaporous smoke.