CHAPTER ONE OF MY NEW EDWARDIAN HISTORICAL ROMANCE: LOFT AT 22ND STREET
[This is a rough draft, subject to some edits, and changes as the story progresses]
Late September 1906
The Bookshop At The Loft - 22nd Street - Uptown
Ainsley Birral jarred to a frozen halt, heart pounding beneath the palm she pressed against her chest. The reaction was quite understandable. Even in the city, it wasn't every day one found a dead body cluttering up one's shop floor. At least, she thought the man was dead. He certainly looked as if he'd left this world, and without doubt, his departure had not been of his own volition. She gaped at the tableau, hovering at the threshold of the open door—which should have been locked—to the bookshop she and her sister, Rona, owned.
The Loft, as Ainsley affectionately referred to it, was a spacious, well-stocked-and-patronized store occupying the upper floor of a three-story structure owned by her uncle, Clyde Findlay. Ainsley lived in an apartment on the building's second floor with Rona and their elderly cousin Fiona Monro.
She closed her mouth and angled her head to listen, but discerned nothing to indicate the perpetrator of this horrendous crime might still be within. Her nose informed her oil from a lamp had been spilled. She squelched the urge to hurry inside to cleanse the potential fire hazard. She swallowed and tried to work up courage to enter, but wasn't at all certain she wanted to take the chance. When several more moments elapsed and the silence persisted, she forced stiff limbs to take a single step forward, all her senses alert for…anything. Nothing moved in the stillness. She gusted a relieved sigh, only then becoming aware she had been holding her breath.
Outrage! Nothing like this had ever happened in her life. She fought to clear jangling thoughts. What did one do when confronted with a murder? More importantly, how could such an awful thing have happened without any of them hearing a sound? Granted, Fiona was of an age where she might sleep through a parade, but to Ainsley's mind, it was deeply disquieting neither Rona nor herself had been disturbed in the night by the violent activity that had occurred only one story above their beds.
Footsteps and the scent of roses heralded the arrival of Rona on the landing behind her. Her sister gasped and grabbed for the doorframe as she caught sight of the old man lying in the middle of the customer reading area. "A-A-Ainsley!"
"Indeed." Ainsley took another short, hesitant step.
Rona grabbed her arm. "What are you doing?" Her hushed voice rose on the last word. "Never say you're actually going in there!"
"Why not? I can already see no one's here but this unfortunate soul. I need to learn if he's truly dead, and if we've been robbed."
"Robbed? Save us!" Rona tugged at Ainsley's elbow. "Sister please, come away. It isn't seemly to become involved with this. We should leave immediately."
Despite the trembling of her hands, Ainsley rolled her eyes. "Don't become hysterical, Rona, I beg you. The danger is past, and like it or not, we are already involved. Besides, if the poor man is still alive we need to get help for him immediately."
She scanned the scene. Blood—a dreadfully copious amount—beneath the man's head, along with the afore-smelled oil that had leaked from a reading lamp knocked off a table, had soaked the large oval rug defining the reading area. Further signs of a scuffle abounded. An overturned chair lay amid small, scattered knickknacks, and a celery green drapery panel had been pulled from its place beneath the pelmet, allowing a modicum of light into the shadowed room.
She uttered a pained exclamation at sight of her favorite floor vase in the corner, broken into colorful pieces like an abandoned mosaic. It had held a mass of peacock feathers, some of which now lay snapped and bent amid the fragments. What appeared to be the brass fireplace poker glinted amid the plumes.
Books—some of them expensive—were tossed everywhere, yanked by undiscerning hands from their places on the shelves. The chaos indicated evidence of either simple vandalism or a hasty search, but if the latter, for what? She kept nothing of a secretive nature here. Odd that none of the periodicals, children's books or lady's romance novels had been disturbed. She moved closer to the body. The movement brought into view a book clutched like an ineffectual lifeline in the dead man's fingers. It looked like one of the treasured research publications for which the shop was noted, and was open to an ancient illumination over which words, upside down to her position, had been scrawled in what appeared to be a dark, rust-colored paint.
Oh, it was horrible enough this hapless elder had died by violence in her beloved store. Why had the killer felt it necessary to add the destruction of an antique work of art to that abomination? Volumes such as this were often impossible to replace. She bent to take a closer look and gasped, withdrawing with a shudder. The sense of having stepped unwitting into a nightmare increased. The old man had been bludgeoned. Her eyes flickered to the poker in the corner and she grimaced. The back of his head showed a caved-in spot, undetectable from the door, that the end of the poker would certainly fit.
But it wasn't the sight of the fractured skull that drew from her an almost irresistible desire to flee. Though she could now see the book clenched in his hand was, thankfully, merely a reproduction of medieval illuminations, the words 'AINSLEY IS NEXT' were untidily blocked across one page. Both the message and the inscription medium appalled her. The warning was penned in blood.
She stepped away, hand plastered against her stomach. Swallowing repeatedly, she turned to Rona. "Don't come over here."
Her sister shuddered. "I have no desire to come closer." Rona sounded the way Ainsley felt. "In fact, I say again, we should leave. What if the killer returns to murder us, too? What if he decides to slit our throats? Oh, Ainsley, whatever shall we do?"
Rona's complexion was more alabaster than usual. Shock darkened her rounded blue eyes.
Pity tempered Ainsley's usual blunt response to her sister's dramatics. Rona was truly frightened. To be perfectly honest, so was she. "Well, we certainly are not going to panic."
"Do you say that because you're truly not upset, or because you're trying not to panic and you don't want me to, either?"
"It's not working! Ainsley, we are alone up here. What if the person who did this is close by?"
Ainsley collected herself and squared her shoulders. It would do no one any good to think on that possibility.
"I think we may be sure whoever did this has removed himself far away." Her lips tightened. Rona was overwrought. She needed something to do, needed to get away from the scene but bless her, did want to leave Ainsley alone. "Run downstairs to the pharmacy and wake Mr. Schmidt. Ask him to come up. Tell him what happened and have him call the police and send his assistant to bring Uncle Clyde. Oh, and wake up Fiona. She'll need to get dressed."
Rona's face paled even further. She caught Ainsley's hand. "The police! Oh, Ainsley, must we? Bart won't like that. It will reflect badly on his family, placing them in the middle of an untenable social situation."
"Your fiancé will have to understand. We cannot ignore this is a crime scene. The police must be informed. Go, now!"
"You should close the door and come with me." Her sister actually wrung her hands. "Oh dear, what an awful scrape."
Rona obeyed. It was an indication of the depth of her agitation she made no effort to be lady-like as she clattered down the stairs. Ainsley sighed. Bartholomew Osbourne—and his family—were wealthy and influential. Bart's mother was a favorite among the city's highest echelons of society. His father hated publicity. Both already balked at their son's engagement to a woman not quite of their status. For her sister to become involved, however innocently, in something so distasteful and scandalous as murder might be the edge they needed to force Bart to break the betrothal. Rona was right. This could become a problem, in more ways than the obvious.