Even on a drizzly autumn day, Mulvern House didn’t look as if a mummy’s curse hung over it. Set back from the road, behind a wall of peaked wrought-iron fencing and surrounded with swaths of lawn and lush plantings, the Mayfair town house seemed solid and respectably elegant. Beyond the semicircular sweep of the drive, its three stories rose in symmetrical Georgian sophistication.
I paused at the open gates and checked my wristwatch. A quarter to ten. I was early, which showed how nervous I was. I wasn’t normally someone who arrived at appointments fifteen minutes beforehand, but I was meeting with Lady Agnes Mulvern. I didn’t want to put a foot wrong. Arriving too early was out of the question.
I walked past the open gates and strolled through the exclusive neighborhood around the fenced park at the center of Mulvern Square. The drizzle was light, and with my warm felt cloche I didn’t need to put up my umbrella. A wind with a sharp edge pulled at my skirt, and I gathered the lapels of my new wool coat around my neck. Within a few blocks, I left the residential area and joined the quick pace of Mayfair shoppers on a commercial street.
I had the letter I’d received from Lady Agnes tucked away in my handbag, but I didn’t need to take it out to read it again. I knew the short missive by heart. Lady Agnes and her family were having trouble with some nasty rumors about their uncle’s death. A mutual friend, Sebastian Blakely, had recommended Lady Agnes contact me. I’d helped sort out an unpleasant situation during a party at Sebastian’s country home, and I was pleased he’d mentioned me to Lady Agnes.
The fact she’d contacted me on Sebastian’s recommendation meant I might actually be able to make my own way in the world. I was a well-read woman with an education befitting a lady—I had the ability to carry on a conversation about the weather for at least a quarter of an hour, and I could sort out complex seating arrangements at a dinner party—but neither my ladylike education nor my status as a gentlewoman had been advantageous when it came to finding paid employment. Instead of working for a company or individual, I’d had to create my own job.
I’d done fairly well in the line of work I’d fallen into, which was helping people handle sensitive matters discreetly. I’d successfully completed the two jobs I’d taken on. I’d made some headway in supporting myself, but my money troubles were far from over. I felt as if I’d dragged myself up to a narrow ledge where I was balanced precariously. Any misstep could send me plummeting back into the mass of the unemployed. If I could convince Lady Agnes to hire me, then solve her problem, I could really be on my way. There’s nothing like a recommendation from the aristocracy to boost a commercial concern.
A high-pitched voice drew my attention as I reached the end of the street. A newspaper boy in a flat cap called out, “Mummy haunts Mayfair town house. Details inside. Get your copy right here.” I handed over a few coins and took a newspaper. It wasn’t one of the staid, respectable papers. The newssheet was The Hullabaloo, one of the tabloids that specialized in scandalous headlines in gigantic fonts.
The story was front and center, above the fold. I checked the byline, but it was a man’s name, not my boarding-school chum Essie Matthews, who worked for the newspaper. A picture of the new Lord Mulvern, Gilbert, Lady Agnes’s brother, ran alongside the text, which described a maid—unnamed, of course—who recounted horrible wailing sounds emanating from the great gallery in Mulvern House.
“No one wants to go in there,” the scandal sheet quoted the unnamed servant. According to the story, the last housemaid who had dusted in the great gallery fainted and had to be carried out by two footmen. Once she came around, she refused to return to work and left her position, choosing instead to go back to her family in the country. The article included a statement from a current resident of Mulvern House—also unnamed—who said, “No one will go into the great gallery now. The doors are chained shut to keep the spirit locked in.”
I skimmed to the last lines. “The troubles continue for the family of the late Lord Mulvern, eminent Egyptologist and possessor of a cache of mummies. Will the Curtis family ever be free of the torment?”
A church bell rang out, and I started. It was the first of several chimes. The quarter of an hour was over. It was ten o’clock, the moment I should have been knocking on the door of Mulvern House. I thrust the newspaper at the boy. I certainly couldn’t carry it into Mulvern house.
“Don’t you want it, lady?”
“No, you can have it back. It’s not even creased.”
He shrugged and returned it to his stack as I dashed back the way I’d come. I reached Mulvern Square in a few minutes and sped through the gates, along the curve of the drive, and up the steps to the porte-cochère. I was only slightly breathless when a butler with a head of abundant gray hair opened the door. I informed him I had an appointment with Lady Agnes. A footman took my damp coat, and the butler said, “Lady Agnes is in the morning room. Please follow me.”
He had remarkable speed for his age, and I hurried to keep up. I followed him up a wide staircase with a blood-red runner over marble steps and gilded balustrades. We paced through several enormous rooms with soaring ceilings, silk damask walls, and beautiful skylights that brightened the rooms even on a gray day like today.
The art and antiquities on display made my head spin. Ornate French furniture, old Masters’ paintings, Roman statuary, and Egyptian artifacts filled the rooms. My aunt and uncle lived in Parkview Hall, which had a nice stock of antiquities and beautiful paintings, but the contents of Mulvern House were astounding.
The butler entered a smaller room with a pale green silk damask on the walls along with several massive medieval tapestries. Crates were stacked around the room, and the aroma of straw filled the air. A woman was seated at a Louis XVI desk, which was covered with what looked like small brightly colored oval-shaped stones. A dark-haired man with a suntan who looked to be in his mid-thirties sat in a chair across from the desk. He wore an impeccably tailored double-breasted suit. I thought I saw a trace of annoyance in his close-set green eyes as his gaze flicked over me.
The butler announced me, and the man in the suit stood. “I didn’t realize I was intruding on your social calendar, Lady Agnes,” he said in a soft-spoken voice. “I’ll leave you to your visitor, but do think on my offer. You’ll not get anything better.” He reached for a Homburg hat that rested on the corner of the desk. He didn’t pause to be introduced, only nodded as he brushed by me. “You don’t have to show me out, Boggs,” he said to the butler. “I know the way.”
Lady Agnes came toward me, her hand outstretched. “Miss Belgrave. Thank you for coming.” She motioned to the door. “You’ll have to excuse Mr. Dennett. He came to speak to me about Egyptian antiquities, and it’s as if he has blinders when that subject is under discussion. He’s just returned from Cairo and is in the grip of Egyptomania.”
I hadn’t met Lady Agnes. She spent most of her time in Egypt with her uncle on the excavations he sponsored, but I’d seen enough pictures of her in the society pages to recognize her. There was no mistaking her heart-shaped face and corkscrew raven curls, which were cut short in a bob that framed her large brown eyes. I thought perhaps she might be tanned from all her time spent in the Egyptian sun, but her complexion was a creamy porcelain except for a tinge of pink in her cheeks.
“It’s my pleasure.”
She wore a tunic-style dress in a black and red paisley print with a Mandarin collar. A wide cuff of glossy black fur edged the sleeves, and the dress floated with her movements as she turned to the butler. “Boggs, send up some refreshments.”
“Yes, my lady,” Boggs said and melted away.
A Siamese cat came out from under a desk, and Lady Agnes stooped to run her hand along its cream-colored fur as it curved by her legs. “This is Lapis.”
“She’s beautiful,” I said, amazed at the cat’s bright blue eyes.
“She certainly thinks so,” Lady Agnes said with a grin.
Lapis gave my shoes a sniff, then sauntered over to the windowsill by the desk and leaped straight up into the air. She landed lightly on the ledge and spread out, tail trailing over the side.
Lady Agnes gestured to armchairs positioned in front of the fireplace, where a blaze crackled. “Please have a seat. It’s turned so chilly I could do with a good hot cup of tea.”
“Sounds lovely.” I inched my way between the crates.
“Sorry about the crush.” She waved a hand. “I’m finalizing items for the exhibit. Soon all this will be at the museum.”
“Uncle Lawrence was in the final stages of preparing for an exhibit of his Egyptian antiquities when he died.” Her voice and manner up to that point had been forthright and matter-of-fact, but now sadness infused her tone.
“My condolences. I’m sorry for your loss.”
A maid entered with a tea tray and wove her way through the crates. Lady Agnes waited until the maid deposited the tea tray on a low table and left the room before she asked, “I suppose you’ve heard about the rumored curse?”
“I read about it in the newspapers.”
Lady Agnes gave an irritated shake of her head as she poured. “I’m still amazed they’re focusing on Uncle Lawrence.”
I took the teacup from Lady Agnes. “Why is that?”
Lady Agnes’s gaze went to the crates. “While Uncle Lawrence’s finds are quite fascinating in themselves, they’re nothing compared to the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. The newspapers should concentrate on Mr. Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s discoveries, not Uncle Lawrence’s.”
“I’ve found that newspapers rarely cover what one wishes they would.”
Lady Agnes gave a small laugh. “So true, Miss Belgrave. Unfortunately, I’m learning that. So what do you know about the situation surrounding my uncle?”
“Only what I’ve read in the newspapers. Perhaps you could tell me what happened, and then we can decide if I can be of help to you.”
“Yes, of course.” Lady Agnes sipped her tea. “Uncle Lawrence’s valet couldn’t rouse him one morning. It was September ninth.”
So a little over a month before, which would account for the lack of mourning at Mulvern House and in Lady Agnes’s clothing. The Great War had destroyed the strict rules about mourning attire and etiquette. I wasn’t surprised to see no evidence of mourning in the town house, and Lady Agnes in bright colors. My Aunt Caroline would disapprove, but I didn’t see anything wrong with limiting the external signs of mourning. I could see from Lady Agnes’s somberness when she spoke of the death of her uncle that she was still mourning him.
“Uncle Lawrence left a brief note saying the horrors prevented him from going on. The press found out about the note. I have no idea how. The gossip sheets immediately latched onto the story. They reported Uncle Lawrence was driven to suicide by the curse.” Lady Agnes’s cup rattled as she put it down. “It’s completely ridiculous. Besides the preposterous stories about the curse, the articles are inaccurate. They can’t even spell the name of the mummy properly. They spelled it Sozar, which is completely wrong. It’s Zozar, with a Z.” She closed her eyes briefly and drew a breath. “Of course that’s the least important thing.”
Her agitation faded, and she fixed her dark gaze on me. “I want you to get to the bottom of this curse nonsense. My brother Gilbert is a bit of a rattle, but he does have a good heart. He doesn’t deserve the treatment he’s gotten from the press, which has painted him as an incompetent. It’s true he doesn’t have Uncle Lawrence’s interest in Egyptology, but that doesn’t mean Gilbert is a dunce. It’s also upsetting my new sister-in-law, Nora.” The mention of her sister-in-law seemed to be an afterthought.
Besides reading about the mummy curse in the newspaper, I was also aware of a rumor filtering through the high society set that Gilbert had been anxious to inherit his uncle’s title and money. I knew Gilbert slightly, and in my encounters with him he’d seemed an affable, if slightly dense, young man. Should I mention the gossip? It was something I’d debated all morning, and I hadn’t been able to decide on the best course of action.
If Lady Agnes took offense . . . well, my work with her would be over before it had begun. But Lady Agnes didn’t seem to be the sort who ignored reality. No, I imagined she met challenges boldly. I cast around for the least offensive way to describe the rumors, but before I could speak, she said, “It’s imperative the rumors are stopped—all of them.”
Ah, so she was aware of the whispers about Gilbert. I took that to be a good sign. She didn’t deny them out of hand or pretend they didn’t exist—two options I’d found were never productive. “I understand your concern.” I placed my empty teacup on the low table in front of me. “I do have one reservation.” I wanted to help Lady Agnes and her family, but I didn’t know if it would be possible. “It’s difficult to disprove a suspicion. Even if I’m able to demonstrate the curse doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean the papers won’t continue writing stories about it.”
“Oh, I don’t want you to debunk the curse. I want you to prove Uncle Lawrence was murdered.”