Miss Maddie Hatter, renegade daughter of a powerful Steamlord, is scraping a precarious living as a fashion reporter when the story of a lifetime falls into her lace-gloved hands.
Baron Bodmin, an adventurer with more failed quests than fingernails, has vanished in circumstances that are odd even for him.
While he is supposedly hunting the fabled Eye of Africa diamond in the Nubian desert, his expeditionary airship is found adrift off the coast of England. Maddie was the last reporter to see the potty peer alive. If she can locate the baron or the Eye of Africa, her career will be made.
Outraged investors and false friends complicate her quest, and a fiendish figure lurks in the shadows, ready to snatch the prize . . . at any price.
"Like a delightfully vintage game of Clue, Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond serves up a clever mystery in whimsical style. This is a Steampunk world, where airships roam the skies and clockwork sparrows relay messages like telegraphs, and the settings are imaginative, rich and colourful."– Goodreads
"I loved this story and found it really easy to imagine, even plausible in an implausible way. Lovely read and first in what I hope is a long running series."– Goodreads
"The story is fun, well paced, and engaging, with lots of fantastic 'Ah ha!' moments. The writing is delightful and I especially adore all of the subtle (and not so subtle!) nods to famous people, places, and organizations, both literary and historical."– Goodreads
"I am vindicated." The Honourable Madeleine Main-Bearing danced into her bedchamber with unladylike glee, waving a yellow telegraph flimsy at the room's sole occupant. The clockwork sparrow, half the length of her gloved hand, focused one shiny eye on her as she unpinned her hat and flung it toward her bedpost. "The batty baron's airship has been found adrift near England, abandoned. Suddenly, after months of making me ignore that fascinating fellow's adventure for hats and cravats, CJ wants all my notes about the baron's time in Cairo. Hah!" Maddie fluttered the telegraph again, a thin yellow victory flag, as she pranced across the room. "Let us give him what he asked for, by the ream. Oh, Tweetle-D, there might be a byline for me at last!"
Maddie's name in a London newspaper. The culmination of a dream. Not her real name, naturally, for daughters of Steamlords did not embarrass their families by appearing anywhere but the Society pages, and then only as belles of exemplary style. Her mother had never lived down that Main-Bearing debutante portrait in the Times, under the huge headline: Peer's Daughter Feared Kidnapped!
The fashion columns were only permitted by the family because nobody knew who wrote them. But a story like the baron's could not appear under her hats-and-sleeves name. "Miss Maddie Hatter" lacked the dignity to sit atop any paragraph of more import than whether ecru net gloves were permissible for daytime in the heat and dust of Egypt. Maddie needed a new nom-de-plume, a name with gravitas, suitable for the big stories that were sure to be in her future.
First, though, she needed a fast report so CJ could get something into the evening edition. She stripped off her gloves—not ecru netting but plain white, smudged with the orange dust of Cairo streets. Then she retrieved her notebook from a pocket and flipped back the shell-pink cover, ignoring the sequins that spelled, in flowing italic, "Miss Maddie Hatter, Foreign Fashionista for the London Fog & Cog."
The Fog was one of several weeklies owned by CJ Kettle's conglomerate, one for every day of the week in some part of England. Although issued a suitably covered notebook for each paper, she found it simpler to carry a single notebook for scribbling on the move. As long as CJ got a daily telegraphed report filled with trivia about sleeves, shawls, collars, or hat trimmings in vogue with the English aristocracy wintering in Egypt, he need never know she had flagrantly ignored almost every other of his copious instructions.
Today at last he wanted more than the trend in neckwear, and it was all here in her notebooks. She leafed through pages of scribbled notes and sketches of ornate millinery to find the entry titled, in tall, firm printing, "Eccentric Adventurer Exits Egypt."
"TD, do we have any images of the baron's departure?"
The sparrow's brass wings shimmered in a beam of sunlight as he flapped to the desk. He tapped the inkwell with his beak until she reached over to open the lid. His throat buzzed softly as he drank. Then he hopped over to the blotter where she laid out a fresh sheet of paper and secured its corners with pins. When he began to dot-dash lines onto the page, she turned back to her notebook, scribbling on a separate sheet. At the end of the page, she stopped writing and read over what she had written, crossing out a word here and inserting another there.
"The eccentric English adventurer, Baron Bodmin, left Cairo early this year on a dangerous quest for a legendary treasure known as the Eye of Africa.
A large white stone with veins of red in its heart, the so-called "Bloodshot Diamond" was reportedly set in a tribal mask as a third eye. Nubian legend says the diamond lights up with a fantastical red glow if touched by an evildoer's blood. The baron widely claimed he possessed secret knowledge to lead him to the mask's hiding place, an uncharted oasis deep in the Nubian desert.
During the long refit of his expeditionary airship, the Jules Verne, for desert travel, Baron Bodmin was best known in Cairo for elegant dinner parties at Shepheard's English Hotel. On January fifth of this year, he set out from Cairo aerodrome at dusk and never returned.
The baron's fate remains unknown. Was his quest fruitless? Were his bones picked clean by hungry desert-denizens? How came his ship to be floating, unattended, so far from Egypt? Could it, indeed, have traversed the Mediterranean Sea and all Europe un-guided by a human hand? If there is a clue to his fate in Egypt, your faithful correspondent will excavate it and report it here, in the pages of . . ."
She left the name of the newspaper blank. Let CJ decide where to place her prose to best effect. The sparrow's pattering over his page petered out with a final dot-dot-dot, and she looked at the picture he had produced: the baron at the aerodrome, lit by the setting sun as he leaned toward a beautiful, dark-haired woman.
"Oh, yes, that soldier's widow." Maddie wiped the little bird's beak free of ink. "The blue evening gown with bouffant sleeves and the adventurous neckline so suitable for displaying jewels. I wonder if she hung onto that diamond-and-sapphire collar the baron gave her, or if he demanded it back. He seemed that kind of man. But I expect she's acquired another protector by now."
This style of remark had given Mother the vapours on Maddie's last, incognito visit to London, but Maddie was not the sheltered debutante who had fled her own ball two years earlier. She knew men and women formed irregular connections that did not lead to marriage. Similar connections had been offered to Maddie on her travels, in token of her youth and lack of looming male relatives, but thus far she had not accepted any offers. Or jewels.
"I must find out where the widow went," she told the bird, "and gain an interview. She is, after all, the last person known to have spoken to the baron before he vanished." She transcribed her article onto a telegraph sheet, using the much-condensed word forms beloved of penny-pinching newspapers editors, and hoped whoever expanded them at the other end did so correctly. Wiping a splotch of ink from one dainty finger, she re-fixed her hat and donned a clean pair of gloves. Someone in the tea-and-gossip party that was Shepheard's English Hotel would know the fair widow's name and direction. "Wait here, TD, while I send this telegraph and pursue my inquiries."
The little bird gave a small warble that might have been disapproval, but hopped to his windowsill and resumed staring out at swallows and pigeons, and the Egyptian hawks that circled lazily above the teeming city of mud-brick and stone, occasionally swooping down to prey on the smaller birds.
In early April, Shepheard's remained filled with British winter residents, most of whom were gathered in the tea-garden at this hour. After sending her telegram to CJ, Maddie paused in the archway, scanning for likely gossips among the sea of pastel muslin tea dresses. Pale plastered walls reflected murmuring voices and the whisper of water from several fountains. Potted palms rustled as fans whirred in the vaulting overhead, driven by a complex array of rods and gears. Arches along the far wall opened the tearoom to the courtyard, where stately palms augmented the shade of the massive hotel's wings. Wicker tables draped in pristine linen were dotted across the ochre floor tiles. Running among them were self-propelling tea-carts, dispensing the genial beverage with puffs of steam. Waiters bore trays of dainties and pitchers of cream. Ruffled and ribbon-strewn ladies at every table paused in the act of lifting teacups or plying fans, hoping the eye of the young lady reporter would light upon their Indian shawls or Irish lace cuffs.
At last Maddie spotted the pastel peach hat trimmings of the hotel's longest resident, Lady Hartington-Holmes. Her nieces, both destined for the next London Season, were visiting to acquire social polish. As every mention in a Society page enhanced their luster back home, in which effort Maddie had often obliged—although to be frank she could not tell one girl from the other—she had no qualms about approaching the group uninvited. Conveniently, Lady HH was already discussing the morning's news about Baron Bodmin, specifically his penchant for purchasing jewelry for "that woman." Maddie accepted a teacup from one niece and a cream cake from another, and raised an eyebrow.
The niece in blue tittered. "That dashing widow!"
"If she was a widow," the other niece added, as pink as her gauzy shawl.
Blue nodded. "Colonel Muster told me she was . . ."
"Ahem." Lady HH cleared her throat and the girl fell silent. "Yes, that widow," said the elder woman with distaste. "Her husband, she said, was an officer in the Fifth, lost on a desert campaign. This visit was in the nature of a pilgrimage, she said. Hah. A hunting expedition, more like. She arrived not long after the baron, and if they were not acquainted before, she lost no time in drawing him like a bee to a blossom. Men. Hah." She paused to refresh her throat with tea. "No woman of standing accepts diamonds from a man she is neither related to nor expecting to marry."
Maddie raised the other eyebrow.
"Yes, diamonds," said the blue niece. "A full set. The necklace, bracelets, earrings. No ring, though, and you know what that means."
"She wasn't offered marriage," the pink niece clarified, her cheeks glowing with the lure of illicit romance.
"And this colonel told you something about her marriage?"
Lady HH huffed loudly. "I learned, eventually, that no officer in the Fifth had ever borne that name. But Colonel Muster did not think fit to inform me of the impersonation." She glared at the blue niece, who apparently had not informed her either.
"Such a lovely party for the baron's farewell," said the pink niece, with the clear aim of changing the subject.
"You attended, did you not, Miss Hatter?" added the blue niece.
"I did," said Maddie. "And I went to the aerodrome to watch the baron's airship lift off."
"Aunt would not allow us," said the pink niece. "Was it terribly exciting, with the sun setting and the banners streaming? The Cairo newssheets all had the same image, blurry and gray, with the mooring lines still attached."
"Not that exciting. No banners nor a speech of parting. More a sense of a dangerous venture about to begin." Maddie paused. "The widow was with him at the aerodrome."
The nieces turned rapt faces to her. "Did she faint?" asked one. "Did she depart with him?" asked the other.
"She wept, from what I could tell," said Maddie. TD's picture had helped her recollect the moment: the dainty woman a scant few years older than herself, weeping as the setting sun snagged on the diamonds at her wrist. "I watched the baron board the Jules Verne, alone, and he drew up the gangplank immediately. I never saw her after that moment either, although she had been occupying a room along my corridor for weeks."
"We quite thought she had gone with him," said Lady HH, "without benefit of matrimony."
"Perhaps she followed her lover across the desert on a horse," said the blue niece. "Or hid herself amongst a camel caravan."
"If she was lost to savages in the desert," said the pink, "it is a harsher fate than she deserved for flaunting a few diamonds."
Lady HH glared down the nieces, but ladies at nearby tables were quick to add their iota about the faux widow. Some opined that being torn apart by savages was just what a certain class of woman deserved, and others declared there was no proof the so-called widow had been immoral, only that the baron wished to make her so.
Eventually Maddie tired of trying to winkle out details that might lead to the mysterious widow's present name or whereabouts, and retired to the lobby. She looked around the vast, hexagonal space, hoping to snaffle a few male guests with quotable opinions of the baron's quest. The Moorish archway and colourful architectural flourishes had ceased to dazzle months ago, and the immensely high ceiling left her merely grateful that the inevitable heat of a Cairo springtime afternoon had room to rise.
Brass messenger tracks wove almost invisibly through the patterned tiles on the walls unless, as now, one of the flat note-cases, no larger around than the palm of her hand, went crawling up, down, or across a wall before her eyes. A falcon head engraving meant a destination in the Horus wing, but the disc was a bit too far away to make out the little room-number calibrator. Not that it would be for her anyway. She was in the Bast wing at the rear of the hotel, where the Egyptians and their British overlords considered both female deities and living females belonged. If she'd known the baron would disappear in mysterious circumstances, she would have cultivated an acquaintance among the message-transcription staff, and learned of messages sent to or from the baron. Did the hotel keep copies of guest messages? Perhaps she should inquire, pretending to have lost one of hers.
Meanwhile, she scanned the lobby again for any sign of an eminent male who might grant her a word on the record. But it was the wrong time of day for accosting gentlemen. Most were gathered in the smoking room over their brandy, discussing the latest news from London. She needed the latest news too. If the baron was already discovered in England, there would be no point pursuing the story in Cairo, and she would have to wait for another chance to prove herself worthy of a byline.
Leaning over a nearby table, she placed a penny in the paw of the brass monkey seated there, and spun him to face her. The creature's forearm ratcheted upward to deposit the coin in his mouth. He rolled to her edge of the table. After a few clicks and wheezes, his vest-front opened up, revealing a small screen on which scrolled miniscule editions of the London daily news. She twisted his little brass buttons, slowing the feed enough to read the headlines, and pumped his other arm to increase the size of the type-face whenever the baron's name appeared.
There was nothing new except that the baron's nephew was on his way to Cairo to make inquiries. He had, it appeared, only learned of his uncle's disappearance on being accosted by a reporter outside a Parisian gaming house. Perhaps she could nab him for an interview, although, if he was traveling overland as the article indicated, he could not arrive for at least a week. She made a note of his name—Sir Ambrose Peacock—and scrolled on.
When her eyes crossed from the strain of squinting, she poked the monkey's nose to send it rolling back to its place. No gentlemen had yet strolled by, ready to be snared for a quote, and she did not quite dare to penetrate entirely male sanctums like the smoking room. She would have to try again after the evening meal.
As she was tucking away her notebook, a prosperous merchant strode in. Silken robes and embroidered vests wafted about him, releasing clouds of exotic scent. A clerk scuttled in his wake. The merchant slammed a rolled paper onto the main desk, shouting at the startled manager in fast, incomprehensible Egyptian, and slapped the countertop to punctuate his points. The manager protested, shaking his head and even, briefly, his fist. Much yelling ensued, but without apparent resolution. The merchant stalked out, robes flapping and clerk scuttling crablike after. The scroll stayed on the polished wood of the desk, the manager eying it like he might an asp.
That excitement over, Maddie made her way upstairs. As the ascender wheezed and creaked its way upward, she asked its steward what the fuss at the desk had been about. This fellow, often a recipient of minor baksheesh for explaining Egypt to her, had no hesitation in telling all he knew.
"The jewels, young Sitt. Diamonds and other gems, bought by the English baron who was lost in his airship. He had them here to decide which to buy, and left before sending them back. The jewel merchant is not paid, and now he knows the baron is not coming back, he is angry. The hotel is not paid for the baron's rooms, and is angry. The lady who was supposed to pay has said she will not pay. Not for the baron's rooms, nor the baron's parties, nor the jewels." He scratched one ear where his fez had rubbed it. "She is angry too, I think."
"This lady who was to pay, was she staying at the hotel?" Could the tea gossips have had it so wrong, and the widow was supporting the baron instead of vice versa?
"No, young Sitt. That lady is far away in England. She has only the man at the bank to speak for her. The baron had papers to let him take money from the bank."
Not the widow, but another woman, in England, ensnared by the dashing adventurer. Maddie elicited the name of the bank and handed over a few modest coins, already mentally composing her next headline. Large-living baron bilks lonely lady? If someone could be brought to reveal her name, CJ could surely find the woman for a quote.
As she returned to her room along the quiet, second-class corridor, with its boring British box-shape and the message track with absolutely no ornamentation to disguise its brassy utility, Maddie once more pondered her new byline. It had to look good in 10-point type. Ah, well, she could remain "Our Cairo Correspondent" for one more article.
No portrait, though, not ever. Under the new deal, her parents could withhold her allowance if she were recognized while doing something so outrageous as earning a living. The allowance had paid her way to Egypt and, until the coin began to trickle in from fashion columns, had provided her shelter, her food, and the endless supply of white gloves that gave her dubious profession an air of respectability. If it stopped, her savings would barely get her back to England at the end of the current assignment, and CJ would not offer another post if the project lost her father's grudging favour. Nobody willingly offended a Steamlord, especially over a family matter.
She stepped into her utilitarian bedchamber and told TD, "Tomorrow I will wear my best suit and the hat with the ribbons that hide you best. We will infiltrate the bank, and then the jeweler. You must record any conversation at the first, and collect images at the second. A pictorial record of pilfered jewels will catch CJ's fancy no end."
Setting her notebook on the desk in preparation for an article on Indian-style parasols for Spring, she flipped up the lid on the inkwell and prepared to dip her pen. She paused, and thoughtfully rested her index finger on a faintly shiny bit of the carved walnut surround. One push and she would have her old visiting card back from the secret drawer. The Honourable Madeleine Main-Bearing, daughter of the Marquis of Main-Bearing, could command assistance from any official in the British Empire, and some beyond it. A mere bank manager would be as butter in the sun before that card. But there were only five, and if she carried them, she would be tempted to use them to smooth her path. Showing one would be tantamount to admitting she could not, in fact, make her way in the world alone. She would not admit that. Not yet. She pulled her finger away, picked up the pen, and began to write.