Chicago, April 1875
Senhor Eduardo Domingo Xavier Tavares had come to witness the final result of his revenge. Beneath the gilded and polychromed rococo tray ceiling of the Hunt mansion drawing room, the cream of Chicago society was gathered to participate in the auction of the late Wendell Hunt’s bankrupt estate. Now that he had seen for himself the judgment on his enemy, he might have walked away and never looked back. Yet, he had stayed.
He had wanted victory over an old enemy. He had wanted justice served in a manner that no court of law would render to him. He had wanted an end to the years of planning and maneuvering and plotting. Three short weeks ago, with the front page headline announcing the failure of the First Bank of Chicago, that desire had been realized. Still, he had not counted on the one act he couldn’t anticipate or prevent. One week later, Wendell Fletcher Hunt, founder and president of the First Bank of Chicago, had taken his own life.
It surprised Eduardo to realize that he was angered by the unnecessary loss of life. He had wanted Hunt to live, as he had, with the humiliation and uncertainty of life when all protection has been swept away. But Hunt had not had the courage to face that future, and instead chose suicide. For that, and that alone, Eduardo felt regret.
He knew Tyrone, his partner in revenge, would ridicule his remorse. Tyrone despised weakness of any kind. A man possessed of few words, a knife-edge temper, and a flare for attracting danger, Tyrone drew enemies like he drew women; both of whom came to him readily, a little sweaty yet eager to test his skill. He and Tyrone had met by chance and the only reason Tyrone had ever given for joining forces with him was that the three men Eduardo sought were his enemies also.
Eduardo cursed under his breath. He had learned the hard way that Tyrone had many enemies. Yet for seven long years no man could have been a more dependable ally, or more ruthless adversary. Preferring to remain in the background, Tyrone appeared like some spectral avenger only when needed. More than once each had saved the other’s life and mutual respect had evolved into friendship, if one could call Tyrone a friend. For, if the pursuit of revenge had caused Eduardo’s conscience to bend in unexpected ways, some secret rage had all but destroyed Tyrone’s compassion long before they had met.
Eduardo’s mind flinched away from an ugly memory of Tyrone interrogating a gunman who had been hired to ambush them. Unlike Tyrone, he had no stomach for cruelty. He never had. He didn’t have the heart for mercilessness, though he’d learned to be merciless. He didn’t belong in the role of avenger, yet it had been chosen for him years before by the strongest tie a man may know, the bonds of blood. He wasn’t a vulture, he didn’t need to pick his enemy’s bones to be satisfied. He was a joyous man by nature, a lover of beauty and peace and harmony. So why was he here?
Eduardo glanced toward the French doors of the drawing room, which stood open to relieve the warmth of the afternoon. Through the doorway the garden looked inviting with its colorful rows of hollyhocks, gladiolus, and pansies. He ignored the first murmur of the crowd, for he wanted badly to retire to that garden to enjoy a cigar. But the murmuring grew, drawing his attention away from his own ruminations. And then he saw her.
She stood framed in the doorway, a tall slender silhouette swathed in midnight’s hue. He didn’t need to be told who she was. Without ever having seen her, he knew that she must be the reason he had come.
Though every feature and detail of her was veiled, she seemed more vibrant and alive than anyone he’d ever met. There was fury in her stance, a patrician’s pride in the tilt of her head, and a singular calm that betrayed a gale of emotion held strictly in check. Amazed, he felt the power of her emotion wash over him. It tugged at him like the subtle but relentless pull of the moon upon the sea. When she began moving into the room he nearly stepped forward to intercept her. Then he heard one of the auctioneers call her by name and the connection was snapped by reality. Miss Philadelphia Hunt. Of course she was. Of course!
Intrigued, he moved back against the far wall, the better to observe the scene. He couldn’t hear her words nor the auctioneer’s response, but when she turned and walked down the aisle to take the last seat, he again felt a quickening within himself. He knew that he should leave now, but he felt the anticipation a theatergoer experiences moments before the curtain is to rise. Something was going to happen and nothing on earth would keep him from witnessing it.
Philadelphia Hunt paused in the doorway to the drawing room of her former home as the murmurings of the crowd swept over her.
“I can’t believe that she’s here.”
“… After all that’s happened …”
“Suicide! A most unnatural business …”
“She might spare us the embarrassment …”
“What is one to expect, after all, when the father … ?”
“Evicted, that’s what they told me. And here she is, bold as brass …”
Their words whipped her like frigid gusts from a wintery gale, yet she scarcely felt them. The relentless shocks and horrors of the past weeks had driven her into an emotional isolation that was far colder. Dressed in mourning, the symbol for her deepest and purest emotion, she felt invulnerable to their stares. There was only one reason why she was here. Until a week ago this mansion had been her home. Now it was lost to her, just as her security and her peace of mind were forever lost. So, let them look and know that she, the daughter of Wendell Fletcher Hunt, was among them.
Despite her resolve, molten anger began to seep through the fissures of her glacial calm as she moved across the parquet floor under their unfriendly stares. Once these people had counted themselves among her father’s many friends and been glad for the association. Now they were only so many vultures come to fatten themselves on the remains of another’s life.
Clenching her gloved hands into fists, she refused to look left or right as she passed familiar faces. She would show them the utter contempt in which she held them for their cowardly desertion of her father in his hour of need. She was a Hunt, representing three generations of Chicago Hunts. Let them look and whisper. Let them scoff, if they dared. She knew something that they did not. Someone in this room was responsible for her father’s ruination. Someone in this room might even be a murderer.
Philadelphia paused as a tall thin man hurried forth to intercept her. He was dressed in black as severe as her own. If not for the ruby stick pin in his cravat and the small scarlet figures in his silver cloth vest, he might have been mistaken for a mourner also. But he was not. He was another necessary evil with which she must deal. “Mr. Hoover.”
The man smiled tentatively but his graying brows were lowered in disapproval. “Why, Miss Hunt, you shouldn’t—that is, we didn’t expect you.”
Philadelphia felt her face form into the lines of civility despite her present anger as she said, “I’m quite amazed myself, Mr. Hoover, but as I’m here and you’re now aware of it, shall we begin?”
Before Hoover could reply his partner hurried over, his too-large eyes bulging slightly in their sockets at the sight of the elegantly clad young woman. “Why, Miss Hunt, this is an unexpected pleasure.” His smile wavered as he exchanged glances with his partner. Then, in a gesture meant to convey paternal concern, he reached for Philadelphia’s elbow but she deliberately shifted to make his gesture impossible to complete.
Embarrassed, he cleared his throat as he lowered his arm. “Miss Hunt, we’re delighted to see you, of course. However, I must warn you, you may find the events of the afternoon most distressing. It might prove wiser for you to wait in another room. Better yet, my carriage can take you to a place of your choice. I promise to report to you myself immediately following the—uh …”
“Auction, Mr. Sinclair. I can say the word. After all, it’s your business and the sole reason for our dealings together. My household is being put up for public auction this afternoon. Everything! From the pots and pans in the scullery to my silk drawers in the Ruby Bedroom’s armoire.”
She found she enjoyed the shock that mottled the man’s fair complexion. Surprise and initiative; she must remember to use them often in the future. A good weapon was rare enough to be prized.
She deliberately raised her voice a fraction to satisfy the curiosity of those nearby who were obviously straining to catch her words. “I’ll stay, Mr. Sinclair, because I wish to make certain that you get top dollar for the things I’ve placed in your care. I see by your expression that you disapprove of my mention of money. Regrettably, I’m no longer able to abide by the dictates of the polite society in which I’ve been reared, for I’m both destitute and in great debt. It may also be poor form to mention debt, but then mine are notorious, wouldn’t you say?”
Not waiting for his response, she turned and started down the aisle between the rows of dozens of gilt-back chairs that filled the room. Their royal blue velvet upholstery was familiar to her. They belonged in the ballroom. Before the day was done, they would belong to one of the people who sat upon them.
She had deliberately chosen this room for the auction because of its western exposure. Crystal, paintings, silks, silver, and jewels would be seen in their glory in the afternoon light. Her father had always been particular in his choice of setting for his art collection. He had been a passionate collector of objects both beautiful and rare. And he had shared his love of beautiful things with her, his only child. Left motherless at birth, her fondest memories of her often-absent father were on those evenings when he had returned from one of his frequent trips and would unveil for her his latest acquisition. How his eyes would light up in anticipation of her reaction. Because it pleased him, she had begun at a very early age to learn by heart the history of each piece, her accumulating knowledge a connection to the kind but sometimes remote man who was her father.
Philadelphia took a deep breath, her vision awash in tears. She mustn’t think of her father now. It made her head ache and her chest tighten. She was among enemies. They had destroyed her father, and his reputation. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of a single tear. She took the last seat in the last row. Only at the last instant did she realize that her knees were buckling and that, if not for the chair, she might have fallen.
Recovering quickly, she willed herself to sit perfectly still as the auction was called to order by Mr. Hoover. She knew which piece would be put up for sale first. It was her least favorite in her father’s vast collection; a medieval German chandelier made of stags’ horns and topped by a cast-silver siren’s bust. He said he had bought it because he simply couldn’t believe that anything so meticulously constructed could be so unredeemably ugly. And so it was. A smirk tugged at her mouth as the auctioneer brought it forward. It was a revolting piece and she hoped that it sold for a fortune.
Yet no offers were forthcoming when the auctioneer called for the first bid. Undaunted, he called a second time for an opening bid of fifty dollars but the audience remained silent.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, we’re here for an auction,” Henry Hoover began with an encouraging smile. “Perhaps you, sir, will be kind enough to open the bidding at fifty dollars?” He gestured toward a gentleman in the front row.
“I’d not give you a half-dollar for that monstrosity!” the man replied.
“Fifty cents!” cried a man sitting in the second row.
“Fifty-one cents!” came a shout from farther back.
“Redly, gentlemen!” Hoover chided with a tone of long-suffering patience. “The value of the silver alone exceeds a hundred dollars.”
“Two dollars!” offered the man in the front row. “That’ll put me ninety-eight to the good on the debts owed me by Hunt’s bank!”
This drew laughter from a few of the bolder gentlemen, though others seemed constrained by Philadelphia’s presence.
“May I have a bid of fifty dollars?” Hoover called again, his voice a little strained.
“You won’t get it,” the two-dollar bidder answered and rose to his feet. “You’re holding this auction in order to settle Hunt’s debts. You mustn’t expect his victims to help you do it! Wendell Hunt stole from us! Don’t expect us to give him much more!” As the speaker shook his fist at the auctioneer, his cry was taken up by several other gentlemen who rose in turn.
Philadelphia listened incredulously. She’d known most of these men all her life. They were men of banking and commerce, men of action and wealth who carried weight and demanded respect in the city of Chicago, but now they were threatening to become an unruly crowd.
As the auctioneer banged his gavel for order, the wives who had accompanied their spouses lay restraining hands on their husbands’ arms and the noise subsided.
“May I have further bids on the item?” Hoover asked hoarsely.
“You’ve had the final bid!” said the man in the front row. “I bid two dollars and two dollars it is! Now bring out the good stuff. I’ve five or ten dollars left. That should buy me a handful of emeralds and a diamond tiara!” His guffaw was followed by demands from the others for the immediate auctioning of Wendell Hunt’s famed jewel collection.
Philadelphia watched impassively as Mr. Hoover wiped his brow with his handkerchief and then signaled his partner, who brought forth half a dozen jewelry cases on a silver butler. But, when Hoover opened the first case to display an elaborate pearl collar with a paved diamond clasp, she caught her breath. She had forgotten about that piece. It shouldn’t be for sale. It was her father’s favorite and had been promised to her on her wedding day.
“That’s more like it!” said one of the audience. “Now that’s something I want! I open the bidding with one dollar!”
“Now be fair about it, Angus,” said another of the men. “You know it’s worth at least—twice that! Two dollars!”
In dawning horror, Philadelphia realized that there was a conspiracy underfoot. As revenge against their bank losses, these men planned to purchase a fortune in art and jewelry for little more than change.
“No! Stop this auction! Stop it immediately!”
Philadelphia sprang to her feet and hurried toward the front of the room. She saw amazement register on the auctioneer’s face but she was beyond self-consciousness. She caught up the lovely pearl choker from its velvet bed and, throwing back her veil, turned to face the bidders.
For a long moment she stood perfectly still, daring anyone to speak yet scarcely knowing where to begin herself. The sea of faces before her was suddenly blurred and unfamiliar. “You say you won’t pay extravagantly for the belongings of a bankrupt debtor. That is your privilege. What is not your privilege is the right to insult this beautiful piece with your ignorance of its worth!”
She moved forward and held the pearls high so that they cascaded from between her fingers. “Look! Look at them. I hold before you three dozen perfectly matched pearls of exquisite size and color. But that isn’t all.”
For the first time she looked directly at a member of the audience and an old kindly face gazed back at her. She cast him a pleading look and her voice softened. “Dr. Richards! You must remember the story my father told you of these pearls. He’d just come back from a trip to San Francisco. I remember distinctly that he invited you to dinner especially to show you his latest purchase.”
“Did your father use bank customers’ funds to purchase them?” inquired a man’s rough voice from the rear of the room.
Philadelphia looked up sharply. “Who said that?” When there was no reply she moved to the center aisle. “Are you, whoever you are, so much a coward that you would hurl insults yet dare not show your face?”
There was a momentary shuffling of feet before she saw a man in a brown plaid suit rise to his feet. “I don’t know you, sir, and by the look of you, I don’t care to. This is an auction. Do you have the value of these pearls in your purse or are you another of those spying reporters?”
It was a lucky guess, but when he began shouting at her about the rights of the press to seek the truth, she knew that she was right. Those nearby murmured in protest. The cream of Chicago society was no more fond of the press than she.
Sensing a victory, she pointed a finger at the man. “This is a private home; until this auction ends it is still my home, and you, sir, are not welcome in it.” She turned to the auctioneer. “Mr. Hoover, I demand that you eject this man, immediately.”
She turned away and shut her eyes to compose herself as the reporter was hustled from the room by two of the auctioneer’s assistants. When the doors were firmly closed against him, she opened the diamond clasp of the pearl collar and placed the necklace about her own neck. As she walked forward she began to speak in a soft but clear voice.
“My father bought this necklace in Chinatown from a pearl merchant who told him the tale of its history. Long before they were formed into a collar, these pearls saved the life of an aristocratic lady. Her name was Mei Ling, favorite daughter of the Chinese emperor.”
She hadn’t meant to tell the story but she’d always loved it and the telling came naturally. “Many years ago, China was a country of many warlords with many loyalties, not all of them to the emperor. One day the most powerful of the warlords rode into the capital city with his army as an honored guest of the emperor. Like everyone else in the land the warlord had heard of Mei Ling, famed for her beauty. Each day, he asked the emperor to bring his daughter to court so that he might be dazzled by her perfection. Each time the emperor promised to consider it. But when after several days she didn’t appear, the warlord decided to find out for himself if the rumors of her beauty were true.
“A man of great cunning and daring, he climbed the walls of the women’s apartments one evening and saw Mei Ling with her handmaidens. Stricken not by love but by greed to possess the rare beauty of the lady, he instantly devised a plot to kidnap her.
“The emperor was inconsolable but unable to summon enough men in his army willing to do battle against the famous warlord. Yet the emperor was wise enough to know that greed, not love, had spurred the warlord to the theft of his daughter. And so, the emperor offered to the nobleman who could ransom the princess the reward of ‘his heart’s desire.’ Many went forth to the warlord’s fortress, bringing rare silks and perfumes and porcelains. The warlord put each of the men to death and kept their ransoms—and Mei Ling.
“Finally, in utter desperation the emperor offered ‘his heart’s desire’ to any man in the country who could save his daughter. To his amazement, only one man came forth, a lowly pearl fisher, a man too unworthy to be allowed inside the walls of the capital city under ordinary circumstances. Once assured that the emperor would keep his promise even to him, the pearl fisher set out for the warlord’s fortress. A month went by and when nothing was heard from the warlord or the pearl fisher, everyone, including the emperor, assumed that the man had been killed like all the rest.
“But, on the thirty-sixth day, to everyone’s utter amazement, the pearl fisher came up the road to the capital city wearing only his loincloth and reed sandals, and leading a yak with Mei Ling on its back. When the story was told, it was more amazing than a fairy tale.”
Philadelphia touched the necklace. “The ransom the pearl fisher offered the warlord was the first of these pearls. The warlord agreed that the pearl was indeed beautiful but said that Mei Ling was worth more than a single pearl. The pearl fisher replied that this pearl was the only one that had ever been brought up from its secret bed because he feared to dive there. There was a fierce dragon who guarded the pearls. The warlord asked how many pearls there were. Dozens, the pearl fisher assured him, and perhaps, if the warlord came to protect him, they could all be gathered up.
“Greed is a powerful lure,” Philadelphia said with deceptive calm as her gaze searched the audience. “The pearl fisher saw the greed shining in the warlord’s eyes and knew that he had chosen the right lure. So that no other would learn the location of the pearl bed, the pearl fisher slyly suggested that the warlord alone accompany him. The selfish warlord agreed.
“When they reached the diving place, they set up camp. Each day the pearl fisher made a single dive, bringing up an oyster that produced a perfect pearl. But, on the thirty-fifth day, the pearl fisher came up emptyhanded. He said that the monster in the deep was angry and would no longer allow him to search for pearls. Even when threatened with the loss of his life, the pearl fisher refused to go into the water again.
“Next to greed and selfishness, pride was the warlord’s greatest sin. He said that he was not afraid and would dive for the pearls himself. And so the warlord dived in and the sea closed over him. The pearl fisher waited a full day but the warlord was never seen again.”
Philadelphia paused for breath but the woman nearest her was too anxious to hear the end of the tale to wait. “Well? What happened to the warlord?” she demanded impatiently.
Philadelphia lifted her eyes. “Why, the monster of the deep took him, a treacherous riptide that not even the warlord could defeat.”
“And the pearl fisher?” another prompted.
“He achieved his heart’s desire,” Philadelphia answered. “He’d known of that pearl bed all his life but had been afraid to dive there because of the riptide. Love and loyalty to his emperor gave him what he wanted, the courage to dive for the most beautiful and perfect pearls in all the world.”
“Did he marry the emperor’s daughter?” asked another.
Philadelphia shook her head. “He was already married with half a dozen children. But he did become the emperor’s personal pearl fisher, and his family became famous for producing the most beautiful and lovely pearls ever found.” She took off the necklace and held it up once more. “These are from the pearl fisher’s legendary catch. Will you allow them to be sold for a mere pittance?”
A howl of protest went up from the crowd.
“I demand that the bidding continue,” said a woman in the third row. “I bid five hundred dollars!”
The second and third bids were shouted out before the auctioneer could reach his podium.
“Seven hundred and fifty dollars!”
“I bid a thousand!”
Philadelphia lowered the necklace as the sound of the bidders’ cries filled the air. The bidding concluded quickly but not before a bidder offered five thousand dollars for the collar of pearls. She hadn’t the heart to face the man who had bought the pearls. It was enough that they had drawn a respectable price. She handed them over to the auctioneer without a backward glance and headed for the door.
Suddenly she was exhausted, wanting only to be as far away from the auction as possible. Her anger was gone, her aloofness had melted away. She felt fragile and vulnerable, weakened by the memories of what could never be again. She hadn’t meant to share her intimate feelings with the people at this auction. They didn’t understand, couldn’t appreciate the great and small joys she and her father had shared beneath this roof. Like the Chinese warlord, they were motivated by greed and covetousness. The realization made her feel ill, as though she’d taken part in some sordid transaction.
She picked up her pace, wanting only to be free of the noise and chatter and heat, yet as she reached the door she heard her name called.
“Miss Hunt!” Mr. Hoover hurried up behind her. “You aren’t leaving, Miss Hunt? Not when you’ve been so successful.”
She turned to him. “You were right. I shouldn’t have come.”
“Why, to the contrary. You’ve been a great success. Already people are inquiring about the other pieces of jewelry. Are there stories about any of them?”
Philadelphia sighed. “Yes. Everything my father bought was chosen for its uniqueness.”
“Then won’t you share with them a few of those reasons?” He added with a speculative look, “Anything you can do to increase sales will help alleviate your father’s debt.”
She looked away from him. Because she believed him to be innocent, she had publicly vowed to pay back every cent that her father had been accused of embezzling. That debt was shockingly large. She had been warned that the auction and sale of the house probably wouldn’t cover it all. But, if she remained to encourage the bidding, perhaps she would owe that much less when it was over.
She slipped her hand into the pocket of her jacket and felt the folded packet of letters she had carried with her constantly since the moment she’d found her father’s body. He’d been clutching the letters in his left hand, while a still-smoking pistol had been in his right. The police didn’t know about the letters. No one knew of the letters. And no one would, until she’d learned the identity of the sender, or senders.
She gave her head a slight shake. “Very well, Mr. Hoover. I will stay if you think it will help.”
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