She walked down the short hallway to a room that threw a pocket of light onto the floor. Heat engulfed her, a certain sign this place was heated by mage coal. How did a detective living in this section of London afford such a luxury? Unsure and off-balance, she hesitated to step inside the room.
“For hell’s sake, you had better be the devil himself to interrupt my work!” a voice boomed.
“I am sorry,” Joan snapped as she walked into the room. “I seem to have quite forgotten to wear my horns.”
She bit her tongue. All her prepared speeches, all her rehearsed pleas for help, and this was how she’d begun? Truly, her nerves were at breakpoint. A man stared rudely at her, though she supposed he had cause. Still, she could not help but stare back. She had anticipated an eccentric. She had not expected him to be so pleasing to the eye. There were faint lines around his mouth, his brown hair was thick and full, and his skin was an olive-brown shade that set off his dark eyes nicely. His clean-shaven face revealed a jaw that hinted at a strong character. Gregor Sherringford seemed a champion, indeed.
He scowled at her. Would this paragon throw her out?
She glanced down at his clothes, which were more in keeping with what she’d been told to expect of him by the cook and her daughter. A scientist as well as a detective, they had said. He wore a stained leather apron, his sleeves were rolled up to the elbow and something yellow had discolored the tips of the fingers on one hand.
If he was a detective, truly, then perhaps he would be curious enough to let her speak her piece.
“So, you are not the devil, though you may be as much trouble,” Sherringford finally said.
As much trouble as you, she wanted to say, but this time held her tongue. “Good morning, Mr. Sherringford. I do apologize for my intrusion.” He must listen to her. “My name is Joan Krieger. I wish to contract for your services as an investigator.” She offered her hand like a man would do when conducting a business arrangement.
He hesitated a second and then clasped her hand and shook it. He had a firm grip but his intent stare discomfited her. She had the distinct impression he could see all the way through her. Yet, to her, he seemed to contain endless depths of mystery. She’d met many men through her work but none like this one, who stirred something so deep inside her.
“How did you hear of me and how did you find me?” He scowled again.
“A mutual acquaintance told me of you and your office.”
“That would be indiscreet to reveal, sir.” The cook’s daughter had told her how to find this place but Joan had no idea how Sherringford would react to that information.
“And is it discreet to interrupt a man in the middle of his work?” He stated the question in a whisper, almost as if he’d directed it at himself, so she did not answer. “Your presence here raises many questions,” he added in a normal tone.
“Yes, I have many questions, sir. My hope is that you will provide the answers.” She tilted her chin up.
“I hardly qualify as ‘sir’, any more than you are a lady, Miss Krieger, despite your efforts to appear so.”
She flushed. “I wished only to appear as someone who needs your skills and has the means to pay for them.”
Sherringford snorted. Truly, that was a nice change from his scowling. She wondered what he’d look like when he smiled. Charming, she guessed, and wondered if anyone had been lucky enough to be charmed by him. Probably not, as his biting tongue likely drove them away.
“Very well. Stay if you can keep quiet while I finish the work you’ve interrupted. Refrain from any complaints. I well know this isn’t fit for a lady’s sight. But perhaps, not being a lady, you will not care about that.”
She felt her face grow even warmer. Now he sneered at her.
“Your room seems not only unfit for a lady but for anyone. The temperature is ungodly warm, Mr. Sherringford.”
Oh, dear Lord, another snap of her suddenly waspish tongue. She had antagonized him again.
“Ungodly? Some say that my work and I both fit that description.”
“I’d call you and your work fascinating.”
Unexpectedly, he smiled. She blinked. Oh yes, his smile definitely was charming. “Now, be quiet while I finish,” he said.
Mortified, she vowed to not say another word. She took in Sherringford’s workshop. The rectangular room was filled with tables shoved against all four walls, with yet another table in the center. Metal pipes, wheels, gears and other objects she could not identify covered the tables. Beakers with tubes going in and out were set up in one corner, and unlit burners nestled underneath.
Next to the beaker contraption, a wooden box with a blinking light made whirring sounds. She had never seen anything like it. It was possible these contraptions were part of some magical ritual, but it seemed more likely they were merely machinery, like the door. The cook’s daughter had said that Sherringford was familiar with mages, not that he was one. The door illusion argued otherwise, but perhaps that was commissioned work. She had heard mages could be hired, if one had enough money and knew the right people.
Overhead, pipes ran along the ceiling. Some were connected to the equipment on the tables, though she thought perhaps their valves were closed. It was hard to tell from where she was standing.
The room smelled vaguely of rotten eggs and fog. At least it was well lit. A large circular apparatus hung from the ceiling. She hesitated to call it a chandelier, as it looked so strange with all those pipes and gears whirling, but it served the same function.
“You seem struck dumb, Miss Krieger,” Sherringford said. “Such an interesting change from when you arrived.”
“It was you who asked me to remain silent.”