Here’s yet another snippet from The Wild Ghost Chase:
I had expected a posh fern bar catty-corner from Kensington Palace – instead, the Honorable Peter Wycomb-Bailey escorted me into a burger joint at the bottom of a tortuous flight of stairs beneath a Soho alley. Burgers of London? Perhaps Peter felt that in my traumatized condition I needed the comfort of familiar food. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with me at all – maybe the guy just liked junk food. It didn’t matter to me. . . I wasn’t the least bit hungry.
The rough-cut stone walls suggested Roman ruins or the lower dungeon of a medieval prison. I tried not to speculate on the origin of the stains.
The burger Peter ordered for me was at best a loose translation from the American but the fries were a work of art – crispy on the outside and angel food cake fluffy on the inside. They were sprinkled lavishly with sea salt, which sent arrows of pain shooting through my split lip, but I pronounced them worth every bit of agony.
It was a fine place to talk privately. Yes, stranger though he was he did a passable imitation of an attentive listener – absolutely what I needed at that moment. I missed Dana. I promised myself I would e-mail her first thing in the morning. There wasn’t a living soul on this entire island I could confide in as I could with her. I was stranded on a rock in a cold dark sea.
Considering my affinity for things English I should have been happy as a frog in a lily pond. But this was not the merry ol’ England of history books and Jane Austen novels. This city could have been anywhere, filled as it was with deafening noise and populated with millions of frantic humans bent on being anywhere but where they were. At least the burger joint in the bowels of Soho was relatively peaceful.
I had a captive audience so I off-loaded the entire pathetic story onto Peter, a guy I’d just met – told him about my abandoned “Glenarvin” thesis, the flight from Seattle, and the Mac’s humiliating speech. Well, almost the whole story. I left out the part about being plagued by Lord Byron’s vindictive ghost and the fool’s errand my spirit guide had sent me on. I already looked like a total fruitcake without adding that particular cherry to the icing.
“As I understand it,” he said, mopping up a puddle of brown sauce with the last French fry. “The plan of action you now propose is to slink off with nary a whimper never to be seen or heard from again in Byronic circles.”
“That’s about it, yes.”
“Because you may meet with a slight bit of embarrassment?” he said. “I think you’re being shortsighted. You really should stay with the conference. You’ve come so far it seems like such a shame to turn tail. Besides, you wouldn’t want to miss the kickoff ball, which I assure you will be well worth the price of admission, if only to watch normally staid and sober professors fall flat on their upturned noses. Personally I wouldn’t miss it for the world and I was rather hoping you would accompany me.”
“I don’t know, Peter. How serious can anyone take me after MacNalley characterized me as some sort of Byron groupie? Sure, I didn’t have anything ready to present at this year’s conference but I’m so close to having a very important paper ready to submit in academic circles within the next few months and . . .”
“Allegrina, surely you know that everyone attending this conference is a Byron groupie – otherwise they would spend their summer holidays on a decadent beach in the south of France, not closeted with a mangy menagerie of aging academics.”
“You’re not a Byron groupie, yet you’re attending the conference.”
“Well yes, but then I too have an agenda – not dissimilar from what I suspect to be your own. I like to shake things up.”
“Irritating your brother isn’t quite in the same league with . . . Peter, can I trust you?”
“That depends upon many things but I believe I’m generally trustworthy.”
“I have a confession to make,” I said, hoping I was doing the right thing in taking him into my confidence but I really could use an ally. “My paper – the masters thesis I was working on – isn’t the sole reason I’m here for the conference. I’ve recently stumbled upon information that, if I can validate it, might well – as you say – shake things up. I’m in England to continue my investigation into those materials. If what I suspect is true, it could very well up-end what we thought we knew of Byron’s public persona.”
Peter smiled, steepling his hands above his empty plate.
“This suggests delicious possibilities,” he said. “I might be convinced to help you upset the Byronic applecart since, if your discoveries overturn established scholarship, that would surely call to question my own delightful brother’s life’s work. Jeffrey will be furious if you storm the Byronic battlements. In fact all who worship at the shrine of Byron will be keenly irritated and that can only mean enormous fun for me.”
I saw a flicker of something in his eyes that was anything but fun.
“Do you hate your brother that much?”
“There’s a lot of that going around,” I said. “But I don’t like the idea of being used as a weapon in someone’s family squabble. It’s not exactly flattering.”
“Don’t think of it as being used,” he said. “Think of it as a collateral benefit you’re providing a fellow struggler. You get the exposure you need for your upcoming thesis and I . . . well, I’ll be tangentially responsible for lodging yet another burr under my dear brother’s saddle blanket. Win – win.”
“I don’t know, Peter . . .”
“You’ve nothing to lose when you think about it. “
“Don’t you want to know what I’m looking into?”
“Not particularly as long as it stirs the pot,” he said. “So, have you decided to come to the ball? It’s fancy dress you know. You’ll have to have a Regency ball gown but I know a charming shop not far from here that will be able to fix you up with something sure to set off your charming black eye and split lip. If I’m lucky the gathered throng will suspect you received your injuries engaging in kinky sex with yours-truly. It will do wonders for my reputation.”
“You’re shameless!” I couldn’t help attempting a smile though it hurt like hell.
“I would certainly hope so but you haven’t yet accepted my invitation.”
“I’m thinking. The way I see it, if I go to the ball I’ll be remembered as the crazy American woman with the black eye. If I hightail it back to the states at this first salvo I’ll be remembered as the crazy and spineless American woman with the black eye.
“Allegrina, either way you’ll be the only thing anyone remembers of this bloody dull conference.”
“You forgot to mention that whichever course I choose, my entire academic career is making a gigantic belly flop into quick sand.”
“I knew you’d see the attraction. Let me settle the bill and I’ll take Cinderella off to purchase a gown for the ball.”
“I haven’t agreed to go, Peter, as tempting as it sounds, Regency ball gowns are not in my modest budget.”
“Not to worry. The shopkeeper is a friend. She’ll lend you something appropriate for the evening.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“It is, my dear Allegrina.”