Cinderella Six Feet Under
Author:Maia Chance

Cinderella Six Feet Under by Maia Chance



Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life . . . would be like a fairy tale . . .

—Henry David Thoreau (1854)





1





November, 1867

Oxford, England

The murdered girl, grainy in black-and-gray newsprint, stared up at him. Her eyes were mournful and blank.

Gabriel placed the chipped Blue Willow teacup beside the picture. His hand shook, and tea sloshed onto the newspaper. Ink bled.

Gabriel Augustus Penrose, although a bespectacled professor, hadn’t—not yet, at least—developed round shoulders or a nearsighted scowl. Although, such shoulders and such a scowl would have suited the oaken desk, swaybacked sofa, towers of books, and swirling dust motes in his study at St. Remigius’s College, Oxford. And at four-and-thirty years of age, Gabriel was certainly not given to fits of trembling.

But this.

He tore his eyes from the girl’s. Was it today’s newspaper? He glanced at the upper margin—yes. Perhaps there was still time.

Time for . . . what?

He didn’t customarily peruse the papers during his four o’clock cup of tea, but a student had come to see him and he’d happened to leave The Times behind. The morgue drawing was on the fourth page, tucked between a report about a Piccadilly thief and an advertisement for stereoscopic slides. A familiar, lovely, and—according to the report—dead face.

SENSATIONAL MURDER IN PARIS: In the Marais district, a young woman was found dead as the result of two gunshot wounds in the garden of the mansion of the Marquis de la Roque-Fabliau, 15 Rue Garenne. She is thought to be the daughter of American actress Henrietta Bright, who wed the marquis in January. The family solicitor said that it is not known how the tragic affair arose, and that the family was unaware of the daughter’s presence in Paris. The commissaire de police of that quarter has undertaken an assiduous search for her murderer.

Gabriel removed his spectacles, leaned forward on his knees, and laid his forehead in his palm. The murdered girl, Miss Prudence Bright, was a mere acquaintance. Perhaps the same might be said of Miss Ophelia Flax, the young American actress who had been traveling with Miss Bright when he’d encountered them in the Black Forest several weeks ago.

Mere acquaintance. The term could not account for the ripping sensation in his lungs.

Gabriel replaced his spectacles, stood, and strode to the jumbled bookcase behind his desk. He drew an antique volume from the shelf: Histoires ou contes du temps passé—Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times—by Charles Perrault. He flipped through the pages, making certain a loose sheet of paper was still wedged inside.

He stuffed the volume in his leather satchel, along with his memorandum book, yanked on his tweed jacket, clamped on his hat, and made for the door.


Two Days Earlier

Paris

The mansion’s door-knocker was shaped like a snarling mouse’s head. Its bared teeth glinted in the gloom and raindrops dribbled off its nose. It ought to have been enough of a warning. But Miss Ophelia Flax was in no position to skedaddle. Yes, her nerves twanged like an out of tune banjo. But she’d come too far, she had too little money, and rainwater was making inroads into her left boot. She would stick to her guns.

“Ready?” she asked Prue, the nineteen-year-old girl dripping next to her like an unwrung mop.

“Can’t believe Ma would take up residence in a pit like this,” Prue said. Her tone was all bluster, but her china-doll’s face was taut beneath her bonnet, and her yellow curls drooped. “You sure you got the address right?”

“Certain.” The inked address had long since run, and the paper was as soggy as bread pudding by now. However, Ophelia had committed the address—15 Rue Garenne—to memory, and she’d studied the Baedeker’s Paris map in the railway car all the way from Germany, where she and Prue had lately been employed as maids in the household of an American millionaire. “It’s hardly a pit, either,” Ophelia said. “More like a palace. It’s past its prime, that’s all.” The mansion’s stones, true, were streaked with soot, and the neighborhood was shabby. But Henrietta’s mansion would dwarf every building in Littleton, New Hampshire, where Ophelia had been born and raised. It was grander than most buildings in New York City, too.

“I reckon Ma, of all people, wouldn’t marry a poor feller.”

“Likely not.”

“But what if she ain’t here? What if she went back to New York?”

“She’ll be here. And she’ll be ever so pleased to see you. It’s been how long? Near a twelvemonth since she . . .” Ophelia’s voice trailed off. Keeping up the chipper song and dance was a chore.