A polite cough broke on her absorption. With a start, Yvienne looked up from the pages of printed contract. A strange man stood in the entrance of the office. He was short and stocky, in a tweed coat that had seen better days, and thick wool trousers, ditto. He was clean shaven, his hairline receding for all that he was a youngish man, only six or seven-and-twenty. There was something about his expression — he had an appreciative look about him, as if he had been watching her for a good while and liked what he saw. Yvienne felt both irked that he had spied on her while she was lost in concentration and agreeably unsettled.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, but he did not sound embarrassed. “I knocked too, but you never acknowledged me.”
“I do apologize, Mister–?”
“Fresnel. Abel Fresnel.” He fished in his vest pocket and stepped into the office, handing her his card.
She took it. It was smudged and bent at the corners. Abel Fresnel. Detecting Man. Harrier Agency.
Yvienne had the curious ability to compartmentalize her emotions from her outward appearance. Inside, she wanted to vomit. She gave him an inquiring look. “How may House Mederos help you, Mister Fresnel?”
“Oh, it’s not House Mederos I’m looking for,” he said. He pulled a chair out from against the wall and sat across from her, crossing his leg and leaning back. He nodded his chin at the card. “I’m looking for you, Miss Mederos.”
“I see. And may I ask as to why?”
“I think you know why, Miss Mederos.”
She gave a little laugh and shrugged. “I have no idea, Mister Fresnel. As you can see, I am very busy today.” She leaned forward and held out his card. “Too busy to play guessing games. Good day.”
He didn’t make a move, and awkwardly, after a pause, she set the card down. She glanced over at the clerks, and knew by the different quality of silence that they were gone to their dinner.
Mister Fresnel had no doubt waited until just that moment to come in.
“What do you want?” Her voice sharpened. She kept her hands on the desk. If one didn’t know to look at it, one would never see the outline of the small compartment built flush into the desktop, where a bit of pressure would release the catch and give her access to her pistol. This man had made no threatening overtures, but Yvienne had no doubts that she faced grave danger.
“I’ve been engaged by the Guild to investigate some matters that involve your family, Miss Mederos. The disappearance of the Guild Magistrate, the fraud against the Mederos home business — a very sad business, that. A real mystery.”
“It’s properly called a House, not a home business,” Yvienne said. He acknowledged the correction with a little nod and a smile. He had a distracting smile. She told herself to concentrate. “And our House was restored six months ago, the fraud revealed and the charges reversed. So we don’t need your help, thanks.”
“There’s still the matter of the missing Magistrate. Some might think that House Mederos would want revenge for his role in the downfall of your family’s home — House — business.”
“Goodness. What are you accusing my family of, Mister Fresnel?”
“Accusing? Are you feeling guilty, Miss Mederos?”
“I’m sorry,” Yvienne said, letting her voice reveal her temper. “Tell me again why you are here? Because, to recap — the fraud was revealed, the perpetrators punished, my family’s reputation restored, and what you call a mystery was solved six months ago. You may now go, sir.”
He sat still for a moment longer, regarding her with a quiet, piercing expression. He had dark brown eyes, a bit of shadow around his jaw, and a plain, angular face. He was entirely an unprepossessing sort of man, except for the impression of strength in his shoulders, and his battered hands. Had he been a prizefighter? she thought, though he didn’t have the broken nose or misshapen ears that classified that profession. No, he was not a brawler, and he was far more dangerous for all that.
She flushed, aware that he had been taking her measure as intently as she had taken his. Fresnel finally stood, taking his time. He nodded at his card on the edge of her desk.
“Keep it. I’m staying at the Bailet Hotel, on the Esplanade. I am sure we’ll be speaking again, Miss Mederos.”
He closed the door behind himself, and Yvienne was left alone in the office. With the imminent danger gone, she allowed herself to take a deep, shuddering breath.
Don’t react. He’s still watching.
She took the card again, as if mildly curious, then stuck it in the small box on the desk where all the other cards were kept. She would take it home later. Still performing, she drew the contract to her, picked up her pencil, and began to jot meaninglessly on it. All the while her mind was racing as fast as her heart.