Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
Chicago,
December 3, 1887


Forgive my cryptic invitation to lunch, Miss Bracey, but I dared not go into detail on the chance your post was intercepted."

Abigail Bracey was not the sort of person whose mail was intercepted. No one showed the least bit of interest in her monotonous life, but Mr. Welch, the balding gentleman seated across the white-draped table from her, was probably accustomed to others attempting to intercept his correspondence. She made a sympathetic noise and closed her menu. She'd scarcely looked at it. Despite going out for a late lunch, food was the farthest thing from her mind.

"I was pleased to hear from you after so long, Mr. Welch. Have you news about my father's mur—"

Mr. Welch flinched. "Miss Bracey, we are in public."

She clamped her mouth shut. They had to be careful in public, and they couldn't exactly meet in private, could they? Mr. Welch might be several years her senior, but his calling on her, a maiden who lived alone in a rented room, would certainly give her landlady something to talk about. Meeting for lunch in a restaurant was his way of protecting her reputation. For that, she was grateful.

But she was also impatient.

"Forgive me, but I am eager for any scrap of news, and I do not think we can be overheard." Abby glanced at the only other patrons, an elderly couple several tables away, and three women in fur-trimmed mantles sipping tea at the window table. None of them had given Abby and Mr. Welch a second glance.

Mr. Welch scrutinized them with narrowed eyes, as if they could be spies. "Yes, well, I'd hoped we'd be alone, dining at this hour. Let's order before we chat. What would you like?"

"Soup is fine."

"But they have an excellent beefsteak here."

What a kind way to tell her she looked like she could use a heartier meal than a bowl of consommé. She didn't take offense. They'd known one another too long not to be honest. Their relationship had never been social or casual. How could it be, when it was birthed in blood?

He first called on her and Mother four years ago, a few weeks after Father was found murdered on the steps of the bank he managed. Mr. Welch had offered them condolences, shown them his shiny, five-pointed star badge, and introduced himself as the Assistant Operative of the Chicago District Office of the United States Secret Service.

It had been her and her mother's last moment of sweet, oblivious ignorance.

Mr. Welch beckoned their waiter, a slender man with eyebrows that seemed to be permanently raised in expectation. "Steaks for me and the young lady, medium rare."

The waiter offered a half bow before returning to the kitchen. Mr. Welch twisted his neck to look behind him, a casual move that didn't fool Abby. Satisfied they couldn't be overheard, he met her gaze. "I'll not keep you in suspense any longer. As you may recall from our last meeting, your father's, er, assailant, the counterfeiter we know as the Artist, has been in the environs of Kansas City for a time."

She nodded. That was the last bit of information Mr. Welch had given her. "Rather than investigating his present activities, the assistant operative in Kansas City decided to look into the Artist's past. We knew he began his career in New York, before moving about and adopting pseudonyms, so our operative traveled there, made inquiries, and so forth. It is a long and winding tale, but he found a woman who rented a room to the Artist as a young man." He paused for effect. "She called him by a particular name, and when our operative used it to search public records, it yielded fruit. That name she used was the Artist's given, legal name."

Now that was indeed good news. All this time this counterfeiter had been sought by the Secret Service, but the pursuit had yielded few results beyond rabbit trails and dead ends. How could it, when no one knew what he looked like or knew his real name? The reign of terror he'd cultivated made him more myth than man, and therefore, untraceable, untouchable.
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