The True Confessions of a London Spy


Katherine Cowley

No one said being a spy for the British government would be easy.

When Miss Mary Bennet is assigned to London for the Season, extravagant balls and eligible men are the least of her worries. A government messenger has been murdered and suspicion falls on the Radicals, who may be destabilizing the government in order to compel England down the bloody path of the French Revolution.

Working with her fellow spies, Mr. William Stanley and Miss Fanny Cramer, Mary must investigate without raising the suspicions of her family, rescue her friend Miss Georgiana Darcy from a suitor scandal, and solve the mystery before anyone else is harmed—all without being discovered, lest she be exiled back to the countryside.

This is the perfect job for a woman who exists in the background. Can Mary prove herself, or will this assignment be her last?

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When Miss Mary Bennet agreed to become a spy for the British government, she had not realised how many dead bodies the job would entail. True, since accidentally discovering a corpse on the beach in Worthing she had not seen any additional individuals bereft of life, but now she was headed to London for her first time in an official capacity, and she already had an appointment to call upon a corpse.

The carriage windows fogged with the warmth of their breaths. Despite pressing her feet against a hot rock, Mary’s toes felt frigid. She shifted closer to Fanny, one of her fellow spies, to better share the blanket they held over themselves. The other inhabitant of the carriage, a spy named Mr. Withrow, rubbed his gloved hands together.

Snow continued to fall outside the carriage, adding to the piles already on the London streets. A man stood on a roof, pushing at the two or three feet of accumulated snow. It fell heavily onto the walk and road below, to the anger of a couple who had walked into the snow shower.

“Do you want to play another round?” Mary asked Fanny. During their journey from Worthing to London, they had come up with a number of ways to entertain themselves, but Mary’s favourite was a game of associations. A player would give a word, and within three seconds the next player provided an associated word, and the game continued on and on. If a player did not believe a word had a strong enough association with the prior word, it could be challenged. To make the game more difficult, they had added themes.

“You shan’t win this time,” said Fanny.

“As I have won six out of eleven games, the odds are actually in my favour.”

“That’s what you think,” said Fanny. “Theme and first word?”

“The theme is London,” said Mary, “and the first word is snow.”

“Streetsweepers,” said Fanny without pause.

“Lord mayor,” said Mary. He employed the streetsweepers, after all.

Fanny nodded. “Guildhall.”

“Politics,” said Mary.

“Sancho,” said Fanny.

She must mean Ignatius Sancho, who, like Fanny, was a black Londoner. He had been an abolitionist and was the first black man in England to vote in Parliamentary elections.

“Parliament,” said Mary.

“Corruption,” said Fanny.

It was an overgeneralisation, but a common enough association that Mary decided not to challenge it. “Rotten boroughs.”

“I challenge you,” said Fanny. “While plenty of rotten boroughs send representatives to Parliament, I do not believe there are any rotten boroughs in London itself.”

They turned to Mr. Withrow.

“I believe Miss Cramer is correct,” he said drily.

Mary shook her head. She had been foiled by her own theme. “I concede defeat.”

“I am sure you did as best you could,” said Fanny with a teasing smile. “You should play with us, Mr. Withrow. Maybe you would provide some actual competition.”

“Once again, I must decline.”

Mary had met both Fanny Cramer and Henry Withrow at Castle Durrington in Worthing. After the death of Mary’s father, she had stayed at Castle Durrington, where Lady Trafford and her nephew Mr. Withrow had trained her as a spy. At the castle, Fanny had pretended to be a maid, which was also the role she had volunteered to play in London. Fanny was perceptive, opinionated, and seemed unafraid of anything. She had always been kind to Mary and treated her as someone deserving of respect. Mr. Withrow, on the other hand, had often been dismissive of Mary. That had changed somewhat since Mary had exposed the murderer of Mr. Withrow’s friend, but still, he was a disagreeable man. At the moment he appeared downright sullen.

“If you are not going to play with us, at least read a book or do something to make your journey more pleasant,” said Mary.

“I would, if it were possible,” he said. “One of my greatest regrets in life is that reading in a carriage leaves me indisposed.”

It appeared that riding in a carriage, even without a book, left him indisposed.

“Will you at least give us a theme?” said Fanny, leaning towards the window. Outside, thick billows of smoke rose from a factory. She grimaced. “There’s a carriage following us.”

At this, Mr. Withrow went rigid. Mary shifted in her seat, unsure of what action to take in a situation like this. Did someone know who they were, and their purpose in London? If the carriage were attacked, Mary would be of no use, but at least Mr. Withrow knew how to fight; he had once tackled and disarmed Mary—who had been brandishing a fire poker—in a matter of seconds.

Mr. Withrow peered out his own carriage window, then tapped a pattern of knocks on the carriage wall. The driver took a quick left turn. The wheels of the carriage slid on the ice and Mary was pressed against the carriage wall. The carriage wobbled, almost tipped, but finally, the wheels found surer purchase. Withrow strained his neck as he watched out the window, shook his head in frustration, then tapped again.

“They are still following,” said Fanny, her hands clenching into fists. As the carriage turned, Mary caught a glimpse of a black carriage with purple curtains behind them.

The driver took another quick turn, almost running into another carriage, and then yet another turn. Mary glimpsed a face in the other carriage’s window, a face she thought she recognised.

“It appears to be Stanley,” said Withrow, shaking his head. “He should know better than to trail us without informing us in advance.” He tapped a different rhythm and the carriage slowed and returned to the main road.

Mr. Stanley was another spy, who, like Mr. Withrow, was from Sussex. Mary had only met Mr. Stanley once before, which did not provide the requisite time to truly judge a person’s character, but he seemed a genuine, polite gentleman of respectable background.

“Has Mr. Stanley been asked to visit the body as well?” asked Mary.

“I can only assume so,” said Mr. Withrow. “I do not know why Mr. Booth needs me to look at it. I will not have any time for work before I leave.” Mr. Withrow would be returning to Sussex in only a few days.

Mary would stay in London with her sister Elizabeth for the entire duration of the Season. The Season coincided with a session of Parliament and was an opportunity for those of the upper class—from all over the country—to gather in London and engage in social events. She did not care much about the Season itself, but in theory, this would give her time to be of true assistance. Yet there was so much more she needed to learn before she would feel confident in her duties as a spy.

They turned onto another road and parked in front of a row of shops, at the end of a line of carriages.

“Quickly now,” said Withrow, opening the door. “But do not draw any attention to us.”

How easily he stepped into the position of leadership. His aunt, Lady Trafford, carried herself with the same sense of authority.

Mr. Stanley approached, his hand extended. “May I?”

Mary nodded and he helped her down from the carriage, and then did the same for Fanny.

“Come,” said Withrow, and they followed him down the street and into an alleyway.

Mr. Stanley walked at Mary’s side and spoke in a low tone. “Miss Bennet, it is a pleasure to see you again.”

“The pleasure is also mine,” said Mary, for it was the sort of reply her sisters would make to such a statement.

“You look so lovely, one cannot even tell you have been travelling.”

At this Mary did not know what to say. She had not often been on the receiving side of compliments, particularly compliments from gentlemen, so when she had time for private reflection, she would need to practice possible responses.

Mary lifted her skirts so they did not drag in the snow. The alley had not been cleared as well as the main road. In the alley, a woman sang as she rocked her baby, but as they approached, she stopped. Withrow paused in front of a door and said, more to himself than anyone else, “It should be this one.” An hour earlier, as they had changed horses outside of London, a messenger had informed them of the body and given them a series of complicated directions which Withrow clearly remembered better than Mary did.

Withrow knocked four times, then pushed open the door. They stepped inside a candlelit room, and the woman outside resumed her song. There was a fireplace, but it had not been lit, and the flat was almost as cold as it was outside. Despite the cold, it was a very comfortable-looking parlour with quality furnishings and framed lithographs on the wall. Mary would guess that the inhabitant was solidly middle class.

A stout middle-aged man opened his hands in welcome, then greeted them each in turn. “Miss Cramer, Mr. Withrow, Mr. Stanley. And you must be Miss Bennet. I am Mr. Booth.”

There was another man who remained farther back, in shadow, but he did not come forward, and as no one else questioned his presence, Mary did not, either.

She curtsied. “It is with great anticipation that I have come to London, in the hopes that I may offer some assistance in this great work.”

“Yes, yes,” said Mr. Booth. “Patriotic ideals and the lot. Now who you are about to see is—”

The woman outside stopped singing. Mr. Booth stepped towards the door as he pulled a pistol from his belt. The other man, the one in the shadows, also stepped forward.

“What is—” Mary began, but Mr. Withrow held out his hand in a gesture of silence.

The moment stretched long and taut, a string about to break.

The woman resumed her song, and everyone except Mary relaxed.

“If she stops singing,” said Fanny, “that means someone is approaching.”

Mary nodded, once again feeling the weight of all she did not know.

Mr. Booth continued as if he had not been interrupted. “The individual you are about to see is a Mr. Oliver Rice. He was found here in his flat last night by his sister, Mrs. Alys Knowles, who came looking for him when he did not join her for dinner. He worked as a messenger, primarily for members of Parliament. Now come, I will let you discover the rest by yourself.”

He led the way to a second room. Mr. Stanley turned to Mary and said, “If you do not feel comfortable viewing a body—”

“Miss Bennet will be fine,” said Fanny, taking Mary’s arm in her own and dragging her ahead of Mr. Withrow. “Excuse us, ladies first. Good manners dictate that women should always have the best position in investigations.”

Mary tried to halt in the doorway, repulsed by the smell of urine and barn and butcher shop, but Fanny pulled her farther in.

The body, well-lit by the light shining through the windows and several lamps, lay on the hard wooden floor, legs curled as if he had fallen. Age: late twenties. Eyes: open, bloodshot. Face: discoloured. Neck…oh the neck: large, purple bruises, and huge red and black masses under the skin, which looked as if they wanted to escape the body’s confines.

“Strangled to death,” said Fanny. “Not how I’d like to go, honestly. I’d prefer to look put together at my funeral.”

Mr. Booth and Mr. Withrow chuckled. Mary could not understand how Fanny could jest at a moment like this.

“No rope or other tool,” said Mr. Stanley. “Someone did this with their bare hands.”

Mary’s stomach turned.

“Notice the signs of internal bleeding on the neck,” said Mr. Withrow. “Likely, his airways collapsed.”

Everyone had keen observations and insightful hypotheses. Everyone except Mary. Their conversation washed over her, and both her body and voice felt paralyzed.

“The attacker did not remove any signs of Mr. Rice’s struggle,” said Fanny, gesturing at some books and a small table that appeared to have been knocked over. Mary had not even noticed them; she was so distracted by the body that she had forgotten to consider its surroundings. It was a small but friendly study, full of books and papers and mementos, and it would have been comfortable were it not for the dead body. “The man or woman who did this may have physical signs of struggle on their own body—scratching or bruising from where Mr. Rice fought back.”

“A woman could never have done such a thing,” said Stanley.

“You have much to learn about the fairer sex,” said Fanny. “Mr. Rice is not a tall man. A woman with enough strength of mind could do it. In ten or fifteen seconds you can knock out a man through strangulation, though it can take a few minutes to fully kill.”

Mr. Stanley raised his eyebrows. “And you would know this how, Miss Cramer?”

“I am not saying I’ve done it myself. But it is good to know these things.”

How had Fanny learned all this? Lady Trafford had taught her much to prepare her to be a spy, but nothing to prepare her to analyse death.

Mr. Withrow removed his travel gloves, placed them in his cloak pocket, and pulled on leather gloves, the sort a farm worker might wear. He held an extra pair out to Mary.

She hesitated.

“Take the gloves, Miss Bennet,” he said. “Consider this an opportunity to learn.”

She pulled the gloves over her own, and when he crouched next to the body, she approached it and attempted to crouch in a ladylike manner. She held her breath, trying to block out the smell of rotting flesh, but it filled her nose.

“I do not know if I can do this,” said Mary.

“Do not be disheartened, Miss Bennet,” said Mr. Stanley. “It is commendable to have a sensitive soul.”

She knew he meant to be reassuring, complimentary even, but she could not interpret it that way. A sensitive soul. An incapable soul would be more accurate. Mr. Withrow gave her a look of pity. He had never believed she could become a spy, and now she was proving him correct.

She forced herself to look directly at the remains of Mr. Rice. His left eye was bloodshot, and tiny red spots discoloured his face. There was dried blood in both his ears, his lip was swollen, and his entire face seemed to droop.

She reached her gloved hand towards the body, but she could not bring herself to touch the man’s face or neck, so she touched his shoulder instead. Suddenly, she felt as if she might lose all the contents of her stomach. “Excuse me,” she said, backing away and tearing off the work gloves. She covered her mouth with her hand and exited the dwelling. The woman with the baby looked at her reproachfully but did not stop her song.

The open air was welcome after the stuffy room of death. She breathed in and out steadily, watching her breath made visible by the extremity in temperature. Already, the sensation in her stomach lessened a little. She walked a little up the alley so as to not draw attention to the door with the body within.

Why could she not do it? Why could she not examine a body dispassionately and discover something—anything—useful? When she had found a body at the beach a few months before, the body had disturbed her, but she had not felt nauseous. Of course, that man had drowned and did not have quite the same smell, and no one had expected her to touch the body or examine it in more detail.

The baby began to cry. At least it was well-bundled and did not appear cold. The woman finished her song and, after a pause barely long enough for her to take a breath, began another lullaby.

Baby, baby, naughty baby,

Hush! you squalling thing, I say;

Peace this instant! Peace! or maybe

Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he’s a giant,

Black and tall as Rouen’s steeple,

Sups and dines and lives reliant

Every day on naughty people.

Did Mary even want to be a spy? If she could not contribute, if she could not suffer the basic vicissitudes the occupation required, then it would not be too late to withdraw.

Baby, baby, if he hears you

As he gallops past the house,

Limb from limb at once he’ll tear you

Just as pussy tears a mouse.

Mary expected the woman to begin a new song, but instead she sang a fourth verse that Mary had not heard before.

And he’ll beat you, beat you, beat you,

And he’ll beat you all to pap:

And he’ll eat you, eat you, eat you,

Gobble you, gobble you, snap! snap! snap!

At this violent ending, the baby quieted. Despite the barbaric way in which Napoleon Bonaparte had ravaged the continent, he was useful for something: he assisted British parents in their quest to instil good behaviour in their children.

Britain and her allies had done much to push back Bonaparte, but he and his forces were still a threat. This was one of the reasons Mary had become a spy: to stop threats to her homeland, both external and internal. And she had managed, singlehandedly, to prevent a man from helping Bonaparte invade Sussex. She could not let her inadequacies and her lack of experience stop her now. She would contribute in her own way.

She returned to the carriage and collected her pad of paper and pencils before returning to Mr. Rice’s flat. This time, the woman did not stop singing when Mary approached and let herself in.

Mr. Booth nodded wordlessly as she entered the room with the corpse. Fanny, Stanley, and Withrow had moved on from the body, and were examining different objects in the room. The other man stood, arms crossed, watching, and Mary wondered again at his purpose here.

“Can the body be placed as it was previously?” asked Mary. “I would like to draw the corpse within its surroundings.” Her stomach still threatened to revolt, but as long as she remained at a distance and did not touch the body, she thought she could keep her breakfast.

Fanny and Mr. Withrow placed Mr. Rice back as he had been when they entered, helped by a few suggestions from Mr. Booth, and Mary began to draw. She was no great artist, but she had taken three months of drawing lessons as a result of Lady Trafford’s generosity. As Mary drew, she pretended that she was capturing a landscape, rather than a still life.

“There was a nasty note from Sir Francis Burdett in Mr. Rice’s pocket,” said Fanny as she watched Mary draw. “He is now one of our suspects.”

“Sir Francis Burdett?”

“He is a Radical in Parliament,” said Stanley.

“I see,” said Mary, trying to capture the angle of the books on the floor.

“Let me read it to you,” said Fanny, and Mary listened as she drew.

My dear Mr. Rice,

You have disappointed us one too many times. You must not let information fall into the wrong hands.

When you come to our next meeting, prepare to provide evidence of your sincerity to our cause. If you do not, know that things cannot remain as they are.

Your servant and fellow seeker of liberty,

Sir Francis Burdett

“That is almost a direct threat,” said Mary. She sketched Mr. Rice’s wounds, trying to capture the rawness of the neck. The paper and pencil acted as a sort of barrier between her and the body, a protective distance, but it also humanised it, allowing her to truly look at Mr. Rice and see that he had been a real person, full of hopes and desires.

Mr. Stanley was flipping through the pages of some sort of register. “It appears Mr. Rice attended a meeting with Sir Francis Burdett, Lord Cochrane, and John Eastlake, sometime yesterday before he died. Perhaps he disappointed them at the meeting, and after, Sir Francis Burdett killed him. It is well known that the Radicals have been plotting to overthrow Parliament.”

“That is too much conjecture,” said Mr. Withrow. “This is all circumstantial evidence—nothing of substance.”

“They should be investigated, though,” said Fanny.

“Yes,” agreed Mr. Booth. “But Mr. Withrow is correct; we must keep our minds open, or we will blind ourselves to much that is relevant to the case.”

“What I want to know is why we are here,” said Mr. Withrow. “This is a simple murder. Surely it can be investigated by the constables and their detectives.”

For the first time, the silent man who had kept to the edges of the rooms stepped forward and spoke.

“I would that we could.” His voice was gravelly, yet not harsh. “I am Mr. Donalds, constabulary detective. We have requested the assistance of Mr. Booth and yourselves in an effort to not…ruffle feathers. We can only do so much, without substantive evidence, to investigate members of Parliament. Too many members of Parliament have oversight over us, our actions, and our records. Further, the in-depth investigation of popular figures like Lord Cochrane and Sir Francis can lead to public outrage and inflame the masses into violence.”

“In the past weeks,” said Mr. Booth, “we have intercepted several letters smuggled into the country. They are a subtle attempt by friends of Bonaparte—prominent French men and women who act as his agents—to gather support for his cause.

“Bonaparte is desperate. The tides of war have finally changed, and he will do anything to avoid loss. There are people he seems to think would be sympathetic to the French cause. But for the most part, he has been trying to sow dissent, to disrupt our country and tear us apart from the inside. The Radicals’ ideologies already lead them to threaten the status quo, and if he can manipulate them into action, the consequences would be dire. While none of the intercepted letters were to these Radicals, it is likely that many of the letters have reached their intended recipients without our notice.”

“I hope you can see why I need your help,” said Mr. Donalds. “This is a sensitive, urgent affair, and the identity of our suspects will make it harder for us to find the truth.”

Mr. Stanley stood a little taller. “Do not doubt that we will do all in our power to find the truth.”

Mary finished her sketch of the body, and then asked to see the note from Sir Francis, which she copied down. The way he wrote his capital W was peculiar, so she traced it onto her own page. Then she read the final week of Mr. Rice’s register, taking notes on a few details.

The others seemed to be wrapping up, so Mary looked quickly through Mr. Rice’s letter box. Something about it left her unsatisfied, so she first walked through the flat’s kitchen and bedroom, and then returned to the front parlour.

On the wall hung a pencil drawing of Mr. Rice with his parents and his sister. She took it off the wall and looked at Mr. Rice’s face when he was whole and alive. He seemed very serious, almost sombre, while his sister’s smile made it look as if she was almost laughing.

Mary flipped over the drawing. On the back were the death dates of Mr. Rice’s parents. Now Mr. Rice’s sister, Alys Knowles, was alone.

She hung the picture back on the wall, and then straightened it.

On a table was a copy of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare’s famous play about friendship and love and infidelity. On the first page Alys Knowles had written a note.

My dearest brother,

Thank you again for watching little Oliver today, and with such little notice. He loves the time and attention you give him.

I hope you will agree to reread this book with me. Within this copy, I have marked passages that I think will uplift your spirits and inspire our conversation.

Forever your friend and sister,


Mary flipped briefly through the pages, reading the notes in the text that Alys had written her brother, and the comments that Mr. Rice had added. As she did so, she sensed a deep, abiding friendship between them, something that had been a pillar through all of life’s storms.

Oliver Rice and Alys Knowles had the sort of relationship that Mary had never had with any of her four sisters. Mrs. Knowles’s loss must be very great indeed. Mary shut the book and blinked away the moisture in her eyes.

She stood. She still felt like something was missing, so she examined every piece of furniture, every cushion and pillow, and finally, the fireplace. The mortar between many of the stones was cracked. If she were to hide something, this might be where. “I already looked there,” said Withrow, but she ignored him, and methodically checked every single stone in the fireplace. Finally, one of them pulled free from the structure. Behind it she discovered several letters, and a large folded sheet of paper, written in multiple handwritings.

“Good find, Miss Bennet,” said Mr. Booth.

Mary could not resist smirking at Mr. Withrow. He gave her a terse nod, and she felt vindicated in her thoroughness.

First, they looked at the large sheet. A group of people had been drafting something with Mr. Rice’s assistance. The original text was not written in his hand, but Mr. Rice had corrected spelling errors, and added words and phrases. “We, as workers, have come together, to expose the injustice perpetrated upon us, by both factory owners, and even the very powerful members of government. At times, the injustices are so great, that systems—even government systems—should be challenged, and at times, overturned.” Specific grievances were addressed—long hours for child workers, injuries at factories, and the like—but then the writing stopped, as if it had not been finished.

“The original writers were not well educated,” said Mr. Booth. “Sir Francis, Lord Cochrane, Mr. Eastlake—none of them would have needed these basic grammatical and spelling corrections. This was written by workers. But there is no indication of who specifically, which makes it much more difficult to prevent a possible uprising.”

Mr. Withrow reread the paper. “It is in keeping with Radical ideologies, though more extreme measures than Lord Cochrane and Sir Francis typically propose. I cannot speak for Eastlake.”

“What are the other papers?” asked Mr. Donalds.

Mary opened and skimmed the letters.

“They appear to be love letters,” she said, blushing. “And they are not entirely appropriate.”

“Who wrote them?” asked Mr. Booth.

“They are all from the same woman. An S. König.”

“Does anyone know S. König?”

“Ah yes,” said Mr. Stanley, a little reluctantly. “Mrs. Selena König.”

“Perhaps you should have a conversation with her then,” said Mr. Booth.

“I do not think that would be prudent,” said Mr. Stanley. “I danced with her once at a ball, and received a note from her, which I never returned. But I believe she lives quite close to the Darcys’ London home, so perhaps Miss Bennet will be able to investigate.”

Mary wondered at Mr. Stanley’s exact relationship with Selena König, but did not know the best way to ask, so she said nothing on the matter, instead saying, “Fanny and I will be well situated to investigate her.”

Other assignments were given—while none of them would assist Mr. Donalds in his official interviews with Sir Francis Burdett, Lord Cochrane, or Mr. Eastlake, he did request Mr. Stanley’s assistance in interviewing Mrs. Knowles. Mary wished that she had been asked, but at least she had a specific assignment to investigate Mrs. König, and a more general assignment to investigate the others should the opportunity arise.

Before they left, Mary forced herself to look at the corpse one last time. He was a messenger, a revolutionary, a lover, and a beloved brother, but none of that explained his death.

“Mr. Rice. What led you to this end?”

The dead man, of course, did not respond, but that would not stop her from discovering the truth.

End of Excerpt

The True Confessions of a London Spy is available in the following formats:

ISBN: 978-1-956387-04-9

March 1, 2022

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