Detective Inspector Gerald Clarke removed his black-wool felt bowler and ran his sweaty palm through the rapidly thinning hair in the center of his head. He inspected the deep slashes in the wood floor that followed no discernible pattern. They were long and numerous, as if made by a deranged lunatic stabbing at the defenseless floor repeatedly. Splintered shards of glass and twisted metal littered the ground. The scene gave voice to the violent struggle that had taken place here. Fascinating. There was far too little blood to suggest that the victim had met his demise here as The Telegraph and the local constables had reported.
He was at a complete loss as to how Mr. Gray’s assailant had entered or exited the second story room. The interviews he had conducted with the servants all told the same story of an eccentric gentleman who regularly locked himself away at night alone. The five-centimeter thick steel bars on the door stood undiminished in a testament to their strength. Two constables had first reported the room soundly locked and completely empty. The Valet eventually turned up completely unaware of what had transpired and smelling of cheap wine from a night spent at a nearby Pub. He swore that only Mr. Gray had the key that unlocked the bars to the room—and he had vanished without a trace. They summoned a locksmith, but the surly man had been unable to bypass the stubborn and expensive mechanisms preventing their entry. This had blocked him from making a more thorough investigation of the scene and limited him to observations made from outside of the room.
With that entrance eliminated, the assailant could have only entered through the large window overlooking the gardens below. The glass to the window was shattered and the metal frame bent and twisted outwards as if from an explosion. The lack of any burn marks made that theory unlikely. So what could have caused that level of damage? He had already examined the peaty soil in the garden below the window and the red clay tile of the roof above. Regrettably, the steady rain that had begun falling two days before his arrival had scrubbed away any clear signs that might be found there.
The only other items of note he observed in the room were a single overturned chair, a faded looking table, and a torn screen on the floor. That and of course the presumed murder weapon. It was a silver Garland knife covered in dried blood. The small blade appeared to have an engraved handle and was the sort of instrument that a nobleman would use for opening his letters.
The inspector reached his stout fingers through the bars. He needed to get through these confounding bars. Squeezing between them certainly wouldn’t work. He turned to stare at his reflection in the small mirror hanging in the hallway. He was a short and portly fellow, with long wispy sideburns. He assured his wife he did not grow them out to compensate for his diminishing hairline. No, the additional hair on the sides of his face merely added some warmth during the many cold nights spent in the service of Scotland Yard.
An audible click sounded and a smile came over the locksmith’s bearded face. “Ah, that’s got it. There you are, Inspector. A fine piece of workmanship this was, but no match for a determined mind.”
“A determined mind can overcome any problem, no matter how difficult. Thank you for your service, my good man. One of the constables downstairs will have your fee for you. You have my personal thanks as well as that of Scotland Yard. Constable McDonaugh, please come in here immediately.”
The eager young constable bounded up the steps from his assigned post with wide eyes, thirsty to take in the details of the mysterious crime scene. He was a sturdy lad, well-proportioned and just under two meters tall. His constable uniform was clean and neatly pressed. His face held a strong jaw with a precise beard and mustache that contained a hint of reddish tint. He carried himself well and would be mistook by many as an experienced constable, if not for the lack of confidence in his voice that identified him as newly trained recruit of the Metropolitan Police.
“Yes sir, Inspector. What is your pleasure, sir?”
“Constable, I want you to set a tight perimeter with the other men below. The door is finally unlocked and I want no one coming in or out until my analysis is complete. Conduct a rotating patrol of the entire grounds with a sweep every quarter hour.”
The man saluted and allowed his eyes to stray from the inspector’s face to the room behind him. “Right away. Erm, are you certain you won’t need my assistance with the crime scene?”
The notoriety of Mr. Gray, coupled with the baffling circumstances of his disappearance, had naturally aroused the curiosity of all of London. The police force was no exception. Nonetheless, the curiosity of the constable would not distract Inspector Clarke from the task at hand.
“That won’t be necessary, Constable. Now see to your duty.”
The man’s face fell visibly, before quickly changing to the blank stare that only a previously enlisted man could master. “Yes, sir.” He turned smartly on his heel and hastily retreated down the stairs. It was best to keep the constables busy with patrolling rather than standing around. A man felt more useful when put to action.
Now alone, Inspector Clarke slowly slid open the gate and entered the room. Upon closer scrutiny, he found that his earlier observations still held weight. There were precious few new details to discover after examining the floor and the overturned furniture. The jeweled knife handle bore several scratches and was well bloodied but offered little more. He moved over to the purple screen lying on the floor. It was made of an expensive-looking fabric that was thick and ornate, if not faded from age. This was the kind of material used to cover a statue or work of art in a gallery. He raised his eyes to the wall and gasped in surprise. The wall had been hidden from view until now.
There hung the most marvelous painting that Inspector Clarke had ever seen in his forty-two years. The colors were alive with life, a jubilant expression of passion and joy. The detail and brushwork were clearly the work of a master. He was no art enthusiast, but even his eyes could appreciate the skill displayed in the creation of this portrait.
Given the handsome features, muscular build, and disarming smile of the man featured in the painting, he could surmise that this was the likeness of Mr. Gray, the victim and the owner of the home. Mr. Gray was renowned for his good looks and infamous to the women of London. A painting of this quality would certainly have been very expensive to commission. Perhaps the claims of the victim’s tremendous wealth was not an exaggeration. It certainly provided a motive for either kidnapping or murder.
He made a few notes regarding the appearance and stature of Mr. Gray, before reluctantly averting his gaze and once more considered the crime scene. He scanned the writing he had jotted down in the vellum and cloth bound notebook that never left his side. Suddenly, something caught his eye near the window. He moved over for a closer examination. There between the jagged glass and bent metal, appeared to be a small clump of dark gray hair. The hair was matted and thick. He leaned in closer.
“Ugh, and foul smelling.” He made a note in his book.
Inspector Clarke carefully removed an embroidered white handkerchief from his pocket and brought it to his nose and mouth. The cluster of hair smelled of death and decay. It could have originated from a man. He imagined the hair that continued to grow on a corpse even after death.
Inspector Clarke had found it helpful to assist various doctors as they examined corpses during the course of an inquest. He had made several detailed drawings of the human anatomy in his notebook while assisting in multiple dissections. The deceased human body could give so many clues about the last few moments of life. He found the process of rigor mortis fascinating. As he grew more experienced in murder cases, he discovered he could roughly estimate how long ago death had occurred depending on the state of contraction in the muscles and the level of decomposition found in the body. His train of thought ground to a halt when a knock sounded at the entryway.
Constable McDonaugh stepped into the room. “The perimeter has been set, sir. And there is a Lord Crawley here to see you.”
Inspector Clarke frowned with annoyance. “I thought I said no visitors.”
The constable paused for a moment, as if unsure of his decision to inform the Inspector. “He says he knows the victim and has come on a matter of some importance.”
Inspector Clarke sighed. It was clear the young man had meant to do the right thing. “Very well, send him in.”
The constable dipped his head quickly and exited the room. A moment later, a tall man with short black hair and a thin mustache entered. He was a handsome man, in a dark and unconventional way. He wore a finely cut jacket and trousers that had seen some wear. They had once been expensive clothing but now were on the verge of becoming threadbare. It seemed that Lord Crawley had fallen on hard times.
The fellow smiled and gave a slight nod. “You must be Detective Inspector Clarke.”
Detective Clarke removed his hat. “At your service. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lord Crawley. I understand the victim was known to you?”
Lord Crawley’s smile vanished. “Yes. Mr. Gray and I were once very close and had a number of business dealings together.”
The Inspector tapped his pen to his chin. “Once?”
Lord Crawley began to frown. “That was some time ago and I have since had some rather bad luck that has kept me preoccupied. However, we did occasionally run into one another at certain establishments.”
The Inspector continued to push. “What sort of establishments?”
Lord Crawley’s face rose in color. “Er, I don’t see how that is relevant.”
“All details are relevant, Lord Crawley.”
“If you must know, we both shared an affinity for a particular imported whiskey that can only be found in certain exclusive clubs.”
“I see. Tell me, my lord, did you run into Mr. Gray on the night he was attacked?”
“As a matter of fact, I did. But I remained at the club while Mr. Gray returned home around midnight, as was his custom. He was quite peculiar about not being long away from home.”
The Inspector opened his notebook as if preparing to write. “There are witnesses who can corroborate this?”
A smile returned under the man’s mustache. “Yes, of course.”
Inspector Clarke made a notation in his book. “Are you aware of anyone who might have wished Mr. Gray harm?”
Lord Crawley paused for a moment as if considering his reply. “A man of his notoriety and wealth naturally makes enemies. There have also been rumors of his involvement with several married women.”
The Inspector closed his notebook carefully. “Yes, I have heard a great deal about such rumors. May I ask this matter of importance that you have come about?”
Lord Crawley reached into his waistcoat and removed a gold pocket watch. “Well, naturally I was quite concerned to hear of Mr. Gray’s fate and wanted to offer my assistance in any way possible.”
The Inspector saw the heavy gold chain and intricate engraving on the watch and decided Lord Crawley had not yet given up everything from his former lifestyle. “That’s quite considerate of you.”
Lord Crawley flipped open the pocket watch and consulted the time. “Yes. I was wondering if Mr. Gray left behind a will of any kind or perhaps an accounting of debts which he owed?”
The Inspector nodded. “Ah, now I understand the nature of your concern. But no, nothing of that sort has been discovered just yet.”
Lord Crawley returned his watch to a hidden seam in his waistcoat. “I fear you have misjudged me, Inspector. Such documents will become known in time. It is a small matter. Certainly, full effort must be made to bringing this killer to justice.”
The Inspector turned partially to look back at the room behind him. “Rest assured, that is my singular purpose. However, I am not fully convinced that he was murdered.”
Lord Crawley’s dark eyebrows rose a few centimeters. “The papers have been going on about it for some time now. Some are saying he faked his own death.”
Inspector Clarke chuckled. “I wouldn’t put so much stock in everything you read, son. The papers spend far too much time on sensationalism and very little on fact or science.”
Lord Crawley took a few steps forward and paused. “If I may?”
Inspector Clarke inclined his head as he intently observed the other man’s movements.
Lord Crawley carefully looked around while making sure to avoid contact with any items in the room. He simply peered at everything around him as though creating a sketch in his head of the scene. His gaze finally came to rest on the portrait that hung on the back wall.
“So, this is the painting he so loved. I can see the beauty in it and why it was his most valued possession.”
The Inspector moved closer. “Is there some significance to this painting?”
Lord Crawley removed a letter from his coat. “That is why I have come, Inspector. I have a letter here from one of Mr. Gray’s closest friends, the Lady Helena Rivera, formerly Lady Helena Wotton.”
“Lady Helena? That name seems familiar to me.”
“Yes, she has been writing to you for days. She would have come herself, but the weather has weakened her constitution somewhat and she asked that I come in her place.”
“Ah, now I remember. A Lady Helena requested that any paintings found in the locked room be given to her care for safe keeping.”
Lord Crawley dipped his head. “That is correct.”
Inspector Clarke removed his bowler but stopped himself from running his hand over his bald spot. “Well, tell Lady Helena that she is mad if she thinks I will release evidence to her during an active inquest.”
Lord Crawley scowled and his eyes began to gleam, as if hatching a scheme. “How is a painting evidence? The portrait is, however, the greatest work of the artist Sage Holdsworth. She was also close friends with Lady Helena. The two were business partners, you see. It follows that ownership of the painting now reverts to her as the only surviving partner. She demands that you relinquish her property at once. She intends to exhibit the work in a gallery as a tribute to both of her deceased friends.”
The lines in the Inspector’s brow knitted together. “Once the inquest is concluded, and the legality of these claims can be proven, then the painting will be released to the proper owner.”
Lord Crawley reached again into his coat and produced a second letter. “She thought you might say that.”
The Inspector cautiously reached for the letter. “What is this?”
Lord Crawley placed it in the Inspector’s hand with a flourish. “A letter from Chief Inspector Williamson requesting that you comply with her demand.”
Inspector Clarke’s face fell at the name. “Let me guess. Lady Helena is also friends with the Chief Inspector?”
Lord Crawley began putting on a pair of leather riding gloves. “Undoubtedly. She has far reaching connections, to be sure.”
Inspector Clarke took the letter and opened it. He carefully read the message and scrutinized the signature and seal closely. “Very well, you may remove the painting. But I caution Lady Helena that this matter will be raised again. I may need to examine it further and interview her myself.”
Lord Crawley was already moving towards the wall and carefully lifted the painting by its canvas sides. “As you say, Inspector. We are happy to cooperate.”
It was only about an hour after Lord Crawley had wrapped up the painting and taken it away when Inspector Clarke heard yelling outside on the front lawn, punctuated by gunfire.