There were deep slashes in the wood floor that followed no discernable 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. Interesting, 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.
Detective Inspector Gerald Clarke removed his black-wool felt bowler and ran his sweaty palm over the rapidly thinning hair in the center of his head. 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 cold nights he spent in the service of Scotland Yard.
He was at a complete loss as to how Mr. Gray’s assailant had entered or exited the second story room. The interviews with the servants all told the same story of an eccentric gentleman who regularly locked himself away alone at night. The five-centimeter thick steel bars on the door stood undiminished in a testament to their strength. Several constables had reported that the room was discovered soundly locked and empty. The Valet had been found but swore that only Mr. Gray had the key that unlocked the bars to room—and he had vanished without a trace. A locksmith had been summoned but so far had been frustrated by the stalwart and expensive mechanism forestalling their entry. This had prevented him from making a more thorough investigation of the scene and limited him to observations that could be made from outside of the room.
With that entrance eliminated, the assailant could only have entered through the large window overlooking the gardens below. The glass 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 to the window? He had already examined the soil below the window and the tile of the roof above. Regrettably, the steady rain that had begun falling two days before his arrival had mired any clear signs that might have been found there.
The only other items of note that could be 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 and it was covered in dried blood. The small blade appeared to have an engraved handle and would be the sort of instrument that a gentleman would use for opening his letters.
An audible click sounded and a smile came over the locksmith’s face. “Ah, that’s got it. There you are, Inspector. A fine piece of workmanship this was but no match for a determined mind.”
“Nor is any problem. 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, but it was the lack of confidence in his voice that identified him as newly trained by 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. “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 green constable could not be allowed to 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 being quickly replaced by 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 to establish a perimeter. 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 was scratched and bloodied but offered little more. He moved over to the purple screen lying on the floor. It was made of an expensive-looking fabric. It was thick and ornate, if not faded from age. This was the kind of material that might be used to cover a statue or work of art in a gallery. He raised his eyes to the wall. It had been hidden from view when he was outside of the room. As he saw the painting hanging there on the wall, he gasped in surprise.
There on the wall, hung the most marvelous painting that Inspector Clarke had ever seen. 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 the victim and the owner of this 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. That could mean that the victim’s wealth had not been exaggerated and 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 considering 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.”
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, perhaps 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 drawn 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 of the muscles and level of decomposition of the body. His thought process was interrupted by a knock 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, unsure if he had made the wrong decision. “He says he knows the victim and has come on a matter of some importance.”
Inspector Clarke sighed. It was clear the constable 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 would have been described as handsome by some, 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 man smiled and gave a slight nod. “Ah, you must be Detective Inspector Clarke.”
“At your service. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lord Crawley. I understand the victim was known to you?”
“Yes, Mr. Gray and I were once very close and had a number of business dealings together.”
“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.”
“What sort of establishments?”
“Err, 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.”
“There are witnesses who can corroborate this?”
“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.”
“Yes, I have heard a great deal about such rumors. May I ask what is the matter of importance that you have come about?”
“Well, naturally I was quite concerned to hear of Mr. Gray’s fate and wanted to offer my assistance in any way possible.”
“That’s quite considerate of you.”
“Yes. I was wondering if Mr. Gray left a will of any kind behind or perhaps an accounting of debts which he owed?”
“Ah, now I understand the nature of your concern. But no, nothing of that sort has been discovered just yet.”
“I fear you have misjudged me, Inspector. I am sure those documents will become known in time. It is a small matter. Certainly, full effort must be made to bringing his killer to justice.”
“Rest assured that is my singular purpose. However, I am not fully convinced that he was murdered.”
“What do you mean? The man has disappeared without a trace leaving behind a bloody knife in a locked room. The papers have been going on about it for some time now.”
“I wouldn’t put so much stock in everything you read. 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. He made sure to avoid contact with all 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. Lady Helena requested that any paintings found in the locked room be given to her care for safe keeping?”
“That is correct.”
“Well, tell Lady Helena that she is mad if she thinks I will release evidence to her during an active inquest.”
“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 and as the only surviving partner, ownership of the painting now reverts to her. She demands her property be returned at once. She intends to exhibit the work in a gallery as a tribute to both of her deceased friends.”
“Once the inquest is concluded the legality of these claims can be proven and the painting will be released to the proper owner.”
“She thought you might say that.” Lord Crawley reached again into his coat and produced a second letter.
“What is this?”
“A letter from Chief Inspector Williamson requesting that you comply with her demand.”
“Let me guess. Lady Helena is also friends with the Chief Inspector?”
“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.”
“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, punctuated by gunfire.