Detective Mareau studied the empty, beautifully panelled wall, trying to discern where its previous occupant had gone.
“It was an original?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. All the way from the city. An antique. I do so like collecting them,” replied the rotund woman behind him.
“Yes. I’d quite gathered,” he remarked, glancing at the gleaming, varnished wooden tables on either side of the blank space, all covered with antique plates and vases of all different shades of colour and style. The whole thing looked rather garish.
“And this was the only thing stolen? They stole nothing else?” he asked, pushing his spectacles further up the bridge of his nose.
“No. I’ve checked and double checked. My staff keep an inventory of all my antiques. Not a one of them would muck that up or they’d be turned out on the street so fast their heads would spin!” the woman said, her voice shrill.
“Yes, I have questioned the staff. They report hearing nothing as they were all in their beds deeply asleep. They said you had subjected them to a rigorous spring clean yesterday,” he remarked.
“Indeed. One must keep the house ordered,” she said, sniffing and looking down her nose at the inspector.
He was asking rather a lot of questions, and it was irritating her.
She was, as previously mentioned, a rotund woman, short and dark haired with a penchant for flying into tempers at the slightest inconvenience. She was headed that way now.
“So, do you know who did it?” she demanded.
Detective Mareau calmly turned around to face Mrs. Winkle.
“At present, madam, I know nothing, only that the painting was stolen last night at some time after midnight and before dawn, while the whole house was asleep and completely, blissfully unaware. Did I miss anything?” he asked drily.
Mrs. Winkle pursed her lips and shook her head.
“Good. I will continue my investigations as vigorously as I can and find who stole your painting, Mrs. Winkle. Good day,” he said, tipping his hat then departing surprisingly fast for a shorter, older gent.
Detective Mareau had been in the business for many, many years, and he had lived in this town for just as many. He had been much younger then, and more slim, but his wit had not withered one bit. In all honesty, he expected that whoever had broken in and stolen Mrs. Winkle’s painting to be long gone by now, perhaps heading back to the city to fence their prize to the highest bidder.
But it puzzled him why the thief had taken the painting and nothing else. The painting was worth a lot, yes, but there were many things of greater value sitting on the tables right near where the painting had been, things much less cumbersome to haul away.
There was also the matter of how it was stolen.
Not a single window or door had been touched, no signs of forced entry, and nothing else was missing but the large, gold-framed painting.
It was quite a head scratcher, but he was the best detective in the county.
He would get to the bottom of it.
First, he decided to get himself a coffee to soothe his aching bones and clear his head of Mrs. Winkle’s grating voice. He was always courteous to everyone, but some tested his ability quite sorely.
Mrs. Winkle was one of them.
He reached the coffee shop and tipped his hat to the young serving girl there who smiled at him.
“Ah! Detective Mareau! Good to see you this morning, sir. Will it be the usual then?” said the shop owner, Mr. Barryton.
Mareau smiled and nodded, then sat down at his favourite table by the window taking out the little notebook he always carried with him. He had hundreds of these, each filled back and front with his small, neat writing. Those little notebooks contained nearly the entire history of the county.
He recorded what he had witnessed this morning and made a short list of current suspects. So far they were Mrs. Winkle’s servants and Mrs. Winkle herself. Always suspect the victim too, unless they were dead.
He also made a note of those who disliked Mrs. Winkle. That list was much longer.
He snapped his notebook shut, downed his coffee and set off for the day.
Let the investigation begin.
Mareau strolled down the main street of his town, Dewdale, a street that had not yet been properly paved. Mareau waved to everyone who greeted him, and even stopped for a moment outside Old Tom’s house as he sang in his deep, baritone voice.
He first checked in with a young serving girl that Mrs. Winkle had fired last week. When asked about the painting all she said was, “I don’t much like her. She’s mean and unfair. But I wouldn’t steal from her. She scares me too much,” she said when asked about the painting.
He thanked her and crossed her off the list.
Onto the next one.
His search throughout the day seemed quite fruitless. By the time he reached each of his next suspects, they already knew the whole story and were happy to voice their opinions.
“It wasn’ me. I aint’ got no time for stealing, not with the harvest coming in. Serves her right though, not paying on time for her milk and cheese. Old broad,” Farmer Jack supplied, spitting on the ground.
Mareau crossed him off too.
It wasn’ me. I was at the inn all night last night, you can ask half the town. But I’m glad to see that old goose’s feathers ruffled,” said Jenny, the innkeeper of the inn at the heart of town.
He crossed her off too.
By the end of the day, Detective Mareau was at a loss as to who had done the crime.
Because he knew it was absolutely nobody he had spoken to today.
He thought and thought, sitting under the proud apple tree that swayed on a small knoll near the town.
The most probable option was that the thief had simply left town with the painting. But that still left the mystery of why the thief did not steal something smaller and easier to carry - and worth far more than any painting.
Perhaps the crime was not about money.
Detective Mareau pulled a crumpled-up page out of his pocket, a page from the recent city auction that had found its way to Mrs. Winkle.
The stolen painting was of a woman, tall and slender, with long, flowing blonde hair, gazing off into the distance. The artist had painted a beautiful red and gold filigreed wall behind her, which contrasted with her warm, brown eyes. Every time he looked at the painting, it tugged at a memory deep in his mind, but he could never quite seem to pull the strings and bring it into the light.
He read the small blurb underneath the painting.
“Beautiful rendering of famous singer Alicia Fairclough by unknown artist.
Gold based paint, exquisite lines. 5000.”
That name as well, Fairclough, stirred up memories. He was sure the answer to this mystery was in his overly large head. He just had to wait until it dug its way out.
Perhaps a visit to the town library would enlighten him.
The town library was one of Mareau’s favourite places in the town, a place where he had solved many mysteries. It was well lit and open to the public, but there were restricted rooms at the back that held all the town’s records. The mayor’s office had copies too, but Mareau did not want to disturb the mayor.
He was a short-tempered man.
After greeting the lovely, quiet librarian Mrs. Q and getting the key for the records, he began shuffling through them all seeing if there was any evidence of the name Fairclough.
He looked at birth records, death records, marriage certificates, past residents.
He had had an inkling that perhaps someone with a direct link to the painting’s occupant had stolen it. But that was a dead end too.
He left the library to get some dinner at the inn.
Perhaps some food would give him some inspiration.
On his way, the sun beginning its decent to the horizon, he walked past Mr. Kibble’s shop. To his surprise, Old Tom was at the front, fixing Mr. Kibble’s door.
“Tom!” shouted Detective Mareau. Old Tom jumped violently and dropped his nails.
“Detective Mareau, you startled me,” he said, holding his hand over his chest.
“Sorry, Tom. I was just wondering what you were doing?” he asked.
Detective Mareau liked Old Tom. Old Tom had been close with him when he was a little tike, often babysitting him. Old Tom had always been calm and gentle, though susceptible to merry jokes and cheeky tricks. Since his beloved wife had died about a year ago though, he had lost some of his spark, as though a part of him had died with her. It had saddened Mareau, but it was good to see Old Tom working again, and singing. He and his wife used to sing a lot, him on the job, her in the inn kitchen where she had been the best cook.
“I’m just fixing Mr. Kibble’s door. It’s quite old, you see, lock’s worn away, and he doesn’t want it kicked in. That robbery has got ‘im nervous,” Old Tom replied, taking off his straw hat and wiping his heavily sweated forehead. He twiddled his thumbs and looked side to side. Mareau hoped he hadn’t startled Old Tom too badly. He was not young anymore.
“I don’t think it’s too much of a worry Old Tom. I always catch my criminal, but I think this one is relatively harmless. After all, he only stole a painting,” Detective Mareau said.
“Yes, Detective sir. Only a painting.”
The inn gave him no leads, so he walked home, exhausted from his day of fruitless searching. He walked past Old Tom’s house, one of the few who didn’t frequent the inn except on special occasions. He was singing again, from the softly illuminated window, humming the song he and his wife would always sing.
Old Tom seemed content.
Mareau continued home then gratefully sunk into his warm yet empty bed. A long time ago, his wife had always soothed him when work became overwhelming, relaxing him enough so that random ideas would suddenly click together in his mind and, nine times out of ten, allow him to solve the case.
However, one day she had decided she wanted to pursue her life in the city – without him. So, she had gone, and he had not heard from her since.
Detective Mareau hoped that sleep would bring him answers now, even if it was only an answer to how he would handle Mrs. Winkle tomorrow.
The next day proved no more fruitful, nor the one after. All it succeeded in doing was giving him a growing headache.
He considered calling the case off. Nothing else had been stolen anywhere in the town and there were no other signs of unrest, other than Mrs. Winkle’s renewed and vocal distrust of everyone.
Trying to gather the will to face another day of investigating, Detective Mareau took his morning coffee to the little flower shop next to the fruit and vegetable shop. A small bench rested between them and he sank into it gratefully, enjoying the smell of his coffee, the flowers and the deliciously ripe fruit.
Just what he needed for the day.
As he sat there, sipping his coffee, he heard Old Tom singing again, as his house was just across the street.
He really did have a wonderful, rich voice.
Today he was singing the words, instead of just humming.
“Deep blue skies and fresh green grass,
Oh my country, oh my heart.
Your stormy skies and endless rain,
Oh my country, oh my heart.
A quiet life, a good old life,
In my country fair…”
Detective Mareau suddenly stood up, spilling some of his coffee.
He knew that song. Or at least, he knew of it.
He raced off to the library again, this time to search through not old records, but newspaper articles instead.
It was midday when Detective Mareau knocked on Old Tom’s door.
“Just a minute!” came a hasty shout from upstairs. After a moment, Mareau heard then the thuds of Old Tom’s footsteps on the stairs.
“Oh, hello again, Detective,” he said, looking the same as he did when Mareau had run into him fixing Mr. Kibble’s door. This time though, it was not from being startled.
It was nervousness.
“May I come in?” Mareau asked politely. Old Tom hesitated for a moment, then nodded and opened the door further to allow him to step in.
Old Tom’s house was drearier than it had been, now it had lost his wife’s magic touch. It had an air of sadness to it that, admittedly, was the same feeling Mareau had in his house.
“Do you mind if I look around?” he asked. Old Tom nodded again, his eyes darting to the stairs.
Upstairs first then.
Mareau ascended, Old Tom following nervously.
Mareau opened the door to the room at the top of the stairs and there it was, sitting on a handmade easel, tucked in the corner.
He turned and looked at Old Tom, arching his eyebrow.
“It was me,” he admitted, bowing his head, looking resigned to his fate.
“Why?” was all Mareau asked.
“Because…because it looks like her,” he said in almost a whisper. They both looked at the painting, Mareau struggling with his memory.
“Your wife. What was her maiden name?” he asked.
“Fairclough,” he replied. “Great-granddaughter to Alicia Fairclough. Got her looks and talents from her I reckon.”
Mareau now remembered, vaguely, a warm, brown eyed girl with long blonde hair walking with Tom when they were both much, much younger and without the grey in their hair. They had been married for almost 50 years.
“There’s no record of your marriage here,” Mareau stated.
“We were married in the next county over, where her family was living at the time. She was close with her family, closer than I was with mine. Wanted them to be there,” Old Tom said.
Detective Mareau nodded. There was silence for a moment.
“How did you figure it out?” Old Tom couldn’t help but ask.
“Took me a while. Old grey matter isn’t what it used to be. But there were clues. Your singing clicked them all together though.”
“My singing? How?”
“That song. You both sung it. Once said it was passed down through Lizzie’s family, someone famous. It was a long shot, but I thought if someone was famous enough, it would end up even in our small-town papers, and so it was. Alicia Fairclough’s number 1 hit – Oh my Country, Oh my Heart,” Mareau said. “Also, you haven’t sung it in a long while. Just started the day after the painting was stolen.”
“Ah. Yes, we used to sing it together all the time. Having the painting here, singing that song, why, when I shut my eyes, I could almost imagine she is still here with me,” Old Tom said morosely.
Mareau looked sadly at the old man.
“How did you do it?” Detective Mareau asked as a distraction. “Left barely a mark anywhere. Confounded me.”
Old Tom grinned at that.
“I’m a carpenter, first and foremost, good with me hands, but most folks forget I’m also a locksmith. Folk here don’t really need locks, but occasionally someone remembers and asks me, like Mr. Kibble. Seems my theft earned me money after all,” Old Tom managed to chuckle. “And I’m used to working on any surface, even rooves, so I can tread light as a feather when I want, despite my old bones. I have to admit, stealing it made me feel younger. Lizzy would’ve loved that.”
“Why didn’t you just ask Mrs. Winkle for the painting, as it, in a way, rightfully belonged to you and Lizzy. I’m certain she would have understood,” Mareau said.
Old Tom gave him a look.
“Mrs. Winkle wouldn’t give a penny to a starving child, let alone an expensive painting to a poor old widower like me,” he said.
Mareau couldn’t argue with that.
“I’ll have to return it, won’t I?” Old Tom asked in a sad voice.
Detective Mareau looked once more at the painting, remembering what it had felt like when his wife had left him.
Old Tom had broken the law, but he had done it not out of malice. Detective Mareau had known Tom long enough that he knew if Tom had the money to pay for the painting, he would in a heartbeat. He had always been a good, honest man.
And perhaps it was time for Mrs. Winkle to show some charity.
Detective Mareau heaved a deep sigh and did something he had never done before.
“Keep the painting, Tom. I will deal with Mrs. Winkle,” he said.
“But, but I, I stole it. I broke the law,” he stammered.
“There is no denying that,” Mareau said, wiping his forehead. “But no great harm was done.”
Old Tom still looked flabbergasted.
Detective Mareau placed a comforting hand on Tom’s shoulder.
“I understand being alone, Tom. It cuts, deeply, especially when you’ve been so full of love for so long. I understand trying to fill that hole inside. We all do crazy things for love.”
Despite himself, Tom chuckled.
“I know it’s not her. I know she’s never coming back, but it’s nice to imagine sometimes,” he said.
“You know that those we love never really leave us, right?” Mareau said, wrapping his arm around Tom and leading him back downstairs.
Old Tom smiled sadly, yet gratefully at his old friend.