It was a cold and quiet autumn night in southern Ireland. The sky was surprisingly clear, but Colleen’s mind was racing, even faster than the rental Renault Clio she was driving. Just seventy-two hours ago, she was sitting in her dorms in Princeton, New Jersey, not imagining she had a great-uncle or any family for that matter. And now, three days after that weird phone call, she is the sole inheritor of Edward Crofton’s castle and properties in Irland. She had had a chance to see him for barely an hour before he passed away, as if he had been struggling to hold his last breath before looking in the eyes of his sole remaining kin. But his final words did not make any sense. He looked at her with terrified eyes and insisted that she stay in the castle after he was gone. Still, after arranging the funeral, she had to go back to the university. She thought she would deal with selling the estate during the summer break.
A black granite wall suddenly appeared in front of the car, though it was too late to hit the breaks. The small white Renault smashed into the wall, and a sharp rock flew through the front window and hit her in the face. She died instantly. Her bloody forehead dropped on the front wheel, making the horn pierce through the quiet night with a constant, deafening beep.
Detective Doyle arrived in less than ten minutes. A black Mercedes-Benz was parked behind the crashed Renault, illuminating the awful scene with bright headlights. As soon as the detective pulled over near the black car, a tall man stepped out of the vehicle, wearing a distinguished black coat, black tie, grey striped trousers, and white gloves. His ghostly white hair was cut shoulder length, and a neat, grey moustache covered his upper lip.
“How do you do? I’m Bernard” He introduced himself and nodded his head.
“I’m Detective James Doyle. Was it you who called the police?” The detective asked and approached the right side of the smashed Renault.
“Yes, I did, but I am surprised they sent a detective for a car accident.”
“I live nearby, in the village, so I took the call. The ambulance is on its way from the city.”
Detective Doyle took out a flashlight and looked through the broken window. Colleen’s head was resting on her right shoulder, her long red hair was soaked with blood, and her face was covered with pieces of glass. He pointed the flashlight at Bernard’s face. “Did you move the body?”
Bernard was blinded by the sudden light and turned away. “Well, yes…Just a little. I had to check her pulse to make sure she was dead.”
“Are you the owner of this land?” Detective Doyle asked while looking at the eerie silhouette of the dark castle in the distance.
“No, I am the butler. The owner was Edward Crofton. But, unfortunately, he passed away earlier this week.” Bernard paused, “Well, actually, the last owner of the estate was that poor girl. Her name was Miss Colleen Sparks. She was a student from America and a distant relative of Mister Crofton.”
The detective took out a phone from his pocket. There was no reception, but he only needed the camera. He leaned over the car and started to take photos.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll be heading back to the castle,” Bernard said quietly. “If you need me, I will be in the main house.”
The detective waved his left hand while examining the body, and Bernard left in the black car.
Thirty minutes later, Bernard answered the doorbell and let Detective Doyle into the house.
“The ambulance came and took Miss Sparks,” Doyle said and followed Bernard into the living room.
The room was illuminated by a single chandelier and a burning fireplace. Bernard had excused himself and disappeared into the shadows, only to return with a teapot, two cups, and a small bowl of cookies a minute later. The detective took a teacup but remained standing. He paced across the room and examined the portraits on the fireplace wall.
“So, are you a local? You don’t sound like a local.” Bernard asked.
“You’re right. I’m from London. I came here two years ago when I was looking for a quiet and peaceful place to recover from a gunshot wound. Eventually, I fell in love with the village, so I decided to stay.” The detective paused and turned towards Bernard. “But I’ve never seen Mister Crofton in the village. I thought the castle was vacant.”
“The castle has been occupied since his ancestor Sir John Crofton took it over and renovated it in 1603.” Bernard pointed at the portrait of Sir John Crofton that was hung directly above the fireplace. He was wearing plate armour with the family sigil on his chest and a thick black beard.
“Regarding Mister Edward Crofton, it has been long since he visited the village. He was too old and weak to move around, and he never left the house.”
Detective Doyle pointed at a portrait of a woman that was hung beside Sir John Crofton. Her face was pale, but her hair was as red as fire. Doyle found some sadness in her eyes. “Who was she?”
“She was John Crofton’s wife, Eleanor Crofton. Unlike Sir Crofton, she was local Irish from the McDowell clan. They were married here in this castle when she was fourteen years old, and Sir Crofton was in his thirties.”
“Where are these from?” Doyle pointed at some masks, spears, and shields that covered a significant part of the wall. “They seem African or Asian.”
“Sir John was an explorer and a collector. He travelled to Asia and Africa several times in his lifetime. This room showcases only a small part of his collection.”
“That’s interesting,” Doyle said, “but let’s go back to poor Miss Sparks. Where was she driving to?”
“She was heading to Dublin Airport. She wanted to catch a plane back to New Jersey.” Bernard said and looked down. “I tried to make her stay. I insisted that it wasn’t safe for her to go.”
“Why wasn’t it safe? The weather was nice. Did anyone threaten her?”
“N…No, that’s not what I meant…” Bernard stuttered. “The roads are dark at this hour, and it could be dangerous, especially for those who are not used to driving on the left side of the road.”
Detective Doyle took a quick sip from his teacup and put it down. He drew his phone and showed Bernard a photo of a broken analogue wristwatch, covered in blood.
“This is Colleen’s watch. Apparently, it broke during the accident. Can you tell me the time on the watch?” He asked Bernard.
Bernard stuttered. “It…it…it looks like around 10:05, maybe 10:06. Assuming it is synchronised.”
“Right,” Doyle said, “yet you made a call to 999 Emergency Services at exactly 10:04. Furthermore, the call was made from the house, at least eight hundred meters away from the crash spot. Can you explain how you knew about the crash before it even happened?”
“Colleen was upset and tired. I urged her to stay another night. I felt that she wasn’t safe driving late in her condition, so I made the call. I followed my guts, and unfortunately, I was right.”
Doyle reached for his coat and took out an old wooden heart-shaped box. It was made of scratched oak wood with golden ornaments and the Crofton family sigil on the locked lid. “I found this box in Colleen’s handbag. Can you tell me what it is?”
“It’s a family heirloom.”
“What’s in the box? Did she steal it?”
“She could not have stolen it. It was hers. She is the rightful heir of the Crofton estate.” Bernard gave a tart reply.
“Do you know where I can find the key? I couldn’t find it on her.”
“There is no key,” Bernard said nostalgically, “it was lost a long time ago.”
The detective put the box on the coffee table and took another sip of tea. “Well, to summarise the incident, I guess it was an unfortunate case of a girl falling asleep in a moving vehicle and accidentally hitting a wall.”
“Yes, it was, unfortunately,” Bernard said sadly. “I liked that poor girl… Can I show you out?”
“Well, I would like to see her room before I leave, if you don’t mind.”
Bernard hoped that the detective would go away, but as a trained and skilful butler, he could hide his feelings well and almost seem happy to show Doyle the way to Colleen’s room.
“The girl said she needed to study, so I fixed her a room near the library, on the second floor.” Bernard held a luminous candlestick while guiding the detective across the hall and up the stairs.
“Did she ever use it?”
“The library? Oh yes, she practically lived there. Hardly ever used her room.”
“Take me to the library then.”
The library was divided into different sections; each section differed by era and topic. More family portraits were hung on the walls beside Asian masks and African statuses. A massive, round wooden table was placed in the centre of the room.
“What did she study?” Detective Doyle asked.
“She told me she had been in a B.A program for East Asian studies. She was fascinated by the Asian section of the library. She spoke some Asian languages, and Sir John Crofton certainly brought some rare Chinese scrolls and writings.”
The detective approached the table. It was empty except for an old book that was opened to the last page and appeared to be handwritten.
Doyle examined the book.
“It is Lady Eleanor’s personal diary,” Bernard explained quietly.
“Are there any more diaries like this one?”
“Most residents of the house have written diaries. There are dozens of them in the diary section over there.” Bernard pointed to a darker area in the library, closed behind a glass door.
Detective Doyle read the last sentence in Eleanor’s diary:
“We shall beest togeth’r lief mine own loveth.”
Doyle looked puzzled.
“It was written in Early Modern English,” Bernard explained. “Have you ever read original Shakespeare writings?”
Doyle shook his head.
“It means: We will be together soon, my love.”
“Is she talking about Sir John Crofton, her husband?” Doyle asked. Bernard remained silent.
Doyle flipped back some pages and read:
“Breccán is planning f’r our escapeth.”
“She was talking about escaping, wasn’t she?” He asked.
“Yes, that was the plan.” Bernard sounded gloomy.
“Who was Breccán?” Doyle asked. Somehow a love affair that happened four hundred years ago seemed essential to the investigation.
“Breccán was one of the guards in the castle. He was in charge of Eleanor’s security. Her bodyguard, if you will.”
“What happened to them?”
Bernard looked down and didn’t answer.
“Can you show me Sir John Crofton’s diary?” Doyle asked impatiently.
“I cannot,” Bernard said. “Lord John’s diaries have been destroyed. Sir Edward Crofton, my Master, burned them a long time ago.”
“What happened to Breccán and Eleanor?” Detective Doyle insisted on getting an answer and raised his voice.
“Lord John had been away on one of his exploration missions when they decided to escape, but he came back sooner than they expected. They couldn’t get further than the village when John’s spies caught them and brought them back to the castle.” Bernard stopped for air and sat down.
“Go on,” Doyle said.
“Breccán was locked in the dungeon and tortured, but Eleanor’s fate was much worse. It was rumoured that Sir John set poor Eleanor on fire while cutting out her heart and mumbling foreign words. During John’s explorations, he mastered tribal black magic, and used this dreadful knowledge to curse her, her lover and apparently all future generations. Whoever holds Eleanor’s heart would be a prisoner in the castle and could never leave it.”
“What do you mean? What did he do with the heart?” Doyle asked hesitantly and felt sick to his stomach.
“He put the heart in Eleanor’s heart-shaped jewellery box and placed it in Breccán’s cell. After two weeks of suffering, one of Breccán’s friends from the guard helped him escape the dungeon in the middle of the night. Breccán took Eleanor’s heart and stole a horse from the stable, but he could not reach further than the surrounding wall of the estate. It is rumoured that a snake had jumped and bit the horse’s leg the moment he reached the gate. He fell off the horse and instantly broke his neck.”
“What about the heart?”
“The heart always needs to be owned by someone, and the owner of the heart cannot leave the estate.”
Detective Doyle looked into Bernard’s eyes and smiled. “Nice story. You almost fooled me. You should save it for Halloween trick-or-treaters.”
Bernard did not smile back. “You can stay in Colleen’s room. It is yours now. I have already fixed the bed. Would you like another cup of tea?”
“My room? No, I’m not staying. I have to go now.”
The detective put his hand in his pocket, looking for the car keys. He felt something strange, something he was sure he had left in the living room downstairs. He took out his hand and held the heart-shaped box.
“But you cannot leave now, sir. You are the owner of Eleanor’s heart.”