I lift the heavy brass knocker and announce my presence three times, rat tat tat, then step back to wait, my mind alternating between the theme for my sermon tomorrow evening and the glass of sherry which sits undrunk on the little table next to my armchair. A man of God stands in the service of his parishioners and it is his duty and pleasure to serve, I remind myself, so I push back against my feelings of irritation about being called out at such a late hour, and focus instead on what on earth could have caused Sir Charles to call me in such an agitated state. I’m about to knock again when the door opens a crack, and I see the bespectacled face of his manservant Davies peer around the edge. His eyes appear wide with consternation, but then his face relaxes and he opens the door wider.
“Hallo Father, thank you for coming at such a late hour,” he says as he ushers me into the hallway. He fumbles with my coat, trying to take it from me with one hand, and I notice that he’s trying to hide a poker iron behind his back with the other.
“Expecting trouble, Davies?” I ask, raising my eyebrows. He catches my glance, then gives up trying to hide the poker, setting it down on the sideboard so he can take my coat properly.
“No sir,” he mumbles, then adds “just acting cautious like. You’ll find the master in his study.
I thank the man and set off up the hallway. Knocking once on the study door and receiving a gruff bark for reply, I enter the room. Sir Charles is seated at his desk, and I can see at a glance that something is wrong. He face has a sheen of sweat that could be attributed to the stickiness of the room, but his eyes are wild and his expression is that of a hunted deer. I stride over and take him by the shoulders. “Sir Charles, what’s the matter man?”
“Father, thank goodness you’ve come!” he cries. My touch seems to compose him slightly, and he motions to an armchair across from his desk. As I sit down, he speaks again. “Forgive me father, but I think my life is in peril.” His voice becomes steadier as he narrates his story. “It started last month. I received a threatening letter - ” here he breaks off and shows me the note, and I raise my eyebrows in surprise as I see it. It’s one of those classic types where every word is cut out of a newspaper and stuck together. I honestly thought they only turned up in crime stories like Father Brown Investigates. I read the note. “Hand over the necklace or you’ll regret the consequences.” Hardly original and not very explicit, but I know which necklace it refers to, and I look up sharply.
“Yes,” he sighs, “the necklace of my dear Lily.” And my sister. My guts twist when I hear her name, and my pulse starts race to as I think back to the tragic accident, the fall down the stairs... “Of course it’s worth an absolute fortune, but I wouldn’t dream of parting with it” he continues, oblivious to my reaction. “This was postmarked in London, and there were others too, ever more threatening, until this one arrived this morning.” He shows me a note with the single word Tonight. “This was found on the doormat, hand delivered!” He looks up now, visibly shaken. “Father, I called you seeking advice – what should I do?”
I consider the situation carefully, then get up and go to the window. I release the latch and throw open the window, letting in the cool night air, and straight away the cloying humidity leaves the room. I start slightly as I catch the silhouette of a man skulking in the shadows along the path outside the garden perimeter. Then it is gone, and I am left wondering if I imagined it.
“My dear Charles,” I say in my confessional voice. “What could possibly happen to you in your own home? It’s like a fortress here, and I am sure Davis will let no-one in. It’s late, and I suggest you go straight to bed. Perhaps the good doctor has given you some sleeping tablets...?” He nods, so I continue. “Come, up and off to bed with you. Take those tablets to get a good nights sleep, and in the morning you’ll see that the worry was all for nothing.” He dithers, then acquiesces, and I lead him out of the room. We encounter Davis in the hallway, and Sir Charles bids us both goodnight before trudging up the staircase.
“One moment” I tell Davis, and return to the study to close and bolt the window. I collect my coat, and giving Davis stern instructions to let no-one else in this evening, I bid my farewell and make my way home to that well deserved glass of sherry.
I hurry along the dark track, taking care though not to stumble in the ruts and pot-holes which litter the road. I’m exhausted, having walked the last seven miles from the neighbouring village to set a particularly nasty bone-break from a riding accident. My doctors bag swings heavily at my side. I curse loudly as my foot finds a deep rut hidden in the shadows, and it takes all my training to avoid twisting my ankle. My stomach rumbles as I think of the steak and kidney pie my landlady is making tonight, and hope that there’s still some left for me when I get home. A brief flash of light catches my eye as I pass the manor house, and looking up I glimpse the silhouette of a man against an open window, before the view is swallowed up again by the darkness and the trees.
I creep back into the guest house late, letting myself in quietly so I don’t disturb the other occupants. I needn’t have worried though, as a deathly quiet hangs over the house. I breathe silent thanks to Mrs Harris as I see the piece of pie waiting for me on the kitchen table. She knows that my work can be often gruelling, and she treats me like the son she always wanted. I’ll wash up in the morning – if I run hot water now there’s a danger I’ll wake people up. I take off my boots by the front door, and tread cat-like up the staircase, keeping to the sides to avoid the squeaky stair. Despite my heavy build I can move stealthily, an ability which earnt me the nickname Panther in my army days. I grin savagely, thinking of those long-gone times, before I crash fully dressed into the small bed and fall fast asleep.
The rat tat tat of machine gun fire jerks me awake, before my brain clicks into place and I realize it’s Mrs Harris knocking sharply on the bedroom door. “Doctor Stephenson, you’re needed at the manor house, you must come quickly!” she shouts through the door. My mind registers that it’s early, the first pale light is filtering through the window. I ruffle my short-cropped hair and grab my kit bag, then take the stairs two at a time before wrenching open the front door with the briefest of hellos to Mrs Harris.
The journey to the manor house seems to take far less time than it did last night, and I can see there’s a crowd already gathered there. A young policeman, Nick I think his name is, waves me over. Pushing through the crowd, I stop short when I see the body sprawled on the stone pathway. Sir Charles is dressed in his night gown, but his limbs are twisted grotesquely from his obvious fall from the third story window. His head is caved in from the impact with the pavement, and a stream of blood has pooled into the nearby grass. His wrist is cold to the touch as I search routinely for any sign of a pulse.
“You don’t need a doctor here,” I say to the policeman as I stand up, “you need a priest.”
“Who found the body?” I ask the young policeman, as I observe the lifeless figure with detached interest. It’s too damn early, and I would kill for a second cup of coffee.
“The housemaid sir,” he replies, checking his notes. I nod with approval at his orderly fashion. “Found him at six this morning when she came to start work. She thought it odd, apparently, that the Major’s window was open, before she noticed the body.”
“Very good, I’ll need to speak to her then,” I reply, “and I’ll need to speak to all members of the household, including any guests which were there yesterday.”
I peer up at the open window. It’s a long drop, and my first thought is suicide, but then I push that to one side. Never assume, I tell myself. I need to collect more facts, as I can’t for the life of me see why a chap should hurl himself out of his bedroom window. The doctor is a bear of a fellow, almost certainly ex-army, and I go over to him now. “Time of death?” I shoot at him, and he pauses to consider before answering.
“Rigor mortis has set in, and is almost complete, which puts the time of death to between six and eight hours ago.”
He was found at six, which would make the time of death between ten and midnight, but instinctively I think it’s more towards midnight. I look around the grounds. The manor is surrounded by a large garden with plenty of old trees which would obscure the view partially from the street. Even so, people don’t throw themselves out of bedroom windows at ten in the evening without anyone noticing.
I interrogate Davis the manservant next, a shrunken little man sitting in a crumpled heap on a chair in the corridor. “It was just myself and the master last night sir,” he says in answer to my question. “The housemaid goes home at eight, and there’s no other staff in the house. Oh, but the vicar did come round late last night, scared the life out of me he did, knocking on the door so late in the evening.”
Interesting – a vicar speaks to a man a few short hours before his death. “I’ll have to speak to this vicar then,” I say aloud. “Where can I find him?”
“Why, that’s him there sir, just arriving now.”
I turn round to see a thin, smartly dressed man arriving on a bicycle. He parks his bike and says a few words to the doctor, before hurrying over to the house. He expresses his shock and condolence to Davis, before appearing to register my presence for the first time.
“Inspector Rigsby,” I say, tipping my hat. “I understand you saw the deceased yesterday evening.”
“Yes sir, and my, he had a strange tale to tell. He was being threatened, you know, had been receiving notes. The last one simply said Tonight, and fair shook him up. I didn’t take it seriously, really, but now I wish I had, poor fellow. He was my brother-in-law, after all. Seems they were after the necklace.”
“Necklace?” I say. This case is getting stranger by the minute. I make a note to check this up later, and ask Davis whether anything else strange has happened recently. Something doesn’t add up here; I need to dig deeper.
“Well sir,” he says, wringing his hands, “there was the visit from the son, yesterday. I don’t like to pry sir, and they were in the study so I didn’t hear much, but they were shouting so loud that I did here a few words here and there.” He pauses, so I nod encouragement for him to continue. “I got the impression that the son was angry about his inheritance, he was shouting about the will. But I didn’t hear anymore sir, and then the son stormed off in such a rage, sir, it made me quite scared.” I groan to myself - of course I’ll have to check the will. I make a note to investigate both the son and the will. I’m about to question the old man further when the vicar interjects.
“So that’s why you were so nervous about opening the door last night!” he exclaims. “I thought that was very odd. Oh my! When I opened the window last night, I’m sure I saw someone skulking in the shadows! Could that have been him? I’m jolly glad I told you not to let anyone else in last night.” He stopped short, seeming to deflate, and cast his eyes to the ground. “Not that that advice helped poor Sir Charles.”
If people are talking, I always find it’s best to let them carry on. Out of the corner of my eye though I notice that the doctor is nearby, close enough to be eavesdropping on our conversation. Davies carries on. “Aye, you did sir, and I made sure the door was locked, as I always do. Oh!” his eyes widen, “when the girl bashed on the door this morning, I opened it up straight away without unlocking it. What with all that’s been going on, I didn’t notice that until just now.”
So there was someone else in the house last night! This changes things completely. “Who else has a key to the house?” I ask Davis.
“Only myself and Sir Charles, sir. Of course, the son might also have a key, but no-one else, sir.” The son again. I signal the young policeman to come over, and ask to look into the whereabouts of the son. He must be staying somewhere nearby. I turn again to Davis.
“I think you’d better check to make sure that necklace is still in its place, Davis. In the meantime, I’m going to have a look upstairs.”
On Davis’ instructions I head up to the third floor, and turn right into the corridor. The door to Sir Charles’ bedroom is closed, so I turn the knob carefully, making sure not to disturb any fingerprints. The window is wide open, the curtains drawn back on either side. The bed has been slept in, but there’s no obvious sign of any struggle, and all the furniture seems to be in it’s place. Could Sir Charles really have taken his own life by throwing himself out of the window? If so, why? I stay in the room for a while contemplating the scene, but nothing comes to mind. The forensics guys will be swarming over the room looking for fingerprints, but I suspect they won’t find much.
When I get downstairs Davis looks agitated, and it’s with no great surprise that I hear that the necklace has disappeared. The young policeman returns shortly to inform me that the son checked out of his hotel this morning, and no-one knows his whereabouts. So the son did a runner with the necklace. I catch myself again. Never assume. How does this fit in with the strange death of Sir Charles, the unlocked door, the figure in the shadows and the mysterious notes? An idea is starting to form in my mind, but it seems quite fantastical. It couldn’t possibly be the truth, could it?
I take a sip from the small glass of sherry I’m twirling between two fingers in my right hand and lean back in my favourite armchair, savouring the wave of contentment that washes over me. I raise my glass to the good doctor sitting across from me. “Well cousin, did you get it?”
In reply he pulls out the pearl necklace from his inside pocket, letting it run through his fingers, and my smile grows wider. “I can’t believe the luck we had with his son - fancy him turning up like that, like it was predestined. That should throw the inspector right off the scent! Davis didn’t half give me a shock though, when he opened the door brandishing that poker.” I chuckle thinking about it. “But now our dear Lily is revenged, and the score is settled.”
“He should have hung in the first place!” Stephenson growls, his jaw clenching. The dear boy was always so very loyal.
“Yes, well, we both know what really happened, but sadly there was no evidence. But now, tell me how it went,” I say, changing the subject. “Did you have to hide long after I let you in through the window?”
He shakes his head. “I hid for an hour or so, but the old guy didn’t even bother to check the room. It was easy enough to sneak up to his room, you know how well I can do that.” I detect the professional pride in his voice. “The old guy was out cold - he must have taken two tablets and that was pretty strong stuff. I don’t think he even woke up. He fairly flew out of that window. And don’t worry, I made sure I wore gloves” he says, catching my look.
I snigger when I think of the nights I spent cutting out those notes. In the end they probably weren’t so believable, but they might just tip the balance in favour of suicide.
“It’s a shame you had to unlock the front door to get out – we should have planned that a bit better,” I say with slight regret. “Still, the inspector’s chasing after the son now, so all’s well that ends well.”
I lean back in the chair and close my eyes. I still have to prepare my sermon tonight, and Hebrews 8:12 should fit the bill nicely. For I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more.