|The Ides of October
by Nene Adams©2004 – all rights reserved
“And I tell you, milady, this house is haunted!” Lord Hartington’s voice rose to a baritone roar that fairly shook the rafters.
His daughter, Victoria, hastened to soothe her father before he could emit another outburst. “Please, sir, have some consideration for your poor nerves!” she fussed, waving a bottle of sal volatile. Hartington knocked the silver-topped bottle out of her hand.
“Leave me be, damme! I’ll not have you playing nursemaid, girl, for I’m not yet in my dotage.” Hartington fixed his bloodshot eyes on Lady Evangeline St. Claire, consulting detective and fellow member of the sang bleu, whom he had summoned to his house in Mayfair on a blustery October afternoon. “I have heard strange noises in the night, milady. I have seen the restless spirit with my own eyes.”
“Have you indeed, milord?” Lina regarded him from beneath the arch of her black brows. “Are you certain that these visitations are more than a bit of undigested beef or a blob of mustard?”
“I assure you that the spirit which haunts me is not a product of Dickens’ fevered imagination,” Hartington retorted. His eldest son, William, a saturnine specimen whose face bore the all-knowing smirk of the young gentleman-about-town, pressed a glass of brandy upon his father. Hartington took it with ill grace and guzzled the contents.
The youngest son, Gerald, shot Lina a beseeching glance, asking her silently to indulge his father’s whim – most likely because the state of Lord Hartington’s temper would have a direct effect on the young man’s future career. She narrowed her eyes but did not acknowledge Gerald’s plea. Instead, the dark-haired lady focused her formidable powers of concentration back on Lord Hartington.
“Describe this spirit you have seen,” she said.
Hartington pursed his lips, considering. “Not too tallish,” he said, squinting thoughtfully. “Not too fattish. Wearing a toga…”
“A toga?” Lina’s eyebrows shot to her hairline.
“Oh, yes… I am not surprised, Lady St. Claire, since London was a Roman city long before our Norman ancestors arrived on the scene.”
“As I recall, you have a valuable collection of Roman coins,” Lina said. She half-turned in her seat and addressed her companion, a pretty red-headed young lady named Rhiannon Moore. “Lord Hartington is acknowledged as one of the foremost numismatists in England, particularly in the area of Roman coinage.”
Rhiannon nodded and asked Hartington, “Do you keep your coins on display or are they in a vault?”
“What’s the bloody use of having a collection of something if you’ve got to keep it in a vault where no one can admire it?” Hartington snorted. “I’ve got the whole of the collection in cases in the exhibit room next to my study.”
“Does not the possibility of burglars disconcert you?” Lina asked.
“Not in the least. I sleep with a loaded pistol on the table beside my bed; my valet and butler are both well-armed with shotguns. Any burglar who dares set foot in Damascus House will be greeted with a hail of lead shot. Now, shall we return to the topic of my home being haunted?”
“Supposing I believe you, milord, what do you wish me to do about it? I am neither an exorcist nor a spiritualist,” Lina said.
“Damme, I want you to find out if this ghost is all humbug or not!”
“Father, please!” objected Victoria. “Remember what the doctor said!”
“Don’t fuss, Vicky,” William said, smirking. “You know that just infuriates him all the more.”
“I beg you will not speak as if I am not sitting here beneath your very noses,” Hartington said, his salt-and-pepper mustache bristling. “Victoria, if you cannot squelch this appalling tendency to treat me as if I have been reduced to an infantile state, you may go to your bedchamber and remain there for the rest of the day.”
Gerald said, “Yes, Vicky, do hush while the gentleman are engaged in business.” This earned him filthy looks from his father, his older brother, and his sister. He subsided, blushing.
Lina sighed. “If I may interrupt this delightful family interlude… milord Hartington, do I understand you correctly? You wish to engage my services in order to determine whether the spirit haunting your home is genuine, or some figment of your imagination?”
“Correct.” Hartington nodded, causing the fringed tassel hanging from his crimson fez to shiver. “My children believe I am ready for the mad-house or, at least, the care of a stout warden to ensure that I do no harm in my fits of lunacy. I believe that this Roman spirit is real, and that I am no more insane than any other gentleman of my class.”
Lina’s lips twitched in what may have been a carefully controlled smile. “If I agree, how do you wish me to proceed?”
“I’ve no idea, damme! I am not a consulting detective or an inquiry agent; I leave such matters in the hands of those who have some inkling of the business. You must proceed as you see fit, milady.”
Lina rose to her feet. Her companion, Rhiannon, echoed her movements. “I shall communicate my decision to you in a few days, Lord Hartington.”
“So be it,” he replied gruffly, and snapped his fingers at Gerald in a clear command for the newspaper the boy was clutching.
Neither he nor any of his children escorted Lina and Rhiannon to the door of Damascus House.
The following morning, Lina and Rhiannon were awakened by Solange, their French maid, who came bustling into the bedchamber and whisked apart the red damask curtains to admit weak sunshine into the room.
“Milady! Something terrible has happened to Monsieur Hartington!” Solange said in her sharp Parisian accent. She held a folded sheet of foolscap in her hand.
Lina sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Beside her, Rhiannon made a disapproving grunt and burrowed deeper into the bedclothes, until all that could be glimpsed of the woman was a shock of red-gold hair spread out over the pillow. Lina let the sheet slip down to her waist – she was naked underneath but Solange had been dressing her for years – and accepted the note that the maid thrust at her.
What she read made her grimace. “My dear, we must go at once to Damascus House,” Lina said, pulling the covers off Rhiannon’s face. “Lord Hartington has been murdered!”
Rhiannon groaned in protest, but allowed herself to be prodded out of bed, however reluctantly. After several cups of strong, hot tea, she declared herself ready to face a peer of the realm weltering in his gore. Lina, who had been dressed and champing at the bit for a full twenty minutes, wasted no time bundling her partner into the waiting carriage and ordering the horses to be whipped up to full speed.
Lord Hartington’s household was in an uproar. A steady stream of police constables flowed in and out, a blue serge and brass-button tide that seemed to revolve endlessly. Lina recognized Inspector Harold Valentine of Scotland Yard, who was conferring with several of his colleagues. The Police Commissioner himself, James Munro, his sidewhiskers fluffed out over his well-starched collar, stood aloof from the chaotic throng.
Lina bypassed Commissioner Munro and went straight to Valentine. “Well, Harry, here’s an odd coincidence,” she said. “It was only yesterday that Lord Hartington was consulting me on a matter of grave importance.”
The pun was not entirely intentional but Lina was not surprised when Rhiannon smacked her upper arm and whispered, “Behave!”
Valentine pulled a long face and said, “Glad to see you in such high spirits, milady.”
Rhiannon gave him a slit-eyed glare and raised her reticule threateningly. Valentine subsided, rocking back and forth on his toes. As usual, the police inspector was rolling an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth.
“What happened?” Lina asked.
Valentine consulted a notebook which he took from the pocket of his jacket. “The youngest son, Gerald, was awakened at six a.m. by the sound of glass shattering. He roused the butler and Lord Hartington’s valet; all three chaps went downstairs and found Lord Harrington dead in the exhibit room. His head was stove in with a small marble bust. Milord’s coin collection is missing, presumed stolen.”
“The window in the exhibit room was broken. I reckon that was the killer’s exit.”
“Do you?” Lina’s emerald eyes gleamed. “Might I examine the premises, Harry? I am an interested party, after all.”
“If he finds out that I’ve let you interfere in a murder investigation, Mr. Munro will give me the rough side of his tongue,” Valentine said. He slipped the notebook back into his jacket. “It ain’t worth my job, milady.”
“Harry, if Munro releases you from your obligations, I will pay you a generous pension out of my own pocket,” Lina said in her most wheedling tone. “Please, my dear fellow... do not make me beg. It is undignified.”
“What’s your interest, eh? Was the milord a particular friend?”
“No, not at all. My father was an acquaintance of Lord Hartington’s. My interest lies in the fact that it strains credulity to suppose that his murder – coming so shortly after conferring with me on an important matter - is a mere coincidence.”
“Don’t half fancy yourself, do you?” Valentine said, his storm-gray eyes narrowed in thought. “Very well, milady. Stick close to me and if anyone asks, you’re here to provide support of the female kind for Miss Victoria Hartington.”
“I shall endeavor to utilize my duplicitous nature to the utmost,” Lina said. She took Rhiannon’s gloved hand in her own. “Come along, my dear. Wickedness is abroad.”
Rhiannon smiled, then adopted a suitably serious mien as they walked the gauntlet of police constables, Valentine leading the way like a modern-day Moses parting the sea. They went unchallenged, and soon found themselves in the exhibit room.
The walls were clad in dark wood panels that bore the sort of gleam that could only be achieved by generations of beeswax and hard effort. Stuffed animal heads – from a twelve-point deer to more exotic zebras and water buffalo – were hung in profusion; dozens of glassy eyes stared down at the intruders. Antique weapons – a battle ax, a bastard sword, a pair of Manton’s best 18th century dueling pistols – were arranged above the fireplace. Heavy claret-colored curtains smothered the windows. There were a number of glass cases dotted around the room; they were empty now, but must have contained Lord Hartington’s coin collection. A Georgian walnut table had been overturned; it was the only real sign of a struggle.
The man himself lay dead upon the Aubusson carpet, his graying hair stained dark with blood. His skull was misshapen; flecks of bone and brain matter attested to the savagery of the attack which had claimed his life. The sole visible eye was wide open, pupil contracted to a pinpoint. Rhiannon suppressed a shudder, but she had seen more horribly violated corpses in her brief time with her lover, Lady St. Claire.
For her part, Lina leaned over until her nose was almost touching the wound. “The weapon was a bust, you said?” she asked Valentine.
“Julius Caesar,” Valentine answered, pointing to a small marble bust on the hearth. Rhiannon retrieved it but handled the item with care, as the solid stone base had a smear of blood and hair on it. Lina examined the bust; it was a reproduction of a more famous work owned by the Vatican, which showed the fabled general and dictator in his latter years. Not a very expensive copy; similar artifacts could be bought in Italy for next to nothing.
Lina put the bust down, rose to her full height and began prowling around the room. She seemed particularly interested in the broken window, as well as a few shattered bits of glass that littered the floor beneath the sill. The majority of the glass fragments were outside, scattered over the flowerbed. Suddenly looking intent as a hound that has caught wind of its prey, Lina went to the overturned table and picked it up. More glass splinters sparkled, caught in the Aubusson carpet.
“Harry,” she said, her keen glance sweeping over the inspector, “I must speak to William, Victoria and Gerald.”
“And why is that, milady?” Valentine asked, leaning a hip against the door frame.
“Because one of them murdered Lord Hartington,” Rhiannon piped up. She looked at Lina. “I know how it was done; I just don’t know why.”
“Excellent, my dear. Your deductive skills are progressing nicely. Well, Harry?”
Valentine’s countenance darkened, his boyish good looks turning sullen, almost dangerous. “Are you certain, milady?”
“As certain as I can be with the facts at hand.” Lina’s gesture encompassed the room. “Let us decently cover Lord Hartington and then summon his children to be questioned. If that meets with your approval, of course.”
Valentine hesitated a moment, then nodded. “All right, I’ll do it. Let’s just pray that James bloody Munro doesn’t find out that Scotland Yard is taking lessons in solving crime from a lady detective. He’d no doubt expire from apoplexy.”
In short order, Victoria Hartington and her two brothers came into the study. Valentine shut the door firmly behind them. Upon catching sight of the sheet-shrouded figure that was still sprawled on the floor, Victoria let out a little squeak of dismay. William’s saturnine face went hot and red, while Gerald turned as pale as milk.
“Let me state that Lord Hartington was murdered,” Lina said, confronting the surviving members of his lordship’s family. Her manner was brisk and allowed no outbursts. “However, he was not killed by some stranger or a random thief in the night. His murderer is here; a member of his own household who was driven by greed and fear to commit the terrible crime of patricide.”
William shouted, “You’re lying!”
Victoria wept. Gerald sank down slowly into a chair and hung his head, his mop of dark curls obscuring his face.
“No, I am not telling an untruth. The question remains – which of you wielded the instrument that deprived your father of his life?” Lina glanced at each of them in turn. “But let us put aside that question in favor of another – who needed cash so dreadfully that he began masquerading as a ghost in order to steal from his father’s coin collection?”
It was William’s turn to drop into a chair. “Oh, God,” he groaned.
Rhiannon said, “We knew it had to be someone in the house because of the table. There are glass fragments under the overturned table, which means the window was broken before the so-called struggle took place.”
“Furthermore, why would a thief break the window to escape when he could have easily exited the exhibit room and left via the front door? If he broke the window to enter the premises, the majority of the glass would have been on the inside, not the outside,” Lina explained. “No, the window was broken as an after-thought; that and the overturned table were intended to suggest a fatal struggle between a homeowner and a sneak thief.”
“Lord Hartington told us that he slept with a loaded pistol,” Rhiannon said, her turquoise blue gaze resting on Gerald, who trembled. “Where is it? If he had been disturbed in the night, he would have been armed.”
“Unless the disturbance was a familiar one, such as the appearance of a Romanesque spirit in a toga?” Lina’s lip curled. “I had thought that dressing oneself up as a ghost in order to frighten someone into fits was the stuff of penny dreadfuls.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Gerald whispered.
“Shut up,” William commanded. “Just shut up!”
Rhiannon knelt down next to Gerald’s chair. The young man looked miserable. “Tell us what happened,” she said, not unkindly.
“It was William,” Gerald whispered. “He came to my room. All he had on was a sheet. There was blood on it. He also had Father’s coins in a sack.”
“Go on, son,” Valentine urged. William swallowed whatever protest he was about to make when the inspector pointed a warning finger at him.
“William said that Father was dead. He told me to get the butler and Father’s valet and take them down to the exhibit room. I was to say nothing about him.”
“Why, William? Why now?” Lina asked the scowling man.
“Because you’d have found out that the ghost was a fake!” William spat. “Some of my friends’ parents have consulted the famous Lady St. Claire. You’ve a reputation that I didn’t want to challenge. You see, I’ve been taking a coin here and there on account of my debts – there are some bill collectors that one doesn’t want lurking near one’s doorstep.”
“Gambling? Women?” Valentine asked.
William nodded. “I had to do something. The old horror wouldn’t raise my allowance, so I decided to take the whole collection. He must have heard me, though, because he came into the room. I couldn’t get away. I broke the window but he grabbed me and…” he swallowed. “Father was so angry. I didn’t really mean to hurt him. I just wanted him to let me go.”
Victoria collapsed into a teary heap on the hearthrug.
Gerald trembled. “William needed time to change his clothes and hide the coins.” His voice dropped until it was the merest thread of sound. “In the bottom of my wardrobe.”
Rhiannon put an arm around him, while Lina wielded smelling salts under Victoria’s nose in an attempt to revive the swooning girl. Valentine sent a constable to Mr. Munro, who was needed to pass judgment since the Hartington family was politically well-connected.
Lina left the problem of justice to the minions of the law. Lord Hartington’s murderer was exposed, the puzzle was solved – exeunt omnes, as far as she was concerned. The rest could take care of itself or, at least, the Police Commissioner would do as he felt best. She bade Valentine good-day and left Damascus House, bumping into Munro on her way to her carriage. Thankfully, he did not recognize her and she was able to make good her escape with Rhiannon. Let Valentine take both praise and blame; she cared nothing for either.
It was still early in the morning. Back in their home in Grosvenor Street, Lina and Rhiannon marched upstairs arm-in-arm. When the two women entered their bedchamber, they left a trail of clothing to the opium bed and tumbled together on the mattress, Rhiannon yawning hugely but also chuckling at something Lina said. The laughter turned to moans and the sound of bare flesh slithering against satin sheets.
Solange discreetly closed the door and went down to tell Cook to put breakfast back by half an hour.
The Ides of October had claimed a victim, but life and love went undaunted on.