Will Thomas: Fatal Enquiry

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Will Thomas Fatal Enquiry
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    Fatal Enquiry
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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Will Thomas

Fatal Enquiry


It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least among private enquiry agents, that the most momentous of cases, the real corkers, begin on the blandest, most ordinary of days. I’m not sure why that is. One would think that criminals, on a beautiful morning like the one that occurred in early April 1886, would want to stretch themselves upon the grass of Hampstead Heath like the rest of the populace, and plot their next bit of deviltry some other day. It is a dreary little island from which Britannia governs its empire, and one must take every opportunity to enjoy a rare perfect Saturday, or so I told my employer, Cyrus Barker. Not that he ever listens to the advice of his assistant.

“Have you noticed there’s not a bit of green in this entire court?” I asked, stepping away from the bow window of our chambers. “Not a blade of grass or a sprig of ivy, not so much as a weed. Nothing living except the three of us and that poor blighted shrub on the table there behind your desk.”

“It is a penjing tree,” my employer rumbled from the recesses of his green leather chair.

“It’s a bush you take delight in tormenting. It might thrive if you let it alone.”

The Guv opened his mouth to give me a dissertation on the history and practice of Chinese pruning techniques from the Han dynasty to present, but closed it again with a sigh. Apparently, I wasn’t worth the effort.

“I might take Juno for a gallop in Battersea Park this afternoon,” I continued. “It seems a shame to waste the entire day indoors.”

“I was under the impression that the Welsh are a hardworking race,” my employer mused. “Apparently, I was misinformed.”

“It’s hot in here,” I said, ignoring his remarks upon the Welsh character, which is above reproach.

“As I recall, last week you were complaining that it was too cold.”

“It was too cold last week. April’s like that; variable,” I replied. “Do you know what this morning would be perfect for? Book shopping. All the shops in Charing Cross will have their front doors open and their fresh discards in bins on the pavement. But if we go this afternoon when it is likely to rain, all the good books will be gone, because rainy days are when other people go to bookshops.”

“Thank you for the suggestion,” Barker said.

“Who would notice if we lock up a few hours early?”

“The potential client who needs our help and trusts that when we say we are open on Saturdays until noon, we are men of our word, but then, I suppose that is out of fashion nowadays.”

I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. Cyrus Barker is convinced with all his Puritan soul that everything has gone to seed and nothing stands between us and the Lord’s Return save a few final ticks of the clock. I would not mind so much if I were not always presented as the example of Man’s Spiritual Decline.

“Well, lad, we cannot have you standing about all morning with nothing to do. Go to that news kiosk on Northumberland and buy the morning newspapers.”

“You’ve already read The Times. Which ones shall I get?”

The Star, the Gazette, The Standard, The Chronicle, The Globe, and anything else that strikes your fancy.”

The Illustrated Police News!” our clerk Jenkins called in from the outer room.

“And of course, The Illustrated Police News.

“Right,” I said, actually glad for something to do. “Back in a few ticks.”

I nipped out the door into Craig’s Court and rounded the corner into Whitehall Street, almost colliding with a young woman who had stopped to study her Baedeker guide. She lifted the metal tip of her parasol from the pavement in order to ward off my unexpected advances and I was forced to hop over it. When I looked up, I realized I was standing nearly face-to-face with a beautiful girl.

She wore a traveling suit of heather tweed, with a choker of black velvet, which set off loosely gathered hair, so pale as to look like spun silver. Her face was equally fair, but her brows and lashes were dark. I realized it must have been some sort of artifice: kohl, perhaps, or some other weapon of the female arts. It gave her eyes, almost gold, a foxlike look to them which was most attractive.

“Oh, I do beg your pardon,” she said, before I could speak.

“You needn’t beg for what is easily given, and anyway, the fault is clearly mine. May I help you?”

She held out the map in her hands. “I’m afraid I am quite lost.”

“If it’s any help, this is London,” I said.

She smiled in spite of herself. “I’d worked that out for myself, thank you.”

“What are you looking for?”

“Trafalgar Square.”

“It is due north, in that direction,” I said, pointing. “It’s but a few streets away.”

“And Westminster Palace?”

“The palace is south. Look for the big clock tower. You can’t miss it. Are you here on holiday?”

“How can you tell?”

“The Baedeker, of course. Do you require a cab?”

“Not if, as you say, I’m within walking distance. Thank you for your help.”

“There’s a price,” I said, turning back to her. “I must have your name.”

She looked at me under long black lashes, assessing me carefully. Whatever I said must have passed muster. “Sofia. My name is Sofia Ilyanova.”

“I’m Thomas Llewelyn,” I said, bowing. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“And you, sir,” she said, smiling. She had a very nice smile.

“Enjoy your walk.”

One rule, when speaking to attractive women, is to leave them wanting. Rather than fumble for something further to say, I pinched the brim of my hat and went on my way, sincerely hoping my existence did not evaporate immediately from her memory.

I clattered off to the nearby kiosk and seized one of everything, making certain that I had not neglected to get Jenkins’s Police News. Passing back through Trafalgar Square, I looked around, hoping for a second look at the girl, just to convince myself she was as attractive as I thought she was, but she had disappeared like a morning mist.

Back in our chambers, I put the hallowed pages of the News on Jenkins’s desk and deposited the rest in front of Cyrus Barker. I seized the Pall Mall Gazette for myself, if only to tweak the conservative nose of my employer, and retreated to my chair. He lifted the first newspaper off the stack and settled back to read. Things were improving, I told myself. While other workers in London were struggling with heavy machinery or tabulating long columns of figures, I was being paid simply to read the newspaper. If I could continue this until noon, I would consider it a successful day.

The outer door opened then, and all of us looked up to see the bewhiskered visage of Inspector Terence Poole of Scotland Yard. He came in like a shunter in a rail yard going along its allotted route, until he came to a stop in front of Barker’s large mahogany desk.

“May I consult?” he asked, falling into the visitor’s chair in front of my employer. He looked tired and the edges of his pendulous side whiskers were frayed from where he had been tugging them. I knew something above the usual petty thievery or domestic squabble must have occurred.

Barker’s thick, black mustache bowed in distaste. “You know I do not consult. After your men have trod all over everything and carted away the clues, you wish me to go somewhere and perform a magic trick? I’ll take an unsullied crime scene, and if it’s not too much trouble, a paying client.”

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