When a carriage bearing the Arnifour family crest--a vulture devouring a slaughtered lamb--arrives at the Kensington home of Colin Pendragon, it is an ominous beginning to a perplexing new case. Lady Arnifour's husband has been beaten to death and her niece, Elsbeth, left in a coma. Is the motive passion, revenge, or something even more sinister? Police suspicions have fallen on the groundskeeper and his son, yet the Earl's widow is convinced of their innocence.
Even as Colin and his partner Ethan Pruitt delve into the muddy history of the Arnifour family, a young street urchin begs their help in finding his missing sister. Ethan, regrettably familiar with London's underbelly, urges caution, yet Colin's interest is piqued. And in a search that wends from the squalid opium dens of the East End to the salons of Embassy Row, the truth about these seemingly disparate cases will prove disquieting, dangerous, and profoundly unexpected. . .
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THE ARNIFOUR AFFAIR
A Colin Pendragon Mystery
By GREGORY HARRIS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Gregory Harris
All rights reserved.
The subject, as it so often is, was murder.
It was late in the afternoon, between the time when the sun has dropped sufficiently to be blocked from the city's streets, yet before it has gone low enough for the shadows cast by the buildings to have grown into one continuous black void. Colin and I were sitting by the fireplace in our study, me in the thrall of the American writer Stephen Crane's latest bit of fiction, while he was working up a sweat curling his dumbbells, when a great clattering of horses' hooves arose from the street below.
I laid my book down and went to the window, where I spied an elegant black carriage next to the curb pulled by two fine blue-black steeds. The carriage looked capable of seating a dozen people, yet revealed only a single family crest on its door: a vulture devouring a slain lamb under a thistle bush. It seemed its owner had either a fine sense of humor or extraordinary self-awareness.
"It appears we have company," I announced.
"Do we?" Colin muttered, still hoisting the weights back and forth.
"A coach has just pulled up. There's a crest on its door, but I don't recognize it."
"Oh?" He came over and took a brief glance out the window, dumbbells in tow, before bounding back to the fireplace. "That would be the crest of the once formidable Arnifour family."
"Arnifour?" A distant clanging was set off in my head. "Now why does that name sound familiar?"
"Because they've been a part of the gentry for generations," he said as he shoved the dumbbells onto an upper shelf in a nearby bookcase, "although their fortunes have contracted in diametrical opposition to our good Queen's waistline. Yet while Victoria remains the Queen, the Arnifours have become quite toothless and impotent in their waning years. Never a good combination." He snickered.
I chuckled as I watched a dainty ankle covered in swirls of burgundy fabric present itself from within the carriage, followed by a delicate hand held out to the driver. "It's a lady," I said.
"Mrs. Behmoth," Colin hollered down the stairs, "we've got company!"
"I 'eard. I ain't deaf," she called back. "Who the 'ell comes out at this 'our anyway? I ain't puttin' me shoes back on, I'll tell ya that. Me dogs are already snarlin' like beasts."
"Always so dainty." He chuckled, hastily mopping his face with a handkerchief.
The sound of Mrs. Behmoth thudding her way from the kitchen to the small foyer drifted up, and I was relieved to hear the clack of shoes back on her feet in spite of her protestations. The door creaked on its hinges before the muffled hum of sibilant voices too far away to decipher could be heard.
I went back to my chair as Colin picked up a small penknife and scrap of fine steel wool from the mantel, and started working at coaxing the antique blade back to its former luster. "Must you always be playing with weapons when someone comes to call?"
"I'm not playing." He frowned. "I'm preserving history."
"Still," I said as I heard the stairs begin to groan under the weight of Mrs. Behmoth and our guest, "it could be misconstrued as intimidating to our fairer clientele."
He waved me off. "You're worried about intimidating someone who has a slaughtered lamb being eaten by a vulture for a family crest?"
I conceded the point.
Mrs. Behmoth filled our doorway as she ushered in an elderly woman wearing a tightly curled brown wig intended for someone half her age atop of which sat a small curved bonnet cocked to one side and heavily laden with frilly lace. Her dress was as coquettish as a debutante's, with a flurry of bows and adornments across the bosom. There was heavy makeup smeared across the deep crevices of her face and a silver dollar–sized bit of cardinal rouge on each cheek. "The Lady Arnifour," Mrs. Behmoth announced, accepting the Lady's cloak and unceremoniously tossing it on the coatrack.
"Do come in," Colin said with the flash of a smile. "I only hope this inopportune hour does not portend too distressing a matter at hand."
"Oh, Mr. Pendragon," she said as she collapsed onto the settee. "It is a most dreadful situation that brings me to your door this night."
"I'm sorry to hear that." He cast a glance at Mrs. Behmoth still hovering in the doorway. "Then we'll need some tea, please."
"Yer supper's almost ready." She scowled.
"I don't mean to be a bother—"
"It ain't no bother, Yer Ladyship, but that roast is sure as Hades gonna turn ta leather if it ain't served on time."
"Nevertheless," Colin's voice tightened, "tea. Thank you."
"I really don't require anything more than a few minutes of your time, Mr. Pendragon." She turned toward Mrs. Behmoth. "Please don't trouble yourself."
Mrs. Behmoth shrugged agreeably before heading back downstairs.
Colin exhaled brusquely. "She basically raised me."
"She's refreshingly disarming." Lady Arnifour gave a brief smile as her eyes flicked over to me before darting back to Colin. "Mr. Pendragon?" She leaned toward him slightly, her voice as thin as a whisper. "Might it be possible for us to speak in private? The matter upon which I seek your assistance contains a degree of ... delicacy—"
"You have nothing to worry about then. Mr. Pruitt is my most trusted companion and should be considered an extension of myself. Your confidence will be well kept by us both. Now do tell us what's brought you here."
Our guest stiffened as she continued to stare at him. It was clear she was not used to being countermanded. "Well ..." Her eyes flew back and forth a moment. "It's my husband...." She hesitated. "He was murdered nearly a fortnight ago and my young niece, who was with him at the time, was savagely attacked and remains in a coma even now."
"How dreadful." Colin arched an eyebrow at me as I suddenly recalled why her name had sounded familiar.
"Surely you read of his death in the papers?" she said.
"Newspapers are a dreary business," he scoffed. "And have you ever read an accurate accounting of anything? No, I leave the perusal of those to Mr. Pruitt," his eyes slid to me, "who usually keeps me informed of such goings-on." I could only shrug. "But it's always better if you tell me of it yourself anyway. From the beginning, if you please."
"Oh my." She sagged back onto the settee, looking increasingly fragile. "It's such a nasty business."
"Murder tends to be."
Her brow furrowed and I took that moment to speak up lest she think he was trifling with her. "Hearing the event in your own words is far more likely to allow us to gain insight into the crime than reading some sensationalized account in the paper."
To my relief, Lady Arnifour's face softened as she heaved a heavy sigh. "I suppose you're right. As it is, Scotland Yard has withheld several details from the papers; they claim it's for the sake of their investigation, but they've seemed so muddled by it all," she groused before drawing in a deep breath and appearing to gird herself to begin. "Ten nights ago my husband took his customary walk after supper. Unless he was ill, he never missed his excursions.
"On this particular night he somehow managed to make it all the way down to the northwest corner of our property. We have a barn there in which we store hay and other feed for our horses and cattle. It's a considerable distance, Mr. Pendragon, and I am not exaggerating. And while I freely admit that my husband was several years younger than I, neither was he a young man." Her eyelids ticked slightly as though she had just confided something we would not otherwise have presumed. "How he got as far as he did, and why he would choose to do so, I cannot say."
"How far are we talking?" Colin snatched up his penknife and absently started buffing it again.
"Half a dozen kilometers at the least."
"And you don't believe him to have been in the habit of going such a distance?"
"It would've been impossible. He was seldom gone more than an hour and I can assure you, Samuel couldn't have walked a fourth of that distance in that amount of time."
"I see," Colin muttered. "Do go on."
Lady Arnifour watched his hands flutter assiduously over the blade for a minute before she finally resolved to continue. "That night, for whatever reason, Samuel got himself all the way down to that barn, and when he did, he apparently came upon our niece, Elsbeth. Elsbeth is my late sister's only child. Samuel and I have raised her from infancy. My sister did not survive the birth and there was no one else," she said deliberately. When she dropped her eyes I knew better than to inquire about the father. "It was not uncommon for Elsbeth and our daughter, Kaylin, to go riding together." She stopped and clutched at her throat. "Thank heavens Kaylin stayed in that night."
"Indeed," Colin said. "And your niece remains in a coma?"
Lady Arnifour's hand continued to hover at her throat in evident distress. "Yes, Mr. Pendragon. My niece received a horrible blow to her face during the attack. She was found near my husband's body and has yet to regain consciousness. The doctor ..." She shook her head as she yanked a handkerchief from her sleeve. "I'm afraid he's been unable to offer much in the way of comfort regarding her recovery."
Colin laid the penknife down and peered at Lady Arnifour. "This is indeed a double tragedy then."
She dabbed the handkerchief to her nose in an oddly self-conscious manner and it suddenly made me wonder if perhaps she'd done it more for our benefit than hers. "Yes," was all she said.
"You must forgive me," Colin pressed on with uncharacteristic restraint, "but I must ask you precisely how your husband was killed?"
"A terrible blow to the back of his head," she fairly whispered.
"Supper's almost ready!" Mrs. Behmoth took that moment to holler up from downstairs.
I bolted from my seat and rushed across the room to the landing. "We'll be down as soon as we've finished with our guest," I hissed. "You will kindly refrain from shrieking up the stairs again." She scowled at me before huffing back to her kitchen. "I'm so sorry," I said as I came back to the study, not at all surprised to find that Colin had not even moved.
"She has a good heart." Colin flashed a quick grin as I sat down again. "Please go on, Lady Arnifour. Tell me what our esteemed Scotland Yard has made of all this. Have they formed any theories yet? Or are they still trying to decide who should ask the questions and who should write them down?"
I shot a hasty glance at Lady Arnifour and found her seemingly oblivious to his contempt of the Yarders.
"The inspector assigned to my husband's murder informed me this afternoon that my groundskeeper, Victor Heffernan, and his son, Nathaniel, have become his primary suspects." Her voice had become quite overwrought. I watched as her gaze slid about the room as though she was unable to comfortably settle it anywhere, and thought it yet another curious gesture on her part. Colin leaned forward in a way that suggested he had caught it as well.
"But the inspector is wrong?" he asked.
"I would stake my very reputation on it."
"And would you be referring to Inspector Emmett Varcoe?"
Lady Arnifour started. "How could you know that?"
"Your estate is under his jurisdiction."
I could see she was impressed, though in truth that was exactly the sort of thing he should be expected to know.
"It's hardly a surprise you believe him wrong." Colin sat down and leaned back in his chair. "The man's ineptitude is matched only by his ignorance of his own shortcomings—proving that failing upward is neither an art nor a science. But we needn't concern ourselves with him just yet. Why don't you tell me how it is you're so certain he's mistaken?"
Lady Arnifour fixed her eyes on Colin before sliding delicately forward on the settee and throwing a discreet glance backwards, as though Mrs. Behmoth might actually have roused herself to creep up the stairs and eavesdrop. "This is difficult ...," she mumbled.
"It usually is." He flashed a mischievous grin. "So tell me, were you having it off with your groundskeeper?"
"Mr. Pendragon!" She bolted to her feet with remarkable speed, both hands streaking to her décolletage as though to physically shield her honor.
"You misunderstand ...," I blurted out as I too hopped up. He'd fooled me, as I hadn't seen that coming. "Let me get us all a brandy," I barreled on. "A touch of brandy will settle everyone's nerves." God knew it would mine. I hurried to the liquor cabinet and flipped over three snifters, pouring little more than a finger into two of the glasses, but adding a healthy shot more to the third. I noticed that Mrs. Behmoth had been into the sherry again, for cooking purposes she would insist, and then steeled myself as I turned back to our guest.
Lady Arnifour had moved to the fireplace and stood staring into the flames as though her dignity might be regained somewhere in among them. I scowled at Colin, but he seemed wholly unconcerned as he fished out a silver crown and began absently spinning it around between the fingers of his right hand. Only then did it occur to me that as Lady Arnifour had failed to storm out of the room with righteous indignation, there was likely some kernel of truth to his question.
"Lady Arnifour ..." I handed her a snifter, taking care to avert my gaze so as not to discomfort her further.
"You're very kind," she muttered, and I caught a bit of a flush beneath her heavily powdered cheeks.
"You mentioned ...," I chose my words carefully, "... that you disagree with Inspector Varcoe's assessment. Might you tell us why?" I shot Colin another warning glance as I pressed a snifter into his free hand, his other continuing to swirl the coin effortlessly, and was rewarded with a comparable rolling of his eyes.
"Victor Heffernan is a good man," she began slowly, keeping her gaze on the fire. "His family has worked for my family for three generations and that doesn't even include his son Nathaniel. I've known Victor since we were children. I was present at Nathaniel's birth. My husband and I have always been fond of the Heffernans. There's simply no reason why Victor or Nathaniel would want to hurt Samuel or Elsbeth. It's inconceivable. As I told you before, I would stake my reputation on it." She turned and glared at us as though daring us to disagree. "I can see that you've earned every facet of your reputation, Mr. Pendragon, but I would still like you to take this case. So will you prove that Mr. Heffernan and his son are innocent of this terrible crime?"
"And if the perpetrator does turn out to be your Mr. Heffernan or his son?"
She blanched slightly, her face drawing rigid as though she'd been struck. "I do not fear the truth," she said, but there was little conviction in her words.
"Then I am your man." He gave her a quick tilt of his head as he snatched the coin into the palm of his hand. "But you do understand, Lady Arnifour, that the truth is seldom what we want it to be."
"I only ask that you live up to the best of your reputation."
He smirked, but gave no other quarter to her having chastised him. "I think I've already proven that I shall not disappoint you." He flashed her a rakish smile that showed off his dimples. "We will be out tomorrow to have a look around."
Lady Arnifour nodded earnestly before downing her brandy in a single ferocious gulp. "I shall look forward to it," she said as she set her glass on the mantel and glided past us.
"There are two things you must do, however." Colin spoke up before she reached the landing. "If you've not already done so, you must hire a guard to sit with your niece twenty-four hours a day. We cannot risk the chance that whoever committed this crime might wish to correct their unfinished business. Your niece could solve this case quite handily."
"A guard has been in place from the first night."
"Then there is only the matter of my fee," he gestured toward me, "and I shall leave that to the two of you."
I escorted our new client to the front door as we discussed an agreement, quickly coming to terms on a figure she had not hesitated to accept. Colin's repute does preclude most clients from balking at his fee.
"What did you make of that?" Colin asked, carefully pouring the contents of his untouched snifter back into the decanter, as I reentered the room.
Excerpted from THE ARNIFOUR AFFAIR by GREGORY HARRIS. Copyright © 2014 Gregory Harris. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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