“Crowner!” The baying of Assistant Commissioner Farquhar echoed through the halls of Scotland Yard.
“There’s a dead baronet in Wessex needs your attention,” said Farquhar.
“Was he stabbed in the back with an ornate or possibly a jeweled dagger?” Crowner asked, studying the ceiling with exaggerated care.
“A jeweled dagger, yes.”
“In the library of his ancestral home?”
“Sloppy, sloppy, Inspector,” chided the Assistant Commissioner. “We don’t know that for a fact. Now, stop showing off and listen to me. The victim was Sir Reginald Gastleigh, of Gastleigh Hall. Lived there with his wife, Lady Prunella Gastleigh, and his nephew, Nigel Gastleigh-Potts. Lady Gastleigh last saw her husband alive at half past eleven. Sir William Brasher—”
“The explorer, sir?”
“The explorer, yes. A great friend of Sir Reginald’s. He found the body at twenty past twelve. So, you see, midnight is—”
“Yes yes yes. Unwarranted assumption. I’ll take Sergeant Mug with me.”
“Do.” Farquhar nodded a dismissal. Crowner was almost out of the room when Farquhar spoke again. “Oh, and Crowner?”
Crowner spun round. “Yes?”
“The Gastleighs are a proud, old family. Riddled with Ancestors and History and that. They’ve even got a family curse. Does your family have a curse? Of course not! Neither does mine. Do you see where I’m going with this, Crowner?”
“You want me to mind my manners, sir?”
A complicated series of trains brought Inspector Crowner and Sergeant Mug to the town of Great Bubbling Screamthorpe. From there, a harrowing carriage ride along poorly-maintained roads running principally along the tops of cliffs brought the two London men to the door of Gastleigh Hall. As they waited for a reply to their knock, their eyes were drawn irresistibly up, to the great, looming mass of the building above. It bulged.
The door opened. A vast man like a tidy but overgrown owl regarded them from within.
“The gentlemen from London, I presume.” The voice was low, and thick as treacle. “I am Snoodles, the butler. You are awaited in the drawing room. Pray follow me.”
They followed him down a hall hung with blackened family portraits and poorly lit by guttering candles. The hall was cold, and, it seemed, unending. Finally, Snoodles opened a door and stood aside. The two policemen found themselves in a room lit principally by firelight, with the flicker of feeble gas lamps punctuating the gloom here and there.
“The gentlemen from London,” said Snoodles, and vanished abruptly.
“Inspector Crowner?” The voice was suggestive of cannon-fire in the middle distance. A mustache loomed up out of the gloom. Crowner cautiously admitted to being himself. “Sir William Brasher,” said the mustache. Crowner nodded. The mustache was exactly right for an explorer. “This is Reggie’s nephew Nigel,” said Sir William, gesturing at a chair, which proved upon inspection to contain a youngish man with a clean-shaven face and a dreadful sneer.
“… Who inherits everything,” said Nigel, and giggled unpleasantly. Everyone ignored him.
“And this is Reggie’s wife, Lady Prunella Gastleigh.” Sir William gestured. Lady Prunella Gastleigh was sitting, with what Crowner considered commendable foresight, on a fainting-couch. She was pale, pretty, and clad all in white. Indeed, it almost looked as if she were dressed in bridal costume.
“Charmed.” She extended a hand towards Crowner. Her white sleeve had a large red stain on it.
“You have blood on your sleeve, my Lady,” Crowner remarked.
Lady Gastleigh looked. “Blood,” she said, in a strangled whisper. Then, she fainted.
Crowner was at her side in an instant, unbuttoning her bloody sleeve. Two deep puncture wounds, set a bit more than an inch apart, marred the whiteness of her forearm. He nodded and stepped back.
“Mug, the smelling-salts!”
Soon, Lady Gastleigh was sitting up again. In fact, she looked quite alert. Mug’s smelling salts were potent, compounded from a secret recipe of Mug’s grandmother’s, a terrifying and ancient hag who didn’t hold with all this fainting that ladies got up to nowadays.