The old man pulled back his jacket and reached inside. Ancient dust and sweat rolled out in a nauseous wave as he pulled a brown envelope from an inner pocket. He held it a moment longer than he should have and his hand trembled once he handed it over.
Adam Cole, not yet thirty, took the envelope and immediately noticed its thick quality and hard backing. There were no markings but he knew it was the sort issued by professional photographers. He pulled back the flap.
The old man closed his eyes and turned away. “My wife only ever had one photograph taken, many years ago,” he said. “It was a wedding gift for me, and is one of my dearest possessions. She spoke of, one day, doing another in old age. But I never imagined this.”
Two cabinet-sized photographs slid out into Cole’s hand, face-to-face, so that only the cream-coloured, glossy backings showed. Curiously, they lacked the photographer’s monograph—quite unheard of. Otherwise, they seemed to come from a reputable studio for they were of heavy cardstock with gold-bevelled edges.
“I warn you, Mr. Cole,” the old man croaked, keeping his head turned away, “they are not pleasant.”
Cole flipped them over onto the round table that separated him from the old man, his client. The left photograph was a matte-finished, sepia-toned image of an old woman, withered with unkempt, wiry hair. Her face, blurred by the prolonged exposure process, was a mask of dismay, mouth agape and eyes bulged with terror. Her small, naked body was lashed to a chair large enough to swallow her.
The second showed the same woman, in the same chair, with the same sepia, matte-finish. But now there was no blur of movement; she had been much more still this time. Her face was calm, head angled down with eyes closed, jaw slack and strands of hair hanging loose across her face. Deep, black gashes and inky smudges of blood over her pale torso betrayed why she had held so still.
Cole gasped, caught himself. “You received these this morning?” he asked.
The old man sobbed. “They were slipped beneath our door. I found them just after six. They could have been placed there any time overnight.”
“Your neighbours, they neither heard nor saw anything?”
“I was so distraught when I pounded on their doors—in tears, you understand. But none could tell me anything.”
Cole studied the photographs for another minute, absorbing every detail and setting his subconscious to seek significance from them with the precision of a chess master analysing an impossible endgame. He noted the plain backdrop, as blanched as the dead woman, and the dark ornate curves of the chair and the thick cord that bound her to it with good, strong knots.
Then he folded the photographs together and slipped them into the envelope. The tortured face of the old woman remained burned in his mind, as if the photograph still sat out before him.
“My wife,” the old man said, “she just went out yesterday morning, on an errand. Who could have done this to her? Why? She had no enemies. She is a good woman.”
Cole slipped the envelope into his jacket. He assumed the old man wouldn’t want them back—would never want to see them again.
“What about you?” he asked.
The old man blinked. His lips searched. “Me? You think I—?”
“No. I mean do you have any enemies—someone you may have crossed? The delivery of the photographs to you suggests you have been made to suffer, along with your wife.”
“Aye, I’ve wondered that myself, but can think of no one.”
“No one, in all your years?”
“Now I’ve not been a saint, but I think myself a decent man, and my wife—” he sputtered “—was always a decent woman.”
“Very well. But I cannot lie. The more random this assault against you, the more difficult it shall prove to solve.”
“I’ve not much money—a pensioner of Her Majesty’s navy, you see—but I will pay what I can, Mr. Cole.”
“It is not the money,” Cole replied. “Even one thousand pounds could not guarantee an answer. I will happily accept whatever fee you’ve negotiated with my solicitor. But I cannot help but ask, why me? Why not the official detective force?”
The old man stared with reddened eyes. “Because you are the best at finding answers, Mr. Cole. Better than the Yard, even. And I just want to know who did this to her—and why.”