A Chilling Affair by Nathan Elwood

Mar 27 2016 Published by under The WiFiles

It was one of the warmer summers in recent memory the year Lord Raxby was murdered; by late July of 1891 old London Town had only received a few inches of snow through the entire season.

I was lying near the Heartstone of my shared abode when our client arrived that day in early August, enjoying the stone’s emanating warmth and dreaming idly of the balmy conditions of the continent, experienced during my military service some years past. At the sound of approach my ears perked up at once, and I quickly rose from my position.

Sitting nearby upon his favorite recliner was my human companion, Absalom Hume, who I noticed was folding his paper.

“Easy, Winston,” he said. “No need to be suspicious of our guest so quickly, especially when you haven’t even seen the young man yet.”

I let out a low growl. “Suspicion is my business, Hume, as detection is yours. Allow me to keep to my nature as I allow you to keep to your own.”

“Of course. My apologies, old friend. Good dog.” Hume smiled then, just a tad bit more smugly than I should have preferred. Unlike most humans however, his smugness was very nearly deserved. I was already somewhat irked that he had detected the approaching interloper as early as I myself had, but I was baffled at how he could have determined that the visitor was a young man when even I could not yet smell him. As a bulldog, I certainly do not have the olfactory ability of some hounds I have known, but I should dare say that I am better-equipped than any hairless ape.

Seeming to sense and acquiesce to my annoyance, Absalom Hume ventured for my opinion. “Tell me about him,” he asked. I took a sniff of the air. “You were right, definitely male. Smells like… nice leather. Inexpensive cologne.”

“A servant, then,” Absalom said. “His wardrobe and footwear provided by his benefactor, the cologne a personal affectation. Care to make a wager?” “Five crown,” I growled. Devil-take me for a fool, but I can never refuse a gentleman’s wager.

A shadow came under the door as the young interloper reached it. I positioned myself nearby to greet our guest as he knocked. “Enter” Absalom said. There was a pause, a momentary hesitation before the door slowly creaked open. The young man entered cautiously, his eyes down. From his demeanor and the hundreds of smells that I could now perceive off him I knew that my companion was right about his occupation, and that I was down another five crown. My inheritance was shrinking dramatically as a result of my friendship with Mr. Hume.

The boy looked up, past me and straight at Absalom. He was well attired, but conservatively. He had a weak chin, and light hair. Consulting Absalom later, I was informed more specifically that the hair’s color was “sandy blonde,” and that his eyes were dark green. He introduced himself, only addressing Absalom, stating that he was “Henry Cooper, First Footman of the House of Raxby.”

Absalom returned the introductions cooly. “I am Absalom Hume, consulting detective. My companion,” he gestured down to me “Is Leuftenant First Class Winston Barnsley of Her Majesty’s Colonial Brigades.”

The boy started, only now noticing me after perceiving me to be a ranked member of Her Majesty’s Service. “P-pleasure to meet you, Leuftenant Winston,” he stammered out. “I am-am at your service, naturally.”

While the disregard of Canids among the upper class and their livery will always be a source of some annoyance, I rarely let it openly affect me the way my companion does. Bulldogs like myself are, if nothing else, resilient. I decided it would make things far easier if at least one of the two gentlemen in the room could play the host.

“Of course, my good man,” I said. “Why don’t you take a seat and tell us what brings you here on such a fine day?”

“I’m afraid I shall not have time, sir.” He looked back to Absalom. “I must request your presence at the Raxby estates at once.” He fished into his coat pocket and withdrew a letter. Absalom reached him in two long strides and snatched the letter from his hands. In no time at all it was read, crumpled, and tossed into a nearby wastebin. While Henry Cooper began to stammer, Mr. Hume was already donning his coat.

“Come Winston,” he said. “It appears there has been a murder.”

***

As we bumped along in the coach of the carriage that young Mr. Cooper had arrived in, Absalom again seemed again to sense my annoyance.

“What is it Winston? I understand your reticence to seem joyful at a murder, but usually the prospect of our adventures gets at least a slight twitch in your tail.”

I sighed. Stubbornness is something my breed is known for, but Absalom is my friend, and I didn’t wish to maintain bad blood between us. “I don’t like being instructed in the manner you did before,” I said. “‘Come Winston.’”

He paused, staring at the wall of the enclosed carriage. He turned to me. “I’m sorry, old man. I forget at times how recently Canids became true citizens of the Crown. I have never sought to treat you as anything less than my equal.”

There were few under the entirety of the Her Majesty’s dominion that I believed Absalom truly saw as his equal, but I appreciated the sentiment of his apology. I decided it best to simply continue on with the mission at hand. “Tell me about this murder, Hume. Why were we notified by that servant, rather than the police? Why in the form of a letter?”

“The letter was sent as it transmits the necessary information of the case far more efficiently than that stammering young man could ever hope to. As to why the boy was sent at all, I imagine the Home Office would like to prevent rumors getting out of a constable travelling from the home of a well-known Deeist to the apartments of London Town’s consulting detective.”

My ears, flopped over as they were, perked up to the degree they could. I had no idea that Lord Raxby was one of the elite scholars who followed in the footsteps of the great magician John Dee. It was their order that staved off the curse left over by the death of the last Ice Dragon in 17th century.

“Since it is the Deeists that maintain the spells that make Londinium habitable, as opposed to the frozen wasteland that is the rest of the island of Albion, any time a Deeist passes from this life is a cause for considerable worry for the Crown. I imagine they’ll have sent a high ranking officer from Whitehall Place. Someone who would know Lord Raxby outside the context of an investigative matter. Sir Lawrence Eardsley, or Chief Inspector Christie, I should wager. She always delights to be assigned to such grisly affairs, and has many connections amongst the nobility.”

We arrived at the Raxby Estate just past noon, as it was outside old London Town entirely, and on the edges of Londinium itself. We were escorted inside by Footman Cooper, where we were greeted by the butler, an impressively tall, thin man with grey hair and dark eyes. He introduced himself as Mr. Bellamy. I noted a similar set of smells from him as from Mr. Cooper, with some distinct variations. Clearly a member of the serving class, but evidently rewarded for his service far more handsomely than the footman. As he directed us to the parlor, I noticed how cold it was in the building. Though I do not believe that I let loose a perceptible shiver, my companion seemed, as he often does, to read my thoughts.

“Mr. Bellamy, has the Heartstone of this home gone out?” Absalom asked the butler.

“Our Heartstone was maintained personally by Lord Raxby, and heated not only this home but the neighboring servants’ quarters as well. It grew cold shortly after he passed away.”

“I presume you were the one who found his body?”

“No, that was the maid, Ms. Smith. She discovered Lord Raxby early this morning while dusting. Naturally I was immediately informed, and the authorities contacted.”

The butler opened the door to the parlor, and bowed to us as we stepped through. “Sirs,” he said.

There, waiting on the other side, was a bald man with a particularly impressive mustache. Though not tall, and in middle age, he exuded an air of strength. I immediately recognized a fellow member of the Her Majesty’s Service. Though it would be impossible to notice for any human (or even for most Canids not familiar with the man), I registered a sense of shock from Absalom by the unexpectedness of this figure. I should have taken his earlier wager, I deduced.

“Good day, gentlemen,” the man began. “I am-”

“Major General Henry Brackenbury” finished Absalom. “Director of Military Intelligence.” Now I understood his shock. The man before us was a hero of multiple campaigns abroad, and one of the most powerful men in Albion.

Brackenbury nodded. “And you are Absalom Hume, Consulting Detective.” He looked to me. “And Leuftenant First Class Winston Barnsley. Leuftenant, I’ve read your works on the campaigns of the Fighting Dog units in the Boar Wars. Your writings are as exemplary as your own service record.”

“Thank you, Major General, sir.” I sincerely hoped my stub of a tail was not wagging behind me.

“I suppose the two of you are wondering why I am here.”

“It certainly came as something of an initial shock,” Absalom Hume said. “But I can only surmise that when he passed that Lord Edward Raxby was at work on a project deemed of military importance, and that the Crown suspects the possibility of assassination.”

The Major General looked hard at Hume. I imagined he was not a man at all used to being interrupted at all, much less twice within mere moments. Nevertheless, he did not reprimand Absalom.

“Your summations are correct, I’m afraid. Unfortunately I am not at liberty to divulge the nature of Lord Raxby’s work, but know this, Mister Hume. Edward Raxy was a personal acquaintance of both myself and Commander-in-Chief Wolseley. Though there is little reason as yet to suspect foul play, we would like to be absolutely certain of all matters that pertain to this tragedy.”

“Of course, of course,” Absalom said. “Tell me, may we see the victim?”

Major General Brackenbury informed us that we may, and Mr. Cooper was summoned to the parlor to escort the three of us.

As we walked, Absalom began to lightly probe into the matter at hand. “Tell me, does Lord Raxby have family?” Brackenbury responded. “The Lady Raxby passed away nearly four years ago. She and Lord Raxby had two sons, both living abroad at the moment.”

Absalom nodded. Presently we arrived at the quarters of Lord Raxby. Escorted in, we saw the body, laid out on the bed, fully attired, his hands stretched out at his side. He was clearly an older gentleman, though he looked to be of good health. His skin was, however, extremely pale. I did not know if this was from the cold, his passing, or a natural effect of the reclusive habits of mages.

No obvious damage to the body could be discerned. Above and to my left, I heard Absalom let out a small snort, breathing out through his nostrils. A minor tic I had documented of my friend, audible only in moments of extreme frustration.

“Why,” he asked, “was the body moved from the location it was found in? On whose authority was this done?”

Brackenbury stared at him again. “Mister Hume, have a care how you speak. As I told you, this man was a friend of mine. I would not allow him the indignity of lying on the floor of his study.”

“Never mind the contamination of the data!” cried Absalom. He whirled to face Henry Cooper. “The body is useless to me. Young man, escort me to this study.” Brackenbury seemed ready to have Absalom drawn and quartered. If the man had possessed hackles, they most certainly would have been up.

“Now see here,” he said. “Lord Raxby very well may have died under perfectly natural causes. I see no reason not to respect the dead.”

“Major General Brackenbury, with all due respect, if you believed at all that he had died naturally, you would not have brought me. Again, I must see the study.”

***

The study in question was, for one of my somewhat limited means and rather pedestrian education, a wonder. Shelves of books lined the walls, which climbed up nearly 14 feet in the air. Many of the books were mighty tomes; some I imagined likely weighed nearly what I do!

At the far end was Lord Raxby’s desk, covered in sheaves of paper, some of which had fallen to the ground. The chair was tipped over onto the ground, and a few of the fallen pages had formed an odd halo around it.

Absalom dismissed the footman and set to his work, making quick, minute observations of every inch of the room. He approached the desk, but was halted by a throat-clearing from Brackenbury.

“Mr. Hume,” he said. “Some of the items Lord Raxby was likely working on could be of a… sensitive nature to the Crown. I am not sure I can permit you to examine them.”

I could see Absalom open his mouth, about to say something that would undoubtedly get him into trouble. As he had risen to my defense earlier, I decided I would do the same for him now.

“Major General, sir,” I began. Absalom closed his mouth. “Though he may be at times… unorthodox, I can assure you that few possess the loyalty to Albion and level of discretion of my friend Hume. I can promise you that no element of this case shall ever see publication, and that not even I shall be made aware of whatever Mr. Hume reads in those notes. For this, you have my word as a soldier of the Crown. But I am familiar with my friend’s methods, and inspection of every detail, undisturbed, is paramount.”

Major General Brackenbury seemed to size me up then. Admittedly, at only three feet tall there wasn’t entirely much to size, but he seemed to be satisfied. He nodded to Absalom.

I might have saved myself the effort, for after only a few minutes of examination, Absalom promptly announced “I can find nothing!” I’m told that I and the rest of my breed have a naturally dour expression, even when we are perfectly content. I cannot imagine what my face must have looked like in that moment.

He approached Brackenbury and myself as I hung my head, wondering if all my military honors would be summarily stripped from me for this embarrassment. Absalom continued. “That is, I have determined from his notes and correspondence that he had a great many reasons to fear assassination, and his death was quite sudden. It seems it took him right in the middle of a sentence. But I cannot find any physical evidence of an attack on him. No remnants of food that may have been poisoned, no items he may have pricked himself on, no arsenic dust, and none of the characteristic sulfur smell of malicious magic. At least, not so far that I can detect. Perhaps a gifted sorcerer could disguise such a scent to some degree. Winston?”

I looked up. I supposed it was possible, after all. I breathed in deeply, absorbing the thousands of odors of the room. “No…” I said. “No sulfur.” I frowned even deeper and padded toward the desk. There was… something odd, however.  A smell that seemed out of place, something I seemed to remember from…

“Almonds?”

Absalom rushed to my side and knelt down, putting us at eye level. “Winston old man, what did you say?”

“I thought perhaps I was mistaken, but there is a slight scent in the room of almonds, a type of nut that only grows in the East. I encountered them there during my service in the Boar Wars.”

Absalom grinned, clapping me on the shoulder and giving me a slight scratch behind the ears as he rushed to the desk. From the top of it he grabbed a capped bottle of ink and darted back to me.

“Mr. Hume,” cried Brackenbury, “what is the meaning of this?” Absalom ignored him entirely. He uncapped the bottle and held it approximately a foot from my snout. “Winston,” he said, “I need to be absolutely sure. Is this what you smelled?”

I breathed in. “Yes,” I told him. “The ink smells of almonds.” Absalom capped the ink, turned to Brackenbury, and said, “Sir, I can confirm it; Lord Edward Raxby was murdered. If you could be so kind as to assemble the house staff in the parlor below, I believe we can resolve this matter.”

***

In the parlor, the small staff had been collected. There was Mr. Bellamy, Mr. Cooper, another footman, the maid, and the cook. All seemed perplexed at their being brought before us. Absalom paced slowly in front of them.

“As you all know, Lord Raxby left this world sometime this morning. There is no evidence of foul play, and for all intents and purposes it seems as though the patron of this house was victim to a heart condition or similar ailment. An autopsy would likely reveal more.”

The maid, a young woman, no more than 20 at the latest, let out a small gasp of shock. Absalom continued. “Luckily, none shall be necessary.” He turned to Major General Brackenbury. “From the many, many pages on his desk, it was easy to determine that Lord Raxby maintained a prodigious correspondence. Can this be confirmed?”

Brackenbury nodded. “I received letters from him daily, and I do not believe that I was the only one.” Absalom turned to the servants, a questioning look in his eyes.

“Yes, sir,” said Henry Cooper. “L-lord Raxby spent nearly three hours each day writing.” Absalom gave him a small, grim smile.

“I suspected as much. Any of the house would have known this, and likely would have known that Lord Raxby had, I believe, a rather common habit of touching the tip of his pen to his tongue before each new page. Mr. Cooper, can you confirm such a habit?”

The boy looked about nervously, but found no assistance from his fellows. “I-I… It m-might be that I’ve seen him do such a thing, yes.”

Absalom pulled his gaze from the young man, whose shoulder slumped as if he’d been suddenly released from a binding spell.

Absalom reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the bottle of ink. “That is why,” he said, “the killer decided to poison not his food, which would have been entirely too obvious, but rather his ink.” He addressed Brackenbury directly. “Cyanide, you see, is a unique poison, very hard to detect once it has worked its effects. But it is often discernible from its scent, which greatly resembles the plant from which it originates: Almonds. I have published a light monograph on how to discern commonly used lethal chemicals, Major-General. I’m surprised it hasn’t been distributed amongst the intelligence services. In any case, this ink was the tool of the killer, and I believe that will be corroborated by the chemists as Whitehall Place.”

Brackenbury fixed his eyes on Absalom’s. “But who is the killer, Mr. Hume?”

“It would have to be a member of the staff, someone with access to the ink. Unfortunately, that could be any one of them. However, there is a detail of one of them that I picked up as we entered. I’m certain my osmatic companion Winston would have noticed it even more readily than I.”

I looked up, recalling my initial impression of the Butler as being far better-off than I initially attribute to members of the servant class. “Mr. Bellamy’s cologne. It’s of a far more expensive variety than Mr. Cooper’s, or even that which Absalom could afford.”

We all turned to the butler. “What’s more,” Absalom said, “his gloves are of a particularly warm make. All the servants of this home were uniformly attired by their employer, but he is the only one wearing such gloves. Almost as if he knew that the house would shortly grow very cold. He must have recently come into money, to afford so many nice things.”

Suddenly, Mr. Bellamy shoved Henry Cooper and made a break for the door. Unfortunately for him, I was after him in a shot. I may be older than I was when I fought the Boars of the East, but I dare say I am still more than a match for a household servant. I tackled him at the knees in a lunge, bringing him to the floor. In mere seconds, the footmen of the house were down to the ground as well, holding Mr. Bellamy there. I found Absalom at my side again. “Good man,” he said. “Good man.”

***

Hours later, back in our apartments, I had resumed my place by the Heartstone, though I found it for more difficult to relax than I had that morning. Absalom, as he often does at the conclusion of a case, seemed similarly restless, and was busying himself by practicing throwing cards in a corner of the room.

“This isn’t the end of it,” he said abruptly.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “The killer has been arrested, and we have both of us entered the good graces of the head of Military Intelligence. I should say this is a satisfactory conclusion, Hume.”

“We apprehended the killer, yes, but we still don’t know the why of it all. Who paid him? It may be determined under the questioning of Military Intelligence, but at the very least we have confirmed that this was indeed an organized attack against Lord Raxby. For all we know, all of the other Deeists of the kingdom are at risk. Winston, I feel as though a much greater game is at play, and we have only witnessed the first move.”

He turned back to his card throwing, and I padded my way to the window. Outside, snow clouds had begun to form above the city. So much for my warm summer, I thought.

***

Nathan Elwood is a student of Library Science at the University of Missouri. He has been recently published in Aurora Wolf, Devilfish Review, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine. His interests include writing and craft beers, and he has an unfortunate habit of combining the two.

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