Mrs Beck awoke groggily. Daylight streamed in from the high windows. She was laid down on the sofa in her sitting room and couldn’t remember quite how she’d gotten there. She must’ve sat down for a moment and nodded off.
She sat up, suddenly wide awake. The clock on the wall read twenty minutes to eight. Almost the deadline. She hoped the detectives had made more significant progress in the the last few hours.
Just as she was resolving to go upstairs and check, she realised what it was that had woken her. It was the front door. It woke her so often that it hadn’t immediately struck her, but as she listened to the footsteps of whoever it was cross the hall and climb the stairs, it occurred to her that she didn’t know who it was. She was sure nobody had left in the night. So who could it be?
She staggered off the sofa and hurried after them. ‘Excuse me?’ she called out her door, to no reply. She scaled the stairs as quickly as she could until, thankfully, she caught up with the newcomer on the first floor. They had just inserted a key into the door of flat #2 when Mrs Beck said, ‘Wait!’
The woman froze. She was young, a teenager. She had plain features with curled hair and wore a black frock with a white apron, a maid.
‘Oh, are you the Rookwood’s handmaid?’ said Mrs Beck.
‘Um,’ said the girl timidly. ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She had a harsh, rural twang to her voice.
‘Elise, isn’t it?’
‘That’s right, ma’am.’
Mrs Beck had to fight not to show her excitement. Here was the one resident of number twenty-two they didn’t have a handwriting sample for. Mrs Beck couldn’t wait to see the detectives’ faces when she told them she had solved the mystery of the letter.
‘Hello, Elise,’ she smiled, with all the professional decorum she could muster. ‘I’m Mrs Beck, the landlady. Would you mind coming with me for just a moment?’
Elise swallowed. ‘But, ma’am, I’m due for work.’
‘I can vouch for you, don’t worry,’ said Mr Beck. ‘Besides, I expect they’ll be sleeping in. We’ve had a busy night.’
She ushered Elise upstairs and knocked on the door to flat #4. After a few minutes, Hugo answered, looking worn out and bleary eyed.
‘Good morning,’ said Mrs Beck, with more cheer than she had ever spoken to Hugo with before. ‘This is Elise, the Rookwood’s handmaid. She shares this address too.’
Hugo got the hint. ‘Miss Elise, you’d better come in.’
They entered the sitting room, where Theodore was sat. His legs were under a blanket and his head resting on a cushion. By the way he blinked his eyes at them, Mrs Beck suspected he’d just woken up too. She felt a pang of anger. They hadn’t been making progress at all.
‘Why don’t you sit here?’ said Mrs Beck, leading Elise to the armchair. She snapped her fingers at Hugo. After a moment’s confusion, he tore a sheet from his notebook and handed it over. Mrs Beck placed this in front of Elise with a pen. ‘Would you mind writing something for us.’
Elise looked confused. ‘Why?’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll explain in a moment,’ said Theodore, leaning forward. ‘We’re collecting writing samples from everyone in the building. See? Everyone else has done it already.’ He nodded to the desk where all the samples were laid out.
‘Well, all right,’ she said, ‘but I’ve not done much writing since Sunday school.’
She held the pen like a crab holding a toothpick and scratched onto the paper. She didn’t write in sentences, but wrote the individual letters of the alphabet, upper case then lower, sounding them out as she went.
Mrs Beck tutted loudly. ‘Come now, do it properly.’
Elise flinched. ‘Sorry. I was never much good.’
Theodore grimaced. ‘Mrs Beck—’
‘No, she must have sent the letter. She’s the only one left!’
‘She didn’t send the letter,’ said Hugo.
Mrs Beck inhaled to shout but froze. Hugo and Theodore were staring at her. Elise looked close to tears.
‘Excuse me,’ said Mrs Beck. She walked to the other side of the room. She wasn’t aiming for the window, but upon reaching it she gazed out, vacantly.
Theodore leant across the table and patted Elise’s hand. ‘Sorry if we alarmed you,’ he said. ‘It’s been a long night.’
She rubbed her eyes. ‘Will you tell me what this is about now?’
Hugo resumed his place on the sofa. ‘A man was murdered here last night. We’re detectives, investigating the case.’
‘Gosh,’ said Elise. In lieu of anything else, she said it again. ‘Gosh.’
‘But you were away yesterday?’ said Theodore.
‘Yes,’ said Elise, firmly. ‘Me mum was sick. Mr Rookwood was kind enough to let me go and look after her.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Oh, don’t be. She’s well on the mend, now. I took the morning train back.’
‘I’m glad,’ said Theodore. ‘Did you know Harry Jackson?’
‘You mean Mr Rookwood’s old chauffeur? Is that who was killed?’
Theodore and Hugo shared a look. ‘You knew him then?’ said Theodore.
‘Sort of. I used to work in the Rookwood Manor in Buckinghamshire. He was chauffeuring there at the same time.’
Theodore considered this. ‘Does that mean you were also working there at the same as Mrs Rookwood?’
‘Yeah,’ said Elise, the edge of her mouth curling. ‘I knew her back when she was just Lucy Jones.’
‘It must be odd, for your colleague to become your employer.’
Elise nodded. ‘Not for her, mind you. She’s taken to it like a duck to water. Doesn’t lift a finger if somebody else can lift if for her.’ Her eyes went wide. ‘N-not that I don’t like working for her or anything. They’re good people. I mean, there aren’t many families who’d let their handmaid take time off with only a day’s notice.’
‘It’s all right. Nothing you say will leave this room.’ said Theodore. Elise sighed her relief. ‘So what was your impression of Mr Jackson, back then?’
Elise shrugged. ‘He was a crook.’
‘Is that all you know?’
‘Yeah, sorry, I kept my distance.’
Theodore stroked his moustache. ‘Do Mr and Mrs Rookwood ever argue?’
‘Ha!’ Elise spat. ‘Never. They married so quick I expected them to be at each other’s throats within a week, but now it’s a year on and they’re still making goo-goo eyes at each other.’
‘They never disagree?’
‘Not really. She thinks William can do no wrong and he lets Lucy get away with anything. I’ve never seen him angry at her, except—’
‘Except?’ prompted Theodore.
‘I really shouldn’t say.’
‘Nothing will leave this room, remember.’
Elise’s face contorted into a fine collection of grimaces. ‘I mean…’ She huffed. ‘Alright, but you have to promise not to tell Lucy I told you.’
‘Lucy used to be an addict.’ Elise hurled the sentence from her mouth as if she wanted it far away from her. ‘Opium, it was. We all knew, back at the manor. She’s clean now, of course. But one time, a few months ago, William found her pipe hidden in her sock drawer. That was a big argument, I could hear it from my bedroom. She said she hadn’t used it since before they were married but couldn’t say why she’d kept it. He threw it out. They’ve not talked about it since, so far as I know.’
At that moment, the detectives’ grandfather clock chimed. It was eight o’clock.
Elise moved to the edge of her seat. ‘Can I go, sirs? I really should get to work.’
The detectives looked at one another. ‘Has a doctor seen your mother?’ asked Theodore.
‘No.’ Elise frowned. ‘It was just a tummy bug.’
‘Go back home, Elise,’ said Hugo. ‘Have a doctor look at your mother. There’s a chance she’s suffered arsenic poisoning. Not a lethal dose, but significant enough.’
Elise blinked at the detectives. ‘But… Mr and Mrs Rookwood.’
Theodore patted her hand. ‘We’ll take care of that. Just go now, all right?’
Elise didn’t move right away, as if she was afraid to. But once she was bold enough to get to her feet, she all but ran for the door.
The detectives turned to Mrs Beck. She was still by the window, looking out but not really seeing. It seemed she hadn’t listened to their cross-examination.
‘Are you alright?’ asked Theodore.
‘Mmm?’ she said, dreamily. ‘Oh, it’s just, I really thought she’d be the key to everything.’
‘She clarified a few points,’ Theodore reassured her.
‘But was it enough? Have we learned enough to prevent a police investigation?’
‘I believe so,’ said Hugo.
But Mrs Beck didn’t seem to hear. She let out a long sigh. ‘Maybe this was a mistake. Not that I’m unhappy with your work. To tell you the truth, I’m rather impressed. But I feel I’ve been selfish.’
Hugo moved to interrupt, but Theodore grabbed him by the arm.
‘I keep telling myself I hired you for Kitty’s sake, but I’m just as afraid of a police investigation. All because I don’t want strangers to think bad things happened here. That’s not more important than the human life that was lost last night, even if he was a crook and a drug dealer. It’s not more important than bringing the killer to justice. All night, I’ve been wittering on about respectability and decency, but am I any better?’
It was good that Mrs Beck had her back to the detectives, because Theodore’s face had broke into a grin so wide it nearly turned his moustache upside down. He quickly got it under control and spoke with a respectfully sombre tone. ‘Don’t despair, Mrs Beck. We solved the case two hours ago.’
The detectives waited. A moment later, Mrs Beck turned to face them.
‘You solved the case two hours ago?’
Mrs Beck opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She had a thousand questions all competing to be spoken. In the end, all she managed was, ‘How?’
‘It was the letter, naturally,’ said Hugo. ‘We ought to have solved the case much sooner if we hadn’t made such a foolish assumption.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The envelope.’ Hugo strode to his desk and placed the envelope with the letter it had contained. ‘Does anything strike you about it.’
Mrs Beck stepped up to the desk. ‘Harold Jackson, Room 12, Morley House, Gosling Street, Whitechapel,’ she read with a tired shrug.
‘What is the point of omitting names from a letter if you put the recipient’s full name and address on the envelope?’
Mrs Beck cocked her head. ‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Exactly. This sort of letter is one you drop through somebody’s letter box, not send via Royal Mail.’
‘But somebody did send it,’ said Mrs Beck. ‘There’s a stamp.’
‘Indeed!’ said Theodore, leaping to his feet and joining them by the desk. ‘But what if the person who sent it was not the person who wrote it?’
Mrs Beck took another look. With the envelope right next to the letter, even she could see the handwriting didn’t match. The letter’s text was rough and scratchy, whereas the address on the envelope was neat and slanted.
‘So who wrote the letter?’ asked Mrs Beck.
‘The one resident we don’t have a sample for,’ said Hugo. ‘Harry Jackson himself.’
‘The letter wasn’t someone inviting him here,’ said Theodore, grinning. ‘“I’ll be at 22 Queen Street.” He was letting someone know he was coming.’
Mrs Beck peered sceptically at the detectives. ‘Why would somebody post him his own letter?’
‘They were returning it,’ said Hugo.
‘Because they weren’t so pleased to receive it,’ said Theodore.
Mrs Beck looked again. She was starting to see the sense in this theory. ‘So who sent it?’
‘Simple,’ said Hugo. ‘The letter may not match any of our samples—’
‘But the envelope does!’ said Theodore, unable to resist finishing Hugo’s sentence. He lifted the envelope and dropped it on one of the samples. Side by side, Mrs Beck could clearly see the handwriting of each was identical.
‘It’s all thanks to Hugo,’ Theodore gushed. ‘We’d still be floundering if he hadn’t spotted that.’
A chill of horror ran along Mrs Beck’s spine. ‘So… that’s the murderer?’
Hugo shook his head. ‘That’s the author of the letter. They may be the murderer, or the murderer may be somebody else.’
Mrs Beck’s chill turned hot. ‘You don’t know who the murderer is?’
‘Oh, no, we do,’ said Theodore, quickly. ‘Or at least, we have a very strong a suspicion who it is.’
‘A very strong suspicion!? What good is a very strong suspicion?’
Hugo interjected. ‘We are certain who the killer is, though we don’t have definitive proof. Nevertheless, we may have enough to prevent a search of the building.’
Mrs Beck face contorted into a series of grimaces. ‘And what if you don’t?’
Hugo shrugged. ‘Then we don’t. But our chances are better than they were last night.’
‘Either way,’ Theodore added, ‘our time’s up. The wheel is come full circle.’
Mrs Beck wanted to argue, but what should she say? They couldn’t delay any more. There was nothing else for it but to put her trust in the detectives and hope.