A James Lalonde Amateur Sleuth Mystery Short Story
A Body is on the Front Lawn, a Priceless Painting is Missing, and a Killer is on the Loose.
Steam poured out of the hood of a silver Ford Focus as it came to a grinding halt in the middle of a one-way lane near the Carmichael Estate, north-west of Northampton. William Thatcher punched his steering wheel.
‘Come on, you lazy piece of crap.’ William threw his body back against his seat and admitted defeat.
He ran his fingers through his light-brown, greying, and thinning hair and sighed. As he fumbled around for his phone, his smartwatch struck against the armrest.
‘It’s 7:01 am. Good morning,’ a Mickey Mouse voice called out from the mini speaker.
Thatcher gave his navy bomber jacket a final pat down before reaching over to the door handle.
‘Shit, I’m going to be late,’
William pushed the car door open and slammed it behind him as he made his way towards the front of his car. He lifted the hot metal and jumped back as the steam gushed out from the engine.
A few months earlier to calm his angry wife, he agreed to leave his laptop and tablet in the office and today; he left the house without charging his mobile phone, like an idiot. And, now this was the universe’s way of punishing him. Not that he believed in the existence of a deity or any of that new-age nonsense.
But, there was one thing he was sure of, he would miss the morning meeting with the chief editor of the Northampton Tribune and an opportunity to trade his assigned story about the Carmichael Estate opening to the public with a new art exhibit. He pulled out his smartphone from his front jean pocket and checked the battery. It read:
And, that’s when he noticed the words, no signal, screaming at him from the top left-hand corner of the screen.
He looked around the deserted road. There was no one in sight, other than the large manor house the Carmichael family had owned for the last one hundred years. Today, in residence was Lord Carmichael’s eldest son, Alistair. He was a pompous ass. And, his only way of contacting his boss, James Lalonde and a towing vehicle.
Will took a deep breath and turned around and made the trek towards the eastern gates of the property.
A tear broke the silence of the tree-lined property as Will Thatcher flung his left leg over the top of the pedestrian gate.
He looked down at his Ralph Lauren jeans and sighed. At 47, he was far too old to be doing anything that resembled parkour. As he looked down towards the other side of the fence, he lost his balance and plummeted towards the ground, landing shoulder first. A loud crunch followed by sharp never-ending waves of pain poured over his upper body.
Will sat up and clutched his shoulder. A tear rolled down his cheek as he slowly rose from his sitting position and floundered along the edge of the gravel driveway towards the house.
With each step, a new wave of pain rose over his body, and another tear trickled down his cheek.
As Will walked past the small caretaker’s cottage and up to a small set of stairs towards the side lawn, a large white panel van pulled up outside of the front door of the manor house.
Will sat down on the stairs clutching his shoulder, out of breath. The pain was becoming unbearable. As he leaned back against the stone wall that separated the caretaker’s cottage from the side lawn, he squinted at two tall men carrying what he assumed to be a large painting with a white linen cloth draped over both sides. The gloved men slowly slid the artwork inside the van, then turned around and disappeared into the house.
Surely, the artwork should arrive for the exhibit, not leave?
Thatcher winced as he pulled out a phone from his jeans. He clicked the home button and checked the battery level for the fifth time that morning. It read:
Despite the overwhelming feeling of pain rushing through his body, curiosity got the better of Will, and he dragged his weary frame off the stairs towards the white van. Will looked around. There was not a single person in sight. He crept towards the front of the truck and found the driver seat empty. Another wave of pain rushed over his body as he leaned up against the van.
Everything within him wanted to drag himself towards the house and call for help. But, there was another part of him, that more curious part that needed to look under that white linen cloth. He loved art, and as an aspiring artist in his younger days before he turned to journalism, he used to spend his free time walking through the many art galleries in London, when he and his now-wife, lived in a small studio flat in Covent Garden.
Will shuffled along to the open back door of the panel van and slowly lifted the white sheet to reveal the side of the painting. He gasped, as he threw back the entire blanket to unveil the masterpiece that lay in the back of the van.
‘Oh my god,’ Will muttered to himself as he slipped his phone out of his front jean pocket and slid his index finger along the screen to access the camera app. ‘You’re a Van G—’ He said as he felt a thick rope wrap around his throat.
As he started to choke, he cast his eye towards the darkened screen of his phone and in the reflection Will looked into the eyes of his attacker.
Glug, glug, the rattling of fine bone china and the hum of an outdoor radiator fighting the afternoon autumn chill was the symphony that accompanied James as he sat back in the cushions of the outdoor furniture in Alistair Carmichael’s private garden.
This was not how James had planned on spending his afternoon. He had a long list of tasks to achieve as the editor of the Northampton Tribune. And now, he had to add an afternoon tea with a tour of Alistair’s private art collection before it opens to the public, a missing journalist, an article to write on the said art collection, all under the watchful eye of Harry Lancaster, who just happened to be acquainted with Alistair. So, a cleverly disguised suggestion for a piece in the culture section was more of a polite demand. James knew he should be happy with a break from his desk, but said break came with a price tag.
James nodded to the wiry older man who had finished pouring his tea and picked up the cup and took a sip.
‘It’s earl grey, sir,’ he replied as James placed the delicate fine-bone china cup back on its saucer.
‘I’m surprised that you didn’t send one of your minions here,’ Alistair said with a smirk.
‘Yes, Will Thatcher would have been the better choice, but art is not unfamiliar to me. My grandparents dragged me around the Louvre when they weren’t taking me on day trips to Chateaux,’ James said with a faint smile on his lips.
‘Sounds like an ideal childhood.’
‘Not when you’re five,’ James replied as he pushed his black rimmed glasses up towards the bridge of his nose.
‘I hope Will is okay.’
‘Something came up, it’s not a big deal,’ James lied as he shuffled around in his seat.
Perfect, I’m trapped in a never-ending barrage of small talk.
James ran his hands through his thick dark blond hair as he watched Valentine’s name flash up on his screen for the fourth time that day. He took a deep breath and picked the teacup off its saucer and took a long sip and stared at the beautiful English garden over Alistair’s shoulder.
‘I don’t see a wedding ring, so I’ll assume that she’s your girlfriend and is keeping tabs on you.’
James rolled his eyes.
‘She means well,’ Jame said as he took another deep breath.
‘I got a divorce recently, and I have to admit that I don’t miss the nagging or the phone calls, but then again sometimes I do,’ Alistair said as he clutched the teacup in his hands. ‘Women are almost like a drug. You know it’s not good for you, but you take it anyway.’
‘That’s pretty cynical, sir,’ the wiry suited man said with a thick European accent, as he walked over to the table and poured Alistair another cup of tea.
‘None for me,’ James said as he covered the top of his teacup with his hand as the tall gentleman swung the teapot spout in his direction.
‘Oh, this is my butler, Hans,’ Alistair said as he gestured towards the tall thin man in his 60s. ‘He speaks five languages, including Dutch, English, German, Spanish, and he can even speak with you in French if you like.’
‘Are you from the Netherlands?’ James asked with an awkward smile.
‘Yes. I haven’t lived there since I was a boy, but I go back regularly,’ Hans said as he walked back to the silver cart and placed the teapot down.
‘Hans is responsible for my latest acquisition,’ Alistair said as he raised his teacup to Hans.
‘Is this new acquisition included in the public gallery?’ James said as he placed his teacup on its saucer and swiped his index finger against the screen of his smartphone and opened the recording app. ‘Do you mind?’ He asked as he looked up at Alistair.
‘Go ahead,’ Alistair waved at James’s smartphone and watched as James started the record. ‘Yes, it’s often referred to in French as L’homme est en mer.’
‘Are you trying to tell me you have a Van Gogh resting on your walls with next to no security?’ James said as he leaned over the garden table towards Alistair.
‘I have security,’ Alistair said with a laugh as he leaned back in the chair.
‘No offence Hans,’ James said as he pointed towards the butler. ‘But, a man in his 60s is not a security team.’
‘I know you must think, but I’m not just a posh brat who sits around drinking expensive teas wearing cashmere, and drinking gin by night. I’ve hired 100 extra staff members, some of which are security. I want them to blend in. After all, this is my home.’
Something heavy formed in the pit of his stomach as he listened to Alistair discuss his security details.
‘So you’re the private buyer from the auction in London from February,’ James said as he looked up at Alistair across the table. ‘I remember it was all Will would talk about, especially about the before premium sale price.’
‘Yes, but I’m happy with the price. I was prepared to go higher than 24 million,’ Alistair said as he took one last sip of his tea.
I need a cigarette break. This is getting ridiculous.
It was a typical grey autumn day as James stepped out of the front door of the Stately home and lit up a cigarette. He looked up at the grey clouds in the sky and sighed — typical English weather. Paris wasn’t any better; the weather patterns were almost identical.
A subtle tingling feeling swept over him and settled in the pit of his stomach. James looked over his shoulder. Far off in the back of the grand foyer of the manor house, Hans snarled at him. The smoke had drifted into the house. It was a reaction he had gotten used to since he arrived in Oxford to study his undergraduate degree. Over the last few years, James had attempted to give up, but the pressures of his job drove him back. But, he promised Valentine that he would give it up. So, he had to keep trying just not today.
James shook his head and walked towards the side lawn and continued his stress-relieving ritual overlooking the thick green hedges and lush green garden.
How did Alistair keep the grounds looking so green at this time of year?
As he continued to smoke, the journalist reached into the pocket of his grey suit and pulled out his smartphone. It was 2:29 PM. He wanted to get out of this place and get back to his desk. If the afternoon continued like this, he would be sitting at his desk past midnight. And, he knew how Valentine felt about this other bad habit.
He struck the blackened screen of his phone and watched the clock app open and set a timer for 3:15 PM. Hopefully, the tour should be over, and he would have seen the Van Gogh.
After he slipped the phone back into the inside pocket of his grey suit jacket, his eye caught a glimmer of silver from inside the bushes.
James crept closer and leaned over. To his surprise, the glimmering piece of silver was not the only secret the hedges were hiding.
When Will Thatcher, doesn’t show up for work, James Lalonde is forced to attend an afternoon tea with Alistair Carmichael in his place. The lovely autumn afternoon tea comes to an abrupt end when a body turns up on the lawn of the Carmichael Estate with strange markings on his neck.
But, something is missing, a priceless painting is off the wall. However, it’s no ordinary painting, it’s a Van Gogh purchased in an auction a few months ago.
After discovering fresh tracks, most likely left by the murderer James realises the murder is still in the estate.
Can James figure out who the thief and murderer are before he is next?
Love the book? Leave a Review:
It was very intriguing. I loved reading it. Wished it was longer.
Can’t wait to read more short stories or novellas by you.