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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, northwest of Northampton.
William Thatcher punched his steering wheel. ‘Come on, you lazy piece of crap.’
He threw his body back against his seat and admitted defeat. Then he ran his fingers through his greying and thinning light-brown hair and sighed. As he fumbled around for his phone, his smartwatch struck against the armrest.
‘It’s 7:01 a.m. Good morning,’ a high-pitched voice called from the mini speaker.
He gave his navy bomber jacket a final pat down before reaching over to the door handle. ‘Shit, I’m going to be late.’
Will pushed the car door open and slammed it behind him as he made his way towards the front of his car, then 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’d agreed to leave his laptop and tablet in the office, and that morning, he’d left the house without charging his mobile phone, like an idiot. He felt as if the universe were 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 his smartphone from his front jeans pocket. His eyes fixed on the sign that flashed up on the screen—less than ten percent battery.
Then he saw the words “no signal” screaming at him from the top left-hand corner of the screen. Shit.
He glanced around the deserted road. No one was in sight, and the only building was the manor house the Carmichael family had owned for the last one hundred years. Currently in residence was Lord Carmichael’s eldest son, Alistair. He was a pompous ass—and Will’s only way of contacting his boss, James Lalonde, and a towing vehicle.
Will took a deep breath then 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. Shit.
He gazed down at his Ralph Lauren jeans and sighed. At forty-seven, he was far too old to be doing anything that resembled parkour. As he peered down towards the other side of the fence, he lost his balance and plummeted to the ground, landing shoulder first. A loud crunch was followed by sharp, never-ending waves of pain pouring 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 flowed 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 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 slid the artwork into the van then turned around and disappeared into the house.
Surely the artwork should arrive for the exhibit, not leave?
Will winced as he pulled his phone from his jeans pocket then clicked the home button—less than nine percent battery.
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 glanced around. Not a single person was in sight. He crept towards the front of the truck and found the driver’s seat empty. Another wave of pain rushed over his body as he leaned against the van.
Everything within him wanted to drag himself towards the house and call for help. But another part of him, that more curious part, needed to look under that white linen cloth. He loved art, and as an aspiring artist in his younger days, when he’d lived in a small studio flat in Covent Garden, before he turned to journalism, he used to spend his free time walking through the many art galleries in London.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Will shuffled along to the open back door of the panel van and lifted the white sheet to reveal the side of the painting. He gasped as he threw back the entire blanket to unveil the masterpiece.
‘Oh my god,’ Will muttered as he slipped his phone out of his pocket and slid his index finger along the screen to access the camera app. ‘You’re a Van G—’
A thick rope wrapped around his throat. As he started to choke, he cast his eyes towards the darkened screen of his phone, and in the reflection, Will stared into the eyes of his attacker.
A glug, 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. The estate manager, Julia Noble, wearing a tailored trouser suit and a pale-blue business shirt, hovered awkwardly in the background between a tall, wiry man and a petite blond maid. Alistair’s small private army stood at attention, waiting to be dismissed.
It 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 he’d had to add having an afternoon tea with a tour of Alistair’s private art collection before it opened to the public, dealing with a missing journalist, and writing an article on said art collection, all under the watchful eye of Harry Lancaster, who just happened to be acquainted with Alistair. Harry’s suggestion for a piece in the culture section was more of a polite demand. James knew he should be delighted by the prospect of a break from his desk, but said hiatus came with a price tag.
‘Alistair, if you need me for anything, I’ll be working in the library,’ Julia said as she flipped her shoulder-length auburn hair back, then she marched towards the French doors. ‘Oh, and Hans.’ Julia paused and looked over her shoulder. ‘Be a dear and bring a pot of tea to the library.’ Julia smiled as she continued on her journey, disappearing out of sight.
James nodded to the wiry older man, who had finished pouring his tea, and picked up the cup and took a sip. Disgusting.
‘It’s Earl Grey, sir,’ he said 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 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 then picked the teacup up from its saucer and took a long drink, staring 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.’ 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 his teacup. ‘Women are almost like a drug. You know it’s not good for you, but you take it anyway.’
‘That’s cynical, sir,’ the wiry man in a suit 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 when 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 sixties. ‘He speaks five languages—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,’ Hans raised his eyebrows at James. ‘I haven’t lived there since I was a boy, but I go back often.’ Hans walked back to the silver cart and placed the teapot down.
‘Hans was my key advisor for the estate’s latest art acquisition,’ Alistair said as he raised his teacup to Hans.
‘Is this new acquisition included in the public gallery?’ James placed his teacup on its saucer then swiped his index finger across the screen of his smartphone and opened the recording app. ‘Do you mind?’ James glanced up at Alistair and pointed towards the red button.
‘Go ahead.’ Alistair waved at James’s smartphone.
James started the recording.
‘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 asked as he leaned over the garden table towards Alistair.
‘I have security,’ Alistair said with a laugh as he leaned back in his chair.
‘No offence, Hans,’ James said as he pointed towards the butler. ‘But a man in his sixties is not a security team.’
‘Look, I’m not just a posh brat who sits around drinking expensive teas, wearing cashmere, and drinking gin by night. I’ve hired a hundred extra staff members, some of which are security. This is my home, not a museum, and I want them to blend in.’
Something heavy formed in the pit of James’s stomach as he listened to Alistair discuss his security details.
‘So you’re the private buyer from the auction in London back in February,’ James said. ‘I remember it was all Will would talk about. He went on and on about the before-premium sale price.’
‘Yes, the premium was steep, but that’s what you get with an art auction. I was prepared to go higher than twenty-four million,’ Alistair said then took another sip of his tea.
I need a cigarette break. This is getting ridiculous.
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 or Alistair 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.